Scientists reveal the hidden stories in archives’ parchment

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Millions of documents stored in archives could provide scientists with the key to tracing the development of agriculture in the British Isles over the last 700 years, according to new research.

But the crucial information the documents hold is not contained in their texts but the parchment on which it is written.

Researchers at the University of York and Trinity College Dublin extracted ancient DNA and protein from tiny samples of parchment from documents from the late 17th and late 18th centuries. The resulting information enabled them to establish the species type of animals from which the parchment was made.

They say the research, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, gives scientists a potentially unrivalled resource to analyse the development of livestock husbandry across the centuries. Researchers in the Centre for Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at York extracted collagen from two tiny samples of parchment provided by its Borthwick Institute for Archives.

Scientists at Trinity College extracted DNA from the same parchment samples.

Professor Matthew Collins, of the Department of Archaeology at York, said: “We believe the two specimens derive from an unimproved northern hill-sheep typical in Yorkshire in the 17th century, and from a sheep derived from the ‘improved’ flocks, such as those bred in the Midlands by Robert Bakewell, which were spreading through England in the 18th century.

“This pilot project suggests that parchments are an amazing resource and there are millions stored away in libraries, archives, solicitors’ offices and private hands.”