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Reading the genetic history of parchment manuscripts.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SCRIBE (Reading the genetic history of parchment manuscripts.)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

Medieval texts are a window into the monastic world and an integral part of European written history. Most of our current understanding of the processes of codex construction comes from the careful examination of the clues to manufacture on the object itself, the practice of codicology. Increasingly scholars are interested in the material qualities of the book. How and why were the decisions on the selection of materials made? Recent advances in analytical methods are broadening the reach of codicology in unexpected ways and enabling these questions to be addressed.

The SCRIBE project is at the forefront of this exciting field of biocodicology, having developed a DNA sampling technique, derived from routine parchment conservation practice. SCRIBE has implemented this method to generate two novel high throughput genomic datasets from parchment documents and manuscripts. Firstly the materiality of manuscripts has been investigated by assessing the genetics of the animals used for parchment production. Secondly SCRIBE has combine high throughput metagenomic techniques and novel bioinformatic approaches to a large sample size of documents in multiple storage environments to look at the microbial fingerprints of parchments. The understanding of the use history and conservation status of these documents is vital to the long term preservation of the important textual information they contain.
DNA from the UK parchment samples identified for use in the SCRIBE project has been extracted and sequenced, the results from this sequencing has been analysed following two main strands.

Firstly, an analysis of the genomes of the animals used in parchment production has been undertaken and their relationship to modern animal populations assessed. This data is not only providing insights into the choices of animals made by medieval parchment makers, but also excitingly describing how these animals relate to the domestic animal breeds we see today.

Secondly, SCRIBE has also implemented metagenomic analysis pipelines to allow for the study of the DNA of microbes from the surface of the documents. This has allowed for insights into the documents conservation status and SCRIBE is feeding this new found knowledge back to the documents conservators.

The SCRIBE projects results have been disseminated through conference talks, scientific publications and outreach events for the general public.
The SCRIBE project has continued to advance biocodicology as a technique to further understand manuscripts and has recently co-authored an article that describes this new field (Fiddyment S et al. Heritage Science. 2019). This document was written with the intention of introducing the field to as wide an audience as possible so that the technological advances developed during the SCRIBE project are widely disseminated. Further animal genetic and microbial data produced by SCRIBE will hopefully enhance this growing fields reputation.
Parchment Sampling