Parchment: A New Future for DNA Analysis

Two years ago I started my dissertation on sheep and finished it 12 months later. I moved away from York and started working and now I am back at York, studying, you guessed it! Sheep. Well more specifically sheep skin. Maybe I’m broken but I think it’s incredibly interesting. I love what I am studying and I think it will actually contribute to our understanding of the past.

Anyway! The work is a 30,000 page essay on parchment. It’s current title is A Study of the Parchment Industry between the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Its a working title. I will hopefully think of something a little more snappy by the time I come to hand it in.

So what am I doing? Well, first we need some context. Firstly, parchment could actually be one of the most useful and interesting keys to understanding thousands of years of history than we have seen for some time. Parchment is made from sheepskin, mostly, though some times it is goat and some times calf, or even, aborted calf! Joy.

Skin is obviously something that almost never survives in the archaeological record, for reasons I hope are obvious, and yet skin has an abundance of historic DNA (hDNA) material. If only we could get some. I mean, if I were able to talk to someone from the past and ask them to store skin for me so I could look at it today, I almost couldn’t ask for anything better than asking them to make parchment. Although it involves scraping off the epidermis (outer layer), stretching and liming the material, it still holds a lot of hDNA material. Liming is best, though sometimes some helpful parchment-makers remove the hair and flesh by swelling the hide with; egg, bran or other vegetable materials, or sometimes faeces (yes, faeces), but even then the parchment is a small oasis of hDNA in an archaeological record often barren of this kind of data.



So! The current work I am doing is mapping the parchment industry during sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, because it seems nobody (and I am really not being hyperbolic when I say nobody) knows what on earth was going on with this industry. Whether it was big or small, urban or rural, local, southern and, well I won’t list everything we don’t know but it’s a lot. This work should hopefully support the brilliant work of people like Matthew Collins and Sean Doherty at the University of York, who are undertaking the hDNA analysis of parchment to decipher when the agricultural revolution occurred (if it did).  It should then help us understand many of the how and why questions surrounding the industrial revolution, as well as; the parchment industry at large, the nature of trade and marketplaces, the sheep being used for parchment and by extension help us understand where these sheep are and what breeds existed. This is of particular interest to me after my research into the sheep during the period, the strange ‘Frankenstein’s sheep‘ as I described them.

This is all due to this next generation sequencing techniques. For more information on this technique I recommend reading this story in The Atlantic.

Ultimately then, my work will try to figure the who, the why, the where and the when in regards to the parchment industry in the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. So first, I am looking at where these parchment-makers are and so far I have found….eighteen. It seems these parchment-makers have done an excellent job at hiding themselves in the archaeological record…