Parchment, peptides, and pocket bibles: first published results

In November the first fruits of the Books and Beasts collective appeared in print in an article published in the leading scientific journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 12.51.32 [doi: 10.1073/pnas.1512264112]

This is the first time that Sarah’s innovative technique for the non-destructive gathering of proteins from historic parchment has been formally announced in print to the scholarly community. As Sarah explained, “We had to work with archivists to try and develop a technique that was noninvasive but that could still give us results”, hence the turn to the type of PVC erasers commonly used by conservationists to clean dirt and stains from parchments. The gentle rubbing process creates a triboelectric effect, or small electric charge, that lifts molecules from parchment manuscripts and printed books.

Collecting the eraser residue and then analysing it through use of a mass spectrometer enabled the team to fire the protein molecules through a vacuum and identify the specie used in the making of the specific manuscript or printed parchment book. The following video produced earlier this year by the BioArCh team in York explains in laymen’s terms how the process works:

As the article abstract explains:

“This study reports the first use, to our knowledge, of triboelectric extraction of protein from parchment. The method is noninvasive and requires no specialist equipment or storage. Samples can be collected without the need to transport the artifacts; instead, researchers can sample when and where possible and analyze when required. The level of access we have achieved highlights the importance of this technique. For this study, we have extracted proteins from 513 parchment samples, used to resolve the long-standing question of the origin of ‘uterine vellum’. We find no evidence of unexpected species, such as rabbit or squirrel. We suggest that uterine vellum was often an achievement of technological production using available resources, and would not have demanded unsustainable agricultural practices.”

The study examined 72 pocket bibles produced in the 13thC in England, France, and Italy together with other parchment samples collected from documents from the same period to establish the truth value of the long held belief that such texts were printed on so-called ‘uterine vellum’. Results, however, showed no evidence of fetal calfskin and concluded that no specific herd management practices would have been needed to supply sufficient parchment for the production of such volumes, suggesting that uterine vellum ‘is a name without much connection to actual uteruses or aborted fetuses’.


The article resulted in considerable interest with over 14,000 downloads since publication and media coverage in both the UK and overseas, including the following pieces in the Guardian and the Washington Post:

Congratulations to Sarah and all the team on such a great output. Time for a celebratory pizza?IMG_0752


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