manuSciences ’19

Biomolecular Codicology:

Books, Beasts & Bees

Keywords: Parchment, beeswax proteomics, genomics, DNA

Matthew Collins

​1Niels Bohr Professor of Palaeoproteomics University of Copenhagen, Biology, Øster Farimagsgade 5, Bygning 7.101, (Floor 1 Rm 1), 1353 København K, Denmark, email:

2McDonald Professor of Palaeoproteomics University of Cambridge, ​Downing St, Cambridge CB2 3ER, UK

Researchers from computational science and imaging are increasingly interested in the archives and have begun the task of digitising texts to aid accesses. Digitisation campaigns are making more and more of the texts available as high-quality digital renders. However, the digital revolution, like earlier facsimiles, distances us from these objects and the so-called “Material Turn” in the Humanities is encouraging scholars to consider the entangled agency of objects and their readers.

I will argue that a future direction will be the exploration of the biological record that can be recovered from this material culture. The need in the early modern period to classify and ever-expanding Nature, often reflected in collections of singular items, ultimately became our modern museums [1]. Today Natural History Museums are repositioning themselves as molecular libraries of lost biological diversity [2], but few have so far seen libraries and archives in the same way. True the diversity of the biological record is more limited, to domesticated animals and plants but collections of written texts began more than a millennia before the C 17th Cabinets of Curiosities and unlike the anomalous selections of early modern natural philosophers, aimed at comprehensive collection. Consequently Archives and Libraries are the accidental but remarkably rich and extremely well documented museums of domestication.

They preserve

  • silk threads and beeswax seals derived from our two domesticated insects,
  • parchment skins from domesticated ungulates.

My presentation will consider the richness of the biological archive held within these documents and the way we are hoping to use a range of imaging and molecular methods to extract information which may help reveal clues to craft, domestication and exploitation of animals as well as clues to deterioration and conservation.


Skins of animals define the frontier between Western European history and prehistory. Turned into parchment they became the primary medium for our knowledge of pre-modern Western European culture. They were the most extensively used and best-preserved writing material in Europe before the piecemeal adoption of paper in the late Middle Ages and the early Modern Era. I will discuss our work on parchment, which has recently been funded by an ERC project project Beasts to Craft: ( which will exploit biomolecular and imaging methods, allied to craft knowledge, to document the first two stages in the story of the manuscript: (i) the livestock; (ii) the craft that turned skins into a writing medium. We are using biomolecular tools such as genomics and proteomics to analyse the material, but seen through the lens of archaeozoology, craft and economy. How were herds and flocks managed, where they moved as animals, skins or finished products? How did political (e.g. Hansa treaty), legislative (stamp duty) and economic factors (salt pricing) impact upon the movement of skins. What is the impact of production processes on the quality of skins and their biomolecular content, and how does production, use and storage impact of the biomolecular record, not only of the skins themselves but the parchment microbiome. How have conservation treatments shaped the biomolecular archive.

Silk and Sealing Wax

In the spirit of recovering the richest biomolecular record we have explored silk threads and beeswax seals. We have been unsuccessful in our attempts to recover significant DNA from silk and so are now turning our attention to the beeswax seals which are often attached to parchment documents. Honey and wax have been an important resource since the Stone Age [3]; an intimate relationship between bees and people that stretches back into deep time. In the past beeswax could be worth eightfold more than honey [4]. In the largely illiterate medieval world your, seal was your signature, passport and credit card. The imprint of your seal was recorded in sealing wax, crafted from beeswax mixed with plant resins other fillers and pigments. Beeswax from the seals attached to written legal document may, therefore, prove to be one of the most remarkable and yet overlooked biomolecular archives. Beeswax records the activity of forager bees, active in the spring and summer, transporting nectar and pollen from flowering plants to the hive, forming wax brood cells for larvae and storage cells for honey. The chosen source of illumination of the medieval church, beeswax can now shed new light on a domesticated insect, the management of forests, crops and weeds, medieval trade in wax,

We hypothesise that beeswax seals, which are softened, kneaded and folded before impression may have entrapped skin cells from the signatory. We have successfully extracted human DNA from Stone Age chewing gum [5] and will attempt to use the same strategy to recover DNA from seals. If so the documents may also record social networks, rituals associated with exchange, and the bureaucracies and protocols of authentication and security in the medieval world.

Figure 1. Structure of Lvcas Glo Cvm A produced in mid 12th C Canterbury. The ability to identify different animal species in the structure when combined with codicology may offer new insights into the process of production of texts. Image from [6]


This work has been financially supported by Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF128), ERC Horizon 2020 Grant Agreement No. 787282, MSCA Cofund and the Carlsberg Foundation (CF18-1110).


[1] K. Arnold, Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums, Routledge, 2017.

[2] D.K. Yeates, A. Zwick, A.S. Mikheyev, Curr Opin Insect Sci 18 (2016) 83–88.

[3] M. Roffet-Salque, M. Regert, R.P. Evershed, A.K. Outram, L.J.E. Cramp, O. Decavallas, J. Dunne, P. Gerbault, S. Mileto, S. Mirabaud, M. Pääkkönen, J. Smyth, L. Šoberl, H.L. Whelton, A. Alday-Ruiz, H. Asplund, M. Bartkowiak, E. Bayer-Niemeier, L. Belhouchet, F. Bernardini, M. Budja, G. Cooney, M. Cubas, E.M. Danaher, M. Diniz, L. Domboróczki, C. Fabbri, J.E. González-Urquijo, J. Guilaine, S. Hachi, B.N. Hartwell, D. Hofmann, I. Hohle, J.J. Ibáñez, N. Karul, F. Kherbouche, J. Kiely, K. Kotsakis, F. Lueth, J.P. Mallory, C. Manen, A. Marciniak, B. Maurice-Chabard, M.A. Mc Gonigle, S. Mulazzani, M. Özdoğan, O.S. Perić, S.R. Perić, J. Petrasch, A.-M. Pétrequin, P. Pétrequin, U. Poensgen, C.J. Pollard, F. Poplin, G. Radi, P. Stadler, H. Stäuble, N. Tasić, D. Urem-Kotsou, J.B. Vuković, F. Walsh, A. Whittle, S. Wolfram, L. Zapata-Peña, J. Zoughlami, Nature 527 (2015) 226–230.

[4] H. Ellis, Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee, Crown/Archetype, 2010.

[5] T.Z.T. Jensen, J. Niemann, K.H. Iversen, A.K. Fotakis, S. Gopalakrishnan, M.H.S. Sinding, M.R. Ellegaard, M.E. Allentoft, L.T. Lanigan, A.J. Taurozzi, S.H. Nielsen, M.W. Dee, M.N. Mortensen, M.C. Christensen, S.A. Soerensen, M.J. Collins, T. Gilbert, M. Sikora, S. Rasmussen, H. Schroeder, bioRxiv (2018) 493882.

[6] A. Gibbons, Science 357 (2017) 346–349.