Scientists from York's BioArCh reveal the biomolecular history of the York Gospel

Posted on 13 November 2017

New publication on the biological information contained in the parchment of holy books

Written a thousand years ago, the York Gospel is one of York Minster’s most treasured possessions and is still used in ecclesiastical ceremonies to this day.

Now an international team of scientists, led by bioarchaeologists at the University of York and geneticists at Trinity College Dublin, have found that the York Gospel contains multiple layers of biological information.

From the species makeup of the animals whose skins compose the document, to the microbes that reside on its surface, their study reveals the York Gospel’s hidden story.

Intriguingly the researchers discovered a possible sex bias in the use of animals, with a preference for female calves which may reflect the perceived value of these animals in the past.

The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Biomolecular analysis

Dr Sarah Fiddyment, of BioArCh in the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, was joint senior author of the project.

She said: “While thousands of visitors each year to the Minster’s Undercroft museum see the beautifully decorated pages of this manuscript, our new study highlights a second layer of information contained within this precious document.”

The researchers optimised a technique previously developed by the team which uses a simple PVC eraser to non-invasively sample parchment to study the biomolecular history of this irreplaceable manuscript for the first time.

Dr Fiddyment said: “This is the first time we have performed a complete biomolecular analysis on an entire parchment document, identifying the animal species of all the pages, and even looking at the bacteria that reside on the surface.

“It was a real privilege to undertake such exciting research on such an important book, and we hope our research will add another layer of interest to the York Gospel.”

Conservation

The microbial communities inhabiting parchment were found to resemble those of human skin likely transferred to the document during its use. However, an intriguing finding of the study was the discovery of the microbial genus Saccharopolyspora on all of the sampled pages of the document, which has been linked by other studies to the degradation of parchment.

Further work will be needed to establish if the presence of this bacteria is a marker for at risk documents, or if its presence merely documents an earlier phase in the history of the York Gospel.

Dr Matthew Teasdale, who undertook the genetic analysis at Trinity College Dublin, said “Our technique allows for a non-invasive look at the microbes that have and may still be inhabiting the surface of the document and can allow possibly problematic ones to be identified, hopefully aiding in the conservation of these irreplaceable documents.”

Commenting on the study, the Dean of York, The Very Reverend Dr Vivienne Faull said: “The biomolecular techniques pioneered by this international team of researchers have revealed extraordinary detail about the materials used to produce the York Gospel.

“It is astonishing that we can identify the species and even the gender of some of the animals whose skins were used in the making of this remarkable ancient manuscript. It is exciting that York Minster’s treasured Gospel is the focus for this pioneering analysis."

The study, which also involved the Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonn and Georgetown University, was funded by an ERC grant ‘Codex’ to Matthew Collins (York) and Daniel Bradley (Trinity College Dublin), and a British Academy Fellowship awarded to Sarah Fiddyment.

This research was also discussed on BBC's Inside Science (BBC Radio 4) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09cvx7x

and Science in Action (World Service) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csvrgr