Release by York University
Revealing the hidden biographies of the York Gospels
Posted on Friday 27 October
A new scientific study of the York Gospels has revealed its hidden biomolecular history.
Written a thousand years ago, the York Gospels are one of York Minster’s most treasured possessions and are 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 Gospels contain 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 Gospels’ hidden story.
The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
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.
Dr Sarah Fiddyment, of BioArChin 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 Gospels.”
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 genusSaccharopolyspora 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 codex.
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.”
The study, which also involved the Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonn andGeorgetown University, was funded by ERC Codex to Matthew Collins and a British Academy Fellowship awarded to Sarah Fiddyment.