Friday, February 06, 2009

Of Beowulf and Fred the Sheep

Via the leading weblog on early medieval Spain, "A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe," this intriguing story about about a proposal to date medieval manuscripts through DNA extraction. Since medieval scrolls and books were printed on parchment - animal skin - Timothy Stinson of North Carolina State University hypothesized it would be possible to determine undated manuscripts' date of origin by extracting animal (principally sheep) DNA from them, then comparing their genetic signature to that of books of known provenance. Stinson presented his proposal at the conference of the Bibliographical Society of America on January 23rd, and it's already generated some press.

The idea apparently isn't new, however; Michael Drout of Wheaton College and his colleague Greg Rose developed it in 2001, and tried to obtain funding for DNA manuscript dating in 2007. Drout noted a significant problem with the proposal in his weblog: nine or ten centuries' worth of handling results in the deposition of quite a bit of human DNA deposition on the edges of books, which in turn leads to cross contamination with sheep DNA. Still, Drout thinks the problems with creating a DNA manuscript database can be surmounted, given enough time and money.

(The illustration above is from the Arni Magnusson Institute, Iceland)

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