The Atlantic

The Lab Discovering DNA in Old Books

Even the beeswax used in seals is rich with data about the past, including the flowers that grew in that region year to year
Source: University of York

It was in the archives of the Archbishop of York that Matthew Collins had an epiphany: He was surrounded by millions of animal skins.

Another person might say they were surrounded by books and manuscripts written on parchment, which is made from skins, usually of cows and sheep. Collins, however, had been trying to make sense of animal-bone fragments from archaeological digs, and he began to think about the advantages of studying animal skins, already cut into rectangles and arranged neatly on a shelf. Archaeologists consider themselves lucky to get a few dozen samples, and here were millions of skins just sitting there. “Just an obscene number,” Collins told me, his voice still giddy at the possibilities in their DNA.

In recent years, archaeologists and historians have awakened to the potential of ancient DNA extracted

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