The York Gospels were assembled more than a thousand years ago. Bound in leather, illustrated, and illuminated, the book contains the four gospels of the Bible as well as land records and oaths taken by clergymen who read, rubbed, and kissed its pages over centuries. The Archbishops of York still swear their oaths on this book.
The York Gospels are also, quite literally, a bunch of old cow and sheep skins. Skin has DNA, and DNA has its own story to tell.
A group of archaeologists and geneticists in the United Kingdom have now analyzed the remarkably rich DNA reservoir of the York Gospels. They found DNA from humans who swore oaths on its pages and from bacteria likely originating on the hands and mouths of those humans. Best of all though, they found 1,000-year-old DNA from the cows and sheep whose skin became the parchment on which the book is written.
Remarkably, the authors say they extracted all this DNA without destroying even a tiny piece of parchment. All they needed were the crumbs from rubbing the book with erasers, which conservationists routinely use to clean manuscripts. The authors report their findings in a preprint that has not yet been peer-reviewed, though they plan to submit it to a scientific journal.