Has anyone thought of using DNA in Icelandic skin manuscripts to determine the origin of the skin?

Asked By

Gunnar Sigurðsson


There are more than 1000 such manuscripts or parts that have been preserved. Most of them are only one or two sheets and only 300 have more than 24 sheets. So much has been lost. All evidence suggests that the manuscripts were made in Iceland, but there is almost nothing known about how they were made. We do not even know for certain what animal skin was used, though the evidence indicates calfskin, rather than sheep or lamb. This needs to be looked at more carefully, and a good microscope would suffice.

The results of Randver Hannesson´s chemical analysis of a very small sample of skin from a number of manuscripts suggests that processing methods were rather less sophisticated than was usual in Europe, but nevertheless quite similar. This means that they were steeped in water until the hair loosened. Then they were stretched, dried and scraped carefully on both sides so that they could be written on. The result was pergament. It would be very useful to know more about this, e.g. about the chemicals that were added to the tanning solution and its level of acidity.

There are no known examples of DNA having been extracted from pergament. It is rather unlikely that whole DNA has been preserved in old hides. On the other hand, one might find DNA contamination from the hands of those who handled the manuscripts in past years. There is both the fact that DNA does not preserve well and that the above-mentioned tanning process must have led to the destruction of sensitive cell parts and molecules like DNA. What remains is likely to be a net of denatured skin proteins.

One could nevertheless consider whether a tiny particle of DNA may have withstood the tanning process and whether some part of that has suffered sufficiently little damage for it to be magnified and used for the purposes of identification. But this has to be tried before making any assertions. One also has to consider whether analysis of DNA from the skin will give meaningful information about its origin. One might assume that cattle came with the settlers from their place of origin. Research on Icelandic cattle shows that they originate from Norway. A DNA study would not distinguish between cattle of Norwegian and Icelandic origin.

In favourable conditions, DNA in biological remains can be preserved for thousands of years, at least well enough to be used for analysis. DNA has been taken from mummies that are several thousand years old and even from thirty thousand year old bones of Neanderthal Man. If untreated hides had been kept in favourable conditions for a thousand years, it would doubtless be possible to isolate DNA from them. One could also imagine that one could use undamaged hair that is to be found in many manuscripts, e.g. in Flateyjarbók (GKS 1005 fol.). Where there were holes in the hide before the tanning process, there sometimes remain hairs that lay into the holes and were not removed in the scraping process. Modern methods for magnifying DNA from samples are extremely sensitive and tiny samples can be sufficient.

Many experiments have been conducted to capture DNA from animal and plant remains that are millions of years old, even of dinosaurs that became extinct 65 million years ago. Initially there were many promising results, but few of them, if any, have stood the test of closer inspection. In many cases it was "contamination", or foreign DNA that was being magnified. It is not unlikely that there will be fungal or bacterial remains on the manuscripts and skin cells from the people who have handled them throughout the years. Foreign DNA can confuse the issue, though it should be possible to distinguish it from the animal DNA in question. It would be most interesting to find the scribe's DNA or that of others who helped make the manuscripts, but there is probably little of that left.

This interesting question reminds us of how little the Icelandic manuscripts have been researched so far. As we have seen, we know almost nothing about how the skins were processed, and the same applies about how books were actually made from the pergament and of the conditions in which the scribes and worked and the artists who illustrated the manuscripts with decorated initial letters and pictures. Research of this kind is extensive abroad, particularly in Germany, France and Italy. It is just starting here in Iceland and should produce results within a few years. It is unlikely that such a radical and expensive experiment like DNA analysis will be performed, where one would have to take a sample (minute) from an actual manuscript. The custodians of the manuscripts would hardly allow this.

Translated by Paul Richardson.

Um þessa spurningu


Published 6.3.2005


Answers in English


Már Jónsson and Guðmundur Eggertsson. „Has anyone thought of using DNA in Icelandic skin manuscripts to determine the origin of the skin?“. The Icelandic Web of Science 6.3.2005. (Skoðað 23.3.2017).


Már Jónssonprófessor í sagnfræði við Háskóla ÍslandsGuðmundur Eggertssonprófessor emeritus


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