Books & Beasts: Parchment Identification from Animal Protein Analysis


Rare Book Program Manager Stephen Skuce (left) discusses the illuminated parchment pages of MIT’s 15th century manuscript Book of Hours with visitors Stephen J. Milner (Serena Professor of Italian at the University of Manchester) and scientist Sarah Fiddyment (University of York).

Milner and Fiddyment and their colleagues Caroline Checkley-Scott (Collections Conservator at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library) and Professor Matthew Collins (University of York) gave a wonderful presentation on their groundbreaking work. Their collaboration involves sampling of centuries-old parchment (used in books and documents) to determine the species of animal used in the parchment’s manufacture. The collagen molecules are gathered through a novel, non-invasive technique: a plastic eraser, via minimal, gentle contact with the parchment, attracts collagen molecules from its surface, and the eraser “crumbs” are harvested: no abrasion or cutting required, and the sample can then be sent to the research team for analysis. This technique, developed by Fiddyment, gathers ample collagen molecules for investigation (sequencing through protein mass spectrometry), providing invaluable evidence for identification of the materials used to create our cultural heritage. The resulting data has numerous and exciting implications for various fields in both the humanities and the sciences.