Courtesy Nino BarbieriA recent article in the Journal of Archaeological Science reminded me of the importance of the Scientific Method Often we hear new and exciting scientific theories that seem plausible, especially if these ideas are presented in prestigious journals. However, the beauty of the Scientific Method is its verifiability, whether or not the data can be recreated through repetitive testing (If we truly believed everything the first time, our budding young scientists would have nothing to do!)
Michael Campana from the University of Cambridge and colleagues from across the UK and Ireland recently ran a sequence of DNA tests on 18th and 19th century parchments made from animal skins in order to reveal the complexities of ancient parchment analysis. Parchment is one of the most valuable archaeological and historical artifacts that can be used to understand not only language and history, but DNA testing on it can reveal clues to animal population studies, animal husbandry, different historical animal breeds, and provenance (where the animal or skins originated from). In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, DNA testing on the parchment could reveal what type of animal was used and possibly where it came from, providing additional data for questions regarding who wrote the scrolls.
Campana and colleagues analyzed both mitochondrial and autosomal genetic data using stable isotope, genetic, phylogenetic and ion beam analysis. All samples were considered to be well preserved and ideal samples for accurate testing. All but one parchment produced multiple DNA sequences that matched several different species including cow, goat, sheep, and even human. In other words, a parchment assumed to be made from one individual of one species, gave conflicting results as more than one species or more than one individual. Of course it can be assumed the parchment was not made of human skin and therefore human genetic data must have came from handling and processing of the parchment, but parchments can also be contaminated in long-term storage or contact with each other. Testing results can also be skewed by glues and inks or other preparatory treatments used to improve the surface. All of these factors need to be considered when testing truly ancient parchment like the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Previous DNA test results from 2001 and 1996 on the Dead Sea Scrolls produced results pointing to a single species, either ibex (Capra ibex) or domestic goat. While these results may indeed be correct, the likelihood that the results were so exact, when testing such as Campana's and colleagues on better preserved and more recent parchment were so complex, questions the accuracy of the earlier DNA testing. Of course we must not forget, precious artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls can not be needlessly dissected to offer unlimited samples for DNA testing labs. But as, Campana states, “Improving our understanding of parchment's DNA content would allow us to develop a predictive model for sampling of historic manuscripts.”
So the messages for today, bravo for the Scientific Method and go see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Science Museum! Learn the science, archaeology, history and more that surround these amazing artifacts. Ask questions like: did the scroll writers choose ibex for some scrolls over goat because they thought these documents were so special or was ibex as readily available as any other animal species? Did the handling of the scrolls by shepherds who supposedly found them contaminate the actual scroll DNA with sheep, human or goat DNA? What can DNA testing tell us about other ancient artifacts? As long as there are unanswered questions, no matter how small, there will be a need for scientific investigation; which is good news for our future scientists!