Animal species identification in parchments by light

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Recently, historical and conservation studies have attached an increasing importance to investigating the materials used in historic documents. In particular, the identification of the animal species from which parchments are made is of high importance and is currently performed by either genetic or proteomic methods. Here, we introduce an innovative, non-invasive optical method for identifying animal species based on light-parchment interaction. The method relies on conservation of light energy through reflection, transmission and absorption from the sample, as well as on statistical processing of the collected optical data. Measurements are performed from ultraviolet (UV) to near-infrared (NIR) spectral ranges by a standard spectrophotometer and data are processed by Principal Component Analysis (PCA). PCA data from modern parchments, made of sheep, calf and goat skins, are used as a database for PCA analysis of historical parchments. Using only the first two principal components (PCs), the method confirmed visual diagnostics about parchment appearance and aging, and was able to recognise the origin species of historical parchment of among database clusters. Furthermore, taking into account the whole set of PCs, species identification was achieved, with all results matching perfectly their proteomic counterparts used for method assessment. The validated method compares favourably with genetic and proteomic methods used for the same purpose. In addition to animals’ proteomic and genetic signatures, a unique “optical fingerprint” of the parchments’ origin species is revealed here. This new method is non-invasive, straightforward to implement, potentially cheap and accessible to scholars and conservators, with minimal training. In the context of cultural heritage, the method could help solving questions related to parchment production and, more generally, medieval writing production.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1825
Number of pages10
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 12 Feb 2019


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