Zachs, an honorary fellow at the University of Edinburgh, wanted to know what kind of animal hide was used to make the white leather cover of his book, and in 2012 agreed to open the book to investigation by Collins's lab.
The manuscript became the centerpiece of the May symposium, which organizers describe as a model for "a 360-degree study of any book." Collins already had developed a method to identify ancient species by differences in the amino acid sequences of collagen and other proteins preserved in fossils.
So Collins's postdoctoral fellow in York, Sarah Fiddyment, developed a nondestructive method to extract ancient proteins from parchment.
Librarians often "dry clean" a rare manuscript by rubbing it lightly with a polyvinyl chloride eraser, which pulls tiny fibers off the page in curled debris that's usually swept away.
Honey suggests that furniture beetles laid eggs in the oak before the bookmaker bound the wood in leather.
The larvae lurked there for years before developing into adults that exited through the leather.
K.—Behind locked doors in one of the oldest libraries in Europe, two dozen scholars mill around a conference table where rare medieval manuscripts perch on lecterns, illuminated by natural light streaming in from floor-to-ceiling windows.
He gently dabs the circumference of a hole in the original white leather binding of a rare 12th century copy of the Then, he inserts a tiny gum brush—the kind teenagers use to clean their braces—into another hole to swab its edges. "To collect bookworm excrement for ancient DNA analysis," says Hedges, who works at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
As Hedges magnifies the holes with a lens on his i Phone, book conservator Andrew Honey of the University of Oxford notices that the holes extend all the way back to the oak boards beneath the binding.
The Normans established scriptoriums in many monasteries in the 11th century, and their appetite for animal skins must have had a "huge impact" on the animals raised, notes Naomi Sykes, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.
But few historical records preserve clues to this shift.