ArcHives: ‘omics in the archive

Beeswax is a versatile, chemically stable yet physically fragile material used by humans for practical purposes and cultural practices for millennia. Today, we encounter it in artworks, medical moulages, archaeological remains and, in the archival setting, in the form of thousands of delicate medieval pendant seals.


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These predecessors of the modern signature served to validate documents, authorize treaties, and mark personal letters. They not only bear the insignia of the individual, but often their finger- and palm-prints. The ArcHives project will explore whether much more can found sealed in historic beeswax – such as human DNA and biomolecular from bees.

The aim of ArcHives is to use wax as a bimolecular archive to inform upon:

  • the geographic origin of beeswax (and bees)
  • the changing diversity of the hive microbiome in modern and historical beeswax
  • the DNA of individuals associated with the production of the legal documents trapped in kneaded wax

The four-year project is funded by Carlsbergfondet Semper Ardens and led by an international cross-disciplinary team of molecular biologists, palaeoproteomicists, heritage scientists, historians and chemists. The network will train two PhD students and one post-doctoral fellow.

The project will allow us to explore much more than the biomolecular archive – we will also glean knowledge around the material composition of wax seals in our collection, allowing for a deeper understanding of the physical and chemical processes responsible for their ageing and degradation. This information is crucial for the development of informed conservation and preservation strategies for these fragile objects, thousands of which are held at The National Archives.

Learn more about this work on the project website.