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Museum hopes to unlock past lives through ancient DNA

The Museum of East Dorset is collaborating with the Francis Crick Institute in a nationwide research project. The project, funded by the Wellcome Foundation, seeks to establish the whole-genome history and evolution in a thousand ancient people from Great Britain, to aid medical research. It will also give the museum new information and fresh insights into people from the past.

Ancient DNA will be analysed from the skeletal remains of people who lived thousands of years ago in and around Tarrant Hinton, Dorset. Remains of these individuals were found during excavations conducted by Wimborne Archaeological Group between 1968 and 1984. The area was occupied from the Bronze Age (2500 – 800 BC) through the Iron Age (800 BC – AD 43) into Romano-British times, up to AD 388.

Jesse McCabe, a Laboratory Research Scientist at the Francis Crick Institute, took tiny samples from 17 burials for further analysis. For aDNA sampling, there are three parts of the skull that can be used: the tiny bones from inside the ear, commonly known as the hammer, anvil and stirrup; a piece of the temporal bone from the cranium; or a well-preserved tooth.

The Museum of East Dorset has consulted closely with Dr Simon Mays of Historic England and Prof. Alistair Pike from the University of Southampton in terms of possible research outcomes from the collaboration with the Francis Crick Institute. In 2019, they were involved with further analysis of the museum’s Iron Age TB skeleton, the earliest known case of TB in Britain, also from the Tarrant Hinton site. This suggested a high probability that the man spent his early childhood in an area of Carboniferous Limestone to the west of Britain. This type of geology is found in South or West Ireland, on the Atlantic coasts of southwest France and in the Cantabrian Mountains of Northern Spain. Now, it might be possible to find out more about the specific strain of TB, which differs depending on geography.

The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical discovery institute dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Its work is helping to understand why disease develops and to translate discoveries into new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases. It is expected that the aDNA analysis may take up to 12 months to complete.

Museum Director Chezzie Hollow said that the museum will await the results with great interest and share any significant findings with the public.

Pontus Skoglund, head of the Francis Crick Institute’s Ancient Genomics Laboratory, said: “As part of this project, the unique heritage collections of the Museum of East Dorset will not only shed new light on archaeological questions, but also aid our understanding of genetic health and disease through our larger integration with the medical resources of the UK biobank.”