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ArcHives

Carlsbergfondets ”Semper Ardens” forskningsprojekter

What

Beeswax is a remarkable material which has been exploited by humans for thousands of years. Our project, ArcHives, seeks to wrest biological stories from ancient beeswax. Beeswax is waterproof, it has been used as a sealant and as glue and the base for encaustic painting. Solid at room temperature, but malleable when gently heated, it has been used to shape and form objects, notably in lost-wax casting of metal objects. In pre-literate societies, wax was used to seal documents; your seal was your signature, credit card and passport. The product of ‘virgin’ bees, it burns with a bright, clean flame and was a sacred source of light. Beeswax, therefore, plays a key role in our historical past and was traded east-west and north-south across Europe.

Why

Beeswax is a remarkably rich and overlooked archive of a semi-domesticated insects. Today we appreciate how important bees are economically. Their value of pollinators far exceeds that of the products they produce - honey and wax. In the past, the wax would sometimes be worth, eight times more than honey, because of its importance as a source of light and as a malleable material for casting and seal. Many beeswax seals are attached to dated documents and potentially hold clues as to the diversity of bees, the flowers, they fed upon from year to year over the last millennium. Biomolecular methods are beginning to revolutionise archaeology. Denmark has been at the forefront of these advances and the ArcHives project hopes to build upon these advances.

How

The project seeks to bridge the science-art divide. In the former providing information on the health of bees, the diversity of their microbiomes, their parasites and the plants upon which they fed. Beeswax was handled and folded to create sculptures, paintings and seals and we plan to extract records of the individuals engaged in these processes. Will beeswax be a medium by which we can link actors to objects and documents? In order to achieve our goals, ArcHives will develop methods which can extract multiple biomolecular records from a single extraction and then apply this to historical and archaeological samples of beeswax. To ensure that our project stays relevant we will collaborate and hopefully grow a community of scholars, from molecular biologists to museum curators.

SSR

Bees are currently in trouble, in Denmark more so than anywhere else in Europe. Bees are most under threat from processes which are seemingly linked to modern agriculture, but not fully understood. ArcHives will provide information on historical bee populations, their genetic makeup, the microbiomes and parasites they hosted as well as the flowering plants they exploited for pollen and nectar. It will provide baseline data from which to help understand this collapse. ArcHives will furthermore explicitly try to develop sampling methods which maximise the biomolecular signals recovered from ancient materials, helping to both minimise wasteful sampling and maximise the biological information that can be recovered.