How could research undertaken on a piece of blank parchment help preserve the Treaty of Waitangi? Friends were intrigued to find out how from Peter Whitehead, National Library Collection Care Leader, Anna Whitehead, Archives New Zealand Conservator, and Lara Shepherd, Te Papa Evolutionary Biologist who worked together on new research on the Treaty. The Treaty comprises of nine documents—seven on paper and two on parchment including the Waitangi Sheet, which is formed from two parchments of different dimensions laced together.

This sheet is not in good condition and Peter took us through restoration work since the Treaty was discovered in 1908 in the basement of Government Buildings where it had been damaged by water and eaten by rodents. In 1913, the Waitangi Sheet was sent to the Dominion Museum for repair, where missing details were infilled with facsimiles. Cellulose nitrate was used in 1930 as a preservation tool but this can deteriorate. Then in 1978, the older repairs and infills were removed. The last repairs made were completed in 1980 and no preservation work has been done since then.

We found out from Anna that in 1929, a blank piece of parchment in an envelope labelled “1865, Treaty of Waitangi Blank Portion of the Original Skin” was donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library. The Dominion Archivist compared this blank parchment with the lower part of the Waitangi Sheet. As the lead pencil rulings matched exactly, it appeared the blank parchment had been cut off the Treaty. As the blank sheet is in good condition, DNA analysis offered an opportunity to determine if it was of the same provenience as the Waitangi Sheet.

To enable Lara’s DNA research, Anna took multiple samples of the parchment using various techniques including carefully scraping it. Lara explained parchment is made from animal skin but there is not as big a DNA database for animals as there is for humans. Her research involved extracting DNA from the tiny scrapings prepared by Anna and undertaking DNA sequencing. The reads from the sequencing were then mapped to genomes of goat, sheep, cow (the likely species used for parchment) and human (for possible contamination). The results showed the parchment aligned to European sheep. Lara surprised us when she shared the analysis could also determine the sex of the sheep. This was done by aligning the reads to sheep genome chromosomes. The DNA research confirmed the lower Waitangi Sheet parchment aligned with the blank piece and the upper, lower and blank parchments came from the same female sheep.

With the origin now proven, the blank parchment will be used for tests to study the effects of earlier preservation treatments of the Waitangi Sheet and to look at long-term conservation issues of displaying the Treaty. Following these thought-provoking insights into the DNA research, we found out more during two interactive sessions.

Peter and Anna had brought samples of old parchment from Archives New Zealand which we were able to handle, discovering it’s a robust material that cannot easily be torn. However, water or heat can damage parchment. Anna soaked a piece in water so we could see how it expanded and softened.

Lara gave us a tour of the genetics laboratory which allows Te Papa scientists to analyse the DNA of our unique birds, plants and invertebrates. She demonstrated a DNA extraction (which is done before sending the sample to a genome sequencing machine) and provided us with the opportunity to try out the process ourselves.

This event gave us a keen understanding of how the collaborative work of Te Papa, the National Library and Archives New Zealand on the DNA analysis of the blank parchment has contributed to a conservation plan for Te Tiriti o Waitangi for the next 25 years. It sparked us with added interest in DNA research and how this type of analysis can help preserve our taonga.

Loralee Hyde