Medieval ‘Daneskins’ revealed to be animal hide

Since at least the 17th century, so-called ‘Daneskins’ – medieval skin fragments that have been found attached to the doors of some English churches – have been interpreted as coming from the bodies of Viking Age raiders, put on display as a grisly deterrent to other would-be robbers. New scientific analysis, initially published in New Scientist, suggests a less dramatic source for the skins, however, indicating that they are not human, but animal hides.

Image: Ruairidh Macleod, by permission of Saffron Waldon Museum.

This research was undertaken by University of Cambridge PhD student Ruairidh Macleod, on the suggestion of Professor Tom Gilbert, an evolutionary biologist and ancient DNA (aDNA) specialist at the University of Copenhagen. Tom had studied the ‘Daneskin’ associated with St Botolph’s Church in Hadstock, Essex (above), while undertaking his own doctoral research at the University of Oxford. Tom’s analysis, carried out two decades earlier when aDNA research was in its infancy, had indicated that the Hadstock skin came from a cow, but it was thought that this result was due to contamination in the laboratory. ‘This was prior to Next Generation Sequencing technology, and cow was the most common lab contaminant,’ Ruairidh told CA. The development of modern biomolecular analysis methods, including a protein analysis called ZooArchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS), however, has since afforded researchers more reliable techniques for differentiating between animal species.

Ruairidh, who presented the results of his research at the UK Archaeological Sciences Conference last April, took non-destructive samples from the Hadstock skin by using an eraser to collect collagen peptides for analysis with ZooMS fingerprinting techniques. This confirmed that the skin was indeed a cow hide. After being pointed towards other ‘Daneskins’ by medieval historian Professor Jane Geddes at the University of Aberdeen, Ruairidh subsequently obtained similar results for four Daneskins associated with St Michael and All Angels Church in Copford and with Westminster Abbey, confirming that all of these originated from common farmyard animals: cow, and horse or donkey. What role, then, did the skins have in the medieval period? Jane directed Ruairidh to an early 12th-century book called De diversis artibus (‘On various arts’), which describes how to craft door coverings through the specialist treatment of horse, donkey, and cow hides. ‘The idea is that it insulates between the panels of the door and the edges of the door,’ Ruairidh said, noting that the complex treatment could have altered the morphology of the animal hide to such an extent that it resembled human skin. ‘I guess it makes sense as a mythology for the church to perpetuate as well, to prevent people from stealing,’ he added.

The research is now being refined in advance of fuller publication.