Fingerprints from the Past

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Fingerprints Are Timeless and, More Importantly, Completely Unique.

We've all seen the crime dramas: since the late 19th century fingerprints have been the key method of unique identification for individuals and have been used to lock down security and solve crimes. Unless you're a member of the Men in Black, you're not likely to loose them any time soon.

But is it possible that fingerprints can do more than solve crimes? What if we could use them to identify and track people who died hundreds if not thousands of years ago? 

Dr Philippa Hoskin of the University of Lincoln, supported by AHRC funding, is looking to do just that. Working with the University of Sheffield's Humanities Research Institute, the project will aim to examine around 3,000 documents from the middle ages to see what fingerprints and palm prints have been preserved on the wax seals of these documents. Through searching in the National Library of Wales, the Westminster Abbey Muniments and the cathedral libraries of Exeter, Lincoln and Hereford, they hope to gather together very high resolution images and detailed descriptions of these fingerprints.

"So what?" You might ask. After all, these people aren't alive and with us today and, given that fingerprinting wasn't taking place back in medieval times, how do we identify anyone? 
The key here is the ability to track one man or woman's work across multiple documents: what did one particular person work on? How long did he work and what was his productivity? What documents was he involved in? Did he move around? Fingerprints allow us to focus in on one person's life as an individual - a notoriously difficult feat in a time before widespread literacy.

From the Journal of Ancient Fingerprints
The study of ancient fingerprints isn't a new discipline, but it is an under-represented one. Between the 1920s and the 1960s several keen archaeologists such as W.F.Bade, Charles Walston, Harold Cummins and Kurt Obenhaur identified ancient fingerprint marks left on ceramic pottery, figurines and lamps. These, along with other examples, inspired the foundation of the Fingerprint centre in Stockholme by Paul Astrom and Sven.A.Eriksson. As time went on, further fingerpints of the ancient world were identified, often embedded in pottery when the soft clay had been worked. Through looking at these fingerprints in detail the careers of many individuals were tracked, injuries and evidence of hard manual labour were identified, age could be estimated, and finally individuals roles and employment status can be identified. These silent individuals from far flung history were finally given their own subtle voice. As fingerprints are timeless, the same technique can be stretched all the way back into the stone age.

The Journal of Ancient Fingerprints is dedicated to spreading further knowledge about this quirky section of archaeology, so if you're intrigued about the details and potential of ancient fingerprinting you should definitely check it out.


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