Relying on biodiversity science to inform art history

Researchers use DNA metabarcoding to reveal the history of possibly smuggled antique marble statues

Three antique marble statues (Piñar et al. 2019)
Three antique marble statues of unknown origin analysed in the study. Photo from figure 1 in Piñar et al. 2019 (CC BY 4.0)

In forensic science, even the smallest traces of DNA can be used as biological markers to signify the presence of a person or object in a given context. But when no knowledge of context is available, advances in metagenomic barcoding coupled with knowledge of species distributions may be usefully exploited.

In this study, researchers from Austria sampled three marble statues of unknown origin for DNA extraction. They amplified the collected DNA and constructed libraries for quantification and taxonomic assignment. Matching the identified taxa with distributions of GBIF-mediated occurrences, the authors were able to draw some conclusions on the possible origins of the statues.

Two of the statues, representing torsos, appear to have been stored in agricultural soil, perhaps near an animal farm. As the genetic fingerprints were similar, the torsos are likely to have been stored together in recent times. Both carried sequences matching taxa endemic to Eastern Asia. The third statue, representing a head, however, differed considerably with a microbiome indicating longer storage time in arid conditions as well as marine environments in the past.

The most relevant find was the relative abundance of DNA of the genus Taiwania present on one torso. With a single extant species growing in the mountains of central Taiwan and locally in Southwest China, the torso is likely to have stayed or been transported through these areas.

Original article

Piñar G, Poyntner C, Tafer H and Sterflinger K (2019) A time travel story: metagenomic analyses decipher the unknown geographical shift and the storage history of possibly smuggled antique marble statues. Annals of Microbiology. Springer Science and Business Media LLC 69(10): 1001–1021. Available at: