Relying on biodiversity science to inform art history

Researchers uses 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, extracting even the smallest traces of DNA can be used as a biological marker to signify the presence of a person or object in a given context. But when no knowledge on context is available, exploiting advances in metagenomic barcoding coupled with knowledge on species distributions may be helpful.

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

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

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: