Three little leaves found in a 450-year-old Bible have brought together UWA alumni from around the world to solve a puzzle.
Was it a 16th century monk from England's Ely Cathedral who marked his place in the Bible with the leaves?
Was it a God-fearing farmer in Italy or France doing the same while taking a break from tending his cows?
Dr Pauline Grierson from the School of Plant Biology enlisted the help of former UWA staffer Professor John Dodson, now at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), to help her age the unidentified leaves through radiocarbon dating. They were found in the Bible in the Scholars' Centre by UWA senior library officer Susana Melo de Howard earlier this year. Dr Grierson also analysed the leaves for nutrients and isotopes to identify from where in the world they had come.
Professor Dodson co-opted his colleague, Dr Fraser Mitchell from Trinity College Dublin, to identify the leaves then the two of them decided to send photos of the leaves to another former UWA staff member, Professor Steve Hopper, at Kew Gardens in London.
Meanwhile, Dr Grierson had also sent photos to a colleague in Siberia and other botanists around the world.
After stable carbon, oxygen and nitrogen isotope tests at UWA, radiocarbon dating at ANSTO, and a wealth of knowledge and experience applied, the leaves have been identified as coming from a Wych elm (Ulmus glabra) from around 1560.
They are as old as the Bible itself. Wych elm is one of the species almost wiped out by Elm disease over the past century, but it once grew in the UK, across Europe, and in Iran.
One of the leaves was ground up for the tests but the other two are being kept in acid-free paper in the Scholars' Centre, which has controlled temperature and humidity.
Ms Melo de Howard said the leaves may be exhibited under glass but wanted to keep them in a controlled atmosphere to preserve them.
"UWA acquired this Bible in the 1970s and it had not been accessed for more than 20 years," Ms Melo de Howard said. "Then a man, a fisherman, was perusing it several months ago and when I went to put it away, I found the leaves.
"I fantasised that a monk had put them there while reading in the cloisters of the medieval cathedral in Ely, where the Bible was originally held. And I immediately called Plant Biology for their help," she said.
Dr Chuck Price was asked if he could use his new technology, the Leaf Extraction and Analysis Framework Graphical User Interface to identify the leaves, but they needed to be carbondated before his program would be useful.
Dr Grierson then did some stable isotope testing and her analysis found unusually large amounts of nitrogen isotopes in the leaves, which pointed to them coming from a farm, a wetland or an area polluted by manure or something similarly high in nitrogen.
"John Dodson and his colleague John Bennett at ANSTO also found traces of arsenic, consistent with polluted water or perhaps coal-burning. It's possible that the Bible travelled from England to elsewhere as English coal would also probably leave traces of another element called selenium, which they didn't find," Dr Grierson said. "We also found traces of silver and gold, which could be from the cathedral or the Bible itself."
Ms Melo de Howard is thrilled with the results. "We are so lucky to have the expertise, the equipment and the generosity of these scientists through our university network," she said. "Without them, this mystery would never have been solved."
Published in UWA News, 31 October 2011