Artifact DNA Testing

For genetic genealogists, artifact DNA testing is the holy grail of genealogy.

Instead of being limited to the testing of living relatives, we can obtain the DNA of deceased ancestors through items that still contain samples of their DNA.

This might include envelopes and stamps licked with their saliva, hair left behind in hairbrushes and hat bands, bloodstains, toothbrushes, dentures, hearing aids, smoking pipes, electric razor debris, eyeglasses, watches, jewelry, or anything else that might pick up skin cells.

Before you get too excited, there are several important issues to consider.

High Cost

Thanks to standardized sampling, high volume testing and automated processes, the price of standard genetic genealogy DNA tests is quite reasonable.

With artifact DNA testing, each sample is unique and must be worked on individually for an extended time by at least one skilled technician. As a result, prices for DNA extraction are much higher than you are used to.

If DNA is found, you still must pay separately to obtain the usual data needed for inclusion in a genetic genealogy database.

Low Success Rates

DNA degrades over time. There is no way to tell up front if the artifact has any DNA left or if it can be successfully extracted.

Therefore, testing companies must charge for each extraction ATTEMPT. There are no guarantees.

Destructive Testing

Artifact DNA testing may destroy the artifact. That’s especially true for letters and envelopes.


Since artifacts could have been handled by others, either before or after the death of the ancestor, any DNA recovered may or may not be from the desired subject.

If you have possible artifacts for testing, avoid handling them with bare hands and store them in dry paper envelopes away from high humidity or temperature extremes.

Test Older Relatives NOW

Obviously, you don’t want to depend on artifact DNA testing if you don’t have to. Get your older relatives tested now while they are still available to submit a sample.

If you wait too long, many funeral directors will collect a sample for you IF you have the right kind of test kit on hand. It must be one that collects cheek cells with swabs, such a Family Tree DNA test kit. Spitting saliva into a tube is no longer an option at this point.

Where to Get Artifact DNA Testing

The following companies offer some types of artifact DNA testing. Since I have no artifacts to test, I have never used any of them.

In addition to getting a complete rundown of prices, be sure to ask each lab about their success rate at extracting DNA from the type of sample you are considering.

totheletter DNA

Keepsake DNA

Parabon Affinity

DNA Testing Centre

An Excellent Blog Post Digs Into the Details

This post by Roberta Estes gets into the whole subject in far more detail. If you have items you wish to preserve for future artifact DNA testing, she tells you how to do it right.