Researchers from the University of Arizona have discovered that the Voynich manuscript, which has been called “the world’s most mysterious manuscript,” was written sometime between 1404 to 1438. The findings were aired on a special documentary on the National Geographic Channel.
The Voynich manuscript was written by an unknown author, and is about 240 pages long. Its wording is called an “alien language” – the lettering does not even resemble other languages, while most pages contain images that depict optical phenomena, mystical drawings and meticulous zodiac maps.
Greg Hodgins, of the University of Arizona’s department of physics and leading member of a team that used radiocarbon dating to determine that text dates from the 15th century, was fascinated with the manuscript.
“Is it a code, a cipher of some kind? People are doing statistical analysis of letter use and word use – the tools that have been used for code breaking. But they still haven’t figured it out.”
The testing on the manuscript was done in 2009. To obtain the sample from the manuscript, Hodgins traveled to Yale University, where conservators had previously identified pages that had not been rebound or repaired and were the best to sample.
“I sat down with the Voynich manuscript on a desk in front of me, and delicately dissected a piece of parchment from the edge of a page with a scalpel,” Hodgins says.
He cut four samples from four pages, each measuring about 1 by 6 millimeters (roughly 1/32 by 1/4 inch) and brought them back to the laboratory in Tucson, where they were thoroughly cleaned.
“Because we were sampling from the page margins, we expected there are a lot of finger oils adsorbed over time,” Hodgins explains. “Plus, if the book was re-bound at any point, the sampling spots on these pages may actually not have been on the edge but on the spine, meaning they may have had adhesives on them.”
“The modern methods we use to date the material are so sensitive that traces of modern contamination would be enough to throw things off.”
Next, the sample was combusted, stripping the material of any unwanted compounds and leaving behind only its carbon content as a small dusting of graphite at the bottom of the vial.
“In radiocarbon dating, there is this whole system of many people working at it,” he said. “It takes many skills to produce a date. From start to finish, there is archaeological expertise; there is biochemical and chemical expertise; we need physicists, engineers and statisticians. It’s one of the joys of working in this place that we all work together toward this common goal.”
The UA’s team was able to push back the presumed age of the Voynich manuscript by 100 years, a discovery that killed some of the previously held hypotheses about its origins and history.
Elsewhere, experts analyzed the inks and paints that makes up the manuscript’s strange writings and images.
“It would be great if we could directly radiocarbon date the inks, but it is actually really difficult to do. First, they are on a surface only in trace amounts” Hodgins said. “The carbon content is usually extremely low. Moreover, sampling ink free of carbon from the parchment on which it sits is currently beyond our abilities. Finally, some inks are not carbon based, but are derived from ground minerals. They’re inorganic, so they don’t contain any carbon.”
“It was found that the colors are consistent with the Renaissance palette – the colors that were available at the time. But it doesn’t really tell us one way or the other, there is nothing suspicious there.”
While Hodgins is quick to point out that anything beyond the dating aspect is outside his expertise, he admits he is just as fascinated with the book as everybody else who has tried to unveil its history and meaning.
“The text shows strange characteristics like repetitive word use or the exchange of one letter in a sequence,” he says. “Oddities like that make it really hard to understand the meaning.”
“There are types of ciphers that embed meaning within gibberish. So it is possible that most of it does mean nothing. There is an old cipher method where you have a sheet of paper with strategically placed holes in it. And when those holes are laid on top of the writing, you read the letters in those holes.”
“Who knows what’s being written about in this manuscript, but it appears to be dealing with a range of topics that might relate to alchemy. Secrecy is sometimes associated with alchemy, and so it would be consistent with that tradition if the knowledge contained in the book was encoded. What we have are the drawings. Just look at those drawings: Are they botanical? Are they marine organisms? Are they astrological? Nobody knows.”
“I find this manuscript is absolutely fascinating as a window into a very interesting mind. Piecing these things together was fantastic. It’s a great puzzle that no one has cracked, and who doesn’t love a puzzle?”
The Voynich manuscript was featured on the National Geographic program Naked Science earlier this week.