Christine McCarthy at Yale University’s Rare Books Library watches as Greg Hodgins dissects a sample of parchment for radiocarbon dating of the mysterious Voynich manuscript. Credit: Paula Zyats, Yale University
enthusiasts across the world pored over the Voynich manuscript, penned
by an unknown author in a language no one understands, a research team
at the University of Arizona solved one of its biggest mysteries: When
was the book made?
of Arizona researchers have cracked one of the puzzles surrounding what
has been called “the world’s most mysterious manuscript” – the Voynich
manuscript, a book filled with drawings and writings nobody has been
able to make sense of to this day.
radiocarbon dating, a team led by Greg Hodgins in the UA’s department
of physics has found the manuscript’s parchment pages date back to the
early 15th century, making the book a century older than scholars had
tome makes the “DaVinci Code” look downright lackluster: Rows of text
scrawled on visibly aged parchment, flowing around intricately drawn
illustrations depicting plants, astronomical charts and human figures
bathing in – perhaps – the fountain of youth. At first glance, the
“Voynich manuscript” appears to be not unlike any other antique work of
writing and drawing.
An alien language
a second, closer look reveals that nothing here is what it seems. Alien
characters, some resembling Latin letters, others unlike anything used
in any known language, are arranged into what appear to be words and
sentences, except they don’t resemble anything written – or read – by
Greg Hodgins checks on the accelerator mass spectrometer, which narrowed the age of the book down to 1404 to 1438, in the early Renaissance. Credit: Daniel Stolte/UANews
an assistant research scientist and assistant professor in the UA’s
department of physics with a joint appointment at the UA’s School of
Anthropology, is fascinated with the manuscript.
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.”
chemist and archaeological scientist by training, Hodgins works for the
NSF Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, or AMS, Laboratory, which is
shared between physics and geosciences. His team was able to nail down
the time when the Voynich manuscript was made.
owned by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale
University, the manuscript was discovered in the Villa Mondragone near
Rome in 1912 by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich while sifting
through a chest of books offered for sale by the Society of Jesus.
Voynich dedicated the remainder of his life to unveiling the mystery of
the book’s origin and deciphering its meanings. He died 18 years later,
without having wrestled any its secrets from the book.
to 2009: In the basement underneath the UA’s Physics and Atmospheric
Sciences building, Hodgins and a crew of scientists, engineers and
technicians stare at a computer monitor displaying graphs and lines. The
humming sound of machinery fills the room and provides a backdrop drone
for the rhythmic hissing of vacuum pumps.
Stainless steel pipes, alternating with heavy-bodied vacuum chambers, run along the walls.
is the heart of the NSF-Arizona AMS Laboratory: an accelerator mass
spectrometer capable of sniffing out traces of carbon-14 atoms that are
present in samples, giving scientists clues about the age of those
Radiocarbon dating: looking back in time
is a rare form of carbon, a so-called radioisotope, that occurs
naturally in the Earth’s environment. In the natural environment, there
is only one carbon-14 atom per trillion non-radioactive or “stable”
carbon isotopes, mostly carbon-12, but with small amounts of carbon-13.
Carbon-14 is found in the atmosphere within carbon dioxide gas.
produce their tissues by taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,
and so accumulate carbon-14 during life. Animals in turn accumulate
carbon-14 in their tissues by eating plants, or eating other organisms
that consume plants.
a plant or animal dies, the level of carbon-14 in it remains drops at a
predictable rate, and so can be used to calculate the amount of time
that has passed since death.
is true of plants and animals is also true of products made from them.
Because the parchment pages of the Voynich Manuscript were made from
animal skin, they can be radiocarbon-dated.
The Voynich manuscript’s unintelligible writings and strange illustrations have defied every attempt at understanding their meaning. Credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
to the front end of the mass spectrometer, Hodgins explains the
principle behind it. A tiny sample of carbon extracted from the
manuscript is introduced into the “ion source” of the mass spectrometer.
causes the atoms in the sample to be ionized,” he explained, “meaning
they now have an electric charge and can be propelled by electric and
from the ion source, the carbon ions are formed into a beam that races
through the instrument at a fraction of the speed of light. Focusing the
beam with magnetic lenses and filters, the mass spectrometer then
splits it up into several beams, each containing only one isotope
species of a certain mass.
is heavier than the other carbon isotopes,” Hodgins said. “This way, we
can single out this isotope and determine how much of it is present in
the sample. From that, we calculate its age.”
Dissecting a century-old book
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.
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.
cut four samples from four pages, each measuring about 1 by 6
millimeters (ca. 1/16 by 1 inch) and brought them back to the laboratory
in Tucson, where they were thoroughly cleaned.
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.”
modern methods we use to date the material are so sensitive that traces
of modern contamination would be enough to throw things off.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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?”
images of the manuscript’s 240 pages, including a special section on
highlights and special features, are online at http://voynichcentral.com/gallery