Might this be how to solve Scorpion Cipher S5…?

As I reported in a post last year (2014), even though the fifth “Scorpion Cipher” (i.e. ‘S5′) sent to John Walsh is arranged using a 12-column layout, it has a very strong internal 16-column structure. What this means is that every single shape repeat spans a distance that is a multiple of 16: which in turn suggests that the encipherer formed the S5 ciphertext by rigidly cycling through a set of 16 simple substitution cipher alphabets.

If you therefore rearrange S5’s shapes into a 16-column layout and colourize their repeats, you get something like the following (click on it to see a higher resolution version):


Now, 155 out of S5’s 180 characters are unique, giving it a ‘multiplicity’ (155/180) of 86%, which is way too high to be cracked using a conventional homophonic cipher solver. For comparison, the three Beale Ciphers have multiplicities of 57%, 24%, and 43% respectively, while the (solved) Zodiac Z408’s multiplicity is a paltry 13%. In fact, the upper limit on solvability for homophonic ciphertexts seems to be multiplicities of around 20%-25% if you’re lucky (or 10%-15% if you’re not), so S5 would at first sight seem to be waaaaaay out of anybody’s practical range.

But I’m not so sure.

Going through what has been released of the encipherer’s letters that the ciphertexts accompanies, he/she starts by saying:-

This code took a lot of time and effort to develop, in hopes that it will defeat FBI and CIA codebreakers.

Which is ‘kind of reasonable’, though the whole enciphering activity would seem to be somewhat pointless unless the person’s overall aim was to somehow emulate the original Zodiac Killer’s ciphers. In a later letter, the encipherer’s position gets finessed somewhat:

I now realise with many hundeds of hours of […] mindracking experimentation with my complex ciphers that my first one that I sent you [S1] was comparatively simple to my second [S2], third [S3], fourth [S4], and now temporarily final cryptograph system [S5]. I have been encoding useful information for your use and have done it fairly, since all of my ciphers can be decoded simply, once the limited patterns and systems are discovered.

What we learn from this, I think, is that what we are looking at here is not the product of a psychopathic academic cryptographer, but is rather a homebrewed cipher system, based around “limited patterns and systems”. So, a bright kid; probably good at maths; and has perhaps read enough popular cryptography (through and beyond the newspaper accounts of the Zodiac Killer’s ciphers) to avoid clunkingly obvious mistakes.

But the mentions of “patterns” makes me suspect that there’s also a little bit of the vanity of the pure mathematician there, intellectual pride that all it would take to “defeat FBI and CIA codebreakers” was “limited patterns and systems”. Hence I think we are likely to be looking at something that is innately very ordered, something that we’ll all kick ourself for not seeing when it is shown to us in the fullness of time. “What a clever person the Scorpion Cipher maker was“, we’re all supposed to say (according to that fantasy script), “much better at making ciphers than the Zodiac Killer ever was“.

In the case of S5, though, I suspect we now know just about enough to break it, even with its dauntingly high multiplicity.

My first observation is that even though it uses a large number of different shapes, these are drawn from a very much smaller set of shape families: and there may well be some kind of cryptographic relationship between the members of each family to help us:-


My second observation is that, with the exception of columns 10 and 11 (which may well be random, or possibly ‘S’ vs ‘T’ in the plaintext), the most frequent symbol in any column is always from a different family from the most frequent shape in any other column. It’s not the strongest of observations, sure, but it’s what leads me to my (grandly titled) S5 Construction Hypothesis.

My S5 Construction Hypothesis

I believe that the encipherer very probably constructed 16 cipher alphabets on gridded paper, within a 26 x 16 or perhaps a 16 x 26 grid. But this is a boring activity, and the encipherer’s text suggests a kind of proto-mathematical desire for elegance, like a smart 12-year-old who has just ‘got’ the whole idea of mathematics. So I hypothesize that the encipherer filled this rectangular grid with families of shapes along downward diagonals, from top-left to bottom-right.

Hence for the sixteen component alphabets, any genuine (as opposed to accidental) family of shapes would step through the alphabets. Here, a family that had a member enciphering A in alphabet #1 would also have a member enciphering B in alphabet #2, and maybe a member enciphering C in alphabet #3 etc.

This suggests a quite different kind of cryptologic solving logic from normal, one that not only offers us mathematical means to reduce the multiplicity (because we can posit connections between letters in diffent columns, giving us fewer degrees of freedom to steer our way through), but also spatial means to do the same thing.

What I mean by ‘spatial’ here is that if we look at, say, the family of shapes formed of squares with dots in, I think we might be able to assume that not only are these all part of the same family, but also all the missing shapes on columns without a similar family member can be excluded from the search.

That is, if alphabet #1 uses a square with dots in to encipher ‘A’ and alphabet #3 uses a different square with dots in to encipher ‘C’, then we can very probably infer that alphabet #2 uses a square with dots in to encipher ‘B’, even though we cannot actually see it in the ciphertext. Hence this kind of ‘holistic exclusion’ offers a spatial way to help us reduce the search space.

Of course, turning this visuo-spatial hypothesis into an effective computer algorithm will doubtless prove quite tricky. But perhaps it offers a way of making S5’s cryptologic challenge more tractable than it would be if were a pure homophonic cipher with such a scarily high multiplicity.

Tamam Shuda Cuda Wuda…

Pete Bowes has recently finished writing his Tamam Shud-themed novel The Bookmaker From Rabaul, a story carefully braided from the skein of loosely connected threads we like to call ‘historical evidence’. When published (in December 2015), it will feature all the Usual Suspectskis of the Somerton Man world – spies, intelligence, betrayal, death, ciphers, and so on – and, on Pete’s past form, should have a rich cast of angular characters doing some kind of crunchy dialogue thing.

But he doesn’t need me to crank out his book PR bullshit for him, he’s more than capable of doing that himself. ūüėČ


What’s nibbling at my trouser cuffs today is the distinction between literary truth and historical truth: doubtless Pete’s book will aspire to the former with a healthy nod to the latter, and that’s basically OK for novelists.

Yet the practical problem with literary truth is that aspiring to it is simply a terrible way of doing history: and this is something that Pete, for all his justified mania for details and (more recently) timelines, doesn’t really seem to get.

Perhaps the crux of the matter comes down to the difference between ‘more plausible’ and ‘more probable’ (this is known as the Conjunction Fallacy, Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” gives some nice examples). In the case of the Somerton Man, literary truth aspires to narrative plausibility while historical truth aspires to genuinely higher probability.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, as an example a little closer to home (if you live in South Australia, that is), which of the following two claims would you say is more probable:

(a) The Somerton Man was killed by someone he knew
(b) The Somerton Man was killed by a lover he had spurned


Kahneman points out that because (b) implicitly contains (a) [i.e. “a lover he had spurned” is a subset of “someone he knew”], (a) is automatically more mathematically probable than (b). And yet many people would judge that (b) is more probable, largely (I think) because it has a certain ‘ring of truth’ to it. By its cautious language, (a) is a bit ‘colder’, a little less human: people have some kind of innate need for stories to embody human values, and so (a) doesn’t quite cut it.

In my opinion, it is specifically that ‘ring of truth’-ness that literary truth aspires to: and the quality of words and thoughts that sets (b) ahead of (a) boils down to its greater plausibility. But that doesn’t make (b) more true, it just makes it a rounder-sounding story.

Agencies, spies, microwriting, uranium at Mount Painter, poison, misdirection, tradecraft, plausible deniability, even Venona: all of these are real historical things. When taken together, they can indeed be arranged to tell a beguiling, plausible story. However, none of them yet connects with the Somerton Man in a way that an historian can genuinely work with: and because none of these individual details yet offers us anything approaching a genuine, probable history, putting them all together at the same time automatically tells a mathematically less probable story – for the more elements you conjoin into a single narratove, the lower the resulting probability goes. Sorry, but that’s just the way the numbers work: I’m just the messenger, me.

For what it’s worth, I remain quite certain that we will, in due course, find out exactly who the Somerton Man was and what precisely brought him to Somerton Beach on the last day of his life. But I also have no doubt that this will come not from assembling plausible narrative macro-hypotheses, but rather from doing historical research the hard way: forming micro-hypotheses about specific aspects of what happened and then painstakingly testing them against the archives.

Pete Bowes laughs when (for example) I wonder if the Somerton Man (with elevated zinc levels in his hair) might have been somehow connected with the zinc trade between Risdon and Port Adelaide; or when I wonder if the Somerton Man might have been connected with the person who sent Fred Pruszinski from Broken Hill to Somerton Beach carrying a rifle in a suitcase just a few days earlier. But that’s probably because even though Pete and I are walking along the same beach, I suspect we’re travelling in quite opposite directions.

Radiocarbon dating and the Voynich Manuscript…

The problem with radiocarbon dating as an analytical historical technique isn’t that the underlying science of radioactivity is hard (in fact, it’s fairly mechanical and straightforward, albeit probabilistic), but rather that mention of the S-word (‘science’) unduly raises many people’s expectations that they can use it to get to some kind of unshakeable bedrock of knowable truth about the past. “God’s smoking gun”, if you like (or not if you don’t).

Sorry, but even if you’ve paid your money to the University of Arizona to get a radiocarbon dating number in your eager hand, you still have a large number of issues to deal with.

For example, the historical curves are all twisted about thanks to human history (global pollution etc), which means that you have to go from uncalibrated raw data to calibrated historical data; another problem is that locale-specific human effects (e.g. polluted urban air vs clean mountain air, etc) can shift the likely dates forwards or backwards; another is that carbon trapped inside certain diets (e.g. shellfish or seafood) eaten by the animals whose radioactive carbon we are testing can cause yet more havoc inside the calculation; and so on and so forth.

Back in 2012, I tried to give an accessible summary of the most difficult bits of all this, but the tricky historical reasoning that necessarily has to be wrapped around radiocarbon dating remains a fiendishly technical business that few Voynich researchers can genuinely make proper sense of in toto.

One thing is fairly solid, though: of the four data points we have, three are extremely – and I do genuinely mean extremely – close. Certainly close enough for the three pieces of vellum to have come from the same decade.

Incidentally, “BP” (‘Before Present’) is the technical term for “number of years before 1950″; which means that the 500BP notches 3/4 of the way across the horizontal scale correspond to 1450. Hence you can visually see that the curves for all three of the top three samples go to around 1450.

The first counterintuitive thing about all this is that these curves are only probabilitic date curves insofar as we know nothing else at all about the object’s likely place of origin. For example, if we can determine by other means that the manuscript came from a polluted urban area, then we should (as I understand it) eliminate much of the earlier (leftmost) years’ components that make up the curve to effectively produce a new, much narrower curve biased more strongly towards the later (rightmost) years.

The second counterintuitive thing is that if you try to statistically combine just the top three samples together (by approximating their distributions as Gaussian probability distributions and then using a neat bit of stats maths), you get… pretty much exactly the same curve as any one of them. Think about that: because these three radiocarbon dates are so close together, each statistical merge brings hardly any new information to the party, giving the clever stats machinery barely anything to use to help it narrow that wider initial range.

This leads to the third counterintuitive thing: that in fact almost all the narrowing of the date range (from say [1400-1450] down to [1404-1438]) is therefore down to that pesky fourth sample, a thin sliver taken from the heavily-handled outermost edge of leaf f68. My personal prediction is that the difference in dating that this sample offers will eventually prove to have arisen from nothing more than a badly-chosen sampling site (on one of the most heavily handled areas of vellum in the entire manuscript). If Greg H. had instead taken it from the top of the page much nearer the bound edge, I expect that the radiocarbon dating would have ended up almost exactly the same as the other three.

It’s important to note at this point that I’m genuinely not trying to use this single f68 sample to try to ‘prove’, ‘verify’, or ‘validate’ my Averlino Voynich theory. Actually, the way this works is completely the other way round, in that what came first for me was a whole load of codicological, cryptographic, palaeographic and Art History analyses, which all seemed to me to specifically point to a construction date in the 1450 to 1470 range (neither before nor after). Hence for me, Averlino was simply an illustrative cherry on what was already to me a well-baked Art History cake: my identification of him as the author of the Voynich might be right or wrong (and I still don’t know either way), but all my other dating still stands.

And it is this other dating evidence which I happen to trust more than f68’s single radiocarbon dating value.

The problem with accepting nothing beyond the raw radiocarbon date range (as Richard SantaColoma is wont to argue people should do, which is somewhat ironic given that it’s the specific piece of information which his various it’s-a-hoax-but-using-unused-old-vellum theories then immediately deem irrelevant) is that it leaves you vulnerable to calculational and procedural errors. If you genuinely want to date the Voynich Manuscript, then I think you have no honest choice but to engage with ceramics, parallel hatching, cryptographic alphabets or whatever fields you choose to build up multiple sets of independent dating evidence. Unless you have these to combine with the radiocarbon dating, your results will be weak.

Which leads to the final counterintuitive thing for this post: that while radiocarbon dating itself is scientifically strong, the tricky reasoning surrounding it is historically fragile. The more you can sensible combine with it, the stronger a support it becomes: but argue from it in isolation from everything else, and your conclusions and inferences simply won’t have a great deal of strength. It’s like one leg of a tripod: you need two more legs for it to be able to stand for any length of time.

Logbooks for the S.S. Era, the other Risdon ship…

A few months back, I asked the nice people at the National Archives of Australia if they could try to find some particular logbooks for 1948/1949 for the Howard Smith steamer S.S. Era (which I covered here at the beginning of the year).

The ever-Delphic Log of Logs said they should be there, but when I went a-looking, there was no matching record for the period we are interested in. To be precise, for the years 1930-1939, SP2/1 holds the logbooks, while SP290/2 covers 1940-1946: my guess (which proved to be correct) was that SP989/1 probably did hold the logs for 1948/1949 (but that they hadn’t yet been added to the database), so I asked the NAA to have a look for me.

Well, they found most of them in Sydney (which is really great), and have just this week added records to the NAA database (the easiest way to get to them is to click on RecordSearch, then “Advanced search for items”, and then search for the specific barcode).

* Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) SP989/1, SS ERA Log Book 14/10/1947 to 27/4/1948, barcode 13642543
* Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) SP989/1, SS ERA Log Book 27/4/1948 to 9/11/1948, barcode 13642540
* Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) SP989/1, SS ERA Log Book 10/11/1948 to 30/3/1949, barcode 13642541
* Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) SP989/1, SS ERA Log Book 10/11/1949 to 29/3/1950, barcode 13642542

All of which may not tell us anything at all, of course: but incidental details studded through the logs may possibly help add an extra interesting dimension to our understanding of what was happening in Risdon at the time. :-)

Vrillon and Max…

Les Hewitt’s article The Voice of Vrillon pointed me to something I just had to share.

At 5.10pm on Saturday 26th November 1977, a Southern News TV segment on Rhodesia was hacked live: its audio track (of newscaster Andrew Gardner) was overlaid by a 5-minute message from “Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command”. Once complete, the audio then phased back in time for the start of “Falling Hare with Bugs Bunny”, a Merrie Melodies cartoon.

Nobody has since admitted to being ‘Vrillon': which is perhaps a bit of a shame, because he/she did a pretty good job of overriding the FM signal (probably, as was pointed out at the time, in the immediate vicinity of the Huntingdon transmitter).

Hewitt also mentions a second pair of TV hacks that took place in Chicago a decade later (in 1987), the second (much longer one) interrupting an episode of Doctor Who. So if you don’t want to see someone in a “Max Headroom” mask singing badly and then having his mooning arse lightly spanked by someone in a French maid’s outfit with a flyswatter, please look away now:

Again, nobody knows who carried this out, but the incident has its own boring Wikipedia page. No flies were harmed in the making of this hack. Which is nice.

Captain William Kidd’s “Adventure Galley” found off Madagascar?

The treasure-hunting newsosphere is currently awash (sorry) with reports of Barry Clifford’s discovery of a 50lb 55kg silver bar near Sainte Marie, that he claims was from Captain William Kidd’s ship “Adventure Galley”.


On the premise that there is surely no parade a well-prepared historical mystery blogger cannot rain upon, I have to say that this strikes me as stupendously unlikely: or if correct, then only accidentally so, and against all good research and common sense. ūüėČ

Chapter 8 of Cabell, Thomas and Richards’ (2010) Captain Kidd: The Hunt for the Truth (¬£0.01 + postage for a used copy of the hardback) covers Kidd’s time on Sainte Marie in pretty good detail. There we find out that Kidd claimed that both the Adventure Galley (Kidd’s original ship) and the Adventure Prize (the Quedagh Merchant) were stripped bare by deserters over “the space of four or five days”: they…

“…carried away great guns [cannons], powder, shot [cannonballs and smallbore balls for hand weapons], small arms [muskets and swords], sails, anchors, cables, surgeons’ chests [including medicinal alcohol and medicines], and what else they pleased.”

Alternatively, Joseph Palmer claimed that Kidd had “ordered the goods to be hoisted out” (Kidd denied this): while the ship’s surgeon Robert Bradinham asserted that the “Captain divided out the shares” (which he also denied). Your view of what happened there depends on whether you believe Kidd or the others: and in fact I’d suggest there’s a pretty good chance all of the above were lying about one thing or another.

However, what nobody seems to be in any doubt about was that the Adventure Galley had been in great difficulty for a long time: specifically, it had been leaking in a distinctly sieve-like manner and so had had to be continually pumped out. But that pumping stopped once it reached Sainte Marie (because almost all its crew deserted or left, yet again depending on whom you believe), leaving the ship’s days numbered.

And in a final act of salvage, the Adventure Galley “was pushed up on the beach and burned so that the iron fittings could be recovered” (William Jenkins, CSPCS America and West Indies, vol.17 s. XI), which was pretty standard practice back then. If correct, then there would be basically nothing of the ship there to be found.

Of course, it’s possible that the historical evidence is utterly and completely wrong. But for a silver bar owned by Captain Kidd to have been found in the waters there, it would surely have had to have been dropped there by the sinking of a ship that was entirely different from the Adventure Galley, and hence a ship that was entirely unconnected to William Kidd. (Kidd sailed onwards from Sainte Marie in the Quedagh Merchant / Adventure Prize, so that too can’t be the source of the shipwreck that Barry Clifford seems to have found).

It’s a great underwater find, sure, but is it from the Adventure Galley? It would be nice if it were, but to my eyes it seems highly likely that it was not. Sorry ’bout that. :-(

Vinland Map update…

The debate concerning the authenticity of Beinecke MS 350A – AKA the Vinland Map – has raged for over half a century. Is it for real or is it early modern Maybelline?

Vinland Map Ink

Despite the numerous technical analyses that have been carried out on the Vinland Map, almost the only fact everyone agrees on is the physical age of its paper: it has been carbon dated to the first half of the 15th century, which is nicely consistent with its Briquet Tete de Boeuf (15056) watermark.

That’s the support medium – but what about the rest? The major thing pointing towards inauthenticity elsewhere is (courtesy of Walter McCrone) the analytical demonstration that the ink used in the Vinland Map is not a conventional iron gall ink, but appears to contain a particular form of anatase (titanium oxide) that was first chemically synthesized only in the 1920s. And so, McCrone’s base argument from 1974 runs, it doesn’t matter how old the paper itself is, because the ink on top of it simply cannot be genuinely fifteenth century.

Even so, people continue to try to defend the Vinland Map’s authenticity, by suggesting ingenious mechanisms by which the anatase might have been deposited in the 20th Century: Jim Enterline, for example, plausibly proposed in 2002 that anatase might somehow have been added to a genuinely old map as part of an attempt to clean it.

But when McCrone looked again at the map in 1991, he extended his claim somewhat further into the construction details. Specifically, he claimed that the lines that made up the map were – to make them more closely resemble old iron gall ink, but without actually being old iron gall ink – drawn in two distinct passes:
(1) a first yellow ink pass using a slightly wider nib
(2) a second dark ink pass in a narrower nib, immediately on top of (and steered down the middle of) the lines put down in the first pass.
If this is correct, the Vinland Map is not just a mere fake: rather, it is a painstakingly-executed two-pass modern simulacrum of an old manuscript.

The ‘smokingest’ smoking gun in all of this would seem to have been discovered by Kenneth M. Towe: when he examined the Vinland Map at the Beinecke, he noticed that the two lines diverged significantly in the English west coast.


Now, I’ve personally never seen a colour close-up of this specific section to test out Towe’s argument with my own eyes, but I’d really like to. Has anyone got a copy of this?


Even so, the twin issues of who it was that constructed such a thing and for what reason both remain resolutely unresolved. Kirsten Seaver’s 2004 book “Maps, Myths, and Men” tried to pin the tail on a peculiarly unsatifying Jesuit cartomanic donkey, Father Josef Fischer. However, her account failed to convince me that Fischer would have wanted to create a fake Vinland Map of the kind we see for any reason, let alone for the reasons that Seaver speculatively proposes.

So even if the Vinland Map does prove to be a fake (and the presence of modern anatase and the apparent two-pass drawing when taken together do make it seem so), we still have no idea by whom it was made, or where, or indeed when (other than post-1920 or so).

Seaver is convinced she has got the right man; but her argument only really presents a possible candidate, and doesn’t go as far as actually explaining much of what we see or what happened. Perhaps she will uncover something more substantial soon, at which point we’ll all have to revise our views: we shall see.

A Surprise Entrant

In 2013, the modern history of the Vinland Map took an unexpected turn when an amateur Scottish historian called John Paul Floyd announced (courtesy of the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times and doubtless elsewhere) that he had uncovered – thanks to Google searches – an entirely new angle on it.

Floyd believes that the document the Vinland Map appears to have been bound with – The Tartar Relation – was put on display in Madrid in 1892 at an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ Atlantic crossing. And at that time there was no map bound with it (because the page count listed at the time would be wrong). He also found a reference to the same manuscript from 1926 when it was examined by Crist√≥bal P√©rez Pastor (also no mention of a map at all).

Manuscripts for the 1892 exhibition were loaned from the collection of the Cathedral Church of Zaragoza, the contents of which were ransacked in the early 1950s and fenced through crooked book dealers such as Enzo Ferrajoli (who was convicted for this).

And Enzo Ferrajoli was the same rare book dealer who ultimately first sold the Vinland Map in 1957. Ouch!

It’s a pretty compelling chain or reasoning, because for once it offers actual evidence of absence :-) rather than speculatory absence of evidence. Of course, it doesn’t yet answer the question of who faked the map or why: but perhaps Floyd (who has been hard at work grinding out his book ever since) has found some additional evidence there too. We shall see, hopefully this year.

Nicely, I found a post on soc.history.medieval by David B that foregrounds Floyd’s evidence:-

The 1892-3 Madrid Exhibition Catalogue

“Catalogo General” of the 1892-3 Exposici√≥n Historico-Europea.
Room X:
“53. – Vincentius bellvacensis. Speculum naturale, doctrinale, morale, historiale.
El presente volumen contiene, de esta célebre enciclopedia de Vicente de Beauvais, solamente los libros 21 á 24 de la tercera parte del Speculum historiale.
Al fin se ha a√Īadido un tratadito intitulado Historia Tartarorum dedicado por el autor Fr. C. de Bridia, al R.P. Fr. Bogardio, ministro de los franciscanos en Boemia y Polonia.
Manuscrito, √° dos columnas, letra del siglo xv, las cubiertas de cada cuaderno en vitela y lo dem√°s en papel, los epigrafes en tinta roja, el lugar de las iniciales en blanco. Consta de 251 hojas.
La Historia Tartarorum, acaba de esta manera: actum ab incarnatione domini MCCXLVII, tertio kalendas augusti.
Folio, encuadernado en tabla forrada de cuero labrado.”

About which David B comments:

Note that the above gives the number of leaves as 251, which would be almost the same as the total number of leaves with writing on in the two now-separated texts at Yale. It’s one leaf too few if you include the Vinland Map in the current count, but one leaf too many if you exclude the Map, suggesting that the now-missing first written leaf of book 21 of the “Speculum” may have been present in 1892.

Cristóbal Pérez Pastor

“Noticias y Documentos relativos a la Historia y Literatura Espanolas recogidos por D. C. Perez Pastor”:

“Speculum historiae (segunda y tercera parte). Historia tartarum.
Manuscrito, letra del siglo xv, a dos columnas, los epigrafes en tinta roja; cada cuaderno tiene la primera y √ļltima hojas en pergamino y las deniz en papel.
Al final lleva la fecha: “Actum ab incarnatione Domim M.CC.XL.VII. tertio Kalendas Augusti”; folio, encuadernado en tabla forrada de piel, con adornos de la √©poca.
Del Speculum hist contiene los libros xxj a xxiv, que dan remate a la parte tercera de la obra.
El Codice comienza con el imperio de Teodosio el joven, y acaba en el segundo reinado de la Emperatriz Irene.
Sigue la Historia de los Tartaros, escrita por Fray C. de Bridia, fransiscano, y va dirigida a Fray Bogixdao, ministro de los franciscanos en Bohemia y Polonia, y se termina con la fecha del 30 de Julio de 1247.”

Tim Mervyn’s K:D:P Voynich theory

Anyone with a reasonably capacious memory for Voynich trivia will probably recall Tim Mervyn’s name. He has appeared in various Voynich TV documentaries, and has been grinding away on his ‘K:D:P’ (Kelley:Dee:Pucci) theory for many years (this was briefly summarized in Kennedy & Churchill’s book).

He has now resurfaced with six reasonably substantial essays (though not yet fully published yet, I think) giving his version of his three protagonists’ stories, as well as how he believes that these separate strands came together to yield the twisted and tangled shape of the Voynich Manuscript. In short, he thinks that it was Kelley:Dee:Pucci who created it, but that rather than being a hoax (e.g. via Gordon Rugg’s CompSci-inspired Cardan grilles), it’s actually a real cipher (albeit a rather complicated one).

I have to say that one hugely annoying thing about the way he presents his arguments is that he spends a whole lot of time specifically rubbishing Rene Zandbergen, for reasons that are neither accurate nor fair. Mervyn seems to believe (a) that Rene is hugely dogmatic about a 15th century dating (he really isn’t), and (b) that the only evidence Rene could possibly rely on to support such a dogmatic dating is the radiocarbon dating (it isn’t).

In fact, Mervyn’s arguments against a 15th century origin for the Voynich Manuscript are particularly superficial (he comes across as thinking that everything after D’Imperio is essentially nonsense), while his external arguments (e.g. against people proposing such obviously-crazy non-16th-century dating) are of the “well-they-would-say-that-wouldn’t-they” variety. This unfortunately weakens and cheapens what he’s trying to do, whereas I think he’s got quite an interesting story to tell, one which will take me a fair while to properly deal with here. For what it’s worth, I think he should have put more effort into bullet-proofing his own arguments rather than airily dismissing everyone else’s.

Still, I’m really excited about what Mervyn is doing, though for a reason he might not have expected. Without going all TL;DR on you, I have long argued that almost all John Dee literature tends to fall into exactly one of only two very precisely defined camps:

* “John Dee the magus, astrologer, angel summoner and esoteric magician”
* “Dr John Dee, the independent scholar and wannabe Elizabethan courtier”

Yet for me, though, there’s a third side of Dee that has almost no literature at all:

* John Dee, the would-be Court cryptographer

For example, many sections of Dee & Kelley’s angel séance texts boil down, in my opinion, to nothing more complex than accounts of experimental cryptography, a reading which fits both main camps extremely badly. And yet nobody has stepped forward to write about this at all, which I think is a large lacuna in the literature landscape.

So to my eyes, then, even if Mervyn’s six essays fail to give a satisfying account of the Voynich Manuscript (which I have to say from my first read-through looks broadly to be the case, though there is much of specific 16th century interest there all the same), they may well prove to be the first modern examples of the cryptographic Dee literature I’ve been waiting for for such a terribly long time.

…or are there more Dee-as-cryptographer books out there? My old friend and virtual sparring partner Glen Claston was himself very much taken with Dee’s cryptography, but never published anything (to my knowledge): so please let me know via the comments sections here if you know of any papers, articles or even book sections that cover this. Thanks!

Rohonc Codex update

I haven’t really put as much time into the Rohonc Codex as I would like: but in my defence, this has been because the available scans are fairly miserable. For example, here’s the scan of the drawing on the page marked ’83′:-


However, a recent post from the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (‘CSMC’) at the University of Hamburg offers us a glimpse of what might be possible with better quality Rohonc scans. (This whole story was broken by Klaus Schmeh’s Krypto Kolumne a few days ago, well done Klaus!)


With this scan, you can clearly make out that this drawing is depicting some kind of curious clockwork device, though – as cipher mysteries connoisseurs would perhaps expect – it’s still as clear as mud what is going on with it.

If only the rest of the Rohonc Codex could be scanned in broadly the same quality, and a proper codicological description of its construction put together! Then we could all really go to town on it, not just Benedek Lang. :-)

“War of the Birds” (2005)…

Here’s a lovely 50-minute film from 2005 for you about WWII pigeons (both English and German) called War of the Birds, made by Richard Cane for Atlantic Productions Ltd for Animal Planet. [IMDB page]

Though I knew about this ages ago, the link I had been given was to a compressed video that somehow managed to crash my various web browsers: but this new one works perfectly OK for me, so I’m happy to pass it on now. :-)

As (almost) always with TV documentaries, it gets a fair few small details wrong (the pigeon message pad shown wasn’t a 418B, etc), but it gets enough big things right that this doesn’t really matter. The film even has Freddy Dyke (author of “Memoirs of a Wartime Teenager”, which I still haven’t been able to get a copy of) as one of its talking heads, complete with a properly resplendent moustache.

Recommended! :-)

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