Voynich Manuscript – the state of play…

For decades, Voynich Manuscript research has languished in an all-too-familiar ocean of maybes, all of them swelling and fading with the tides of fashion. But now, thanks to the cooperation between the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the documentary makers at Austrian pro omnia films gmbh, we have for the very first time a basic forensic framework for what the Voynich Manuscript actually is, vis-à-vis:-

  • The four pieces of vellum they had tested (at the University of Arizona / Tucson) all dated to 1420-1, or (to be precise) 1404-1438 with 95% confidence (“two sigma”).
  • The ink samples that were tested (by McCrone Associates, Inc.) were consistent with having been written onto fresh vellum (rather than being later additions), with the exception of the “cipher key” attempt on f1r which (consistent with its 16th century palaeography) came out as a 16th-17th century addition.
  • It seems highly likely, therefore, that the Voynich Manuscript is a genuine object (as opposed to some unspecified kind of hoax, fake or sham on old vellum).

f1r abcde Voynich Manuscript   the state of play...
The f1r cipher “key” now proven to have been added in the 16th/17th century 

The programme-makers conclude (from the ‘Ghibelline’ swallow-tail merlons on the nine-rosette page’s “castle”, which you can see clearly in the green Cipher Mysteries banner above!) that the VMs probably came from Northern Italy… but as you know, it’s art history proofs’ pliability that makes Voynich Theories so deliciously gelatinous, let’s say.

Anyway… with all this in mind, what is the real state of play for Voynich research as of now?

Firstly, striking through most of the list of Voynich theories, it seems that we can bid a fond farewell to:

  • Dee & Kelley as hoaxers (yes, Dee might have owned it… but he didn’t make it)
  • Both Roger Bacon (far too early) and Francis Bacon (far too late)
  • Knights Templars (far too early) and Rosicrucians (far too late)
  • Post-Columbus dating, such as Leonell Strong’s Anthony Askham theory (sorry, GC)

It also seems that my own favoured candidate Antonio Averlino (“Filarete”) is out of the running (at least, in his misadventures in Sforza Milan 1450-1465), though admittedly by only a whisker (radiocarbon-wise, that is).

In the short term, the interesting part will be examining how this dating stacks up with other classes of evidence, such as palaeography, codicology, art history, and cryptography:-

  • My identification of the nine-rosette castle as the Castello Sforzesco is now a bit suspect, because prior to 1451 it didn’t have swallowtail merlons (though it should be said that it’s not yet known whether the nine-rosette page itself was dated).
  • The geometric patterns on the VMs’ zodiac “barrels” seem consistent with early Islamic-inspired maiolica – but are there any known examples from before 1450?
  • The “feet” on some of the pharmacological “jars” seem more likely to be from the end of the 15th century than from its start – so what is going on there?
  • The dot pattern on the (apparent) glassware in the pharma section seems to be a post-1450 Murano design motif – so what is going on there?
  • The shared “4o” token that also appears in the Urbino and Sforza Milan cipher ledgers – might Voynichese have somehow been (closer to) the source for these, rather than a development out of them?
  • When did the “humanist hand” first appear, and what is the relationship between that and the VMs’ script?
  • Why have all the “nymph” clothing & hairstyle comparisons pointed to the end of the fifteenth century rather than to the beginning?

Longer-term, I have every confidence that the majority of long-standing Voynich researchers will treat this as a statistical glitch against their own pet theory, i.e. yet another non-fitting piece of evidence to explain away – for example, it’s true that dating is never 100% certain. But if so, more fool them: hopefully, this will instead give properly open-minded researchers the opportunity to enter the field and write some crackingly good papers. There is still much to be learnt about the VMs, I’m sure.

As for me, I’m going to be carefully revisiting the art history evidence that gave me such confidence in a 1450-1470 dating, to try to understand why it is that the art history and the radiocarbon dating disagree. History is a strange thing: even though thirty years isn’t much in the big scheme of things, fashions and ideas change with each year, which is what gives both art history and intellectual history their traction on time. So why didn’t that work here?

Anyway, my heartiest congratulations go out to Andreas Sulzer and his team for taking the time and effort to get the science and history right for their “DAS VOYNICH-RÄTSEL” documentary, which I very much look forward to seeing on the Austrian channel ORF2 on Monday 10th December 2009!

UPDATE: see the follow-up post “Was Vellum Stored Flat, Folded, or Cut?” for more discussion on what the dating means for Voynich research going forward…

31 Comments

  1. avatar Rich SantaColoma December 4, 2009 1:54 pm

    Hi Nick: Well said. I will follow all the developments with great interest… but with my feet up, and a fresh cup of coffee. I’m sure you and Elmar will keep us up to date… All the best, Rich.

    http://proto57.wordpress.com

  2. avatar nickpelling December 4, 2009 1:58 pm

    I envy you! Secretly, I secretly hoped that this weight might be taken off my shoulders… but it was not to be! =:-o

    Enjoy your coffee!

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  3. avatar Elmar December 4, 2009 3:17 pm

    Why have all the “nymph” clothing & hairstyle comparisons pointed to the end of the fifteenth century rather than to the beginning?

    Have they? The Crossbow analysis by Jens Sensfelder has pointed to the early 14th century, making it a kind of antique in an early 15th-century manuscript. The archer’s outfit could be documented to 1434, ie dead on for the carbon dating.

    The “hat” (let’s call it that) of several of the nymphs can be found in Rogier van der Weyden’s paintings from around 1450, so not that far off, and it depicts a (roughly) fitting ointment jar to boot!

    So, I’d say at least here art history and carbond dating are fairly in agreement.

    (Of course all this is only a blatant plug to poach some of your traffic for my site. ;-)

    http://voynichthoughts.wordpress.com

  4. avatar nickpelling December 4, 2009 3:23 pm

    The zodiac medallions have always seemed much earlier than everything else, so the general view has been that these were perhaps copied from a German woodblock calendar… perhaps we’ll now have to reconsider this, though.

    Yes, a few of the hats do look early-Quattrocento-esque: the logical problem is that the majority have been tentatively dated to the end of the Quattrocento. So, it’s the later art history dating that is at odds with the carbon dating… I’m not sure the agreement is anywhere near as clear-cut as you make it sound. Plenty of work to be done! :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  5. avatar Dennis December 4, 2009 4:59 pm

    Hello Nick! Well done! Questions:

    1) I’m surprised at this level of precision for C-14 dating for this historic period. ISTR from past discussions that the decay curve is rather flat at that point. Did they clarify that? “2-sigma” in C-14 concentration or time?

    2) “Applied onto fresh vellum” – just how fresh? On the list people have pointed out how monasteries at that time had stocks of vellum on hand.

    As for everything else, you’re the real master of historical research. From previous discussions on the list and with Barbara
    Barrett and Maurizio Gavioli, I’m not sure there was a “humanist hand.” It sounds like we need to reframe that – and once again, have a genuine expert in Latin paleography examine the VMs!

    More power to you and Elmar! And thanks to both of you for help on my project.

    Cheers,
    Dennis

  6. avatar nickpelling December 4, 2009 5:07 pm

    If you want a nice predictable date range, the first half of the 15th century is it. As I posted in a comment to Elmar’s blog a few days ago, which was to do with dating the Vinland Map (and which does, just as I noted then, now seem spookily familiar)…

    “The scientists traveled to Yale, where they were allowed to trim a 3-inch-long sliver off the bottom edge of the parchment for analysis. Using the National Science Foundation-University of Arizona’s Accelerator Mass Spectrometer, the scientists determined a precision date of 1434 A.D. plus or minus 11 years. The unusually high precision of the date was possible because the parchment’s date fell in a very favorable region of the carbon-14 dating calibration curve.”

    This was from this page: http://www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/pubaf/pr/2002/bnlpr072902a.htm

    The McCrone Associates people were in no doubt from their microscopic study (it’s what they do) that the ink was applied to the fresh vellum, not some years later.

    The “humanist hand” definitely existed, but you have to be extremely careful – just as Maurizio and Barbara have always said – about getting confused between 12th century hands and 15th century (revivalist) hands. The book on this hasn’t yet been closed…

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  7. avatar Philip Neal December 4, 2009 8:42 pm

    My own favourite candidate, Trithemius, born 1462, now seems to be out of the frame, though not by as long as all that. I am in hopes that a trawl through his work may yield some pointers to similar figures a generation previously.

    All in all though, everyone who argued that the MS was old can feel vindicated. Perhaps there will be a new influx of Voynich researchers now that the matter has been settled.

    http://voynichcentral.com/users/philipneal/index.html

  8. avatar rene zandbergen December 4, 2009 10:19 pm

    There appears to be a small misunderstanding. The meaning of
    ‘applied to the fresh vellum’ just means that the vellum was not being
    re-used (i.e. the MS is not a palimpsest). There was no statement in
    the press conference (originating from McCrone analyses) about the
    time when any of the inks or pigments were applied to the
    parchment. That also holds true for the ‘cipher alphabet’ on f1r.

  9. avatar Julian Bunn December 4, 2009 11:09 pm

    This is delightful news: that it is indeed not a fake. How many people will now need to eat their hats, I wonder?

    Two sigma being 34 years suggests to me that you should not worry about the plausibility of Averlino.

    http://pcbunn.cacr.caltech.edu/jjb.html

  10. avatar Rich SantaColoma December 5, 2009 4:13 am

    There appears to be a small misunderstanding. The meaning of
    ‘applied to the fresh vellum’ just means that the vellum was not being
    re-used (i.e. the MS is not a palimpsest). There was no statement in
    the press conference (originating from McCrone analyses) about the
    time when any of the inks or pigments were applied to the
    parchment. That also holds true for the ‘cipher alphabet’ on f1r.

    Rene, thank you for clarifying that. I confess I thought it meant that they had a way to tell if the inks were applied to new vellum, or old (I assumed some difference in the way it was absorbed, or like that…)… and I have seen this interpretation somewhere else in the last two days (seems like weeks now). This then leaves open the possibility that the vellum was blank for some time, and used at some later date?

    …don’t mistake my asking, this does not apply to my theory. But I think it does leave open the possible use at least some decades after prepared, as I am not so sure that this would be all that unexpected. I mean, at least, the upper age of the previous range, of 1460, at least? Do you think it allows this possibility? What is the latest you know (if any cases are known) that vellum sat before being used? It is going to be a hot topic… already is. Rich.

    http://proto57.wordpress.com

  11. avatar Michelle December 5, 2009 9:48 am

    Hope I don’t bore anyone, but did they look for threads in the holes on foglio 116v, where the tear had been sewn -up? would be ineresting to date any remnents of thread and see what they were made of.

  12. avatar nickpelling December 5, 2009 10:00 am

    Before posting about this, I emailed Andreas Sulzer, who kindly replied that:-

    The ink analyses brought the same results. All inks and colors are original and fit into this time. Everything is genuine. On the first side is a removed decipher key (under UV) / try, that has a different ink composition (16th to 17th century)

    That is, McCrone Associates’ analysis of the ink composition produced results consistent with the dating but not necessarily simultaneous with it, so it is entirely possible that this could have been added later in the Quattrocento, but probably not in subsequent centuries… except by a determinedly reconstructionist faker? In which case, naysayers (and I hear that they’re saying nay already) would argue that we have learned nothing.

    Actually… I would say that the more demonstrably sophisticated a hoaxer would have needed to be in order to have manufactured the VMs, the more unlikely that whole scenario becomes. But because the possibility remains “alive”, doubtless some equally sophisticated theorists will continue to cling to it, regardless of anything else. Personally, I’m hugely uninterested in such baldly Baudrillardian claims of hyperreality (i.e. that the VMs is a simulacrum). Doubtless Jacques Guy would be throwing his mouse at the screen at the mere mention of such merde, but there you go. :-)

    Also, I’m pretty sure we’ve known for decades that the VMs isn’t a palimpsest (I recall Jim Reeds noting that people had looked at the VMs under a microscope in the 1970s?), so that perhaps isn’t particularly the big news it might be. Certainly, the VMs’ bright, clean pages give absolutely no impression to anyone examining them of any erased primary layer, apart from various curious marginal features (such as the top right of f1r), which tell a quite different story.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  13. avatar Rich SantaColoma December 7, 2009 3:22 am

    Hi Nick: I read over your post again, and remember something I wanted to clarify. You say:

    The ink samples that were tested… …were consistent with having been written onto fresh vellum… …with the exception of the “cipher key” attempt on f1r which (consistent with its 16th century palaeography) came out as a 16th-17th century addition.

    In this, do you mean 1) that the f1r “cipher key” letters had their inks tested also McCrone, and those tests show they were 16th-17th century?

    or:

    2) That by the type and style of the “cipher key” letters, one can assume they are later additions to the VMs, as we now know the dating of the vellum? And if the latter, is McCrone stating this, or is it your opinion?

    Thanks, Rich.

    http://proto57.wordpress.com

  14. avatar nickpelling December 7, 2009 7:56 am

    Hi Rich,

    The answer is “both”: McCrone Associates analysed the composition of the “cipher key” ink, and found that it was 16th-17th century. But this isn’t much of a surprise as the palaeography shouts out 16th century too. :-)

    Cheers, …Nick…

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  15. avatar rene zandbergen December 7, 2009 10:26 am

    Just a few minor comments…

    on #8 friom Julian Bunn: although the distribution isn’t really Gaussian,
    the 34-year range would be the equivalent of minus two sigma to
    plus two sigma. One standard deviation would be 8.5 years (if it were Gaussian).

    On the McCrone analysis of the cipher key on f1r, I wonder if the words of
    Andreas should definitely be understood to mean that McCrone gave a date
    for this. I would suggest to leave a bit of leeway in the interpretations until
    the film is out. BY the way, I agree that these scriblles are most likely
    16th or 17th C.

  16. avatar Julian Bunn December 8, 2009 2:31 am

    To Rene: yes, quite so. The date is between 1404 and 1438 with 95% confidence, implying the sigma is 8.5 years, since the interval is +/- 2 sigma for that level. I should have been more precise in my comment, which was meant to convey that this is not a very strong level of confidence … 5 sigma would be better :-)

  17. avatar Barbara Barrett December 9, 2009 1:57 pm

    I think one of the questions to ask is why was it that prior to the Ms being logged at Yale all the professional booksellers and apraisers placed the Ms in the 13thC at the latest and why after it was donated to Yale the consensus was late 15thC at the earliest?
    The notion that the professionals gave it an old date to make it more valuable does not fly because if proved wrong at best they’d have to refund the purchase money and at worst face prosecution for misrepresentation – deliberate: fraud or in error: professional negligence.
    Both groups we now know were wrong; the question is why.

    http://afcollective.ning.com/profile/BarbaraBarrett

  18. avatar Michelle December 10, 2009 3:24 pm

    Maybe Yale were hoping that it was done by Leonardo! Then it would have been worth a few quid!
    When I first encountered Claudio Foti’s Voynich page on Facebook, it was being said that Yale had no intention of doing the Carbon tests, so what made them change their minds?

  19. avatar Michelle December 10, 2009 3:47 pm

    Barbara,
    Take a look at this image, do you think it looks vaguely familiar?

    http://www.universitadelledonne.it/immagini/Trotula1%20(2).jpg

  20. avatar Rene Zandbergen December 11, 2009 8:30 am

    To Julian: I do note the smiley, but 5 sigma?
    That’s for safety of life issues, and in any case
    I would challenge anyone about being able to
    measure the shape of the probability curve in
    that area.
    95% seems good for ordinary, daily-life stuff ;-)

    To Barbara (16): it was really only Voynich who
    thought 13th century. The change came already
    soon after his death, e.g. Strong pointed
    to a much later date in the 1940s.

    To Michelle (17): the Beinecke are quite explicit
    about not being interested in the actual value
    but in finding out the truth. The curator said
    several times to the press, that they were not
    worried about the outcome of the tests, even
    if they were to show that it was a fake from
    Voynich (which was admittedly very unlikely),
    or a 16th century ‘fake’.

    W.r.t. allowing the dating, it was indeed a change
    of mind. What helped in our favour is that the
    amount of vellum that has to be destroyed
    for such tests has significantly reduced in the
    last years/decades.

  21. avatar nickpelling December 11, 2009 8:51 am

    For historical purposes, I’d say that:-
    * 1-sigma (68.27%) corresponds to “fairly probable” (handy, but not useful enough)
    * 2-sigma (95.45%) corresponds to “very probable” (useful, but not quite locked down), and
    * 3-sigma (99.73%) corresponds to “highly probable” (fairly locked down, but still no smoking gun).
    That is, the debate is probably more between 2-sigma and 3-sigma than between anywhere else on the overall curve. Though (as Rene noted) C14 dating isn’t actually Gaussian per se, and environmental and storage factors can also serve to confound these figures.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  22. avatar Rene Zandbergen December 11, 2009 12:47 pm

    The ratio of C-14 / C-12 is measured, and compared against the
    ‘present’ value, where ‘present’ is defined as 1950. Out comes a percentage,
    which, as the film shows, lies around 94% for the Voynich MS samples.
    This percentage has its own uncertainty, which one assumes has a Gaussian
    distribution and can be characterised by a single value (the sigma).
    This distribution (plotted at the Y-axis) is then combined with the
    calibration curve (which is itself not a curve but a two-dimensional
    probabilty distribution), and results in a potentially quite complicated
    age distribution along the X-axis. Again, as the film shows, for one of the
    four samples this curve consists of two distinct peaks.

    The biggest problem is contamination with modern material, which
    has a tendency to make the samples appear younger than they are.

  23. avatar Barbara Barrett December 12, 2009 12:12 am

    Dear Michelle,
    Familier no.
    What I can tell is the text is an early bastarda, the drawing style is Romanesque, and it superficially depects a female sitting on the edge of a wooden indoor bath.
    best guess: It’s late 11thC early12thC
    Was it supposed to remind me of something?

    http://www.darkwatercreativegroup.com/fort/barrett.htm

  24. avatar jan December 15, 2009 6:41 pm

    Somehow I missed in the documentary the comment that the “swallowtail-merlons-North-Italy theory” is really not a new discovery and was discussed in VM List some time ago at depth. Of course, I do not recall who came with it first, but we should put credit where it is due.

    Jan

  25. avatar Rene Zandbergen December 16, 2009 8:51 am

    Hello Jan,

    The film says (I think it was me :-) ) that this detail now takes on a new
    significance. It does not claim, of course, that it is a new discovery. To
    be honest, I don’t know who was the first to point it out
    (perhaps Voynich himself?), but I know that many people have found this
    independently.

    Rene

  26. avatar nickpelling December 16, 2009 9:12 am

    Interestingly, the castle is one of the few things that Mary D’Imperio apparently failed to pick up on: she only mentions it in passing on p.21 (section 3.3.6), where she describes it as having “a high, crenellated wall and a tall central tower”.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  27. avatar Jim Shilliday February 6, 2010 11:54 pm

    Perhaps I missed a link somewhere, but are the U of Az carbon-14 analysis and the McCrone report on the ink available online?

  28. avatar nickpelling February 7, 2010 9:40 am

    Hi Jim,

    Nope, you haven’t missed anything – we’re still waiting for these. Perhaps they’ll magically appear at the same time that the Smithsonian Channel broadcasts the (English version of the) Austrian documentary. :-)

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  29. avatar Edith Sherwood February 12, 2010 9:37 pm

    If you read the 14C dating of the Vinland Map by the U of Arizona’s (http://www.webexhibits.org/vinland/paper-donahue02.html) you will find that they calculate the SD of individual results from the scatter of separate runs from that average, or from the counting statistical error, which ever was larger. They report their Average fraction of modern F value together with a SD for each measurement:

    0.9588 +/- 0.014
    0.9507 +/- 0.0035
    0.9353 +/-0.006
    0.9412 +/- 0.006
    0.9310 +/- 0.008

    F (weighted average) = 0.9434 ± 0.0033. or a 2SD range of 0.9368 – 0.9500

    Radiocarbon age = 467 ± 27 BP.

    You will note that 4 of the 5 F values that were used to compute the mean, from which the final age of the parchment was calculated, lie outside this 2SD range!

    The U of A states: The error is a standard deviation deduced from the scatter of the five individual measurements from their mean value.

    According to an article in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiocarbon_dating
    Radiocarbon dating laboratories generally report an uncertainty for each date. Traditionally this included only the statistical counting uncertainty. However, some laboratories supplied an “error multiplier” that could be multiplied by the uncertainty to account for other sources of error in the measuring process.

    The U of A quotes this Wikipedia article on their web site.

    It appears that the U of Arizona used only the statistical counting error to computing the SD for the Vinland Map. They may have treated their measurements on the Voynich Manuscript the same way. As their SD represents only their counting error and not the overall error associated with the totality of the data, a realistic SD could be substantially larger.

    A SD for the Vinland map that is a reasonable fit to all their data is:

    F (weighted average) = 0.9434 +/- 0.011 ( the SD computed from the 5 F values).

    Or a radiocarbon age = 467 +/- 90 BP instead of 467 ± 27 BP.

    I appreciate that the U of A adjust their errors in processing the samples from their 13C/12C measurements, but this approach does not appear to be adequate. It would be nice if they had supplied their results with an “error multiplier”. They are performing a complex series of operations on minute samples that may be easily contaminated.

    I suggest that this modified interpretation of the U of A’s results for the Vinland Map be confirmed because a similar analysis for the Voynich Manuscript might yield a SD significantly larger than they quote. I would also suggest that your bloggers read the results obtained for 14C dating by the U of A for samples of parchment of known age from Florence. These results are given at the very end of their article, after the references. You and your bloggers should have something concrete to discuss.

    http://www.edithsherwood.com

  30. avatar nickpelling February 13, 2010 12:47 pm

    Dear Edith,

    Thank you for your comment, much appreciated! I’ve moved it to a whole new post of its own together with my initial reply – hopefully this will be a better place to debate the limits of radiocarbon dating, which I’m sure is bound to become a hot topic over the next few months.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  31. avatar Diane March 12, 2010 11:26 am

    Michelle

    re that bath picture. If you swan through the Google pictures, you’ll probably find heaps from the same period under the name “Melusine”, too – though there she’s usually half snake/fish.

    For all we know the Trotula may well be related, more or less, to some of the Voynich manuscript’s content. So might Roger Bacon be.

    After all we only have a terminus ad quem, not a terminus ante quo so. So now we have a date for the manufacture of the Voynich as a material object, but still no date for the matter transcribed, and still no clue about whether or not the script is a real one or a cypher.

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