Scientists have carbon-dated the Voynich manuscript, a puzzling and beautiful document covered in botanical and scientific drawings. Named for the Polish-American bookseller who acquired it in 1912, its undeciphered text and purported 15th-16th century origins have long been a matter of controversy. So just how old is it?
According to the University of Arizona, the sample was dated to between 1404 and 1438, making it older than previously thought; it predates the Gutenberg bible, printed in 1453.
The dating team, led by Greg Hodgins in the university's physics department, did not decipher the language, itself hand-written in elegant "alien characters" on many of the manuscript's pages.
They used an accelerator mass spectrometer
to detect traces of carbon-14, a rare radioisotope found in plants and animals. As the rate of decay is predicable after the plant or animal dies, the concentration of carbon-14 in a sample of organic material is an accurate indicator of age. Four samples, each measuring about 1 by 6mm, were taken from four different pages of the manuscript, according to the university, then cleaned and burned to leave only its carbon content for analysis.
Inks on the document were also found to be consistent with colors available during the Renaissance, but it is not easy to date them.
"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 in a press release. "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."
The book is currently owned by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. In 2004, one academic concluded that the text was meaningless gibberish
. His prime suspect, Elizabethan fraudster Edward Kelley, would appear to no longer be in the frame.
Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
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