The Antikythera Mechanism of Manuscripts

As I came away from the recent Voynich 100 Conference at the Villa Mondragone in Frascati, Italy, I found myself thinking of some old problems in new ways. Probably most useful to organizing my thoughts was my interview by Lisa Jackson and Bob Aschmann , the Sunday after the conference. Being asked some old and new questions, so soon after meeting and discussing everything Voynich under the sun, allowed me to organize my thoughts in some new and different ways. It was a sort of Voynich-therapy session.

One question was why the Voynich has not been solved. I mean, in extremely simple terms, one might say, “Because it is really, really, hard”. But the question is, what makes it different than other hard problems? Why have the usual tools of scholarship been unable to crack this one? Or, unable to define it at the very least, if one accepts that reading it is not the paramount problem? I mean, we don’t even know what it is. Well, there are those who will tell you they do know what it is, and what it is not, of course, usually adding the “unusual” disclaimer before the suggestion. But really, no one is satisfied, or this would be over. So why don’t we at least know what it is, with certainty?

In the interview, my answer to the question “why?”was, “because I believe the Voynich resides outside of existing scholarship”.

Unique: Like the Voynich?

Scholarship does not experiment, it does not imagine. It only compares, contrasts, and catalogs. In almost all cases, this works, because almost all of the world, and all of the knowledge within it, exists somewhere in known scholarship. But perhaps, not in the case of the Voynich- and this would then explain the loss of scholarship to explain it. “What the Voynich really is” is not in there, and so, scholarship cannot solve it. It certainly has not, and perhaps will not, ever.

I’ve often wondered why mainstream scholars have rejected various concepts I have proposed, and rejected some seemingly (to me) reasonable, common sense proposals of others. I could not understand why optics and fantasy were lumped in with aliens and crop circles. And then, at the same time, those same scholars have accepted some other, seemingly (to me) bizarre concepts… which I will not relate, here. But I could not equate the two seemingly disparate judgments. Now, I think I have a clue as to why. I think my inability to understand this effect, this “disconnect” as I see it, was in my looking at all the ideas suggested for the Voynich, all the theories, on a sliding, empirical scale of “normal” to “bizarre”, while at the same time, failing to see one important, divisive, distinction: Ideas accepted by scholars and scholarship, no matter how outrageous, are assembled from examples from existing scholarship; rejected ideas always exist outside of accepted scholarship. And “outside of scholarship” to a dedicated scholar, simply means it cannot be. Without a category or existing example to compare it to, scholarship believes an idea to be impossible.

Well, I can compare to various concepts within scholarship, but not to existing examples, and certainly as a whole, my ideas do not fit in any existing category. I suspect optics, for instance, and it is rightly pointed out there is no other 1610-1620 optical manuscript, or even a place for one. I see old vellum use, post C14, and I’m told the scholarship does not allow it, as such a situation is rare, or unknown. There is not yet a category for works on old vellum, and when examples are found, scholarship tends to digest them as errors, or unimportant anomalies. “Purple Cows”, so to speak. And when I see a manuscript created as an artifact of scientific, utopian, fiction, as a sort of “living Book M”… it is correctly pointed out I can’t find another actual work to compare it to. Again, there is no category for such a document, as no such work is known to exist; they are only described in fiction. And when I show other works which were created to look like older texts, such as the Chittenden manuscript, it is pointed out, accurately, that they exist in their own category, which my specific case does not fit. And of course, scholarship will not create a category for what I suspect the Voynich is, “An Artifact Born of Scientific Utopian Literature”, until it is proven. I understand that. And therefore it is a vicious circle, a “Catch 22”, for my theories and proposals.

I made a PowerPoint slide for the very end of my Voynich 100 presentation, which I erased the morning of the Conference. I have since been sorry I removed it. At the time I wanted to limit my presentation to three basic concepts. The erased slide was presenting a fourth, although a simple one, and entitled, “The Antikythera Mechanism of Manuscripts?” The Antikythera Mechanism is a Greek device, a highly complex, geared mechanical astronomical computer, now dated to the first century BCE. Before it was found, it was not known that the Greeks, or any culture for that matter, would be remotely capable of building such a thing in its time… and actually, incapable for at least another 1800 years. The entire scholarship of the Greeks, of science and proto-science, and of astronomy, and gear mechanics, did not have a category for such a device. When found, it existed outside of known scholarship.

It has occurred to me, that if the Antikythera Mechanism were dropped into the lap of existing scholarship like a hot potato, without the shipwreck it was found on, scholarship would have failed to properly identify it. We would have been told that it was probably a highly advanced 19th century device. This, because there was no category, when found, for a first century BCE, complex, geared mechanical astronomical computer. In fact, scholarship created that category only grudgingly, as many at the time of its discovery believed the device must have fallen on the BCE wreck much later. And I will point out that the Antikythera mechanism is the only device in the very category made for it. It is stunningly, brazenly, truly: one of a kind.

Unique: Like the Antikythera Mechanism?

It may be pointed out that the shipwreck, on which the Antikythera Mechanism was found, does in fact date the device. And this means that existing scholarship, in the form of marine archeology, has worked in that respect. And further, it might be suggested that there is an analogy between the shipwreck and the Voynich C14 dating… and claim, again, that scholarship, with the acceptance and knowledge of carbon dating and dendrochronology, has worked in our case. But I might counter that both the errors I, and others, have found in the assumptions of “use of old vellum practices”, do easily allow that that the Voynich could have been made on old vellum, that the current provenance and ink tests on the Voynich do not disallow this, and lastly, that to ignore the striking resemblance of many Voynich cylinders to early microscopes, is, in effect, ignoring the scholarship of early microscopes, and failing to use it as a comparison.

And ‘round and ‘round we go, again. I can find, within existing scholarship, exceptions to the arguments against my theory. But without a category to place the Voynich in, as I envision it, or actual examples of what I propose it is, those exceptions will not be allowed by scholarship.

So what is there to do, as I pursue this? Of course I will continue to use known scholarship for research. Although I feel it has not managed to give an answer, nor accepted mine, so far, I do hope that I may find some other such artifact as I suspect the Voynich to be, mis-categorized, or not as yet categorized. Perhaps there is some book, object, or device, or description of same, which also sprang from the same influences I suspect influenced the creation of the Voynich. And if so, maybe it will turn out it is not alone in its own box, as the Antikythera Mechanism certainly is. But meanwhile, while looking for that example, or waiting and hoping for a translation which puts the question to rest, I will look at the Voynich in the category I have created for it. Perhaps my new category will never be accepted, and no other examples ever be found, and perhaps the Voynich will never be proven to be what I suspect it is. And it may very well not be that thing, of course. But I still am not satisfied with anything on the list of proposals that existing scholarship will accept, or has proposed, so I must continue to look elsewhere.

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10 Responses to “The Antikythera Mechanism of Manuscripts”

  1. nickpelling Says:

    Hi Rich,

    Actually, there are plenty of well-worn academic pigeonholes into which the Voynich could very easily be slid: books of secrets (big in the 15th century), books on thermal baths (big in the 15th century), alchemical herbals (also big in the 15th century), and so forth. The 2009 radiocarbon dating (for all my doubts about its precision) isn’t wildly inconsistent with any of those.

    And yet… here we are. The show goes on. Enjoy the ride! 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick….

    • proto57 Says:

      Hi Nick: Of course it is a matter of opinion whether or not it is a good fit to the pigeonholes you mention: I do not feel it fits all that well in any of them, as it is just too different, in too many ways. Not that it matters, but in that I am not alone. It certainly has similarities to existing examples, as it does to many categories, styles, cultures, disciplines… but is off by more than enough to be unsatisfactory to me, and others. Of course it does not satisfy… because we have not stopped looking for the “right” hole to put it. In fact, you and I are similar in that we both have a category which falls outside the normal definitions, I think… although we have differing opinions on what it is, neither of our concepts have a pigeonhole ready made. No? Rich.

      • nickpelling Says:

        Hi Rich,

        I guess I see the Voynich more as overlapping a broad set of those academic pigeonholes than as needing its own specially-constructed one.

        Yes, it has many unique features; but I really don’t believe that we will ultimately need to construct any kind of radically alternative history to account for it.

        Cheers, ….Nick….

  2. proto57 Says:

    Hi Nick: Yes that would be a good way to make the distinction between our thoughts on this. Thanks for the comments… Rich.

  3. Diane Says:

    Rich, I think you do yourself an injustice. Scholarship doesn’t require a higher degree, but usually one does need those years of training as a kind of apprenticeship, in humanities as in sciences. You have worked hard, and done a lot of reading and study: that is scholarship. But if you mean formal academic work, then I think there’s another element to it. I mean, one of the things we are very early trained to do is *not* to begin with opinions. It’s often difficult, especially in the first year, after constantly being taught in high school to develop “your own ideas”. But the opposite is true for formal scholarship. First you have to spend years studying the subject, and read everything you can about the times, and culture, and about more difficult things, such as peoples’ mind-sets – what *they* were likely to practice or think. That’s the really hard work. But eventually, you come to know it so well that an idea which doesn’t work is a bit like a loose ball-bearing in your car. The driver can hear the rattle; the mechanic can work out what it is and knows whether or not it fits. But other people wonder why you are bothered by it.
    Two other things really matter: first that a new thought or discovery is cross-examined and criticised by oneself before ever offering it publicly, because flaws exist in all our ideas, and if we don’t at least try to recognise them, and discard poor ones, then someone else surely will. The other thing is that it is considered more-or-less bad manners (in academic circles) to have no aim but to get other people to believe and follow your ideas. The main aim should be to offer some point, or some line of your research, which others can then find useful for the general subject of study.

    Of course, it means that anomalies are not jumped on – due usually to the fact that some eminent person doesn’t want his own work out-dated. But the discipline of scholarship also means that the person offering the anomaly, or the new theory, will take trouble to present it in a way that shows he or she has done the right amount, and right kind of research already.

    England’s Royal Society [of Science], wouldn’t accept the reality of Australia’s egg-laying mammal, the platypus when the first specimen arrived on their door-step. They supposed it had to be a hoax, since it contradicted all existing theories. Thing is, they looked for more evidence to prove their *own ideas wrong* and they got it. So the science changed. Facta non verba, I suppose, is the motto.
    Sorry to run on

    • proto57 Says:

      Hi Diane: From your post, having read it carefully, two or three times, it is clear that 1) you did not understand the point I was making in the post, and 2) you actually agree entirely with my point in the post, in the sense of the purpose and operation of scholarship. I can’t disagree with anything you have said there, except that I have done myself “an injustice”. I’ll leave that for you and others to decide, that is your prerogative. But my point still stands, and in my opinion, the Voynich is outside of existing scholarship, so if you stay there, you will not find the answer.

      If the Voynich is an example like your platypus, then scholarship will eventually identify it; if like a “wreck-less” antikythera mechanism, it will not. Thank you for your input. Rich.

  4. Diane Says:

    May I add that when I say “your ideas” I don’t mean yours personally, but anyone’s. When I’ve written a paper (not a blog entry), I usually try to put it aside for a week or two, and then re-read it, imagining myself the most critical reviewer. All the questions that come to mind then, I sit down and research, to see if the questions can be answered, and if the answers require me to revise – before anyone else sees the paper. Of course, even then, people may ignore or dismiss. Readers’ prerogative.

    • proto57 Says:

      Well of course I do the same, we should all review our writing before posting/publishing. And part of the personal review process is to “get into the shoes” of those who may read it… and try to see it through their eyes. In this case there was the opportunity to forge the nucleus of these very ideas in my discussions with you, on the Voynich Net List. During that discussion with you, I came to realize the basic (and profound, deep rooted) difference in our viewpoints, and I think, why they exist. That difference is outlined in this post, among other points I wanted to make. In effect what I am saying is that I did review this idea in many ways, and I can thank you for being a sounding board and hearing them even before committing them to the blog.

      I do sense, from your above response, that you feel in some way that if I only thought long and hard about this, I would change my mind (“…I usually try to put it aside for a week or two, and then re-read it…”). No… not at all. I would rather suggest this blog post as a warning to those who will only rely on existing knowledge, and who choose not to look past it… because in my opinion, they will never answer the question. And they, then, can choose to “ignore or dismiss” that suggestion, at their prerogative.

  5. Alicia Miranda Says:

    I find your theory fascinating. It accounts for many details in the manuscript. Is the Voynich manuscript one of a kind? Of course. What remains to be found is the key to this very complex symbolic process.

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