Posts Tagged ‘c14’

C14 Dating of Parchment: Testing the Test in ’72

May 13, 2011

I am, and have been, accepting of the radiocarbon dating results for the Voynich Manuscript, as released by the University of Arizona. Well, at least as far as I believe it is the best possible current method of testing samples of parchment and vellum for age. But I am a skeptic at heart, and a pragmatist by nature, and to not automatically assume the infallibility of science, or of scientists or their methods of experiment. Not being able to test their methods myself, in many cases, I would have to rely on the hope that their methods are correct and accurate. Better yet, in some cases the scientists test themselves, and their own methods and conclusions… and we would hope that when they do, they can be, well, “scientific” about it. I mean, we must even trust them, in this self-regulation.

In the case of the accuracy and value of the radiocarbon dating of vellum, there is at least one, seminal example. The paper is entitled, “Radiocarbon Dating of Parchment” (Nature, volume 235, January 21, 1972). It is a 1972 paper outlining an experiment meant to apply the current radiocarbon testing methods to parchment and vellum, both to determine if it would be an accurate method of determining the age of manuscripts, and also, as a cross check to the dendrochronology of tree rings… itself used as a check of radiocarbon dating methods. I wanted to see the article to learn more about C14, as I was already pretty much in awe of the ability to date vellum, and wanted to learn more about it. But… I have to say I was somewhat shocked at what I found.

In the test, several samples of vellum, with known dates, were radiocarbon dated. The point was to compare the results to the known dates, to see if the radiocarbon results were accurate, and could be used in the future with any accuracy. Here is the list of the results:

But I think there is a problem with these results. Below I’ve broken them down, and commented on them:

1820 ± 40, 1720 ± 30 or 1650 ± 15 for a 1788 document.

Ok, so they had three wildly varying results… peaks I suppose, or whatever they call them, and chose the closest ones, and ignored the 1650 ± 15 result? Why? Because they knew it was from 1788, so 1650 ± 15 must have been wrong… and, by a minimum of 123 years!

1750 ± 20 or 1680 ± 15 for a 1752 document.

Once again, they used the known date to come to a conclusion: One result was dead on, so they rejected the other… which was a minimum of 57, and a maximum of 72, years off.

1650 ± 15 for a 1666 document.

Very good, they got one right. Well, they got one result, which it happens, was correct. If they had no check, though, they would not have known, of course.

1600 ± 30 or 1500 ± 25 for all three of these: 1495, 1579, 1578.

OK now… this is interesting… they got two results, both the same, for three documents… of two very different eras. That alone is somehow disturbing to me. Why would a 1495 sample give the same results as a 1578 sample? That alone is almost 100 years in discrepancy. And then, they chose to feel it was accurate, but seemingly only by applying the 1600 ± 30 to the latter two documents, and 1500 ± 25 to the 1495 one. How do they know their results reflected the assigned ones? Because they knew the date written on them, that is how. But if they did not have the dates, they would, first of all, had a maximum age difference in the results of 155 years! That is, as old as 1475, to as new as 1630. The 1600 ± 30 result, if applied to the 1495 document, would be an error minumum of 75 years, and a maximum of 135 years.

The procedure they used, discarding results based on known dates, actually showed that the tests alone could not be relied on. They would, in effect, have been clueless with undated samples. In fact, although the testers seem to present the results as though “C14 works for vellum”, they actually have this very telling passage:

It is interesting that the radiocarbon dates after correction and calibration for secular variations correspond to thier known historical ages. But the nature of the calibration curve first developed by Suess sometimes permits age ranges or alternative dates rather than unique dates. Consequently, for samples of unknown age it may be necessary to use independent criteria to narrow the choice.

Italics are mine. But the point is, this whole test of the test could be summed up as follows: “If you don’t know the date of a vellum document, C14 will not give it to you. It could be well over a hundred years off.”

That is bad enough, but there are other problems. In the same article it is stated that vellum “…was used for writing within very short periods of time from manufacture”. But how do they know this? For who is to say that in the case of the 1788 document, the vellum was not made in 1650, as one result showed, and that the 1820 ± 40 result was not the one in error? Maybe the vellum was over a hundred years old. I mean, since vellum had not been accurately dated before, then how do they know how long it sat? There is some serious circular logic happening here… first, they assume that vellum was used soon after manufacture, to validate their use of the known date of the sample, which they then compare to several wildly varying results, then pick the one which closely matches the date written on the document, and conclude the test is accurate! It is an assumption used to chose a result, and then that result is used to back up the assumption. The ouroboros of scientific testing…. the snake eating it’s own tail… creating, the snake again.


Well of course the testing in the case of the Voynich may still be very accurate. For the time being, we really have to assume that. Unfortunately for us, though, the official test results have never been released. We do not know if other results came up during the testing, but were discarded, as they were in the 1972 test. And if there were other results, we do not know why they were discarded. In the above test, we can see what criteria they used… they knew the dates, and threw out the results which did not match their expectations. But in the case of the Voynich, for “expectations”, they would have to use the opinion of scholars. That is, whichever Voynich scholar they relied upon, to make that judgment call.

Something Sheepy in the State of Denmark?

February 26, 2011

What should one think, when two documents, arguably the number one and number two most controversial parchment/vellum artifacts known to history, were discovered to have been made at virtually the same moment in history? The Voynich was dated by the University of Arizona to 1404-1438, the Vinland Map, also by the University of  Arizona, to 1423-1445. It is even not so improbable, given the 15 year overlap, that the sheep which made both were breathing at the same moment in time. What are the odds of this? Well there are a few conclusions we might draw:

1) It is just a surprising coincidence.  It is a pretty big one, though, considering all the leaves of vellum produced in the world, from practically the beginning of history, and these two share suspicion and a birthday.

2) They are both forgeries, and they are both made from the same stash of vellum. Well that’s crazy, of course. But just for jollies I searched for any connection between Wilfred Voynich and the Vinland map. So far I did not come up with any connections between him, and any of the people suspected of being involved with the forgery of the Vinland Map. But I did find out that in 2005 the idea was floated. From http://sci.tech-archive.net/Archive/sci.archaeology/2005-08/msg00168.html:

“There was an interesting programme about the Voynich manuscriptwhich is supposed to be a forgery as it is written in cipher but notdecoded. It was discovered by a Voynich who was a book dealer but it may have been forged to raise money for Russians revolutionaries.

It also said that the spy Reilly and or Voynich used to go to the British Museum to study old inks and as Voynich could get old unused vellum and that might have to do with the Vinland Map”

Unfortunately I did not see the BBC documentary, which this is referring to. If anyone reading this has seen it, I will ask, “Did someone on the show actually raise this possibility, and if so, on what basis did they make such a claim?” Because I had never heard it before, in all my years of poking around in this mess.

It was also interesting, the seemingly off-hand comment, “…Voynich could get old unused vellum”. I would really love to know where that claim comes from… because I have been very interested in any unused vellum kicking around, be it in 1530, 1610, or 1909. Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at a photograph, taken in 1908, of a room in a bookshop Wilfred had recently purchased:

"Dark Room" of the Libraria Franceschini

This picture is from the article, “The Romance of a Literary Treasure-House: An account of a Strange Bibliomaniac and his Hoard”, by Helen Zimmern (Pall Mall Magazine, July to December, 1908). The article explains that this collection, amassed by a Mr. Franceschini, included over one half a million books, maps, pamplets and incuncubilia. When I read the descriptions of this bibliotrove, and see that picture of the “Dark Room”, I feel that it creates a plausible scenario in which Voynich could have had access to much unused, blank parchment. He must have. I mean, even today one can collect dozens of leaves from the end papers of countless books… and there are also, even today, many blank books in collections. As I pointed out, a few years ago, I would have been able to purchase 20 sheets of unused, 16th century vellum… at only $35 a sheet. So look again at Voynich’s 1908 purchase, this vast, jumbled literary dumping ground, and ask yourself if it would have been so hard to dig up 114 blank sheets from somewhere in it’s depths. Same date, even? It would have taken just one blank ledger in that vast archive of unknown content to create a “Voynich” Ms.

Interior of the Libraria Franceschini

Coming back to the Vinland Map and Voynich, I was caught by this statement by Zimmern,

“Indeed, of many things revealed by a visit to this library none is more strange to the common or garden person than the fact here impressed upon us that Amercia was by no means the terra incognita before the days of Columbus that our school books led us to suppose”.

What could she have possibly seen which would have led her to make such a statement? The only literary evidence of pre-Columbus travels to America are the various Norse Mythologies. Maybe Wilfred handed her a copy of  Freya.  But the thing is, she happens to add the statement at the end of the paragraph discussing early maps. Did she see a pre-1492 map? We know of only one which is claimed to be so, the Vinland map. Which curiously, as I pointed out, has the same C14 date as another document, the Voynich. Which of course is known to have been owned by the buyer of the very library Ms. Zimmern was describing.

Well of course any conclusions based on these iota sized tidbits is wild speculation. But for the fun of it, let’s create a little scenario, combining what we know, with what we can reasonably suspect was possible:

Wilfred Voynich, sometime between 1908 and 1911 finds the 1666 Marci letter, describing a cipher manuscript, rumored to be by Roger Bacon, and once owed by Rudolf II. And soon, the lire and dollar-signs are dancing around the man’s head, as he thinks, “What would such a thing be worth?”. The answer is simple… priceless. If he could only find such a work… if only it were in his hands, the price would be his to name. But that was just a fantasy, the odds of finding such a work would be astronomical… it would never turn up, in ten lifetimes. All he had was this storehouse of dusty books and piles of blank vellum. Well, maybe also a few “artists” on his staff, or a phone call away, with the knowledge of historical inks and paints. The ones he used to create those “replicas” of museum art for wealthy patrons from time to time. Perhaps it would be natural for him to think, “If the Marci-Roger Bacon manuscript could never be found, why not create one?” He had the motive, materials, ability, and knowledge to do so.

Wow. If I didn't know better...

But how to start with such a project? Since it was about Roger Bacon, the choices were easy, and many. The knowledge of alchemy, botany, astrology, astronomy, and optical sciences of the great man would make for a fantastical book… a colorful, dazzling work of art. Adding an indecipherable text would add to the mystery, and also, make certain that the content, unreadable, would not give clues to the great hoax. So you would only now have to hand to your artists, and (two?) calligraphers, the type and range of scientific and magical disiplines one might expect to find in a Bacon work… “…but make them strange, un-recognizable to some degree, while touching on the works of others… even those, far ahead of Bacon’s time”. Bacon was, after all, a man ahead of his time. So old herbals are pored through, and old astrologicals… and alchemicals, too. And of course Wilfred has these ready at hand. Why not throw a little of everything in there? We may as well shoot for an impossible, a Holy Grail of manuscripts, something the world would never dream of. For optics and optical devices, Voynich would be somewhat stuck… for there would not be anything from Bacon’s time to adapt. So for optics, his forgers would have to take from the works of Hooke, and from Kircher, from the 1744 “The Microscope Made Easy”, and John Quekett’s “Practical Treatise on the use of the Microscope”, 1855. Then Carters’ Treatise on the Microscope, and others, would provide some nice engravings of microscopic organisms to copy, (barely) alter, and disperse among the pages, as wheels, and as roots of plants.

Carter's Diatom (black) overlayed with Voynich Wheel (green)

The next step would be to announce his monstrous creation, to bring his Golem to life. Of course he would have to hide the actual provenence, which of course he did… claiming an Austrian castle as it’s source, then an Italian monestary, and so on… because it would not do, once the news hit, to have anyone questioning the actual people who were supposed to actually have sold it to him. That would not do, so best to obscure the source. And all that would be left was to make photocopies, and distribute them, write letters and send them, and sit back, and wait for history to knock at his door.

Too Close for Comfort?

But then comes an unexpected backfire. Romaine Newbold takes up on Wilfred’s hints of Bacon, and the hints of optics, and comes back with all the wrong answers! Newbold sees the cylinders as jars, not microscopes! Those artfully redesigned optics, Newbold only sees as jars! “How did he miss that?!”, Voynich thinks… And instead of the diatom, Newbold sees the Crab Nebula! Impossible for Roger Bacon to have seen with any device he could have possessed… but, then, it gets far worse. Newbold actually thinks he sees intentional, microscopic breaks in the manuscript’s characters… and deduces an impossible code scheme around the the elements he thinks he sees there… mere breaks in the ink, recently applied by Voynich’s dutiful scribes. And out tumbles the most convoluted and bizarre anagrammatic “solution” ever conceived.

And now, all is lost… it got away from poor Wilfred, it was out of his hands. The path to literary obscurity for his creation was cleared, and as a final assurance the plan was finished, he realized he could never reveal the truth. Rather than be known as a great cheat, a greedy forger, he would have to remain the finder of the World’s most Mysterious Manuscript. He only had to remain quiet to save his reputation, and that of his famous author wife, Ethel. And so the Voynich Ms. was cast adrift in literary history, from theory to theory… each touching on all the clues so artfully placed, but deviously disguised, by Wilfred’s skilled forgers. And it bounced from owner to owner, to finally land in a vault at Yale. I began as a monumental miscalculation by the hopeful book dealer, and became an inadvertent, monumental joke on the countless scholars it drew into it’s web, for decades and lifetimes since.  “Well, at least”, Wilfred thought, “I still have the map! That should be worth something…”.

But enough of such wild-eyed, fanciful musings… as fun as they are. We all know that this is simply a 1420, Northern Italian herbal. So calm down, and get over it, please.

Nagging Sense of Newness

May 20, 2009

Being new to the blogging thing… maybe, a day late and a dollar short as I often am, with something called “twittering” out there, now… I didn’t know where to start. I finally decided to start where one of the most controversial aspects of the Voynich lies: The dating. Part of that controversy was one little discussed, before the interjection of my optical theories. But of course the possible presence of advanced optics would imply the Voynich was newer than accepted by the mainstream, and the earlier dating, alone, was given as a primary reason the Voynich cylinders could not be microscopes, and it developed into a bone of contention. But when I looked back on the past discussions of the age of the Voynich, I found a thread of doubt… which I call, The Nagging Sense of Newness. It is especially relevant as of late, considering we discovered that carbon dating tests have been done on the Voynich, and we are awaiting the results. Here is a post I had written on the subject some months ago, in November 2008, which I’ve edited and brought up to date for this blog. Yes, it’s recycled… so I’m green in more ways than one:

In any writing about the Voynich, any book or article, or any post or website, I am always amazed at the number of references the author makes to alternate views from the “accepted” (not accepted by me, as you know), while casually dismissing them. Almost every account of the VMs states as known fact that it is a real document, containing real knowledge and real illustrations, and is from pre-1460… but while many accounts state this (except for GC, and Strong, who place it in the early 16th century, and Comegys and Suter, who place it in the early 17th, I think), they often include striking references to what I have called a “nagging sense of newness”, and a “nagging sense of fantasy”. And while there is no concrete evidence to date the VMs, or ascertain its veracity as a real document, these nagging doubts continue to be dismissed. I just received and read a copy of the 2007 book, The Six Unsolved Ciphers, and the chapter on the Voynich is no exception:

Page 83: “This numbering is instantly recognizable but not consistent with he language used in the body of the work, so there is a suspicion that it was added at another time.”

Page 96: “Much is made of an image of a clock that has both a short and a long hand, the argument being that clocks did not have a short and a long hand at this time. But this is a case of the viewer seeing what he wants to see.”

These comes under the category of, “If it looks newer (or different), it was added, or isn’t what it looks like”. I love the part, “…a case of the viewer seeing what he wants to see”… as though seeing anything newer is “what he wants to see”, but seeing anything older is simply the truth, and accurate, and what IS there. Why is not seeing a 1420 herbal, “seeing what he wants to see”? Besides, as in the armadillo argument, you can take “wants to” out of the equation, because it looks like and armadillo to a majority of those unfamiliar with the VMs or the dating controversy (I’ll bet there are those who even reject it is a controversy, not wanting it to rise to that level)… and just say, “what the average, unbiased observer DOES see”, and the claim dissipates.

Page 83: “The book is in excellent condition, given its age…”

This comes under the category of, “Surprisingly new looking for such an old thing”. Maclean said something similar on the VMs net years ago.

Page 93: “There is a further argument against [Roger] Bacon being the author. The Voynich drawings are works of the imagination presented as science. [Roger] Bacon was a hardcore empirical scientist, and although he imagined amazing feats of engineering, his analysis of the natural world was based on what he could observe and work with. Bacon was a ferocious critic of anything he saw as unclear thinking, especially the sort of fanciful “science” that underpins the illustrations in the Voynich Manuscript, whether it is the fantastical plants, the mythological beasts or what the authors see at the celestial relationship between humankind and the heavens.

This comes under the category of, “It looks like fantasy”. But interestingly, as I’ve found before, the same fantasy observation is used to dismiss one theory, and support another. In this case, the author uses the fantastical nature to dismiss R. Bacon, but then it is also used, and accepted by him and others, to explain why the VMs is an early work!

Page 95: “Although its history cannot be definitively traced back much before the early seventeenth century, there is little doubt that the manuscript existed in Prague around this time.”

No argument here… but the point is, that that is the point, and yet it does not figure into the mix, and allow an acceptance of the possibility of dates up to that time. It is dismissed, despite the “early seventeenth century” being a fairly concrete end cap of the time frame, and no other end cap from earlier is accepted as stopping the VMs dating. Then also, reason, intuition and even arguable evidence shows it might be from such a late date. If such a respected capper was known from say, 1550, I would not even be here, and I would be knee deep in the muck of Long Island Sound with my metal detector.

Page 99: “Part III is the biological section and consists of drawings of small-scale naked women with fat bellies and Rubenesque hips.”

OK… it may be valid to use the description “Rubenesque”, relating of course to the body type Ruben exemplified, and run with it back to a work you “know” is earlier, and use it as a comparison. But it comes to my point again, the “nagging sense” so often ignored, or discarded… in this case that the body type of the women in the VMs is very much that preferred by the Dutch mannerists of the late 16th and early 17th century. Yes, and similar to earlier works, too. But you often see Rubenesque, as it jumps to mind, and not “Medieval”, or some other earlier appellation applied to the body type of these women, because, as I argue, it is possibly the style all the rage when the VMs was actually made. And the hair types, as I’ve pointed out in my theories. Both, dismissed, because… “we know” it is earlier.

The nagging senses of newness and fiction continue to be ignored and discarded, is my only point, and is a recurrent theme in everything ever written about the VMs. I don’t post here, over and over, the hundreds of such observations and reflections noted by others. They are seen by me, and if seen by others at all, are related to me in private, or ignored, or denied, or spun into new meanings. They appear in the writings of Torresella, Pelling, and Mclean, among almost all others. They appear in many of the posts here, when describing the VMs, or defending its “known” early origins. But they always follow the same pattern of the above. And then, dismissed in a myriad of sometimes contradictory ways:

If something looks newer than 1450:

1) It was added later
2) It is not newer, and it is not what you think it might be… you want to see that, so you do
3) They might have had it earlier than we now think
4) It looks too much like what you think it is, so it is a coincidence.

If something looks fantasy:

1) The fantasy things in the VMs might be, but the document as a whole cannot be
2) They always drew things badly “back then”… so they are not fantasy, but bad representations of the real
3) We just have not found the plant, animal, or building yet… but it is real
4) The artist was hiding a secret, so disguised the drawings meaning… but it is real

I still contend that the answer may be much simpler than all that: That this could be a fantasy document from the early 17th century, reflecting Dutch art influence, and epitomizing the rampant fascination of that time for the mystical and mysterious lore of ancient texts (which it imitates rather poorly). It explains the nagging senses when presented with certain key aspects of the VMs, without having to dismiss them with contradictory and unsound reasoning. And further, it would then explain the endless loop the investigations of the VMs have been stuck in, because that loop will not extend outside of the “accepted” time frame, and look elsewhere, for later evidence. And then, any new book or article simply repeats the status quo, while dismissing what all have observed… which often is, that much actually looks newer than 1450, and even, 1550, and much looks phantasmagorical.