Published February 11, 2011
Part of the mystery behind an 'alien' book no one can read has at last been unraveled.
Found in a chest of books outside Rome by a dealer in antique books, the Voynich manuscript is among literature's great mysteries. The book of aging parchment is written in alien characters, some resembling Latin letters, others unlike anything used in any known language, and arranged into what appear to be words and sentences -- except they don't resemble anything written or read by human beings.
And for decades, the manuscript has mystified scientists.
"Is it a code, a cipher of some kind?" asked Greg Hodgins, a physicist with the University of Arizona. "People are doing statistical analysis of letter use and word use -- the tools that have been used for code breaking. But they still haven't figured it out," Hodgins said.
The DaVinci Code was fiction. The Voynich manuscript is real -- and its code remains one of history's biggest mysteries. But at least Hodgins has solved part of the mystery behind the book: it's age.
Because the parchment pages of the Voynich manuscript were made from animal skin, they can be radiocarbon-dated. Hodgins, a chemist and archaeological scientist, used radiocarbon dating on tiny bits of the pages extracted with a scalpel to determine that the book dates back to the early 15th century, making it a century older than scholars had previously thought.
Carbon-14 dating places the book's creation to between 1404 and 1438, in the early Renaissance. It's not the oldest book in the world -- that would be The Diamond Sutra, a seven-page scroll printed with wood blocks on paper in China around 1,300 years ago. But it's older than the Gutenberg bible, the first book printed with modern presses, which rolled off the line in 1453.
Despite these revelations, the book -- with its alien language (possibly a coded writing) and puzzling drawings -- remains largely a mystery, said Kevin Repp, curator of modern books & manuscripts for the Beinecke Rare Book Library, which currently houses the tome.
"There are many reasons why a manuscript would have been written in code at the time," he told FoxNews.com, "fears of accusations of heresy or witchcraft among them. Then again, there is also the possibility that the manuscript doesn’t say anything at all. Some of the top researchers in the field lean toward the latter explanation, particularly since it has proven impossible using the latest computer technology to decipher the script."
Currently owned by Yale, the manuscript was discovered in the Villa Mondragone near Rome in 1912 by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich while sifting through a chest of books offered for sale by the Society of Jesus. Voynich dedicated the remainder of his life to unveiling the mystery of the book's origin and deciphering its meanings. He died 18 years later, without having wrestled any its secrets from the book.
Hodgins is quick to point out that anything beyond the dating aspect is outside his expertise, but he admits he is just as fascinated with the book as everybody else who has tried to unveil its history and meaning.
"There are types of ciphers that embed meaning within gibberish. So it is possible that most of it does mean nothing," he said. "There is an old cipher method where you have a sheet of paper with strategically placed holes in it. And when those holes are laid on top of the writing, you read the letters in those holes."
Hodgins is curious as to the meaning, of course, and as willing to speculate as anyone. "Who knows what's being written about in this manuscript, but it appears to be dealing with a range of topics that might relate to alchemy. Secrecy is sometimes associated with alchemy, and so it would be consistent with that tradition if the knowledge contained in the book was encoded. What we have are the drawings," he noted. "Are they botanical? Are they marine organisms? Are they astrological? Nobody knows."
"I find this manuscript is absolutely fascinating as a window into a very interesting mind. Piecing these things together was fantastic. It's a great puzzle that no one has cracked -- and who doesn't love a puzzle?"