Breakthrough over 600-year-old mystery manuscript

By Nic Rigby
BBC News

A page from the Voynich manuscriptImage source, BEINECKE LIBRARY
Image caption,
Professor Stephen Bax found the word Kantairon alongside a picture of the medieval herb Centaury

A breakthrough has been made in attempts to decipher a mysterious 600-year-old manuscript written in an unknown language, it has been claimed.

The Voynich Manuscript, carbon-dated to the 1400s, was rediscovered in 1912, but has defied codebreakers since.

Now, Bedfordshire University's Stephen Bax says he has deciphered 10 words, which could lead to more discoveries.

The manuscript, which some think is a hoax, is full of illustrations of plants and stars, as well as text.

It has been latched onto by supporters of a whole range of strange theories including some linking it to Leonardo da Vinci or even aliens.

'Encourage other linguists'

It largely disappeared from public record until 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich, an antique book dealer, bought it amongst a number of second-hand publications in Italy.

Since then, scholars and cryptographers have studied the document but have failed to find meaning in the text.

It was investigated by a team of code breakers during WWII, but they also failed to find meaning in the words.

Academics across the world have been trying to decode the manuscript.

Image source, Beinecke Library
Image caption,
The 15th Century Voynich Manuscript has been described as the world's most mysterious book written in a complex code, an unknown language or simply a hoax

In June last year, Marcelo Montemurro, a theoretical physicist from the University of Manchester, UK, published a study which he believes shows that the manuscript was unlikely to be a hoax.

Dr Montemurro and a colleague, using a computerised statistical method to analyse the text, found that it followed the structure of "real languages".

In February this year, a paper published in the journal of the American Botanical Council said one of the plant drawings suggested a possible Mexican origin for the manuscript.

Prof Bax, an expert in applied linguistics, said he had been working on the Voynich Manuscript for about two years.

He said he had managed to find the word for Taurus, alongside a picture of seven stars (seen as part of the zodiac constellation of Taurus) and the word Kantairon alongside a picture of the herb Centaury.

Image source, Beinecke Library
Image caption,
The book is 240 pages long, is written in an unknown alphabet and features mysterious pictures of unknown plants and astronomical images

Prof Bax said he had been trying to crack the manuscript using his knowledge of medieval texts and his familiarity with Semitic languages like Arabic.

"I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script," he said.

"The manuscript has a lot of illustrations of stars and plants. I was able to identify some of these, with their names, by looking at medieval herbal manuscripts in Arabic and other languages, and I then made a start on a decoding, with some exciting results.

"My aim in reporting on my findings at this stage is to encourage other linguists to work with me to decode the whole script using the same approach, though it still won't be easy.

Image source, Beinecke library
Image caption,
Inside the book there was a letter thought to be dated to 1666. It claimed the book once belonged to the Emperor Rudolf II, a member of the house of Habsburg, known to be an patron of artists and scientists

"But already my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language."

Prof Bax said he hopes a conference can be arranged later this year, to bring together experts on the manuscript.

Image source, Beinecke Library
Image caption,
Many theories have appeared about the book, one of which is that it is an ancient herbal remedy book

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