AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 9 “The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript:  Collaboration yields new insights”

The Mysterious “Voynich Manuscript”: Collaboration Yields New Insights.  Paula Zyats, Assistant Chief Conservator, Yale University Libraries; Gregory W.L. Hodgins, National Science Foundation—Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Laboratory, University of Arizona; Joseph G. Barabe, Senior Research Microscopist, Director of Scientific Imaging,  McCrone Associates, Inc.

The Voynich manuscript, also known as “The Book That Can’t Be Read”, was donated to Yale in 1969. It is a vellum manuscript, bound in limp vellum (the binding is probably not contemporary, according to Paula Zyats), and is of unknown origin. It is written in either code or an unknown language and contains fantastic and garish illustrations. There have been a number of theories as to who authored this work, ranging from Francis Bacon, Leonardo Da Vinci, to Voynich himself. 

This presentation described the materials analysis and conservation treatment that were undertaken, partly as a result of a proposal by an Austrian film crew in 2008, to discover more about the creation of this work. Curators, conservators, and scientists collaborated to sample portions of the manuscript in order to identify and date the inks, paints, and parchment used in the manuscript. The manuscript was in good condition and conservation treatment focused on stabilization. Some fold-outs had cracks and tears needing repair, and some corners were turned up.

Carbon dating at the National Science Foundation—Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) Laboratory at the University of Arizona revealed that the parchment used for the folios dated to the 1450’s. Analyses by McCrone Associates suggest the drawing and writing inks are from the same period. Numbers on the folios were from a later period, but it was determined there are no modern components in the volume.

The Beinecke Library has made digital images of the manuscript available at:

The documentary can be accessed at:

And, Renee Zandbergen has a comprehensive website describing this work:

Ms. Zyats expressed her initial surprise that Yale agreed to this project, and there was some discussion about libraries and museums being willing to promote unique items in their collections. There is an understandable reluctance to market these materials since that may increase their handling and use. Rather than acting as a substitute, digital images often serve to increase curiosity about the real artifact. Nonetheless, it is exciting for conservators, scholars and the general public to learn more about the provenance and materials of such a unique item.