When we try to figure out whether mysterious icons, such as the Shroud of Turin, are “real” or fake, we need to remember that there is such a thing as a genuinely ancient fake. One scientist now says the Voynich manuscript is an example of this.

Michael Woods writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that British computer scientist Gordon Rugg says the Voynich, which no expert has ever been able to translate, was created as a hoax 400 years ago in order to fool a king.

The Voynich is now in the Yale library. It consists of over 200 pages handwritten in an unknown language, with no punctuation. It?s beautifully illustrated with pictures of plants not found anywhere on Earth, as well as unknown stars and constellations and oddly-proportioned naked women. “We have no clear idea of its date, its author, its provenance, the meaning of its script, or even the meaning of its drawings,” says Voynich expert Jim Gillogly.

Emperor Rudolf II, who reigned from 1576-1612, bought it from an unknown seller for a large amount of gold. It was bought by rare book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich around 1912. He sold it to another book dealer, Hans P. Kraus, who donated it to Yale.

Since it also contains drawings of what look like strange chemical experiments, some people have theorized that it?s the notebook of a medieval alchemist and may contain a recipe for changing lead into gold.

The world’s best code-breakers have worked on it, often as a hobby or personal challenge, but none of them have been able to decipher it. Rugg brought modern computer power to the problem. He says, “Codes are at the heart of modern security systems. When I started work on this project, there was a real possibility that some Renaissance genius had invented a type of code which our best code breakers couldn’t crack. That was too tantalizing a possibility to ignore.”

Rugg even knows who the hoaxer was: Edward Kelley, who claimed to have made gold from lead, said he was a mind reader, and was put in jail for fraud. “It would have brought him a lot of money,” Rugg says. “There also may have been an element of vanity involved?tricking the leading scholars of the day.”

To learn more about the Voynich manuscript, click here.

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