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The professor who cracked the ‘Indiana Jones manuscript’ after 500 years

A 15th-century manuscript described as “the world’s most mysterious” has been cracked by two people – but one of them is the fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones.

The only real person to have deciphered words from the coded manuscript is Professor Stephen Bax of the University of Bedfordshire.

“The manuscript has some 240 pages, and it was rediscovered about a hundred years ago in Italy by a bookseller,” he says.

 Not a single word in this manuscript had been deciphered, understood or decoded 
“Not a single word in this manuscript had been deciphered, understood or decoded, despite all these years, and very many people attempting, we still hadn’t understood a single word. I have decoded it partially – and understood around 10 words.”

Bax’s theory is that the manuscript is the sole surviving example of a language that has since died out – and is written in a language made up by a small group of people, with letters borrowed from scripts from Europe, the Near East and even India.

An unknown language

Words Bax has deciphered include “Chiron” – Greek for centaur – and the names of plants and seeds. It’s still not clear what language it is written in, or where it was written.

“If you imagine that the manuscript could have travelled a long way, but the culture that developed died out – that’s a straightforward way to explain it without needing ancient Aztecs or space travel,” says Bax, referring to some of the wilder theories that have grown up around the manuscript as scholars have battled to decipher it for 100 years.

“For the first time in 600 years, we can read some of the words,” Bax says, saying that the 14 characters he has deciphered could offer a key to the rest of the manuscript, which he says seems to be a book about plants. One of the riddles of the manuscript is that almost all the illustrations show non-existent species.

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Bax’s work continues, with feedback from scholars around the world. Since he announced his discovery this year, he has been described as “the real-life Indiana Jones” after he decoded the manuscript, which Jones decodes in a film spin-off novel.

The manuscript is highly controversial, with many experts dismissing it as a hoax – but statistical analysis of the text by University of Arizona researchers last year found “patterns” of meaning which would have been impossible to fake in the 15th century.

 Why on earth would anyone waste their time on creating a hoax of this kind? It’s just not credible 
Bax says that the idea it’s a hoax is not plausible, “It can’t possibly be a hoax, as it contains real semantic content.  But in any case, why on earth would anyone waste their time on creating a hoax of this kind? It’s just not credible, is it?”

“The Voynich manuscript is a genuine meaningful document,” he said, announcing his find. “These words are the result of decades of work by many, many people. It’s not a matter of simply putting words into Google, and finding the answer. It’s not a secret code disguising some political message – it’s an unknown script, in a language that’s unknown, but could possibly still be in existence, if we find out what it is.”

“The Voynich script has some elements of Arabic script,” Bax says, “If you look at words, there seem to be elements from Greek, Latin, the Middle East, Near East and India – it has mixed elements of culture. You’ve got references such as Chiron, the centaur, but you’ve got Near Eastern elements such as the names of the plants. It’s not yet clear which country it comes from.”

“The Voynich manuscript could be an invented language, invented by a small group of people, for a language or dialect which had no writing system at that point. What’s curious is that it didn’t just borrow, but it seems to have borrowed letters from a variety of sources. The next step is to move onto other pages and read them again using the signs we have deciphered. My proposal is to try and read the pages using the letters we have.

Photo: Snap Stills/REX

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