Saturday, 5 January 2008

Voynich plant commentary...

Elias Schwerdtfeger has blogged some speculations on the plant on f3r - essentially that, based on its lack of flowers and various other features, the plant depicted on f3r appears to be some kind of "Nacktsamen" (which I think is German for Gymnospermae, the plant group which includes conifers [fir, spruce, etc], cycads [the sago palm and others], and ginkgo biloba [a plant all on its own]). As normal with the VMs, this is good observation and inference, marred (as he indeed notes) only by the problem that no such plant actually exists.

In general, what's good about Elias' readings is that he tries hard not to be fooled by the layers of paint: but for any rationalist reading, even if you strip back all the later paints to reveal that-which-was-originally-drawn, the innate mystery of what-was-being-depicted still remains, and perhaps even intensifies. For f3r, as indeed for nearly all the VMs' "plant" pictures, we don't know what is going on: is it a trance drawing, a hallucinogenic conjuring from the depths of a proto-botanist's subconscious? Or were the two plants on facing pages originally "visually anagrammed", a tricky decoding situation turned into a cryptographic catastrophic by the subsequent shufflings of the bifolios?

As yet, we simply can't tell, which is why discussions of the herbal pictures can quickly descend into he-said-she-said bitchfests and yeah-but-no-but-yeah-but conflicted monologues. My contribution to the herbal debate (discussed at length elsewhere) concerns the structural differences I noticed between Herbal A pictures and Herbal B pictures, and my suspicion that the latter group "visually enciphers" certain types of machine contemporary to the mid-Quattrocento. Of course, you can argue with this (and if it would make you happy, go ahead, knock yourself out): but what would be the point?

Ultimately, we would like subtler types of information to resolve key unknowns in a more definitive way: for example, Raman imaging and/or multispectral imaging might help distinguish the materials used and layers of accretions, to the point that we might be able to reconstruct what the original raw "alpha" state of each page was. Furthermore, such kinds of imaging might well reveal non-visible (or non-obvious) contact transfers between pages: this might lead to being able to reconstruct many (if not all) of the original page ordering and gatherings. Being able to group vellum bifolios by individual animalskin might make it possible to reconstruct gatherings too. Then, being able to place individual pictures as part of an original sequence might reveal an informative pattern or sequence underlying them all...

But these are rational dreams, of using pure science for pure knowledge, and for now we don't have this level of smarts to build upon: and so our destiny is to build castles not in the air but on sand, cunning architecture destined not to soar but to sink. Oh well! :-(

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