Researchers led by physicist Greg Hodgins from the University of Arizona claim to have unraveled at least one part of what is perhaps the greatest mystery puzzling the world of letters - the age of the famous Voynich manuscript discovered in 1912 which has continued to baffle historians, cryptologists and scientists around the world.

The manuscript, discovered by an­ti­que book deal­er Wil­frid Voyn­ich near Rome while sift­ing through a chest of ancient books, contains a compilation of drawings and writings which, at first glance, appears to be not unlike any other antique work of writing and drawing.  However a second, closer look reveals that while some characters resemble Latin letters, others in the code do not look like anything written - or read - by human beings.

 Now, even while its contents continue to mystify, researchers at the University have traced the origin of the parchment to the early 1400s using a technique known as radiocarbon dating. The team used an instrument that can sniff out trac­es of the el­e­ment car­bon-14 in ob­jects, giv­ing sci­en­tists clues about the age of the sam­ples.

As explained in a release from the University, carbon 14 is a rare, radioactive form of carbon that animals accumulate in appreciable quantity in their tissues over a lifetime. When a plant or an­i­mal dies, the lev­el of car­bon-14 in it drops at a predicta­ble rate, and thus can be used to cal­cu­late the amount of time that has passed since death. This also makes it possible to date products made from animals or plants. The pages of the Voynich manuscript being made from animal skin, it was possible to use the technique to put a date on its origin.

Lead researcher Hodgins clarified that In ra­di­o­car­bon dat­ing, there is this whole sys­tem of many peo­ple work­ing at takes many skills to pro­duce a date. From start to fin­ish, there is ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­pert­ise; there is bio­chem­i­cal and chem­i­cal ex­pert­ise; we need phys­i­cists, en­gi­neers and statis­ti­cians.

Using the method, the team has pushed back the pre­sumed age of the man­u­script by a 100 years from what had been earlier hypothesized. However the actual contents in it remain as opaque as ever. Careful to point out that anything beyond dating is not within the expertise of the team, Hodgins has nevertheless indicated that some of the contents may be related to topics in the medieval discipline of alchemy, something that would also explain its encoding in line with the practice of the times. As Kevin Repp, curator of modern books & manuscripts at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book Library, which owns and houses the Voynich manuscript told, There are many reasons why a manuscript would have been written in code at the time, fears of accusations of heresy or witchcraft among them.