Just a short note to say that I’ve today decided to stop selling physical copies of “The Curse of the Voynich”. I first published it at the end of 2006 (the front page says “v1.0: Emma Vine (Broceto)“, if you want to try decrypting that), and it’s now time for me to leave it to the book collectors and move on. 🙂

Thanks very much to everyone reading this who bought a copy along the way – this helped recoup me some of the money I lost during the six months I worked part-time while I did the research for it. And for those who bought their copy direct from Compelling Press, I really hope you enjoyed your anagrammatic dedication – finding nice anagrams of people’s names was always something I enjoyed doing.

Incidentally, second-hand copies of “Curse” are on sale through bookfinder.com, though at prices ranging from £47 to £2500 (!): I expect the lowest price will rise to around £200 before very long, so anyone here who already has a copy is arguably now a little bit better off. Which is nice (if you’re an accountant). 🙂

Finally: for anyone who would like a copy of “Curse” in the future, please note that I plan to make an ebook version available before long (hopefully later this year). I’ll do my best, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it in the ultra-short term, because publication rights for pictures and quotations always take longer to clear than you’d like. *sigh*.

What I have long tried to do with this blog is to genuinely advance our collective knowledge about unbroken historical ciphers, not by speculating loosely or wildly (as seems to be the norm these days) but instead by trying to reason under conditions of uncertainty. That is: I try to use each post as an opportunity to think logically about multiple types of historical evidence that often coincide or overlap yet are individually hard to work with – ciphers, cryptograms, drawings, treasure maps, stories, legends, claims, beliefs, mysteries.

The world of cipher mysteries, then, is a world both of uncertain evidence and also of uncertain history built on top of that uncertain evidence – perpetually thin ice to be skating on, to be sure.

A skills void?

It is entirely true that all historical evidence is inherently uncertain: people lie, groups have agendas, listeners misunderstand, language misleads, copyists misread, propagandists appropriate, historians overselect, forgers fake, etc. All the same, seeing past/through the textual uncertainties these kinds of behaviours can leave embedded in evidence is the bread and butter of modern historians, who are now trained to be adept both in close reading and critical thinking.

However, what I am arguing here is that though History-as-text – i.e. history viewed as primarily an exercise in textual literature analysis – managed to win the historical high ground, it did so at the cost of supplanting almost all non-textual historical disciplines. To my eyes, the slow grinding deaths of codicology, palaeography and even dear old iconography (now more visible in Dan Brown film adaptations than in bibliographies) along with what I think is the increasing marginalization of Art History far from the historical mainstream have collectively left a huge gap at the heart of the subject.

This isn’t merely a focus void, it’s also centrally a skills void – the main missing skill being the ability to reason under conditions where the evidence’s textual dimension is missing or sharply limited.

In short, I would argue that because historians are now trained to deal primarily with textual uncertainties, the ability to reason effectively with other less compliant types of evidence is a skill few now seem to have to any significant degree. In my opinion, this aspect of text-centrism is a key structural weakness of history as now taught.

In my experience, almost nothing exposes this weakness more than the writing done on the subject of historical cipher mysteries. There it is absolutely the norm to see otherwise clever people make fools of themselves, and moreover in thousands of different ways: surely in few other subject domains has so much ink have been spilled to so little effect. In Rene Zandbergen’s opinion, probably the most difficult thing about Voynich research is avoiding big mistakes: sadly, few seem able to achieve this.

“The Journal of Uncertain History”

Yet a key problem I face is that when it comes to presenting or publishing, the kind of fascinating historical mysteries I research are plainly a bad fit for the current academic landscape. This is because what I’m trying to develop and exercise there is a kind of multi-disciplinary / cross-disciplinary analytical historical skill (specifically: historical reasoning under uncertainty) that has quite different aims and success criteria from mainstream historical reasoning.

On the one hand, this “Uncertain History” is very much like Intellectual History, in that it is a meta-historical approach that freely crosses domain boundaries while relying heavily on the careful application of logic in order to make progress. And yet I would argue that Intellectual History as currently practised is heavily reliant on the universality of text and classical logic to build its chains of reasoning. In that sense, Intellectual History is a close cousin to the text-walled world of MBA courses, where all statements in case studies are deemed to be both true and given in good faith.

By way of contrast, Uncertain History turns its face primarily to those historical conundrums and mysteries where text falls short, where good faith can very often be lacking, and where strict Aristotelian logic can prove more of a hindrance than a help (here I’m thinking specifically about the Law of the Excluded Middle).

And so I propose launching a new open-source historical journal (Creative Commons BY-NC Licence), with the provisional name of “The Journal of Uncertain History“, and with the aim of providing a home for Uncertain History research of all types.

To be considered for the JoUH, papers should (also provisionally) be tackling research areas where:

* the historical evidence itself is problematic and/or uncertain;
* there is a problematic interplay between the types of evidence;
* to make genuine progress, non-trivial reasoning is required, not just for thinking but also for explanation;
* historical speculations made within the paper are both proposed and tested; and
* future tests (preferably empirical) and/or research leads are proposed.

I welcome all your comments, thoughts, and suggestions for possible submissions, authors, collaborators and/or editors; and especially reasons why existing journals X, Y and Z would all be better homes for this kind of research than the JoUH. 🙂

Back in 2006, I reasoned (in The Curse of the Voynich) that if the nine-rosette page’s circular city with a castle at the top…

…represented Milan (one of only three cities renowned for their circular shape), then the presence of swallowtail merlons on the drawing implied it must have been drawn after 1450, when the rebuilding of the old Porta Giovia castle (that was wrecked during the Ambrosian Republic) by Francesco Sforza as [what is now known as] the Castello Sforzesco began.

Ten Years Later, A Challenge

However, Mark Knowles recently challenged me on this: how was I so sure that the older castle on the site didn’t also have swallowtail merlons?

While writing Curse, for the history of Milan I mainly relied on the collection of essays and drawings in Vergilio Vercelloni’s excellent “Atlante Storico di Milano, Città di Lombardia”, such as these two pictures from Milano fantastica, in “Historia Evangelica et actos apostolorum cum alijs illorum temporum eventibus cum figuris crebioribus delineatis”, circa 1380:

…and this old favourite (which Boucheron notes [p.199] is a copy probably made between 1456 and 1472 of an original made in the 1420s)…

On the surface, it seemed from these as though I had done enough. But coming back to it, might I have been too hasty? I decided to fetch down my copies of Evelyn Welch’s “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” and Patrick Boucheron’s “Le Pouvoir de Bâtir” from the book overflow in the attic and have another look…

Revisiting Milan’s Merlons

What did I find? Well: firstly, tucked away in a corner of a drawing by Galvano Fiamma (in the 1330s) of a view of Milan (reproduced as Plate IIa at the back of Boucheron’s book), the city walls appear to have some swallowtail merlons (look just inside the two outermost towers and you should see them):

And in a corner of a drawing by Anovelo da Imbonate depicting and celebrating the 1395 investiture of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (reproduced in Welch p.24), I noticed a tiny detail that I hadn’t picked up on before… yet more swallowtail merlons:

Then, when I looked at other miniatures by the same Anovelo da Imbonate, I found two other (admittedly stylized) depictions of Milan by him that also unmistakeably have swallowtail merlons:

So it would seem that Milan’s city walls may well have had swallowtail merlons prior to 1450. The problem is that the city walls aren’t the same as the Porta Giovia castle walls (built from 1358, according to Corio): and I don’t think we know enough to say whether or not the castle itself had swallowtail merlons. It’s debatable whether the drawing of the 1395 investiture (which took place in the Porta Giovia castle) depicts the castle itself having swallowtail merlons: I just don’t know.

But the short version of the long answer is that because the Porta Giovia castle was only built from 1358-1372 (or thereabouts), we can’t rely on texts written before then (such as Galvano Fiamma’s). And there seems quite good reason to suspect (the Massajo drawing notwithstanding) that the Porta Giovia castle may well have had swallowtail merlons when it was used for the Visconti investiture in 1395. But I don’t know for certain, sorry. 🙁

There are texts that might give us an answer: for example, the (1437) “De Laudibus Mediolanensium urbis panegyricus” by Pier Candido Decembrio (mentioned in Boucheron p.74), or Bernardino Corio’s “Storia di Milano”. There are plenty of documents Boucheron cites in footnotes (pp.202-205), including “Lavori ai castelli di Bellinzona nel periodo visconteo”, Bolletino della Svizzera italiana, XXV, 1903, pp.101-104 (which I’ll leave for another day). But it’s obviously quite a lot of work. 🙁

Finally, I should perhaps add that a few details by Anovelo da Imbonate have an intriguingly Voynichian feel:

Though there were plenty of other miniature artists active in the Visconti court in Milan in the decades up to 1447, parallels between their art and the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings haven’t been explored much to date. Perhaps this is a deficiency in our collective Art Historical view that should be rectified. 🙂

Whether we like it or not, history as practised nowadays is a tower built upon textuality, upon the implicit evidentiality striped within and through texts. Even archaeology (of all but the obscenely distant past) and Art History rely heavily on texts for their reconstructions.

Alternative, explicitly visual approaches to history have lost the battle to control the locus of meaning. The mid-twentieth century Warburg/Saxl/Panofsky dream that highly evolved iconography/iconology might be able to surgically extract the inner semantic life of symbols from their drab syntatical carapaces now seems hopelessly over-optimistic, fit only for the Hollywood cartoons of Dan Brown novels. Sorry, but Text won.

What, then, are contemporary historians to make of the Voynich Manuscript, a barque adrift in a wine-dark sea of textlessness? In VoynichLand, we have letters, letters everywhere, and not a jot for them to read: and without close reading’s robotic exoskeleton to work with, where could such a text-centric generation of scholars begin?

Well, given that the Voynich Manuscript’s text-like writing has so failed yielded nothing of obvious substance to linguists or cryptologists (apart from long lists of things that they are sure it is not), historians are only comfortably left with a single door leading to the disco floor…

“Step #1. Start with the pictures.”

Yes, they could indeed start with the pictures: the Voynich’s beguiling, misleading, and crisply non-religious images. These contain plants that are real, distorted, imaginary, and/or impossible; strange circular diagrams; oddly-posed nymphs arranged in tubes and pools; and curious map-like diagrams. They famously lead everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, like a bad mirror-room fight-scene in 1960s Avengers TV episodes.

Without the comforting crutch of referentiality to lean on, we can’t tell whether a given picture happens to parallel one of the plants in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s famous (so-called) “alchemical herbals” (which unfortunately seem to be neither alchemical nor particularly herbal); or whether we’re just imagining that it echoes a specific plant in this week’s interesting Arabic book of wonders; or whether its roots were drawn from a dried sample but its body was imagined; or whether a different one of the remaining three hundred and eighty post-rationalizations that have been made for that page happens to hold true.

But on the bright side, it’s not as if we’re talking about a set of drawings that has previously made fools of just about everyone who has tried to form a sensible opinion about them, right? [*hollow laugh*]

So, “start with the pictures” it is. But what should we do then? Again, there seems little choice:

“Step #2. Find a telling detail.”

In my opinion, here’s where it all start to go wrong: where the road leads only to a cliff-edge, and one that has a sizeable drop below it into the sea.

The elephant-in-the-room question here is this: if looking for telling details is such a good idea, why is it that more then a century’s worth of looking for telling details has revealed practically nothing?

Is it because everyone who has ever looked at the Voynich Manuscript has been stupid, or inexperienced, or foolish, or delusional, or crazy, or marginal, or naive? Because that’s essentially what would need to be true for your own contribution to bring a new bottle to the party, if all you’re going to do yourself is look for telling details.

The thing that almost nobody seems to grasp is that we collectively have already applied an extraordinary amount of eyeballs at this issue.

Even though the Voynich’s imagery has been seen and ‘closely read’ for over a century by all manner of people, to date this has – in terms of finding the single telling detail that can place even part of it within an illustrative or semantic tradition – achieved nothing, zilch, nada.

Incidentally, this leads (I think) to one of only two basic constructional models: (a) the drawings in the Voynich Manuscript are from a self-contained culture whose internal frame of reference sits quite apart from anything we’re used to looking at [a suggestion which I’m certain the palaeography refutes completely]; or (b) the process of making the drawings for the Voynich Manuscript somehow consciously stripped out their referentiality.

But I’m not imagining for a moment that what I’m pointing out will stop anyone else from reinventing this same square wheel: all I’m saying is that this is how people approach the Voynich Manuscript, and why they then get themselves into a one-way tangle.

“Step #3. Draw a big conclusion.”

Finally, this is the point in the chain of the argument where the cart rolls properly over the cliff: though it’s a long way down, at least gravity’s accelerative force means anybody in it won’t have very long to wait before the sea comes up to meet them (relatively speaking).

How is it that anyone can comfortably draw a step #3 macro-conclusion from the itty-bitty (and horrendously uncertain) detail they latched onto in step #2? As proofs go, this step is completely contingent on at least three different things:
(a) on perfect identification of the detail itself,
(b) on perfect correlation with essentially the same thing but in an external tradition, and
(c) on the logical presumption that this is necessarily the only feasible explanation for the correlation

Each of these three would be extremely difficult to prove on its own, never mind when all three are required to be true at the same time for their sum to be true.

In my experience, when people put forward a Voynich manuscript macro-conclusion based on local correlation with some micro-detail they have noticed, they almost always haven’t noticed how weakly supported their overall argument is. Not only that, but why is it – given the image-rich source their external tradition normally is – that they can typically only point to a single image in it that supports their claimed correlation? That is fairly bankrupt, intellectually speaking.

How can we fix this issue?

This is a really hard problem. Art History tends to furnish historians with the illusion that they can use its conceptual tricks and technical ‘flow’ to tackle the Voynich Manuscript one single isolated detail at a time, but this isn’t really true in any useful sense.

A picture is a connected constellation of techniques, formed not only of ways of expressing things, but also of ways of seeing things. And so it’s a mystery why there should be such an otherness to the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings that deconstructing any part of it leaves us with next to nothing in our hands.

Part of this problem is easy to spot, insofar as there are plenty of places where we still can’t tell content from decoration from elaboration from emendation. Even a cursory look at pages such as the nine-rosette page or f116v should elicit the conclusion that they are made up of multiple layers, i.e. multiple codicological contributions.

For me, until someone uses tricks such as DNA analysis and Raman imaging to properly analyze the manuscript’s codicological layers, internal construction, and/or the original bifolio order of each of the sections, too many people will continue trying to read not “the unreadable”, but “the not-yet readable”: all of which will continue to lead to all manner of foolish reasoning and conclusions, as it has done for many decades.

I really want you understand that this isn’t because people are inherently foolish: rather, it’s because they almost all want to kid themselves that they can draw a solid macro-conclusion from an isolated and uncertain micro-similarity. And all the while that this continues to be the collective research norm, I have little doubt that we’re going to get nowhere.

Alexandra Marraccini’s presentation

You can see the slides and the draft article accompanying Alexandra Marracini’s recent talk here (courtesy of academia.edu).

The core of Marraccini’s argument seems to reduce to this: that if one or more of the circular castle roundels in the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette foldout is in fact the same flattened city that appears in BL Sloane MS 4016 f.8v and/or Vat.Chig. F.VII 158 f.12r and/or BNF Lat 6823 f.13r (the first two of which also have a little dragon in one herbal root), then we might be able to place the Voynich Manuscript in one branch of the Tractatus de Herbis tradition (all of which derive from Firenze Biblioteca dipartemental e di Botanica MS 106).

Even though this is arguably a reasonable starting point for future investigation, I’m not yet seeing a lot of methodological ‘air’ between what she’s doing and the mass of detail-driven Voynich single-image theories Marraccini would doubtless wish to distance herself from. The structural weakness of their arguments are still – to a very large degree – her argument’s weakness too.

Going forward, this amounts to a theoretical lacuna which I think she might do well to address: that there is no obvious historical / analytical methodology to apply here that satisfactorily bridges the gap between micro-similarities and macro-conclusion in the absence of accompanying texts. OK, pointing to an absence is perhaps a bit more of a problematique than most historians these days are comfortable with, but I’m only the messenger here, sorry.

Anyway, there’s a nice transcription of the Q&A session she gave after her presentation (courtesy of VViews) here, which I’m sure many Voynich researchers will find interesting.

Oddly, though, the questions from an audience Voynichero with my 2006 book “The Curse of the Voynich” in mind were almost exactly the opposite of what I would myself have asked (had I been there). The single most important question is: why is your argument structurally any better than all the other similar arguments that have been put forward?

So, what is missing here?

The answer to this certainly isn’t working hypotheses about the Voynich Manuscript, because there’s no obvious shortage of those. Even the suggestion that there might be some stemmatic relation (however vague and ill-defined) between the drawings in Voynich Manuscript and BL Sloane MS 4016 has been floating around for some years.

Instead, what I think is missing is a whole set of evidential basics: for example, physical data and associated reasoning that tell us without almost no doubt which paints were original (answer: not many of them) and which were added later; or (perhaps more importantly) what the original bifolio nesting order was.

With these to work with, we could reject many, many incorrect hypotheses: and we might – with just a little bit of luck – possibly be able to use one or two as fixed points to pivot the whole discourse round, like an Archimedean Lever.

The alternative, sadly, is a long sequence of more badly-structured arguments, Groundhog Day-stylee. Even if my ice-carving technique has got stupendously good, it would be nice to have a change, right?

Here’s a thing that struck me the other day about the Anthon Transcript that I thought I ought to mention.

The way that the story has been passed down to us makes it far from easy to reconcile the “Caractors” page…

…with the “singular scrawl” shown to Professor Charles Anthon in 1828:

“It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calendar given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived.”

It would seem as though the first page was arranged in horizontal rows, while the second page was arranged in vertical columns and with a compartmentalized circle added after it. It sounds as though we are talking about two quite different things, and so shouldn’t even attempt to reconcile them as one. Yet in the decade up to his death in 1888, David Whitmer repeatedly asserted that this first page was indeed the very same “original paper” that Martin Harris had taken to Charles Anthon.

At this point, any passing Intellectual Historian might gently suggest that all these statements may well have been said in good faith: and that what is actually stopping us seeing them all as descriptions of the same thing is not the evidence itself, but our stubbornly persistent misreading of what is in front of our faces.

Can we do better?

The case of the ‘H’

I suspect that we can: and the giveaway that may well help to point us in the direction of what happened is the capital ‘H’ shape that occurs at least eight times:

How on earth did the person copying this down not notice that this was nothing more than an ornate ‘H’ shape? Though I’ve long wondered about this, reasonable answers have to date always eluded me. But what I noticed here is that perhaps the actual explanation is painfully simple: that the person who originally wrote these down copied the shapes as if they were written in columns, i.e. without seeing them as ‘H’ shapes at all.

The photograph in Clay County Museum directly supports this idea, because the writing on the other side of the fold (“The Book of Generation Adam”) is written sideways:

The two-button mouse

Even though most of the Caractors are evenly inked, the strong downward strokes of one of the three “two-button mouse” shapes also seems to indicate to my eyes that the letters were written ninety degrees rotated from what we see now (though I’d appreciate other people’s palaeographical insights on this particular issue):

I’d have thought the suggestion that these letters were originally written in columns rather than rows would be a palaeographical hypothesis that could be tested out and resolved one way or the other.

Reconstructing the sequence

If the above is basically right, it would seem that the stages that this page went through were:

(1) The shapes were copied in columns from a source that was (wrongly) believed to have also been written in columns.

This caused letters such as the ornate ‘H’ shape to be copied not semantically as letters, but instead as a series of strokes. I would also expect that these columns were copied downwards as per the following image:

I can see how someone who had not grasped the correct orientation of these letters might have considered their rotated versions to be “hieroglyphic”-like. (I can also see how going from “hieroglyphic”-like to reconstructing the 2500 B.C. Jaredite flight from Egypt to America in submarines might seem a little too extreme for some.)

Note that I can easily see how the bottom of this page (beneath the ragged fold in the museum photograph) could have originally contained a “rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments”: in which case the page was obviously longer. The overall page was also probably folded in half (parallel to the longest edge) at around this time, because only a single crease is apparent in the photograph.

This, then, would have been what was shown to Charles Anthon in 1828.

(2) The circular calendar section was removed, and the ‘Caractors’ word added.

Note that MacKay et al [*1] showed that the “Caractors” lettering at the top and the lettering of the curious letters were all done in the same ink. However, it also seems likely to me (from the orientation) the Caractors word was added in a quite separate construction phase, and their conclusion that this word was added at the same time as the rest of the letters ought to be examined very carefully indeed.

I believe that the circular calendar section was removed around now because of the following phase…

(3) The “Book of Generation Adam” text is added circa 1830, halfway down the reverse side.

Because this text was added right in the middle of the reverse side, it seems likely to me that the circular calendar section had already been removed (or else this text would probably have appeared further up the [slightly longer] page).

We can date this addition to 1830 or after, because that is when the phrase “The Book of Generation Adam” began to be used in the Mormon Church.

(4) The “Book of Generation Adam” half of the page is removed before 1884.

As Grindael noted, the part of the page with the “Book of Generation Adam” text was almost certainly “torn off sometime before 1884, because it is described as having the same dimensions then as it did in 1903”.

(5) The remaining fragment is sold to the RLDS Church in 1903.

“This collection of documents [was] eventually given into the care of George Schweich, a nephew of David J. Whitmer, who subsequently sold them to the RLDS Church for $2450 in 1903.”

Is this sequence correct?

I don’t honestly know. But if you were to try – while wearing an Intellectual Historian hat – to reconcile what you see in the RLDS Caractors fragment with the different testimonies assuming they were all given in good faith, then I strongly suspect that this sequence is extremely close to where you would necessarily end up.

And perhaps that’s as good as it gets, at this distance in time. Or… perhaps this is just the start?

[*1] MacKay, Michael Hubbard; Dirkmaat, Gerrit J.; Jenson, Robin Scott. The “Caractors” Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters – Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 14, No. 1.

Having studied unsolved cipher mysteries for more than a decade, it seems to me that there are some distinct patterns of behaviour around them (by owners and by others) that serve to muddy the waters for modern researchers.

And so for the sake of collaborative clarity, I think that each of these behaviours ought to be given a ‘pattern name’. (There’s a very large “Patterns” literature in Architecture, Computer Science and Management, where common patterns of behaviour [both good and bad] are given names.) You may agree or disagree with the specific examples I give (and/or you may have a better pattern name in mind), but please hear me out, see what I’m trying to get at here…

“Cipher myth-making”

This behaviour typically occurs in the situation where someone has inherited or found an unsolved historical cipher, but has no provenance or definite historical context to work with. Unable to solve the cipher, the owner then (for whatever reason) concocts a myth or legend around it that they would like to be true.

The prime example here would seem to be the first version of “La Buse”‘s cryptogram (as famously described by Charles de la Roncière in his 1934 book “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”).

To my eyes, the odds are high that this was found in a notarial archive but with nothing accompanying it to help place or date it. And then, perhaps inspired by the early twentieth century Mauritian “gold rush” to find the Nageon de l’Estang pirate treasure, the owner presumed (though without proof) that it was a pirate treasure map.

My guess is that the myth that was added here was that of Olivier Levasseur hurling a treasure map into the crowd just before his execution, and exclaiming “Mon trésor à qui saura le prendre“. (There is, as far as I can tell, not a jot of evidence to support the idea that this melodramatic little scene actually happened.)

Without that, why would anyone link the cryptogram with La Buse?

“Cipher backfilling”

This behaviour occurs when the unsolved cipher has some kind of story already associated with it, but the absence of useful support details offers an evidential vacuum that demands to be filled in.

This differs from cipher myth-making in that here some kind of basic story needs to first be in place (though whether that story itself is true or false is another matter entirely): the additions are then in the form of elaborations to the core narrative, fleshing out its skeletal structure.

The obvious example of this would seem to be the second “La Buse” cryptogram:

Here, the elaborations would be the extra lines of cipher (some apparently cribbed from Poe), the drawings (some apparently cribbed from Howard Pyle), and the pigpen ciphertext saying “LA BUSE” (apparently cribbed from the myth).

The Beale Papers?

As with the two different “La Buse” cryptograms, the evidential haze around many other unsolved cipher mysteries can exhibit both cipher myth-making and cipher backfilling at the same time.

For example, I think there’s a strong argument that while the Beale Ciphers themselves could well be genuine, the case for the Beale Papers‘ being genuine is somewhat less straightforward.

The supposed bedrock of the history is that Beale placed an iron box with the cryptograms in trust with an innkeeper called Robert Morriss, who then opened it 23 years later (in 1845). However, the well-known problem with this timeline is that Morriss did not start work at the Washington Hotel until 1823, which was apparently after the box had already been left.

This suggests that Morriss may well have inherited the box from a previous innkeeper at the Washington Hotel: and that even if Morriss knew the correct name of the box’s owner (which was presumably, but not necessarily, written on the box itself), he may well never have actually met him.

This further suggests that Morriss may have taken the basic story about how Thomas Beale left a box at the Washington Hotel in the early 1820s and backfilled it until it became a tale worth telling and re-telling (while perhaps also advancing his personal claim on any treasure that may get found on it).

Moreover, it would seem that Morriss’s tale was then further elaborated by the (unnamed) author of the Beale Papers, until it became a tale worth printing (and hopefully buying).

However, if you put the Beale cryptograms to one side, I don’t currently see any evidence that anything about the Beale Papers is genuine, not even Thomas Beale’s name. Which perhaps goes to show how careful you have to be when trying to make sense of cipher mysteries.

The Voynich Manuscript?

It could well be that the the 1665 Marci letter that famously accompanied the Voynich Manuscript contains distant echoes of previous cipher myth-making: its suggested link to Roger Bacon now seems somewhat spurious, but was notable enough for Raphael Mnišovský to remember some decades later.

The supposed link between the Voynich Manuscript and John Dee / Edward Kelley is somewhat easier to deal with: without any real doubt, this was Wilfrid Voynich’s own cipher backfill. But his notion that the only conceivable way the manuscript could have travelled from England to Bohemia was via Dee and/or Kelley seems both historically and intellectually unsatisfactory.

Perhaps the bigger story here, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is that the Rosicrucian Manifestoes might possibly be the most extraordinary cipher backfill ever, i.e. that they were part of a huge after-the-event false history construction designed to appropriate the Voynich Manuscript into a scheme to con(vince) Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II into backing a proto-Freemasonic group. But we may never be able to determine whether or not this is true.

Nowadays, there seems to be no end of people putting out YouTube videos and websites with Voynich-related backfill: indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge we face going forward is swimming through the brown tide of cipher backfill. Oh well!

The other day, I was wondering where in East London (according to the story the owner told me) the Blitz Ciphers were found: and also wondered if they might have been left behind by some kind of mathematical society.

As an aside, the problem with any speculative mathematical link to Freemasonry is that even though Masonic theoretical historians like to talk about (capital-G) Geometry and how the Great Architect of the Universe (errrrm: God, basically) is somehow ineffably mathematical, their rather grand Platonic-Christian narrative breaks down when you bother to look at the details. The short version is that if there is any genuine maths in Masonry beyond basic Euclid-for-Dummies, it seems to me to be extraordinarily well-hidden.

(As always, if you happen to know of specific examples of mathematical Masonic societies that run counter to this sweeping generalization, please feel free to leave a comment below.)

So I instead went looking for genuine historical mathematical societies in London’s East End: and was delighted to discover the all-too-brief splendour of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society.

The Spitalfields Mathematical Society, Crispin Street

Conspiracy theorists and armchair cold case amateur detectives know this part of London well: the Ten Bells pub just around the corner was frequented by Jack the Ripper’s victims, the last of whom was found in Millers Court (close to Crispin Street). (Pastry chef geezer Jamie Oliver’s great-great-grandfather was for a while the Ten Bells’ landlord, for all you TV trivia fans.)

Incidentally, I found a rather nice website that blends historical photos of Spitalfields (taken by C. A. Mathew around 1912) with modern photographs taken on the same spot, to give an eerily evocative effect (such as the following image of Crispin Street):

But long before even C. A. Mathew, the history of the area revolved around Huguenot weavers, whose houses in Fournier Street are still there:

And it was the Huguenot immigrants who the Spitalfields Mathematical Society was originally aimed at, according to most accounts. De Morgan’s (1872) “A Budget of Paradoxes” describes it thus:

Among the most remarkable proofs of the diffusion of speculation was the Mathematical Society, which flourished from 1717 to 1845. Its habitat was Spitalfields, and I think most of its existence was passed in Crispin Street. It was originally a plain society, belonging to the studious artisan. The members met for discussion once a week ; and I believe I am correct in saying that each man had his pipe, his pot, and his problem. One of their old rules was that, “If any member shall so far forget himself and the respect due to the Society as in the warmth of debate to threaten or offer personal violence to any other member, he shall be liable to immediate expulsion, or to pay such fine as the majority of the members present shall decide.” But their great rule, printed large on the back of the title page of their last book of regulations, was “By the constitution of the Society, it is the duty of every member, if he be asked any mathematical or philosophical question by another member, to instruct him in the plainest and easiest manner he is able.” We shall presently see that, in old time, the rule had a more homely form.

I have been told that De Moivre was a member of this Society. This I cannot verify : circumstances render it unlikely ; even though the French refugees clustered in Spitalfields ; many of them were of the Society, which there is some reason to think was founded by them. But Dollond, Thomas Simpson, Saunderson, Crossley, and others of known name, were certainly members. The Society gradually declined, and in 1845 was reduced to nineteen members. An arrangement was made by which sixteen of these members, who were not already in the Astronomical Society became Fellows without contribution, all the books and other property of the old Society being transferred to the new one. I was one of the committee which made the preliminary inquiries, and the reason of the decline was soon manifest. The only question which could arise was whether the members of the society of working men for this repute still continued were of that class of educated men who could associate with the Fellows of the Astronomical Society on terms agreeable to all parties. We found that the artisan element had been extinct for many years ; there was not a man but might, as to education, manners, and position, have become a Fellow in the usual way. The fact was that life in Spitalfields had become harder : and the weaver could only live from hand to mouth, and not up to the brain. The material of the old Society no longer existed.

London had a fair few broadly similar societies – the Mechanic’s Institution and the London Architectural Society to name but two – but if you were looking for a mathematical society in East London that had long disappeared and some of whose papers might -possibly- have been the Blitz Ciphers, the Spitalfields Mathematical Society would seem to be at the very least an interesting candidate, right?

But the immediate question is…

Was Crispin Street bombed in WWII?

Having once idly flicked through a copy of “The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945” hardback when it came out in 2015, I half-remembered that the London bomb maps were all at the London Metropolitan Archive, and had once upon a time been in an exhibition there. There’s also tons more stuff in the National Archives in Kew (in whose downstairs bookshop I saw the book, incidentally).

But this being the Internet, there are also online bomb damage maps to try out. And it turns out that even though nearby streets were hit (such as Frying Pan Alley)…

…it would seem that Crispin Street escaped WWII unscathed.

So it would finally seem that we may well be out of luck with any possible connection between the Blitz Ciphers and the Spitalfields Mathematical Society. But all the same, I’m glad I looked. 🙂

And finally…

The Astronomer’s Drinking Song

Augustus De Morgan’s “A Budget of Paradoxes” includes the lyrics of a song sung at a Mathematical Society dinner in 1798, in honour of its solicitor, Mr. Fletcher. He had defended it against charges brought against them by “Informers”, but refused all offers of payment. Splendidly, De Morgan included the lyrics, which I reproduce below.

Of course, classic comedy song connoisseurs will instantly spot the connection with Monty Python’s “Rhubarb Tart Song“, which also mentions René Descartes (The principles of modern philosophy / Were postulated by Descartes. / Discarding everything he wasn’t certain of / He said ‘I think therefore I am a rhubarb tart.’)

THE ASTRONOMER’S DRINKING-SONG.

WHOE’ER would search the starry sky / Its secrets to divine, sir,
Should take his glass I mean, should try / A glass or two of wine, sir !
True virtue lies in golden mean, / And man must wet his clay, sir ;
Join these two maxims, and ’tis seen / He should drink his bottle a day, sir !

Old Archimedes, reverend sage ! / By trump of fame renowned, sir,
Deep problems solved in every page, / And the sphere’s curved surface found, sir:
Himself he would have far outshone, / And borne a wider sway, sir,
Had he our modern secret known, / And drank his bottle a day, sir !

When Ptolemy, now long ago, / Believed the earth stood still, sir,
He never would have blundered so, / Had he but drunk his fill, sir :
He’d then have felt it circulate, / And would have learnt to say, sir,
The true way to investigate / Is to drink your bottle a day, sir !

Copernicus, that learned wight, / The glory of his nation,
With draughts of wine refreshed his sight, / And saw the earth’s rotation ;
Each planet then its orb described, / The moon got under way, sir ;
These truths from nature he imbibed / For he drank his bottle a day, sir !

The noble Tycho placed the stars, / Each in its due location ;
He lost his nose by spite of Mars, / But that was no privation :
Had he but lost his mouth, I grant / He would have felt dismay, sir,
Bless you ! he knew what he should want / To drink his bottle a day, sir !

Cold water makes no lucky hits ; / On mysteries the head runs :
Small drink let Kepler time his wits / On the regular polyhedrons :
He took to wine, and it changed the chime, / His genius swept away, sir,
Through area varying as the time / At the rate of a bottle a day, sir !

Poor Galileo, forced to rat / Before the Inquisition,
E pur si muove was the pat / He gave them in addition :
He meant, whate’er you think you prove, / The earth must go its way, sirs ;
Spite of your teeth I’ll make it move, / For I’ll drink my bottle a day, sirs !

Great Newton, who was never beat / Whatever fools may think, sir ;
Though sometimes he forgot to eat, / He never forgot to drink, sir :
Descartes took nought but lemonade, / To conquer him was play, sir ;
The first advance that Newton made / Was to drink his bottle a day, sir !

D’Alembert, Euler, and Clairaut, / Though they increased our store, sir,
Much further had been seen to go / Had they tippled a little more, sir !
Lagrange gets mellow with Laplace, / And both are wont to say, sir,
The philosophe who’s not an ass / Will drink his bottle a day, sir !

Astronomers ! what can avail / Those who calumniate us ;
Experiment can never fail / With such an apparatus :
Let him who’d have his merits known / Remember what I say, sir ;
Fair science shines on him alone / Who drinks his bottle a day, sir !

How light we reck of those who mock / By this we’ll make to appear, sir,
We’ll dine by the sidereal clock / For one more bottle a year, sir :
But choose which pendulum you will, / You’ll never make your way, sir,
Unless you drink and drink your fill, / At least a bottle a day, sir !

It’s well-known that over the last two centuries, the quest for the mysterious “Money Pit” on Oak Island has yielded no sign of treasure while simultaneously consuming an inordinate quantity of diggers’ dollars – and if you can even think about all that without silently mouthing the phrase ‘ironically enough’, you have a huge amount of self-control. 😉

Yet despite all that ‘activity’, nothing of any actual substance about the whole curious enterprise that put or left the (so-called) pit there in the first place seems to have emerged. All that has been achieved is that (a) a small island has been ravaged by glinty-eyed treasure hunters, and (b) bookshelves have been filled with books that almost all manage to leave readers somehow less knowledgeable than when they began.

If you pause to reflect on the scale and prolonged fruitlessness of this archaeological disaster zone even momentarily, you’ll surely find it hard to prevent the two words “Epic” and “Fail” from lurching to the front of your mind. 😐

“The Curse of Oak Island”

Perhaps naturally enough, it seems that the (apparently obligatory) combination of determination, hubris, cupidity and stupidity that Oak Island treasure hunters have also makes them ideal Reality TV subjects, every bit as good as the Kardashians, TOWiE or whatever. Which is why the Canadian reality TV show “The Curse of Oak Island” (which premiered in 2014, and follows the Oak Island treasure hunt being pursued by Michigan brothers Marty and Rick Lagina) is now in its fantabulous 4th season. Will it ever end? (What do you think?)

Whatever you personally make of the whole Oak Island reality TV project, it is surely a brutal mirror to hold up to modern culture’s pox-plagued visage: for if all it boils down to is a fruitless search for something that nobody can describe and for which there seems to be no actual evidence, surely nobody involved can emerge the other side looking or smelling good. 🙁

Yet, curiously paralleling the Anton Transcript at the core of Mormonism, at the heart of the Money Pit mythology lies a cipher mystery that has had so much screen time in Z-grade historicalist documentaries that it practically has its own Equity card. Yes, I’m talking about a cipher that could get gigs on cruise ships.

As per normal, nobody knows whether or not this cipher is the real deal or merely Milli Vanilli. Moreover, it turns out that – just like the two versions of La Buse’s cryptogram – it also has a secret twin cipher (and nobody knows whether or not that’s real either), which we’ll (eventually) return to in Part 2. 🙂

Anyhoo, it’s time we all had a proper Cipher Mysteries look at the first (and infamous) Oak Island cipher…

The 80-foot Rock Cipher

Though most modern authors call it the “90-foot rock” cipher, this was claimed to have been found carved into a rock found eighty feet underground. As usual, I try to avoid following trends if I know they’re broken. 🙂

Regardless, the first documentary mention of it is in a 2nd June 1862 letter written by treasure hunter Jotham B. McCully of Truro, printed in the “Liverpool Transcript” in October 1862 in response to a critical article entitled “The Oak Island Folly”. McCully wrote “The Oak Island Diggings” to explain why he and the other treasure hunters were so convinced there was treasure in the Pit.

Bearing in mind that, according to other records, the original ‘Onslow Company’ search started in about 1795…:

“About seven years afterwards, Simeon Lynds, of Onslow, went down to Chester, and happening to stop with Mr. Vaughn, he was informed of what had taken place. He then agreed to get up a company, which he did, of about 25 or 30 men, and they commenced where the first left off, and sunk the pit 93 feet, finding a mark every ten feet. Some of them were charcoal, some putty, and one at 80 feet was a stone cut square, two feet long and about a foot thick, with several characters on it.”

According to this admirably source-heavy webpage, the stone was “yet to be seen in the chimney of an old house near the pit” (19th February 1863, Yarmouth Herald).

Then, the “remarkable” stone was then revealed to have been found “pretty far down in the pit, laying in the centre with the engraved side down”, and the house was revealed to be that of John Smith. It contained “a number of rudely cut letters and figures upon it. They were in hopes the inscription would throw some valuable light on their search, but unfortunately they could not decipher it, as it was either too badly cut or did not appear to be in their own vernacular.” (2nd January 1864, The Colonist, Halifax N.S.)

George Cooke, in a 27th January 1864 letter, described the marks as “rudely cut letters, figures or characters […]. I cannot recollect which, but they appear as if they had been scraped out by a blunt instrument, rather than cut with a sharp one.” He hoped that they could be deciphered in the future.

But what did the marks say? At that point in the cipher’s history, it seems nobody had decrypted it. But, according to the Oak Island Treasure Company prospectus (the copy transcribed on pp.215-225 of Geoff Bath’s “Maps, Mystery, and Interpretation” [Part 2] is dated 1894):

Many years afterwards, it was taken out of the chimney and taken to Halifax to have, if possible, the characters deciphered. One of the experts gave his reading of the inscriptions as follows: “Ten feet below are two million pounds buried.” We give this statement for what it is worth, but by no means claim that this is the correct interpretation. Apart from this however, the fact remains that the history and description of the stone as above given have never been disputed.”

Hence it was (apparently) first decrypted between 1864 and 1894.

Creighton’s Bookstore

The next mention of the “quaint carven stone” has it in Creighton’s Bookstore in Halifax, N.S.: “but the inscriptions were erased long ago after the stone had endured the blows from a bookbinder’s mallet. But at the time of the discovery of the stone the inscriptions were translated to read: ‘Ten feet below, 2,000,000 pounds lie buried.'” (29th April 1909, Fairbanks Daily News Miner).

Yet… the 19th August 1911 edition of Collier’s Magazine contains an eyewitness account supplied by Captain H.L. Bowdoin that departs somewhat from the dominant narrative. He wrote:

“While in Halifax we examined the stone found in the Money Pit, the characters on which were supposed to mean: “Ten feet below two million pounds lie buried.” The rock is of a basalt type hard and fine-grained.”

“There never were any characters on the rock found in the Money Pit. Because: (a) The rock, being hard, they could not wear off. (b) There are a few scratches, etc., made by Creighton’s employees, as they acknowledged, but there is not, and never was, a system of characters carved on the stone.”

There was backed up thoroughly by a 27th March 1935 eyewitness statement by Harry W. Marshall, who was the son of one of the owners of Creighton & Marshalls:

One of the Creighton’s was interested in the Oak Island Treasure Co. and had brought to the city a stone which I well remember seeing as a boy, and until the business was merged in 1919 in the present firm of Phillips & Marshall. The stone was about 2 feet long, 15 inches wide, and 10 inches thick, and weighed about 175 pounds. It had two smooth surfaces, with rough sides with traces of cement attached to them. Tradition said that it had been part of two fireplaces. The corners were not squared but somewhat rounded. The block resembled dark Swedish granite or fine grained porphyry, very hard, and with an olive tinge, and did not resemble any local stone. Tradition said that it had been found originally in the mouth of the “Money Pit”. While in Creighton’s possession some lad had cut his initials ‘J.M.” on one corner, but apart from this there was no evidence of any inscription either cut or painted on the stone. Creighton used the stone for a beating stone and weight. When the business was closed in 1919, Thos. Forhan, since deceased, asked for the stone, the history of which seems to have been generally known. When Marshall left the premises in 1919, the stone was left behind, but Forhan does not seem to have taken it. Search at Forhan’s business premises and residence two years ago disclosed no stone. The full history of the stone was written up in ‘the Suburban” about 1903 or 1904.

(Incidentally, people have searched for this issue of “The Suburban” but without any success.)

The two stones

Nobody seems to have dwelt much on what – to me, at least – is the most obvious problem with the above. Which is that we seem to be talking about two quite different stones here.

The first stone: “a stone cut square, two feet long and about a foot thick”, found eighty feet underground, and put into a chimney. Has curious writing on. Repeatedly described as having been “cut square”, like a “flagstone”.

The second stone: “2 feet long, 15 inches wide, and 10 inches thick”, “rounded” corners, found near the mouth of the Money Pit, and had been taken out of a chimney. Apparently has no writing on. “Basalt type hard and fine-grained” (Bowdoin), or “dark Swedish granite or fine grained porphyry, very hard, and with an olive tinge” (Marshall).

While it is entirely possible that the first stone was cut down to make it fit in John Smith’s chimney, the two descriptions don’t seem to fit each other in any other way either.

The most likely explanation to my mind is that we are talking about two entirely separate rocks both coming from the Money Pit, the first with marks roughly carved into it (and so perhaps a softer stone such as sandstone), and the second a much harder stone with no marks carved into it (the “JM” was added during its time in Halifax).

The first stone may therefore still be extant somewhere, perhaps in the garden of a Halifax house of a former treasure hunter.

Images of the 80-foot rock cipher

The short version is that there are no tracings or copies made from the object itself whose veracity we can be even remotely sure of: most of the images floating round the Internet are mock-ups of what people think it should look like.

Worse, the cipher’s plaintext seems to have changed along the way. Whereas in 1894 it was described as saying “Ten feet below are two million pounds buried”, this later changed into “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried” – note both the different depth and the different word order.

Where did this change? The first time we see the “forty feet” version is in a circa 1949 typewritten account of Oak Island by Reverend Austen Tremaize Kempton (which was never published):

Here’s what it looked like in print (I believe this is in Edward Rowe Snow’s 1949 “True Tales of Buried Treasure”):

The person now often said to have decrypted the inscription was Dalhousie University Professor of Languages James Leitchi: there’s a good-sized page on him here.

Of course, one problem with this is that Leitchi was not actually an “old Irish school Master” but Swiss. However, he was (according to the timeline) a teacher at Halifax High School up until 1884: and we know that the stone was decrypted in Halifax before 1894.

Analyses and theories

Even though there is essentially zero doubt that the cipher as presented by Kempton (and then Snow) does indeed read “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried”, plenty of extra interpretations (typical “dual cipher” theories) have been put forward. One such was Dr. Wilhelm’s (modified) “At eighty guide maize or millet estuary or firth drain F”, described here.

Other webpages suggest that the letter shapes are all mathematical symbols, but this seems a bit lame to me: the shapes are just simple cipher shapes, nothing funky.

Other webpages suggest that Kempton faked the cipher, or that the whole thing is in fact a Masonic cryptogram or riddle. There’s also a theory by Keith Ranville, who also once put forward a Silk Road prostitution theory about the Voynich Manuscript

But I think all these theories and ideas are missing the big problem: which is that because we can’t account for the change in wording between the two versions of the cipher, we simply can’t comfortably trust the versions we have.

However, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed something important in all the timelines. Please let me know if I have, thanks! 🙂

In a recent post here, I floated the idea that the Zodiac Killer’s Z408 (solved) cipher’s unusual homophone distribution may have arisen not conceptually (i.e. from a hitherto-unknown book on cryptography), but instead empirically (i.e. emerging from the properties of a specific text).

It’s certainly possible that he might have used his own (private) text to model his homophone distribution, in which case we probably almost no chance of reconstructing it. However, I think it likely that he instead used the first few characters of an already existing public text (such as Moby Dick, the Book of Genesis, the Declaration of Independence, or whatever) to do this.

It’s a reasonable enough suggestion, I think: and moreover one that we can try to test to a reasonable degree.

Z408’s homophones

A homophonic cipher key allocates a number of cipher shapes to individual plaintext letters, usually (but not always) in broad proportion to their frequency. So in a typical homophonic cipher key you would expect to see far more shapes for E (the most common letter in English) than for, say, Z or Q.

Though this is essentially the case for what we see in the Z408 cipher (particularly for the more frequent letters, ETAOINS), the numbers of homophones chosen for the less frequent letters seem somewhat idiosyncratic and arbitrary:

7 shapes – E
4 shapes – T A O I N S
3 shapes – L R
2 shapes – D F H
1 shape  – B C G K M P U V W X Y
Did not appear: J Q Z

People have long searched for a primer or textbook on cryptography where the description of the alphabetic frequency distribution matches this, or even where the alphabetic frequency ordering (e.g. ETAOINSHRDLU etc) matches the order here, but in vain.

Designing a filter

The basic idea for the filter is easy enough:
* read in characters from the start of a passage (we’re only interested in capitalized alphabetic letters, i.e. A-Z)
* if the instance count of that character is higher than the top of the desired range, then the test fails
* if the instance counts for all the characters are within the desired range at the same time, then the test passes
* else keep reading in more characters until the test terminates

As a side note: of all the Z408 homophones, only X appears exactly once in the Z408 ciphertext itself: but while it is conceivable that the Zodiac Killer might have allocated extra homophones for X, it does seem fairly unlikely.

The desired ranges for each of the characters would look like this (though feel free to adapt this if you disagree with the homophone counts listed above):

[7,7] – E
[4,4] – T A O I N S
[3,3] – L R
[2,2] – D F H
[0,1] – B C G K M P U V W Y J Q Z
[0,3] – X (to err on the side of safety)

Note that the single-letter characters have a slightly broader [0,1] range because we have no way of knowing whether or not they would have actually appeared in the original text.

Here are two test texts that should both pass:

EEEEEEETTTTAAAAOOOOIIIINNNNSSSSLLLRRRDDFFHHZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

BCGKMPUVWYJQZXEEEEEEETTTTAAAAOOOOIIIINNNNSSSSLLLRRRDDFFHHZZZ

Which texts to try?

Though any text published before August 1969 would potentially be a match, it would make sense to look at all manner of texts, and possibly even the first few lines of different chapters of books (though I’d be a little surprised if that was the case). All the same, the filter is easy enough to write (and should execute in a matter of microseconds) and to test, so the difficulty here lies mostly in getting hold of enough texts to try, rather than the compute time as such.

Oddly, I don’t really have a solid feel for how often the filter will find a match: my gut instinct is that roughly one in a million English text comparisons will pass, but that’s just a guesstimate based on each letter having its own little bell-curve distribution, all of which have to match at the same time.

So what do you think will match? “Catcher in the Rye” or “Moby Dick”? Place your bets! 😉

Though originally published in 1998 and 2003, and most recently published in three volumes in 2013-2014, “Maps, Mystery and Interpretation” is in reality a single (very large) book, the fruits of Geoff Bath’s vast sustained effort to till Oak Island’s unproductive historical soil.

The overall title broadly suggests its three constituent sections, in that Part 1 covers (possibly pirate) treasure maps (“Maps”); Part 2 examines the evidential haze surrounding the Oak Island “Money Pit” mystery (“Mystery”); while Part 3 attempts to put the myriad of pieces together to make sense of them all (“Interpretation”). Simples.

If only the Oak Island mystery itself were as straightforward…

Part 1: Maps

Here, Geoff presents all the “Kidd” maps that Hubert Palmer ended up with, and compares Howlett’s account of them with Wilkins’ account, as well as – and this is the good bit – lots of letters written and received by both Wilkins and Palmer.

I can’t be the only reader to find himself or herself surprised by Bath’s conclusion – that Wilkins essentially got it all just about right, while Howlett got a great deal of it wrong.

All the same, as far as reconstructing the modern history of the Palmer-Kidd maps goes, Geoff’s reasoning here seems very much on the money. I’d say his account gets far closer to what happened than even George Edmunds’ account (stripping both authors’ conclusions out of the picture first).

However, Bath gets himself in something of a tangle trying to make sense of the various maps Wilkins originated (both in Part 1 and in Part 3). Was Wilkins adapting maps or documents otherwise unseen, using them as templates for his own creations, or trolling his readers to help him identify mysterious islands? Too often Bath seems content to speculate in a way that paints Wilkins in an almost Svengali-like way, a kind of Andy Warhol of treasure maps.

In reality, I’m far from sure that Wilkins was any closer to historical clarity than we are now. Given that I can’t read more than a handful of pages of his “A Modern Treasure Hunter” without feeling nauseous (the fumes! the bad accents! the ghosts!), I just can’t see Wilkins as anything like a consistently reliable source, even about himself.

Yet one of the most specifically insightful things that emerges from Part One is Bath’s observation that it isn’t necessary for these maps to actually be Kidd’s for them to be independently genuine. That is, the set of maps’ whole association with Kidd might be something that was overlaid onto a (non-Kidd) set of maps: the supposed Kidd link might easily have been added to the mix as a way of “bigging up” someone else’s maps. If this is true (and you don’t have to believe that these are Oak Island maps for it to be so), many of the difficulties that arise when you try to link them to Kidd (e.g. dating, language, etc) disappear.

It’s still hellishly difficult to make sense of these maps, for sure, but Geoff is right to point out that Kidd may well turn out to be part of the problem here, rather than part of the solution or explanation. Something to think about, for certain.

Part 2: Mystery

In my opinion, Oak Island is a wretched, wretched subject, filled with all the slugs and snails of cipher mysteries and not the vaguest flicker of any of the good stuff. It’s a bleak, barren evidential landscape, filled with unconfirmed micro-features briefly noted by a long series of individual investigators, before being quickly razed from the face of the earth by gung-ho treasure hunters. There seems little genuine hope that any faint trace of anything historical or sensible still remains.

Putting the speculative sacred geometry and shapes picked on maps to one side, there are some (though not many) good things in Part Two I didn’t previously know about. Specifically, the idea that tunnels and features might have been dug aligned with the local magnetic compass at that time is quite cool, though obviously something that has been much discussed over the decades.

So I’m terribly sad to have to say that even a perceptive and diligent researcher such as Geoff Bath can make no real difference to this long-standing disaster area. His Part 2 is therefore little more than a Ozymandian monument to the effort and greed sunk in the pursuit of the Money Pit (not that a brass farthing or even so much as a period button has come of it to date).

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Part 3: Interpretation

Having struggled through the unpromising desert of the previous part, my expectations as to what Part 3 might bring were fairly low. But as Bath works his way through his interpretation section (repeatedly railing against the pox of untestable hypotheses), something actually rather odd happens.

All of a sudden, he mentions the Venatores (a early 20th century treasure hunting group) and the Particulars (a set of treasure hunting documents collected together by the Venatores). As this enters the picture, it’s as if a curious wave ripples through the whole research fabric: that, contrary to what you might have thought from the two previous books, it’s all not about whether Wilkins was credible or incredible, or whether Hill Cutler was stone cold serious or laughing all the way to the Terminus Road Lloyds Bank in Eastbourne, but instead that there might actually be something behind it all.

That is to say, what emerges – though all too briefly – is a frisson of that wonderfully engaging secret history paranoia where you can just sense stuff going on behind the scenes but which you know you probably won’t ever gain access to.

In the end, Bath’s well-researched and well-written books didn’t manage to persuade me of the existence of a link between the various treasure maps and the Oak Island mystery (and that, indeed, is a hypothesis that would seem to be politically untestable) nor of any kind of geometric cartography plan driving it all. However, it did manage to convince me that the whole Money Pit enterprise might possibly be built not on a vast hole, but instead on a history whose fragmentary parts have been scattered on the winds, and yet which might possibly be reassembled in the future.

It probably won’t happen but… who can say?