Leafing through an Old Bible to Root out Secrets of the Past
November 11, 2011 Leave a comment
Who put them there remains a mystery. But three old, dried leaves found pressed inside a 471-year-old Bible have given up many of their secrets after some scientific sleuthing by a Sydney researcher and his colleagues around the world.
The ornate Bible, published in 1540, was bought from a London antiquarian bookseller in 1977 by the University of Western Australia for £350.
Earlier this year, the university’s senior library officer noticed the jagged-edged leaves inserted between its pages.
When Pauline Grierson, a university plant biologist, was unable to identify them, she enlisted the help of John Dodson in Sydney, but he was also unsure.
Photographs of the leaves were sent to botanists in Ireland, Russia and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, and they were identified as wych elm.
Although these elms had a huge distribution, from the US to Iran, the leaves were likely to be from a European tree because of the book’s English origin.
”We also know the Bible was at the Ely Cathedral near Cambridge,” said Professor Dodson, head of the Institute for Environmental Research at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation at Lucas Heights.
He believes a naturalist probably put them there, because leaves of three different sizes were chosen. ”I figure it was somebody who was observant.”
Professor Dodson carried out radiocarbon dating of the middle-sized leaf and found its most likely calendar age was 1560.
”So my simple conclusion was that the leaves were practically as old as the Bible itself,” he said.
Dr Grierson also tested the leaf and discovered unusually high levels of nitrogen isotopes, which suggested it came from a wetland or farm environment.
A technique called neutron activation analysis, in which the leaf sample was bombarded with neutrons from the Open Pool Australian Lightwater nuclear reactor, was used to identify tiny levels of more than 50 elements.
Traces of mercury found in the leaf may have come from red-coloured dye in the Bible, Professor Dodson said…
There is more in The Sydney Morning Herald here.