12 Of The World’s Most Secretive Books

Codex Selden

The Codex Selden is a pre-colonial Mexican manuscript. It was lost for nearly 500 years under a layer of gypsum and chalk until it was rediscovered by archaeologists. The codex is made of leather strips covered with a plaster material called gesso, and researchers have always thought that it has contained hidden messages beneath the gesso surface. High resolution imaging performed in 2016 in fact did reveal hidden text and images. Scanning of the entire manuscript is being done in 2017 to reveal all of the codex’s hidden secrets, and researchers are reluctant to reveal anything until everything is discovered and deciphered. They will say that the new text reads sideways across the page rather than the original manuscript’s bottom to top text.

The Silver Scroll

A small amulet similar to the one pictured was found during a 2014 excavation of Jerash in Jordan. Jerash is an ancient site, and once home to Greeks, Romans, and Arabs at different intervals in history. The settlement was annihilated in 749 AD by a devastating earthquake. The amulet found was a small silver scroll only two inches long. After cleaning it up and polishing it, researchers were astonished to find text but the scroll was too fragile to unroll, so they used CT scanning and found 17 lines of text. Each line contained five letters and the first line contains magic spells written in Greek. The other lines are shrouded in mystery and no one has been able to yet crack the code. Language experts believe that the remaining lines are written in pseudo-Arabic, a secret magical language that was common at the time.

England’s Oldest Bible

Henry VIII certainly wanted things done his way, and formed the Anglican church to diss the Catholic Pope and to marry who he pleased. Henry also rewrote the bible to suit his own needs and assist in making England a Protestant nation. In 1535, the official, authorized version of the Bible—complete with a foreword from the King himself--was released, and if you were the unfortunate soul to own an unauthorized edition (Catholic), it might have earned you a death sentence. e Bible could earn a person a death sentence. Today, there are less than 10 of the original 1535 bibles left. And there is one in particular that continues to intrigue scholars 500 years after its publication. You see, this bible has a series of annotations hidden in its margins. More amazing is that the text was discovered totally by chance. A scholar had ordered the wrong bible from the Lambeth Palace Library, where the bible is kept. While waiting for the right bible, he noticed a hole in one of the pages and saw hidden text peaking through. An examination of the text revealed English notes written alongside the Latin biblical text. An x-ray specialist at Queen Mary University of London's School of Dentistry developed software to extract the printed text from the images. For the first time in more than 400 years, scholars were able to read the hidden notes, thought to be English annotations to the Latin bible. Just four years later, in 1539, Henry VIII decreed that all bibles must be printed in English, so these notes are from someone who had a 1539 bible but who went back and made English notes to the original 1535 Latin version. Fascinating

Novgorod Codex

The earliest known book written by the Rus people was discovered in Russia in 2000. The book is made of three waxed wooden tablets and is called the Novgorod Codex after the region of Russia it was discovered in. Archaelogists were further surprised by this amazing discovery when they found hidden text, and they soon realized the book was a palimpsest, a manuscript that has been scraped clean for reuse. The Novgorod Codex dates to the 11th century, and the Cyrillic text is of two Psalms. The wax covering was removed for proper conservation of the codex, and when that was done, restorers saw that the wood underneath the wax had traces of earlier text. One text was of Slavonic origin. It was incredibly difficult for scientists to tell the difference between hidden text and scratches or etchings in the wood. Finally, they revealed that the Codex had been repurposed multiple times, and with each use came a new and hidden layer of text. A palimpsest usually has only one layer of text, and this book is the first known discovery of a hyper-palimpsest. There is no known technique for deciphering it and it is made even more difficult in that all the layers of text are in the same handwriting.

Declaration of Independence

A recent hyperspectral imaging scan of Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence revealed some very interesting findings for the Preservation Team at the Library of Congress. One comment in particular stood out to the team of researchers, who think that it might just mark Jefferson’s “aha” moment, when he realized the gravity of the situation and just what the patriots were doing by denying British rule. Jefferson initially wrote “fellow subjects”, only to cross it out and change it to “fellow citizens”. It was a small change in words—no doubt—but a big change in the way of thinking for the birth of a new nation. Jefferson scholars have long wondered about what he originally wrote, but could never find out until the new technology allowed the high resolution imaging to see the words beneath the words.

Lost Texts of Archimedes

Constantinople was a great city of scholarly learning and as such was a repository of some of the world’s most significant documents. But in 1204, the city was ruined during Pope Innocent III’s Fourth Crusade. Some manuscripts were saved by being smuggled out of the city, and a copy of the great works of Archimedes was one of these documents that found its way to Jerusalem. This particular work was overwritten as a prayer book in 1229. Stripping and overwriting a document was quite common because parchment paper was in very short supply. Disguised as a mere common prayer book, the document sat for centuries until it showed up in a collection of a Greek man who happened to be living in Jerusalem at the time. The man sold it to Oxford University in 1876. After that, it is thought that the book was stolen from Oxford and kept as someone’s private collection. Amazingly, the book showed up in a 1998 rare book auction and the new owner took it to the Walters Art Museum to date the book and see if it could be repaired. The museum discovered that it had been painted over with gold leaf to conceal something, and they removed the paint and reconstructed the hidden text only to find that it contained math concepts. Iron detected in the ink was dated, and the museum staff not only uncovered the date the prayer book was finished but they also found the name of the scribe who had repurposed the parchment; his name was Ioannes Myronas, and he unknowingly saved Archimedes work. Perhaps the greatest find was that mathematical reference to the concept of infinity was discovered, a concept that scholars had previously thought was beyond the knowledge of the ancient Greeks. Looks like Archimedes was even smarter than we realized.

Codex Zacynthius

The Codex Zacynthius is a seventh-century account of the Gospel of Luke. Centuries later, researchers found that the document was in fact a palimpsest, a manuscript that has been scraped clean for reuse. Manuscripts were often reused due to the high cost of writing materials. As it turns out, the 7th century text was wiped to make room for a 13th century text called an Evangeliarium, which is a collection of Gospel passages. Both texts were written before the New Testament, which occurred in 16th-century when the Textus Receptus was written. The oldest work is named after the Greek island of Zakynthos, where it was discovered. The text has been on loan to Cambridge University for thirty years, and in 2014, the university raised 1.1 million to purchase it outright. They plan to use multispectral analysis to analyze the hidden text of the 176 page manuscript.

Euripides' Lost Play

A 13th century book of the Old Testament was recently revealed as having hidden 5th century Greek text underneath it. A team of Italian and German researchers from the Universities of Bologna and Gottingen have attributed the early Greek work to none other than Euripides, one of the best known ancient Greek playwrights. He completed nearly 100 plays during his lifetime but less than 20 have survived into modern times. Multispectral imaging revealed the hidden text in 2013, making it a palimpsest like some of the other documents we’ve described. The text resides at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Library in Jerusalem, and the library is conducting the Palamedes Project to decode all the hidden text.

Black Book of Carmarthen

We’ve all heard of the “little black book” but the Welsh people definitely have the most famous one. This book dates back to 1250 and is the earliest book written entirely in the Welsh language. When Henry VIII created the Protestant church, he ordered that all traces of the Catholic religion be removed from England. The book was at St. David’s Cathedral and was rescued by Sir John Price and secretly passed down through several families for centuries, ultimately ending up in the National Library of Wales. The library staff has thoroughly studied the book, which contains Welsh references to King Arthur and Merlin.

Scrolls of Herculaneum

Pompeii and its neighboring city Herculaneum were forever buried under a layer of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. When the city was first excavated in 1752, a set of scrolls was found and later revealed to have belonged to the town’s immense library. In fact, Herculaneium was know as the Villa of the Papyri because of its vast collection of over 1,800 scrolls. Alas, the original excavators didn’t know what they had. Many of the scrolls were burned as torches until someone realized that they might be important. The team did further damage when they attempted to peel the burned scrolls apart or unroll them.

Others ended up in the possession of conservationists who made Since then, several groups, including the Vatican, have made efforts to preserve the scrolls. Finally, BYU scholars used infrared technology to read some of the ink left behind. Amazingly the scrolls can be examined without the need to unroll them. One of the scrolls is a lost work by Epicurus called On Nature.

Jewish Graffiti?

We’ve all seen graffiti on walls and bridges, but this particular graffiti is 2,000 years old! Construction work in Jerusalem in 2015 revealed graffiti dating to the Second Temple era. The graffiti occurred in a cave that housed a ritual bath called a mikvah and the inscriptions were so old they were written in Aramaic. The “ink” was made of a mud-ash mixture. There are names, and depictions of trees and boats, and what is thought to be a menorah.

Books on the Chopping Block

Handwritten books became rare after the printing press was invented in the 15th century, and many bookbinders cut up or recycled handwritten texts and used the bits and pieces to reinforce the spines of printed books. Modern day researchers have used x-rays to look at the spines without damaging the books, and have gained glimpses into medieval life. Hidden fragments have revealed the oldest chopped up text to be from the 12th century, and contains an excerpt from an eighth century work by the scholar monk Bede.

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