Tabula picta f.5v – Plants in context. Pt.1.

This section of the essay is c.2000 wds. The Notes c.1800 words.

From a study first published in 2017, reprinted by request with both text and apparatus. Those who can – enjoy!

The author’s rights are asserted.


Prelude: The previous post asked whether the mnemonic devices in folio 5v* might allude to the geographic ‘Dioskurias and Teredon’* as notional limits for the Seleucid kingdom which controlled Mesopotamia from shortly after the death of Alexander to the beginning of the 2ndC BC.

This post is the ‘…context’. The following post will be the ‘.. plants’.

*In its original language ‘Teredon’ referred to a non-Greek deity called Tir. A shrine to the Dioscuri has been found there. And see Postscript.

1290 AD

Entering Mesopotamia and heading south, there came in 1290 AD nine hundred Genoese mercenaries. They had been invited to Baghdad by the Mongol il-Khan Arghun.

Noah the timber-getter. From Vézelay. 11th-12thC.

Seven hundred went directly to Baghdad but two hundred stopped at Mosul [1] where, we are told, they spent the winter “building two sea-going ships”.

[1] older sources in English have ‘Mossul’.

The question is ‘Why?’

Mosul had no access to the coast. It was more than a hundred miles from the Mediterranean and 550 miles (885 Km) from the Persian Gulf – from where Arghun intended to launch his naval blockade of the Red Sea.

This seemingly odd decision to build in Mosul, which had no timber either, led Richard [2] to speculate that they might have brought cedar and fir with them from the Mediterranean coast. It wasn’t a bad thought, but as a solution, it won’t do.

[2] ‘No suitable timber in Mosul.. led Richard to speculate..’  Jean Richard, ‘European Voyages in the Indian Ocean and Caspian Sea (12th-15th Centuries)’, Iran, Vol. 6 (1968), pp. 45-52.   I am much indebted to Richard for that seminal essay.

In 1290 AD the political situation in the cedar-producing region of Lebanon was unconducive to trade with Latins in general and with Genoese in particular. More – the Mamluks of Egypt who then held the region were hardly likely to permit Arghun’s agents to purchase and export tons of ship-building timber with which to prosecute an intended blockade, and the Mamluks certainly knew what was planned; when Arghun called for Genoese, they called for the piratical master mariners of the north African coast – those whom Majid called his brethren.

But even if so much timber could have been got in Lebanon at that time, it could have been carried more easily by river, down the Euphrates to Baghdad and the ships built in deeper water within reasonable distance of the Gulf. From Mosul to Baghdad is more than 250 miles.

Since these Genoese were expert craftsmen, not amateurs, there had to be some good reason for their decision to work from Mosul.

In a previous post we mentioned Mosul’s tar and pitch,[3] as materials essential to the ship’s defence (such as it was) against shipworm, but another likely reason was Mosul’s proximity to that old road leading north, to the Black sea and the timber-rich shores of what had been known as Colchis, a territory associated with the Disoskuri and the Argonauts since the time of Homer, and which Strabo regarded as extending from Dioskurias to Trapezos/Trebizond. (map).

[3] ‘Mosul’s reserves of bitumen.’ On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19. Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians before and during the Hellenistic era would have known the deposits of Mosul, where it occurs in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur.. It would be interesting to investigate, as I did not, whether the Yoke elm yielded that vegetable pitch for which beech was one preferred wood. On that point and for other materials used with pitch, see Andrew N. Sherwood, Greek and Roman Technology: A Sourcebook: Annotated Translations of Greek …  p.341, and H. Michell, The Economics of Ancient Greece (2014) p.201. ( In 2010, The British Museum reported a project underway to research tars and pitches used in medieval European boats and ships).

coin Dioskurias, Kolkis (Colchis). c2nd Century BC. By kind permission of wildwinds.

By now it was thirty years since the Treaty of Nymphaeum had given Genoa the right to establish trading ‘colonies’ around the Black Sea. Caffa was not yet the thriving hub for trade in eastern luxury goods (termed ‘spices’) that would soon become, but Genoa did have a presence in Trebizond, thanks to their good relations with Constantinople.

By 1290 AD, both Dioskurias and Trebizond were almost two thousand years old. One can only imagine what the latter city’s monastic libraries might have contained, after two millennia of constant Greek-speaking culture, but we know that some of the matter which sparked Italy’s ‘renaissance’ had come from Trebizond with refugees native to that city, Bessarion among them.

Thus, for the Genoese to bring timber from the north, they would have to bring it overland the 300 miles from Trebizond or, at worst, first carry it by sea into Trebizond from Dioskurias, but doing so had distinct advantages; supply along the northern road would be unaffected by war and every stage of the supply chain, from selecting the timber to delivery in Mosul, could be overseen by fellow Genoese and/or by Byzantine officials.

By this time, ancient Dioskurias was called, in most of the myriad local tongues spoken in that region, ‘Sukhumi‘ and it is possible that one or more of those artisans who halted at Mosul knew that.

Were any literate – which meant having a basic study of the Psalter, Latin, arithmetic and moralised astronomy, then they might also have known what Isidore said of Dioskurias, for Isidore’s Etymologiae was the one great encyclopaedia of medieval Latin Europe. Isidore had even written Dioscuri in the Greek:

Amphitus and Cercius, the charioteers of Castor and Pollux, constructed Dioscoria, the city of the Colchians, naming it after their name, for Castor and Pollux in Greek are called the Διόσκουροι.” .

Etymol. XV.i. 40

The area which Strabo knew as Colchis had little in the way of agricultural wealth. Its wealth came from natural produce, and chiefly those essential to the business of building, equipping and maintaining a ship: timber, linen and hemp.

[4] For the staggering quantities of trees and timber needed to maintain the classical and Hellenisti Greek fleet, see  statistics  in Eugene N. Borza, ‘Timber and Politics in the Ancient World: Macedon and the Greeks’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 32-52. While it could be argued that hemp is part of the plant-group in f.5v, I do not think so. Hemp is referenced in two other plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript, and at at least one writer deserves credit as preceding in recognising allusion made to hemp in folio 16r**. The obfuscation that meets efforts to find and accurately acknowledge precedents leaves me in this case unable to know who first made that identification. I should guess it was likely Dana Scott or Edith Sherwood, though both presumed each image of medieval Latin origin and so that each would be of the ‘one image-one specimen’ sort. The form given the hemp-leaf in folio 16r** and in that other instance have it resembled a very long-fingered hand – not at all like the leaves here.

There was nothing better than hempen rope for ship’s rope and cordage, by reason of its flexibility and its ability to resist the effects of wind, weather and salt water. Linen was needed for bedding, clothing and for sails, though here again a mix of hemp and linen was often preferred.

Of timbers, the most valued, of course was Oak – not only for ship’s timbers but for making barrels to hold water, wine and other provisions.


An oak useful for those purposes and which grows throughout old Colchis is described in modern writings sometimes as ‘pedunculate’ but sometimes ‘Sessile’ (Quercus petraea), but whatever name they knew it by, the Genoese would have recognised it immediately because it also grows around their native city.

(detail) Distibution map – Quercus petraea Liebl. image courtesy EUFORGEN (2008)

[7] A study published in 2014 found the oaks preferred for ship-building around Dubrovnik to have been Quercus petraea Liebl.) and (Quercus robur L.). See Margarita Bego, ‘The Decay of Wooden Wreck at Two Sites in Dubrovnik Area’ (Propadanje drvene olupine na dvije lokacije na dubrovačkom-području), Naše more, 61(1-2)/2014., pp. 33-37. Presently (2022) online as a pdf. Some other students of the Voynich manuscript might care to dispute my opinion that Oak is not included in the group for folio 5v* – in which case this article may assist .(‘Oak Species’, whisky science (blog), Sunday Jan.30th., 2011. Akkemik and Kocabaş concluded that that Byzantine trading ships “were built by using mainly oak and chestnut” but the Italians were familiar with other woods common to Colchis. Ünal Akkemik and  Ufuk Kocabaş, ‘Woods of the Old Galleys of Yenikapi, Istanbul’, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 13, No 2 (2013), pp. 31-41.


So too with the Yew – the wood which was preferred, in western Europe, for ordinary bows and for longbows.

Yew – Distribution in the Old world. Image courtesy University of Hamburg.

None of those plants – not Oak, Yew, Flax nor Hemp is included in the group represented by the drawing on folio 5v*.

But, halting a moment before deciding in the negative that question about geographic reference for the drawing’s mnemonic devices, we should ask the significance of that name given the former Dioskurias by so many languages of the region.

Sukhumi’ means ‘Yoke Elm’.

Sukhumi: Dioskurias. Sukhumi (geog.) is said by some few sources (e.g. here) to have been medieval ‘Nicoxia’ but most (e.g. here, and here) identify it with the former Dioskurias as Sebastopol/Sukhumi, and medieval Nicoxia with modern ‘New Athos’. My position will be evident.

[6] Sukhumi as “Yoke Elm“..  Carpinus betulus. Some sources today, influenced by modern botany’s view of the tree as a form of beech have altered their own definition of Sukhumi and thus lost the older associations for it. It wasn’t ‘beech’ but ‘elm’ which, for example, marked entry to the underworld. For the older ‘Yoke elm” see e.g. Encyclopaedia Perthensis; Or Universal Dictionary of the Arts …, (1816), Volume 23, p.364.

Our thirteenth-century Genoese shipwrights could have predicted from their own apprenticeship and experience that Elms would be found in the swampy sections of the Colchian lowlands. But, if they turned to Isidore, he also says:

The elm (ulmus) takes this name because it does better in swampy (uliginosus) and damp (humidus) places, for it is less luxuriant in mountainous and harsh places.

After the Voynich manuscript was made, it would be several hundred years before a botanist asserted the Yoke Elm a type of beech and described it as Carpinus betulus, so we will continue to speak of it as it was earlier seen – as an Elm.

Also known as ‘hornbeam’, the Yoke Elm’s timber disgusts most carpenters. It is rigid, hard and near-impossible to work. Its other common name is ‘ironwood’. But by some, including shipwrights and, in earlier times, charioteers, its wood was highly valued.[6]

It grew in company with another elm, one whose qualities were complementary. This one is known in English as the Field Elm (Ulmus minor) and among its other qualities is that its wood positively likes being wet and (I’ve checked) doesn’t mind if the water’s salty.

A problem of translation

In the next couple of posts, I’ll try to show that while the image on folio 5v* would have seemed every bit as incomprehensible to those thirteenth-century Genoese shipwrights, bowyers and timber-getters as it has been for modern Europeans since the 1630s, the problem was not necessarily ignorance of what was being expressed, but of the conventions governing how the information was expressed. In other words, the graphic language of the original.

In the case of those Genoese artisans in Mosul, their training and experience would mean that while they’d certainly need a translation they would need it only once. The actual content would make immediate sense to them. For example, they may never have thought of the ship-worm as a sort of ant, but when the drawing was explained, even the Greek word for it – ‘teredon’ – would make sense if they knew what Isidore says when listing the carpenter’s tools:

The gimlet (terebra) is named from the wood-worm called terebra, which the Greeks call τερηδών. Hence it is called [in Latin] terebra because, like the worm, it ‘bores a hole by abrasion’ (terendo forare), as if the word were terefora, or as if it were transforans (i.e. “boring through”).

It is no lack of intelligence or of ability on either side – not the maker’s, nor the copyists’ nor the person attempting to read them since 1912 that has blocked understanding of these drawings but lack of the right sort of background and the further unthinking assumption by modern, western students of the manuscript that the only relevant visual language is that informing works first produced in western Christian Europe.

Add to that general assumption an idea inherently anachronistic that all forms of image must be either idiosyncratic self-expression or strive to achieve photographic likeness and it is less surprising that assertions made about these images range from initial bewilderment, to blaming an imaginary ‘author’ to over-confident but baseless assertions, and thus to general pandemonium.

To understand these plant-pictures, recourse to external sources is absolutely necessary. Economic history becomes quite as important as comparative art studies though one may safely lay aside medieval Europe’s regional politics and genealogies which, like events after 1440, will be incidental or irrelevant.

At the risk of offending professionals in modern botany, I must say too that economic botany and modern-style ethnobotany would be more helpful if its practitioners did not invent their own nomenclature and obscure details of those traditional uses for plants which they now hope to exploit.

More conventional botany and its nomenclature is very helpful in communicating with the modern audience and can help along the process of whittling down possible candidates for a given identification or grouping.

One might puzzle over why professional botanists have so regularly failed in their efforts to read these plant-pictures – beginning from Hugh O’Neill’s lamentable ‘Note’ published in 1944. I can only say that, over many years – from before coming to consider this manuscript – I’ve more than once been obliged to remind a botanist that we’re investigating a drawing, not a specimen or even a ‘specimen’ drawing, but drawings or paintings made before the emergence of botanical science as we know it.

This means, in practice, that the drawing belongs to, and speaks the language of, that time place and community in which it was first given form.

If a plant was perceived as form of rose, then for our purpose it IS a form of rose. Modern botany might perceive it, instead, as a form of mallow but in terms of iconographic analysis that deserves just a footnote or a mention in brackets (e.g. Hibiscus..) for the modern audience. The mesh of ideas and associations proper to an image are not revealed thereby. Meaning is context dependent.

coin of Rhodes c.275-250 BC

Money matters

In the end, the Voynich plant-drawings are not about intellectual pursuits or learning for its own sake, even if we note in them allusion made to routes and kingdoms or administrative regions. The collection of these pictures was evidently made to serve trade , trades and commerce.

And speaking of money – here is a coin of the kind those Genoese mercenaries might have used in Mosul and Baghdad.[6]

coin. Dirham minted in Tabriz for Arghun. 1284-1291

[1] ‘the coin ,,,‘. Dirham Tabriz mint.  Genose also had a place assigned them in Tabriz by this time.  After 1335, relations with the Ilkhanate would beak down, altering the eastern routes to which Europeans had access.  see Patrick Wing, ‘Rich in Goods and Abounding in Wealth’ in Judith Pfeiffer (ed.), Politics, Patronage and the Transmission of Knowledge in 13th – 15th Century Tabriz, Brill, 2013 ( pp.300-320). For the Genoese in Mosul and Baghdad: Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Syriacum. In the  edition by  Bruns and Kirsch, vol. I, p. 620. John of Winterthur, ‘Chronicon..’, in Archiv fiir schweizerische Geschichte XI, p. 52: ” Dum multi Christicole in Baldach civitate maritima… etc.”  Perhaps Montecorvino had travelled to Baghdad in their convoy, since he writes of departing the following year – with the opening of the sailing season –  from Persia, bound for India.

Postscript note: Teredon – one corner of Eratosthenes’ “seal stones” – Ancient authors – geography – archaeology.

Teredon was probably somewhere in the vicinity of modern Basra, and was an important seaport in Alexander’s day .. and the starting point for much of the [Hellenistic] exploration of the Persian Gulf region, especially that by Androsthenes in 325-323 BC.. a source with which Eratosthenes was familiar .- Duane Roller, Eratosthenes’ ‘Geography‘ (p.187)

To the residents of the land, Teredon meant only  “gift of [the god] Tir” but being homophonous with the Greeks’ word for the ship-worm may have seemed ill-omened. Whatever the reason, they rendered it by translating its sense not rendering its sound: ‘Diridotis’.  As Alexander later began sending out parties of men to map the known world – or at least that part of it he claimed – Teredon served as an marker-point, a corner for one of  Eratosthenes “seal stones”.

Nearchus had managed a near-impossible task in taking a ship and crew into unknown waters, and unfathomed sea-bottom, under strange stars and -winds, through hostile shores and natives whose language they could not speak, to reach this place whose position the Greeks had not known save by name.

“they .. anchored in the mouth of the Euphrates near a village of Babylonia, called Didotis [Teredon]; here the merchants gather together frankincense from the neighbouring country and all other sweet-smelling spices which Arabia produces.”[In E.J Chinnock’s translation of the Anabasis (1893) the reference is given as Book 8b § xli. Smith (Dictionary of Ancient and Classical Geography) and subsequent authors speak instead of “Diridotes’ [Diridotis], all giving the reference as Arrian, Indike xii.

Only by mention of Eratosthenes’ “seal stones” is Teredon is noticed by Strabo, Plutarch, Ptolemy and Pliny etc. Isidore does not know the place.

Pliny :

After Petra the country as far as Charax was inhabited by the Omani … but now it is a desert. Then there is a town on the bank of the Pasitigris named Forat, subject to the king of the Characeni ; this is resorted to by people from Petra, who make the journey from there to Charax, a distance of 12 miles by water, using the tide. But those traveling by water from the kingdom of Parthia come to the village of Teredon below the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris. The left bank is occupied by the Chaldaeans, the right bank by the Scenitae tribe of nomads. (Nat. Hist. Bk VI: xxxiii 145-6)  (pp. 447-449) Pliny’s Natural History, trans. by W. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (Vol. 2).  The Loeb edition is a parallel translation, available through the internet archive.]

For the second century, and especially after c.120BC, the question of Seleucid-Greek control over the Gulf has been debated.

Salles’ position –

… The Seleucid authority over Babylonia and the Gulf was challenged then ousted by the Parthians who progressively took over the area, more precisely the northern end of the Gulf maritime lane: the  Characenian kingdom, whatever might have been its fluctuating relations with its Parthian suzerains, became the new owner of the east-orientated and ancient emporion of the Shatt al- Arab  known as Spasinou Charax, and kept it at least up to the end of the 2ndC AD. [Jean-Francois Salles, ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and the Arab-Persian Gulf’, Topoi, Vol. 3 No.4 (1993) pp. 493-523. (pp.494-5)]

More recent , discoveries in the region, including an inscription and naos dedicated to the Dioscuri at Tylos in Bahrain, have modified our understanding. The scholars who studied the inscription concluded:

‘.. Characene sovereignty on Bahrain and other islands of the Gulf was simply a continuation of the Seleucid domination of these same regions’.[Paul Kosmin, ‘Rethinking the Hellenistic Gulf: the New Greek Inscription from Bahrain’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 133 (2013), pp. 61–79.]

The relevance of this question to study of the Voynich plant-pictures is that while there is evidence of Hellenistic origin for a good deal of the manuscript’s imagery, the plant-pictures allude, in the main, to the maritime ‘spice routes’ from as far as south-east Asia.

The ancient location has been given up, identified, disputed and so on since the 1880s, but is now fairly well accepted as probably having been around .

A selection of sources:

“The city [Teredon] is impossible to locate precisely today because of vast changes in the topography of lower Mesopotamia: in Hellenistic times the coastline was perhaps 200 km further inland than it is today” according to Roller who cites ‘many anonymous itineraries’. Duane W. Roller, Eratosthenes’ ‘Geography’. (2010), p.187.

Smith and others identified its site with Jebel Sanám, “a gigantic mound near the Pallacopas branch of the Euphrates, considerably to the north of the embouchure of the present Euphrates”, Smith calculating that the alluvium had extended “.. about fifty miles since Nearchus landed at Teredon”. But that ‘gigantic mound’ is now known to be – not to be the result of long occupation – but a great salt-plug, perhaps the same  mined by the Gerrheans for the salt block of which their houses were famously built.

“There is no absolute proof that the famous emporium built by Nebuchadrezzar and known to classical geographies as Teredon or Diridotis is the same as.. the Obillah of the Arabs, but everything points that way”. ‘Rawlinson’s Notes on The Ancient Geography’, Journal of the Royal Geographic Society, Vol. 27 (1857) p.186-7. Donald Hawley, The Trucial States (1970) renders the name as both Toredon and as Teredon, a note repeating the older suggestion that Teredon occupied the site of old Basra before the invading Arabs built the new town and re-named it. (pp.39-40).

A more recent, if undated, paper by A.Hausleiter et. al. (c.1990) declines to offer any modern location, saying only that it was “probably on the gulf”, ‘Map 93 Mesene’ (pdf).

Given the value of that trade, I do not think it impossible that, as the old site was gradually distanced from the sea that the population moved closer to the sea.

Ibn Khurradādhbih (sometimes romanised as Khurdādhbih, or  Khordadbeh etc.), Kitāb al-Masālik wa al-Mamālik.  Full transcriptions or translations of the text are difficult to find, but both these early accounts of the Radhanites routes are  transcribed online in a blog-page by Torino entitled ‘Reports of the Slavs From Muslim Lands Part II – Radhanites, Eunuchs and the Rus‘.  (dated January 17, 2015)

After citing the same passage from Kitāb al-Masālik. Hourani adds,  “Old Basra on its canal was the Manchester of lower Mesopotamia, but al-Ubulla was its Liverpool.” George F.Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times, (expanded edition), PUP 1951/1995. (pp.75-77).

One thought on “Tabula picta f.5v – Plants in context. Pt.1.

  1. Matter, including quotations from D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Astronomical figures and Greater Khorasan Pt2i,’ voynichimagery, Nov.30th., 2016.

    “…during the Georgian Golden Age in the 12th–13th centuries, when Tskhumi became a center of traffic with the European maritime powers, particularly with the Republic of Genoa. The Genoese established their trading factory .. early in the 14th century”.

    Another source adds:

    Apart from the Tana-Don-Volga route, the Genoese had established a line of access to the Caspian from Sukhum via the Klukhor Pass into Kabarda and along the river Terek to a port and factory at Tyumen on the coast of the Caspian. Place names on early Italian maps, e.g. Tusci, Cobi, suggest also a fork from Kabarda through the Taryal Gorge to Tbilisi.

    *David B. Quinn, The Hakluyt Handbook, Volume 1 p.169-70 n.3.

    The content of such a [traders handbook] could be as old as the trade itself, and remain useful; the fortunes of entire dynasties were made from the east-west trade and by the fourteenth century, wealth made from that same trade made the ‘caravan men’ (Karimi) a proverb which supplanted “rich as Croesus”.

    As the Genoese were about to surrender their factory in Sukhumi (then still called Sebastopolis),  Don Cristeforo De Canavale wrote to the Duke of Genoa: “we report to the Noble Duke that the chief opponent of our handing the factory we have in  Sebastopolis to Osman [Bey]  is (Duke Shamadavle Dadiani) of Mingrelia. The Megrelian Sovereign claims that those lands (around Sebastopolis) have been his predecessors’  since time immemorial (da tempo immemorabile) and that the Turks should have nothing to do with it.”

    The Genoese factory at Dioskurias/Sebastopolis/Sukhumi was finally occupied by Shamadavle Dadiani, leaving the Turks so furious that they expelled the Genoese even from Constantinople, closing the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits to Genoese ships permanently.

    By that time, Greek seems scarcely to have been spoken in Sukhumi.  Writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also report its people  Mingrellians, and the general opinion is that the Mingrelian language was not a written one until nineteenth-century ethnologists developed a written form. One may still entertain some doubt on that point; a sovereign and his court need a written language for diplomatic and administrative affairs, Mingrellian kings no less than any other,


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