A kind of literary whodunit was solved recently when mysterious handwritten notations from a rare, 1504 edition of Homer's Odyssey were identified.
The epic poem was part of a collection donated to the University of Chicago Library in 2007 by a collector, and ever since the unknown notations have told the library little besides their probable dating to the 1850s.
What better way to solve a mystery than to incentivize the correct solution with a thousand bucks? That's just what the collector, M.C. Lang, did. The deal was simple: Identify the script in the margins, prove the assertion, translate some of it, and then the fun part: pocket $1,000.
Italian digital humanities student Daniele Metilli took the prize when he and a co-sleuth with a background in stenography and the French language, Giula Accetta, cracked the case.
Because there were French words mixed in with the mystery handwriting, and the legible date of April 25, 1854 was present, the duo investigated French stenographic systems that were in use during that time.
After judging a few of those systems "not guilty," Metilli and Accetta hit paydirt: The guilty party was Jean Coulon de Thévénot, creator in the late 1700s of the shorthand notation system scrawled amid the Greek text of the 1504 Homer. The decoded notes were French translations of some of the Greek wording in the classic tome.
To the untrained eye, the notation looks like the Palmer Method gone horribly wrong. But there's a method to the cryptic madness. "Every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables," said Metilli. The curious underlining of words was also key to their meaning, based on each letter's position atop or below the line.
Next up for Metilli and Accetta is to unmask the author as well as determine why the notations are only present in one place in the book.