Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsSARAH KILROY: So, we're just going to look at how do we date early manuscripts, and how do we know when they're from? How do we get this result for the The Birmingham Qur'an that we say it's early 7th century? With a manuscript that's actually got a date on it written by the author, it's perfectly straightforward. Your deed is dated 1370, or whatever. But with early manuscripts, there's not often a date, and there wouldn't be a date on it, and that's certainly the case with The Birmingham Qur'an. So I think you've already heard about the paleography and how that can help inform decisions about dating, or maybe give us a century, or an era.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsBut the science can really help in dating early manuscripts. And the most accurate form of dating that we have is radiocarbon dating. So radiocarbon dating is the process that we carried out, or commissioned to be carried out on The Birmingham Qur'an manuscript. And this was done for us at a commercial laboratory at the University of Oxford. When you're dating parchments with radiocarbon method, what you're establishing is the date of the death of the animal whose skin was used to make the manuscript, to make that parchment. It doesn't give you the date of use, or when the manuscript was made. It gives you the date of death. So radiocarbon dating is a way of telling when something died.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 secondsYou can only radiocarbon-date things like that some point and have contained carbon. And when that carbon stops being produced and starts to decay, that's when you can measure against a date. So things like bone, you can radiocarbon-date. Skin, like parchment, and ivory-- that's often used now, in legal cases, for prosecuting ivory traffickers, because it's a very accurate science. You can tell, very specifically, when an elephant was killed, or something, for its ivory. In the case of parchment, we need a very, very tiny fragment for the radiocarbon analysis process. So this is not something that you do routinely, and we certainly don't do this routinely at the Cadbury Research Library.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 secondsWe've only sent samples for two manuscripts ever to be radiocarbon-dated, and those were the The Birmingham Qur'an and another early Hijazi Qur'an. It's a destructive form of testing, and that comes with big ethical considerations. You've got to think really carefully, are you going to do this? Do you need to do this? What will you gain from doing this? Is it worth for the object, the information we might learn, is it worth removing a very small sample? When I'm talking small, I'm saying really, really small, with thinking about micrograms. In the case of parchment, you're just talking a few millimetres.

Skip to 3 minutes and 1 secondWith the The Birmingham Qur'an, we decided that we would go down this route for radiocarbon-dating, that the information we would get back, even then we didn't know what it would say, or how important it would be, that it would help us with establishing a date this manuscript, which had been miscatalogued as 8th or 9th century. And we thought from the script, it's in the 7th century, so really, what we were hoping was that radiocarbon result would either plonk it in the 7th century, or tell us it was later. We hadn't anticipated the result that we did get, that was obviously, exciting news. But we decided that we would take a sample.

Skip to 3 minutes and 40 secondsSo a few millimetres from a margin with no text was sent for testing to Oxford University. And it takes a few months for the sample to come back. The sample's cleaned in an acid solution, so were need to remove any contamination. And four months later, we had the result from the laboratory, which, as we now know, gives us a 77-year date range. So that 77 years is for the date the death of the animal, and it comes with a 95.4% probability. So it is accurate, it's not 100% accurate, but it's 95.4% accurate, which we are just totally transparent about the result.

Skip to 4 minutes and 25 secondsSo we combine that information of the date of the death of the animal being in the 568 to 645 period, with what we know about the Hijazi script and what we know about the origins of Islam. And we combine that and say this manuscript is now early 7th century.

Dating early manuscripts

In this film, Sarah Kilroy, Head of Conservation and Programming at Cadbury Research Library talks about radiocarbon dating and the results for the dating of the Birmingham Qur’an manuscript.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Birmingham Qur'an: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands

University of Birmingham