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Imagine I travel back in time ~500 years, leave a modern ship/boat log book in a cave and the log book was discovered today. Since the book was discovered after it was possible to buy it off the shelf it could easily be a hoax. For example, a log book that was first produced in 2015 traveled back in time ~500 years and was found in an unexplored cave in 2017. Would it be possible to conclusively prove that it is ~500 years old and not just a convincing fake? Assuming of course someone actually took it serious enough to try to authenticate it...

If I wanted researchers/archivists to suspect it was really ~500 years old but no way to prove that it was actually ~500 years old what would I need to do?


For the purposes of the question you can use whatever type of log book is easiest to maintain the balance between impossible to prove but good enough to suspect. As such the actual log book can range anywhere from a spiral bound notebook to a waterproof floating log book.


I didn't talk about the content of the log book initially because I wanted the focus of the question to be on the physical analysis/dating of the book. However since it has come up once directly and once indirectly in answers; the content of the book will support the true age of the book of roughly 500 years. The log contains the experiences of the time traveler and will have things that appear to initially contradict history but will be shown to be true (like describing an animal that doesn't exist but later is found to have gone extinct). The content is to be used as a hook to investigate if the book is a hoax, but I want the lab tests to be inconclusive.

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    $\begingroup$ Can books be carbon dated? I think paper probably can be since it is organic. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Aug 16 '17 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ Books can be carbon dated. However Just 1 book in a cave with carbon dating won't be convincing enough in the real world to say it wasn't a hoax. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Aug 16 '17 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ Radioactive decay measurements should be able to proof the the book has been lying around for ~500 years. I'm not sure if Radiocarbon-Dating specifically would work for that time frame (since the half life of C14 is ~5000 years), but someone with a better understanding of the method should be able to answer this $\endgroup$ – Nicolai Aug 16 '17 at 16:08
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Actually, there is much more carbon-14 in the air today than it used to be before we pumped a lot of neutrons in the atmosphere in the 1960s by exploding atomic bombs on the surface. So if the paper is radiocarbon dated it will be found to come from the future. This will of course raise quite a few eyebrows, and the book will become an object of deep inquiry.

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  • $\begingroup$ The thing I like the most about your answer is it opened my eyes about how much variation needs to be taken into account with carbon dating so if the tech makes a different assumption they could get a significantly different answer than another tech. This means a tech assuming the book is authentic might make assumptions that lead it to be accurately dated but will be contradicted by another based on stock assumptions for a book 500 years old. Which is good because contradiction breads doubt and the accurate dating looks like shoehorning a desired result. $\endgroup$ – Erik Aug 17 '17 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ However, if the ink is under the layer fallout from the 50s then that at least proves the book is older than the mid 20th century. $\endgroup$ – Mazel Sep 21 '17 at 17:13
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This is definitely possible.

Radiocarbon and Radioactivity Dating

Your notebook was manufactured in a post-nuclear society. Any iron or steel in the notebook (staples, coil binding) will contain tiny bits of radioactive matter. This is actually undesirable in certain cases, such as geiger counters. Your researchers could investigate the metal objects in the notebook.

Now, they could posit that it is a hoax, due to the above discovery. This is the rational, normal reaction. It is at this point that they could test the other use radiocarbon dating to test the paper in the notebook. If the carbon in the paper has not been contaminated, then it will show that the paper is 500 years old.

Industrial Evolution

Five hundred years ago, books did indeed exist. They were even manufactured using the printing press. However, there have been enormous advances in the manufacture of books and paper in the intervening time. So, your notebook would be extremely easy to differentiate from period notebooks, not just through the material, but also through the design and aesthetic. The ink will be different, the font will be different, everything will be different.

My Thoughts

While you are free to do whatever you want in your world, I would posit that a huge majority of scientists or researchers would dismiss the notebook as a hoax, given no other information. It is up to you to provide a reason they spend time and funding on properly dating the book. Have it financed by a wealthy, interested party, or have it discovered by a scientist who happens to be open minded enough to give it a close look. Anyway, great question, I had fun answering it!

Edit: I have become less sure that you could date metal used in the notebook. I actually have no idea about the half life of all nuclear particulate in steel production, and I am not sure how detectable any of them would be after 500 years. Furthermore, I have doubts about the ability of a random ships log to survive 500 years of anything.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes I agree that making people want to put the effort forth to prove/disprove is a hurdle. I have some ideas how to address that which basically involve the book containing things that would be impossible or hard to know. Things like documenting a species that went extinct and was found after the book was discovered where the book documented them, details about historical journeys that aren't public knowledge, etc. I want the content to point to authenticity but the physical book not be conclusively proven to be old enough to be legit. $\endgroup$ – Erik Aug 16 '17 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ Do ships logs use bleached paper? If so, that paper may not even last 500 years. $\endgroup$ – CaM Aug 16 '17 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Erik You can't carbon date metals in the same way that you can carbon date former organics. However, modern metal contains radioactive matter as a result of atomics use, and you can use this to roughly date metal. $\endgroup$ – Dent7777 Aug 16 '17 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ Radiocarbon dating could theoretically be fooled by making things out of plant matter that was grown in an atmosphere of ancient CO2 derived from fossil fuels. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Krumwiede Aug 16 '17 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Kevin Krumwiede - you have to be very careful with mixing fuels, or your plant matter may come out way older than you wanted it to be. Better to just recycle 500 year old paper or wood. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Aug 16 '17 at 21:32
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Think of all the means to analyse e.g. paintings or documents to detect forgeries. Those could be applied to your book, and they would detect anomalies.

  • Bellerophon mentioned carbon dating in his comment. Trying to spoof this would be exceedingly difficult but not impossible. Take raw material with the desired isotope ratio and produce paper from it. This might first require turning this carbon into wood, i.e. growing plants in a sealed greenhouse. Separating isotopes has been done on much harder materials than carbon.
  • Chemical analysis could look at the inks and paper.
  • If the location is preserved/analyzed carefully, there might be e.g. a stalagmite on top of the book.

But this cannot prove the book is really 500 years old. The analysis might be consistent with a 500 year old book. But it could also be consistent with somebody pretending to have a 500 year old book. Now somebody looks at the book which seems to be artificially aged. Except that they can't quite reproduce how.

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  • $\begingroup$ If you had this book and were claiming it was 500 years old when it was really only like 2 years old, how would you spoof a radiocarbon check? Assuming, of course, it was conducted by an unbiased professional, and not an accomplice. $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Aug 16 '17 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @MozerShmozer, see my comment. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Aug 16 '17 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ @MozerShmozer you can use old paper/parchment, very good forgeries will use authentic material from the time to produce the product. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Aug 16 '17 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @A.C.A.C., that would break the purpose of providing an anomaly. A book that appears both modern and 500-year-old at the same time, which cannot be. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Aug 16 '17 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @o.m. You can easily make a book look like a modern book from the outside but use old paper in the middle, but I don't know what you are trying to argue here. My comment wasn't directed at you. Using old material is the easiest way to fool radiodecay dating techniques when doing forgeries. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Aug 16 '17 at 20:52
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If you take any modern-day logbook, fill it using any modern-day ink, travel back in time and plant this logbook in a cave, there is no way researcher would believe that this is a 500 year old book. Even if all dating techniques agree that the age is 500 years, the book itself would be a dead giveaway it's a trick.

But if you take an effort to make paper using 500 year old techniques, bind it into a book, just like it was done 500 years ago, prepare ink and fill out the book using appropriate language and style, that book will pass as genuine.

If the book really aged for 500 years and there are no "red flags", it would be presumed to be authentic. You said nothing about content of the book though, and I suspect it should raise some eyebrows.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes a modern-day logbook with modern-day ink is the situation I'm talking about. The content is going to point to it not being a hoax. $\endgroup$ – Erik Aug 16 '17 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ This isn't true at all. Even if you use ancient techniques, you will still be using modern materials loaded with nuclear isotopes, so it won't exactly replicate an actual 500 year old manuscript by all dating methods. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Aug 17 '17 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Jason K - that's why we should be careful with what materials to use. Probably it would be the best to always scavenge older ones, not laced with modern additions. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Aug 17 '17 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander But if you used a 500 year old book, scrapped off the ink, and rewrote on the parchment, then sent THAT back 500 years, the book (paper) would date as 1000 years old with 500 year old ink. Carbon dating at least will continue to age as the material cycles through the time loop. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Aug 23 '17 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Jason K - so, you have to be even more careful with isotopes. You need to get, as your starting point a paper with isotopic ratios exactly as they were supposed to be 500 years ago. You can take "non-isotopic" paper from 1940s, and hope that 70 years of difference is not that much, or instead of going back 500 years, go only 430. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Aug 23 '17 at 19:24
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Some telltale signs are very hard to fake. Lichen grown on the up facing side. A pattern of mineralization of a down facing side. Accumulated bat excrements (sorry). Maybe even pollen from plants which are long since extinct.

Of course it very much depends on the conditions inside your cave.

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  • $\begingroup$ Moisture will destroy the book well before 500 years past. $\endgroup$ – Mazel Sep 21 '17 at 16:42
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Partially encased in rock

If we assume the book can survive any and all sorts of environmental factors... have the book be partially encased in a stalagmite. Whoever finds it enthusiastically chops up the stalagmite and takes out the book.

What you have then is broken evidence. If the book had been left in it could easily have been determined "Yup... that is a natural process. It is 500 years old". But now they find the discovery site broken, maybe even vandalized. It certainly appears that some of the fragments fit the book. But conclusions are uncertain.

That is when people start doing fancy stuff, like radioactive dating. And comparing with a "fresh" example of the same product series, they will certainly find discrepancies, the most glaring one being: less radioactivity in the found book compared to the ones that did not time-travel.

But if you then want to throw some confusion into the mix, make the time travel add some funny isotopes to the book. Then the investigators will be in the situation that the book in some aspects is less radioactive than it should be (more fitting a 500 year old book)... but in aspects it is more radioactive than it should be as well. For instance: while the contemporary books' metal parts contain iron (Fe) with the usual mass distribution of isotopes, your book could have a curious surplus of 60Fe.

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If I wanted to make a book seem old I would take rag based blank paper from the last unused pages in quires of several old books. There are plenty of old book with nearly destroyed bindings that I could use to harvest pieces for the cover.

If I wanted the book to last 500 hundred years I would NOT put it in a cave. That is far too moist. Is there anyway it could get in the between areas of a building undergoing renovation 500 years ago. I read about how a second story was added to a medieval building with arched ceilings on the first floor. Debris was used to fill in between the arches on the first floor ceiling and the floor of the second floor. Archaeologists found all sorts of cool stuff in the between areas that had not been touched in centuries. This included textiles.

Even if the log book looked modern a scholar might be interested if the words were written in iron gall ink with a quill. Of course there are crazy people like me who have made ink and cut quills for writing but we usually try to use nice paper or parchment. The contrast of a modern log books and quill writing could intrigue a scholar. Using a quill produces writing that looks different from a ball point pen or even a fountain pen.

Have you looked at the investigations on the Vinland Map? It will give you and idea of what suitably motivated researchers will do to authenticate a book and how many ways the results can be inconclusive. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinland_map

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  • $\begingroup$ The Vinland Map link was especially helpful. Thank you for your answer. $\endgroup$ – Erik Sep 21 '17 at 17:29
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If the book was produced in the modern era, there would be all sorts of other tells to this, not just the paper degradation and the quality... the paper making process has evolved in 500 years. Modern Ink will look different to an analyst than ink used 500 years ago. Not only that, both products are documented for crime purposes and there are databases that can identify where a piece of paper and pens were purchased based on unique qualities to that particular batch of paper or ink used in it's manufacture (The secrete service loves this because they get a lot of hand written threats and they do identify who wrote them and where they were when they were using them).

On the note of Carbon Dating, inconclusive dating can be attributed certain events that make the test unreliable. For example, the Carbon-14 dating of the Shroud of Turin is still called into question due to the sample possibly having been part of a repair to the shroud and/or the Shroud was historically in no less than two fires and may have suffered damage that would affect the test (not to mention the use of candles, which are still a big part of Catholic Mass). Although these are scientifically not conditions that would change the dating by a millennium as claimed, it could raise doubt among those who believe it is real.

Of course, if you need it be authentic or perceived as such by a skeptical community, you are overlooking a pretty big way to fool everyone: Your a time traveler! Why not go back in time 500 years, spend a few days or weeks hand writing the thing on authentic period parchment and with authentic ink so that when it is discovered in 2017, it looks the part because it is the part. If the source isn't yours, take a copy with you and hand copy it from that. Need it to be typed and not handwritten? Your in luck too! By 1517 the Gutenberg Press was 87 years old and was seeing widespread operation in Western Europe with an estimated 20 million copies printed using this invention. By the end of the century, that number would increase by a factor of 10! So, you can get period accurate ink, pens, paper, and type face for a modest fee and not have to worry about all of this. And if spending time in Medieval Europe isn't your idea of a stellar writing environment, well, again, you're a freakin' time traveler... take all the materials, come back home, and do the whole forgery while sipping on a coffee in Starbucks. Better yet, if you want doubt, stain it with have a hot chocolate and stain it with your beverage, because chocolate was still not widely available in Europe back then.

Oh... and if this isn't something you think you can afford because of currency issues... well, change that coffee to a soda and once finished, extract the aluminum (it can be done with stuff found in a high school chem lab) take that stuff back to a point in time where Aluminum was more valuable than gold (yes... the Washington Monument is capped with an Ingot of Aluminum as a display of America's wealth. Napoleon would host state dinners on the gold plates... the Aluminum plates were for special occasions.).

Really, if you have a time machine and aren't doing this, I don't know what to tell you beyond revoking your time traveler's license.

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If the book contains and steel in its binding, staples etc, and if that steel was made after WW2, it will contain measurable traces of cobalt-60 from atmospheric nuclear explosions. After 500 years that $^{60}$Co will have almost completely decayed.

If you wanted to fake this aging, it is possible but you would have to remake the steel part from pre-atomic age steel.

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