Challenging Oxford: World’s Oldest Zero.

Bakhshali manuscript – image courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; Science Museum.

An international group of historians of Indian mathematics challenges Oxford’s findings around the age and importance of a manuscript thought to contain the oldest known zero.

Last month, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University announced that a Sanskrit manuscript housed in the library for the last century had been dated using radiocarbon techniques. Oxford’s radiocarbon dating laboratory announced that the three of the birch-bark folios of the Bakhshali Manuscript could be dated to roughly 300 CE, 700 CE and 900 CE.


An international group of historians of Indian mathematics has now challenged Oxford’s findings.

The team, which includes scholars from universities in the USA, France, Japan, New Zealand and the University of Alberta in Canada, has published a peer-reviewed article that refutes several of the Library’s key assertions.


The international team ends its article with a plea to Oxford University’s Library that important and complex scholarly topics should be published through established academic channels involving peer-review, and not through sensationalizing press releases to the media.

Medievalists has the full story. Also see The First Zero. The article in the journal History of Science in South Asia.


  1. cartomancer says

    It does seem rather strange that a succession of medieval Indian scribes would leave a prepared piece of writing material lying around for two hundred years unused, let alone for six hundred. Perhaps the c.300AD and c.700AD folia were scraped off and re-used some time after 900AD. Perhaps the third one also. European scribes certainly did that with sheepskins to produce a palimpsest, though the motive there was usually economic -- parchment was expensive and re-using it saved on cost. I imagine birch bark strips would have been significantly cheaper to produce, though I expect they might need treating with protective resins or suchlike to prevent them from decaying.

  2. says

    Birch bark is abundant, very easy to prepare and use, and endures an extremely long time. There is no reason to assume a palimpsest when the material is birch bark, a great deal of it can be prepared and stored at one time, but of course, proper research might reveal such a thing. If a palimpsest was to be shown, I’d be dying of curiosity as to why. I don’t know all the ins and outs of this, but it seems to me that Oxford has been caught with its bragging without proper research pants down.

  3. says

    cartomancer, when you find a fallen birch in a forest, the bark is usually the very last thing to rot. Birch bark contains oils and is therefore impermeable to water and very durable. It is also very strong in tension in one direction. Therefore birch bark itself was used to protect and preserve -- like on composite bows in scandinavia, where the bows were glued from pine and ash and wrapped in birch bark to protect them from moisture. Allegedly -- I am not a historian, but I have read a few things on the internet about bows and how they used to be made.

  4. cartomancer says

    It still seems in need of explanation to me why the three folia of the same text are written on wooden panels that originate six centuries apart. If birch bark is indeed abundant, cheap and easy to prepare then keeping a piece of it around for six hundred years before writing on it would be a very odd thing to do. I could buy that the scriptorium producing this text might have large stores of pre-prepared panels ready for use, but enough to last two, three, six hundred years? And if it did have huge reserves of centuries-old panels waiting to be used then why is the latest one of much more recent provenance? Was the scriptorium just getting to the end of the panels produced in the 3rd century at this point, so the scribe had to use a 7th century and a 9th century one too? I find it difficult to conceive of a scenario where the scribe would be using three panels of such different ages unless at least one or two of them were being recycled somehow.

    Which brings up the possibility that something went awry with the radiocarbon dating, of course.

    Having had first-hand experience of how the Bodleian works, I strongly suspect that what has happened here is that the University Press Office has been issuing all kinds of overblown statements about the dating research that the academics actually doing it would not be so incautious as to make themselves. The media people that the University hires are somewhat notorious for this.

  5. jazzlet says

    cartomancer I wondered if it was a case of replacing parts at different points because of accidents to the original parts.

  6. busterggi says

    “It still seems in need of explanation to me why the three folia of the same text are written on wooden panels that originate six centuries apart.”

    Clearly someone didn’t rotate their stock.

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