Dating the scroll

The scroll has been investigated seriously since the late 19th century. Still a lot of misinformation is spread, even by the Masonic publishing house that sells reprints.

The first serious publication about the scroll was in the Ars Quatuor Coronatorum of 1897 (1). J.B. Craven has some information about the lodge that owns the scroll. More about that elsewhere. Craven apparently checked the still existing minutes of the lodge, but does not have a whole lot to say about the images on the scroll itself.

Again in AQC (2) W.R. Day makes a brave attempt at interpreting the scroll in 1925, but that is for another place. Day says that the scroll consists of different parts and that the border has been added later. It is also Day who came up with the suggestion that the scroll consists of different panels which, according to Day, would originally each be 33 inch squares. That didn’t entirely work out that way though.

There is an (in)famous book about the scroll by Andrew Sinclair (3). Sinclair seems to be an heir to the famous Sinclairs of Rosslyn who had their part in the history of the scroll. Sinclair seems to have written his book with an agenda. Immediately on opening the book, Templars, Grails and Dead Sea Scrolls fly around your ears. It is no wonder that Sinclair tries to connect his family and the legacy of the scroll to these historic events. Sinclair did seem to have come up with the idea of having the scroll carbon-dated by the University of Oxford which is an interesting thought in itself. It can be used according to preset ideas as we see clearly in this case. Sinclair came to a dating of the 15th century! That’s centuries before Freemasonry was ‘founded’.

Now I make a big jump in time. The Masonic publisher Lewis Masonic sells scaled replicas of the scroll (4). In the information it says:

The Kirkwall Scroll, is made of three pieces of hand-painted, strong linen sewn together and throughout. Radiocarbon dated to the early 15th century this treasure has been carefully protected by generations of Orkney Freemasons.

This is obviously based on the findings of Sinclair and the statement is not incorrect, but as we will see, the dating of the scroll is!

Another suggestive statement:

If this is so then why does the scroll appear to contain something very similar to the coat of arms of the Grand Lodge of England?

What the author is this little ‘fact’ has in mind is the coat of arms of the 1813 union of the “Antients” and the “Moderns”. Before that union, the “Antients” had a similar looking coat of arms, but the “Moderns” (or ‘Premier Grand Lodge’) did not.

What about:

But what of the maps on the side panels? Are these navigation charts? Due to the Orkneys links with the Knights Templar some people have wondered what these could lead to.

In 1925 Day already suggested that the maps referred to the exodus from Egypt of the Jews. The Knight Templar connection comes (again) from Sinclair. Why does Lewis Masonic base itself on Sinclair’s book while better information has been available for a century? (Later also through their own publishing house by the way.)

About the dating, both Robert Lomas (5), but especially Brian Smith (6) have more information about that. From Kat Gourlay’s text (on Lomas’ website) it becomes clear that the scroll wasn’t made in one piece. The sides have been added later, like Gray already mentioned. Also, Oxford University said that their datings brought different results. Sinclair just picked the one that fitted his theory best.

Smith does a little more explaining.

Sinclair’s grasp of radiocarbon dating seems to be defective. Scientists check for chemical contamination before using the process. When Oxford investigated Sinclair’s original sample they found no problem. Their result on that occasion was 85BP +/-35. (I am grateful to the laboratory for this information.) This doesn’t mean ‘not more than fifty years old’, as Sinclair imagines. Such a result translates into a very wide range, and calibrates to the years 1680-1740 or 1800-1960. In other words, if the result is to be believed, William Graham (if he was the painter) could have used a piece of cloth made during the period up to 1740. […]

The second date that Sinclair acquired is 435BP +/-50, which calibrates to the years 1400-1530 or 1560-1640.  This radically different result is of course still not incompatible with a late date for the design on the cloth.

A possible story of the scroll can be found elsewhere, but William Graeme is likely the person who gifted the scroll to the lodge in 1786. He may have even painted it himself, perhaps on old material that he found. So even if the material can be dated more precisely some day, that does not mean that the object itself is dated as well.

Other means of dating

Several authors have used images on the scroll for the dating.

On panel 7 Day found a quote from the King James Bible that was first published in 1611. That immediately debunks Sinclair’s Templar and Gnostic speculations.

On panel 8 Day found a “Dermott Arch” and his secondary source for this image (History Of Freemasonry And Concordant Orders) mentions the Grand Master of 1756-1760 at the same time. That would say something about the dating of the Kirkwall Scroll. This is quite a stretch if you ask me. It implies that the image on panel 8 was definitely copied from the mentioned book and because that book has the image along with a name, this would say something about the dating of the Kirkwall scroll.

Robert Cooper spends about 40 pages of his book The Rosslyn Hoax? (2006) on the scroll (8). His main aim is dating the scroll. He also refers to the King James Bible and to the coat of arms of the Antients from 1764. He also has some more slippery arguments. Like myself, he sees a coffin on panel 2. This is a fairly wild guess, but Cooper sets out to find the earliest workings of the third degree in Scotland which makes that argument about as weak as Day’s “Dermott Arch”.

What also surprises me is that Cooper (former Grand Archivist of the Grand Lodge of Scotland) says that in the time that the scroll was presented to the Kirkwall lodge, there were only two degrees in Scotland and therefor concludes that the scroll must have been painted elsewhere. Did he miss the fact that even in the lodge from which the Kirkwall lodge was founded, as early as 1745 several degrees are mentioned?
Even though he comes to the same conclusion as myself, that the scroll must be made in the 1780’ies in English “Antient” circles, his arguments are sometimes fairly easy to rebut.

Cooper presents a “Seal of the Grand Chapter at York c.1780” to compare to the rainbow and clouds. If that is really the source for the image on the scroll, that would move the year of creation up to after 1780.

Another argument for the possibly late dating is that Kilwinning High Knight Templars Lodge was founded late 1779. From this lodge two (rivaling) Knight Templar organisations rose (both in Dublin): Early Grand Encampment [of Ireland] and Kilwinning High Knights Templar Encampment, which both had degrees (and order) much similar to the Kirkwall Scroll. That both later organisations had degrees that are familiar and in a familiar order, suggests 1779 lodge already worked in that fashion. Has the scroll been created in such “Knight Templar” circles? The fact that Knight Templar symbols seem to appear on similar panels, supports this suggestion (Knight Templar as ‘over-arching’ system). Perhaps -in that case- circa 1779 would be the time when that system (degrees and order) were created and thus, the creator of the Kirkwall Scroll was quick to use it for the design.
This -again- would move up the year of creation up to around 1780 the latest.

Point of the former is that there are different ways of dating. All things considered it seems most likely that the scroll is to be dated in the latter half of the 18th century. By all appearances, it can’t be older than 1764 and no younger than 1786, probably even between 1780 and 1786.

(1) See “Literature” Craven
(2) See “Literature” Day
(3) See “Literature” Sinclair
(4), accessed 9 February 2024
(5) See “Literature” Gourlay
(6) See “Literature” Smith
(7) See “Literature” Jackson
(8) See “Literature” Cooper