Nov. 20, 2001 FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- A University of Arkansas researcher and his colleagues used tree ring records to accurately date the wood used in a famous violin purported to be made by Stradivarius and showed that the wood was hewn during the violin maker's lifetime.
Malcolm Cleaveland, professor of geosciences, joined lead investigator Henri Grissino-Mayer of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and Paul Sheppard of the University of Arizona in reporting their findings at a recent meeting of the Violin Society of America in Carlisle, Pa.
The violin in question bears the name Messiah and is believed to be one of the instruments made by the famous violin maker Antonio Stradivarius. After a colorful past, the instrument landed in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England, where it has remained on display -- enclosed in glass.
Four years ago an American expert declared the Messiah a fake. The controversy over the violin's origin escalated as a British violin maker and tree ring researcher dated the instrument to the 1680s, while a German tree ring expert put the date in the late 1730s -- too late to be an authentic Stradivarius. The British investigator measured the violin itself, while the German researcher measured the rings using photographs.
"The German researcher didn't have an instrument to measure, and the British expert presented no convincing graphical evidence or verifiable statistical evidence for his assertions," Cleaveland said.
The controversy continued in the violin world, where enthusiasts consider a Stradivarius to be almost priceless. This particular instrument is prized because of its pristine condition.
Helen Hayes, the president of the Violin Society of America, put together a panel of American dendrochronologists led by Grissino-Mayer, who invited Cleaveland and Sheppard to measure the tree rings in the Messiah. The researchers brought specialized microscopes and measuring equipment to the Ashmolean, where they carefully teased out the tree rings lying beneath a coat of varnish on the front piece of the violin.
The front of the violin is made from Norway spruce from somewhere in southern Europe. It is made from two pieces of the same tree joined together at the center in what is called a "butterfly." The oldest rings from the center of the tree would be found at the center of the violin's front, so the researchers were allowed to remove the strings and use their microscopes and instruments to make measurements.
The researchers compared the rings to tree ring chronologies for Norway spruce found at high altitudes in the Alps of Austria, Italy, Germany and France. They also compared the Messiah tree rings to those of another famous violin, the Archinto, which they measured at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The Archinto, a confirmed Stradavarius dating back to 1696, had more rings for comparison -- 159 versus 109 in the Messiah.
They were able to determine, by comparing the Messiah to the Arhcinto and the Archinto to the tree ring chronologies, that the wood in the Messiah dates back to 1686 -- during the lifetime of Stradivarius.
"We can't confirm that this is a Stradivarius, but we can say that it's in the right time frame," Cleaveland said.
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