University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center
The curious notations at the margins of this 1504 copy of Homer's
Oct. 31, 2011 --
Known as the Copiale Cipher, the mysterious text seen here was the work of a secretive 18th-century society. Discovered in East Germany and first examined in the 1970s, the 75,000-character cipher details the operations and rituals of this 300-year-old group. The cipher was cracked by a team of U.S. and Swedish researchers led by University of Southern California computer scientist Kevin Knight. Interestingly enough, the code revealed the political leanings of the organization and its curious fascination with eye surgery. Although a combination of human ingenuity and computing power solved this centuries-old text, there are still other codes, both modern and ancient, whose meanings have eluded even the most skilled cryptographers. Explore other texts whose meanings are still hidden to history.
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Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale
The Voynich manuscript, a 15th-century parchment containing both a coded script and mysterious drawings, was discovered in 1912 in the Villa Mondragone near Rome. Even since its discovery, it has confounded cryptographers. Only this year did researchers even determine how old the text is. Even the true author of the text is something of a mystery. Theories range from a 13th-century friar named Roger Bacon to a religious sect hiding their customs and rituals in the pages of the manuscript. Although the book contains nearly a quarter of a million characters, they are of such variety as to further complicate deciphering the text. Some resemble Latin letters and Roman numerals, while others are completely unique. The drawings only serve to further confuse anyone looking to see through to the meaning of the text.
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Discovered in 1908 in Crete, the Phaistos Disk is a Bronze-Age relic containing a script that dates back about 4,000 years. Measuring around 16 centimeters (6.3 inches) in diameter and containing some 45 symbols repeated throughout the artifact, the pottery disk contains a mix of figures resembling humans, plants, weapons and animals. Since its discovery, the authenticity of the Phaistos Disk has been questioned by some archaeologists who argue it's a forgery. But most scholars accept it as a genuine product of its time.
J. M. Kenoyer / harappa.com via ScienceDaily.
Thousands of artifacts bearing Indus Script, a more than 4,000-year-old writing form tied to the prehistoric Indus Valley Civilization, have been discovered over the past century. However, the meaning of these ancient hieroglyphics has remained a mystery to anyone looking to decipher them. Although a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified patterns in the symbols taken from different artifacts bearing this text, the language remains a mystery. In fact, some archaeologists have questioned whether the script represents a language at all, or "merely pictograms of political or religious icons," as reported in a related release from Science Daily. With the discovery of sequences and patterns in the script, however, those looking to decode these ancient texts are more confident that the codes reflect an underlying logic of a verbal system.
Discovered on Easter Island in the 19th century, Rongorongo is a text found only on fragments of wooden objects. It consists of glyphs resembling human, animal and plant figures as well as abstract, geometric symbols. Dating the text has proven tricky, since researchers can only radiocarbon-date the wood, not necessarily the text itself. Evidence suggests, however, that the text couldn't date much further back than around 700 years ago.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the San Francisco area was terrorized by a serial killer who called himself "The Zodiac." He sent many letters to the San Francisco Chronicle documenting his crimes over the years. The letters the Zodiac killer sent also included a code in the form a cipher, only one of which has ever been deciphered. However, rather than providing any insight into the identity of the killer, the solution to the cryptogram is instead a vulgar statement about what motivates the killer.
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Central Intelligence Agency
You'd think it would take a world-class cryptographer to create the four hidden messages embedded in Kryptos, a sculpture that resides on the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Generations of codebreakers haven't been able to crack the full message concealed within this artwork. In fact, the message is the creation of artist Jim Sanborn, who is allegedly the only one who knows the final solution. The sculpture is made up of four sections, three of which have been solved. (To view the original text of the puzzle, click here.) The fourth section of the piece has confounded both professional and amateur cryptographers. Since the sculpture's dedication, Sanborn has released a few clues about the pieces, including that the first three sections contain the keys to solving the fourth.
A kind of literary whodunit was solved recently when mysterious handwritten notations from a rare, 1504 edition of Homer's Odyssey were identified.
The epic poem was part of a collection donated to the University of Chicago Library in 2007 by a collector, and ever since the unknown notations have told the library little besides their probable dating to the 1850s.
What better way to solve a mystery than to incentivize the correct solution with a thousand bucks? That's just what the collector, M.C. Lang, did. The deal was simple: Identify the script in the margins, prove the assertion, translate some of it, and then the fun part: pocket $1,000.
Italian digital humanities student Daniele Metilli took the prize when he and a co-sleuth with a background in stenography and the French language, Giula Accetta, cracked the case.
Because there were French words mixed in with the mystery handwriting, and the legible date of April 25, 1854 was present, the duo investigated French stenographic systems that were in use during that time.
After judging a few of those systems "not guilty," Metilli and Accetta hit paydirt: The guilty party was Jean Coulon de Thévénot, creator in the late 1700s of the shorthand notation system scrawled amid the Greek text of the 1504 Homer. The decoded notes were French translations of some of the Greek wording in the classic tome.
To the untrained eye, the notation looks like the Palmer Method gone horribly wrong. But there's a method to the cryptic madness. "Every consonant and vowel has a starting shape, and they combine together to form new shapes representing syllables," said Metilli. The curious underlining of words was also key to their meaning, based on each letter's position atop or below the line.
Next up for Metilli and Accetta is to unmask the author as well as determine why the notations are only present in one place in the book.