I read an interesting book recently entitled "The Six Unsolved Ciphers", and it came to mind when I saw a news story recently in which a carrier pigeon skeleton was found with a ciphered message attached to it. The pigeon's remains were found in a chimney and when the owner began to remove them from his 400-year-old house, he discovered a red capsule. Inside the capsule was a coded message and attached to its leg was an aluminum band. He took the information to Bletchley Park, England's cryptography center during World War II and is now a museum. The experts there are trying to decode it.
They believe the pigeon is one of over 30 that were taken behind enemy lines during the D-Day invasion to send messages back to the Allies about troop movements. One of them is credited with saving a village taken by allies from being bombed during the invasion. They believe the pigeon may have been overcome with fumes as it rested on the chimney, but no one will ever know for sure. What is known is the message when deciphered may bring new light on part of the mission if its contents are divulged.
While code breakers race to solve this mysterious cipher, there are others that remain a mystery.
The Voynich Manuscript is a tome from the 15th century that was discovered outside Rome in 1912. This manuscript is a large enigma of illustrations and ciphered text that has withstood examination and analysis for the last hundred years. While no one knows who authored this text, a carbon dating has placed the manufacture of this manuscript between 1404 and 1438. Originally, some scholars believed that Roger Bacon may have authored it but he lived over two hundred years prior to the creation of the manuscript. According to the author, the manuscript contains over a half million characters, numbers and symbols. To date though, no one really knows what the book is about or who wrote it. The most popular theory is the volume contains rituals of a religious sect.
Some ciphers are from the minds of those less noble. The infamous Zodiac Killer that terrorized San Francisco forty years ago took delight in taunting police with his letters and messages which also contained coded texts. The police deciphered only one message successfully discovering that the result was a vulgar note that provided little information about the killer. Zodiac killed five people and almost murdered two others, but claimed in his letters to be responsible for the deaths of 37 people. This latter total is derived from the last communication police received from him in 1974 in which he appears to have taunted investigators with a scorecard at the bottom of the card that stated "Me=37, SFPD=0". Several suspects have been examined by police through the years, but none have been successfully placed as Zodiac and to this day his identity remains a mystery. Perhaps someone can decipher the letter and solve the crimes of this monster.
Other ciphers form artwork in one case the monument named Kryptos that adorns the front of the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters is a four paneled coded sculpture that contains a message. While three of the four panels have been deciphered, the fourth remains a mystery. According to designer Jim Sanborn who has provided clues through the years. One of them is that the three deciphered panels contain clues for unraveling the fourth one. To date, no one has completely deciphered the message on this sculpture.
If you are interested in treasure hunting, then the encoded Beale Papers might be up your alley.
This set of three ciphers was allegedly created by a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale who entrusted the encoded messages in a box to an innkeeper named Roger Morriss and then disappeared never to be seen again. The text supposedly leads one to a treasure worth an estimated $63 million in money, gold and diamonds. The secret is concealed in three encoded messages and to date only the second message has been deciphered the first and third remain in code. The second message was deciphered using a book cipher with the Declaration of Independence to translate its page of numbers. The other two pages though have avoided an easy decryption and do not appear to contain intelligent word patterns although code breakers hold out hope they will find the key someday. The treasure's worth is estimated based on what the second message divulged.
While these messages were purposely created to keep their contents hidden, other texts are written in glyphs and codes that are part of systems that have been lost to the sands of time. For example, the Phaestos Disk contains 45 unique signs forming 241 tokens or seals in a large disk that was found in a Minoan Palace's remains on the isle of Phaestos. The disk dates back to 2,000 BC, but while where it was discovered is certain, no one knows for sure where it was manufactured although archaeologists believe it is a genuine artifact. There is quite a detailed analysis on Wikipedia if you want to try your hand at deciphering this little enigma.
Codes and ciphers are used for many things such as protecting messages from prying eyes, providing a shorthand in communication among familiar parties and safely transmitting messages.
It is interesting to note that lost civilizations languages form their own codes not out of secrecy but out of the forgotten knowledge of those societies. If you can solve any of these codes though, you can provide insights into a lost society, find buried treasure or identify a killer. All it takes is learning the key. Easier said, than done.
Til next time…