Ten Mysterious Undeciphered Codes and Inscriptions
From Neolithic tablets containing the oldest known system of writing, to a series of letters scrawled on the back of a dead man’s book, some of the most legendary undeciphered codes and texts remain a challenge for even the world’s best cryptographers, code breakers, and linguists. Yet unravelling these mysterious puzzles remains as important as ever, since many of these enigmatic inscriptions could hold the keys to understanding civilizations that have long since faded into the pages of history. Here we feature ten of the most fascinating undeciphered codes and inscriptions throughout history.
In the grounds of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England, sits an 18th-Century monument known as the Shepherd’s Monument, which was commissioned by Thomas Anson, a member of the British Parliament, and crafted sometime between 1748 and 1763 by Flemish sculptor Peter Schee. The Monument contains a relief, depicting a copy of a Nicolas Poussin painting ‘The Shepherds of Arcadia’, and a cipher text that has stumped historians and decoders for hundreds of years. The mysterious inscription that has yet to be decoded is located beneath the relief, and contains the letters O U O S V A V V. Framing these eight letters, at a slightly lower level, are the letters D M. So cryptic is the cipher text, that it became a feature in the international bestseller ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, and Dan Brown’s historical thriller, ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Both books presented the theory that Nicolas Poussin was a member of the secretive Priory of Sion, a Medieval monastic order, and that his painting ‘The Shepherds of Arcadia’ contains deep esoteric messages hidden within it. It is not clear whether the inscription will ever be decoded, nor whether it was ever intended to be. Whoever inscribed it must have known that the letters would last throughout the centuries, and be viewed by civilizations to come. It is possible that only a select few ever knew the purpose of the letters and what they stand for.
For hundreds of years, linguists have been trying to decode the ancient hieroglyphic script of the Maya, left behind on monument carvings, painted pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books. Thankfully, decipherment has been advancing at a rapid rate and significant progress is being made. This will be a huge step forward for deepening our understanding of the social, political, and historical aspects of Maya civilization. For a long time many scholars believed that the script did not represent a language at all, or that it wasn't a complete writing system, and it is easy to see why this belief prevailed - the writing is arguably one of the most visually striking writing systems of the world. It is very complex, with hundreds of unique signs or glyphs in the form of humans, animals, supernatural objects, and abstract designs. The first major breakthrough in decipherment came during the 1950s when a Russian ethnologist proposed that the Mayan script was at least partly phonetic. His ideas were not welcomed, but he was eventually proved correct. Progress accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s when more linguistics began to take an interest in the script, and scholars came to understand that it was in fact a fully functioning writing system in which it was possible to express unambiguously any sentence of the spoken language. Despite the progress, much has remained to be decoded from the immense body of carvings and inscriptions that has languished for centuries in jungle ruins and museum closets.
During the 19th Century, ancient artifacts containing a set of etched symbols were discovered on the world-renowned Easter Island, a small remote island located a few thousand miles west of South America, and famous for the hundreds of giant monolithic anthropomorphic statues called moai. The intricate designs appear to be glyphs, or a form of writing, but the meaning of the glyphs has never been deciphered. Some believe that decoding the mysterious writing could offer answers into what caused the collapse of the ancient Easter Island civilization.
The Rongorongo writing was first discovered by Eugène Eyraud, a lay friar of the Roman Catholic Church, who went to Easter Island as a missionary on January 2, 1864. In an account of his visit, he wrote of his discovery of twenty-six wooden tablets containing the unusual inscriptions. The irregularly shaped wooden tablets were weathered, burned, or otherwise damaged when they were found. The glyphs were also found on a chieftain's staff, a bird-man statuette, and two reimiro ornaments. The glyphs are written in-between lines that run across the tablets. The Rongorongo images are shaped like humans, animals, plants, and geometric forms.