Friday, October 5, 2012


10 Undeciphered Codes and Texts

10. The Codex Seraphinianus

The Codex Seraphinianus is a book written and illustrated by the Italian artist, architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini during thirty months, from 1976 to 1978. The book is approximately 360 pages long (depending on edition), and appears to be a visual encyclopedia of an unknown world, written in one of its languages, a thus-far undeciphered alphabetic writing. The illustrations are often surreal parodies of things in our world: bleeding fruit; a plant that grows into roughly the shape of a chair and is subsequently made into one; a lovemaking couple that metamorphoses into an alligator; etc. Others depict odd, apparently senseless machines, often with a delicate appearance, kept together by tiny filaments. There are also illustrations readily recognizable, as maps or human faces. On the other hand, especially in the “physics” chapter, many images look almost completely abstract. Practically all figures are brightly coloured and rich in detail. The whole Codex is composed in a bizarre alphabet that has still yet to be translated even after intense study by linguists. Since the text itself is unreadable, the Codex has become most famous for Serafini’s artwork, which ranges from the surreal and beautiful to the downright disturbing.

9. Indus Script

The term Indus script (also Harappan script) refers to short strings of symbols associated with the Indus Valley Civilization, in use during the Mature Harappan period, between the 26th and 20th centuries BC. In spite of many attempts at decipherments and claims, it is as yet undeciphered. The underlying language has not been able to be identified, primarily due to the lack of a bilingual inscription. Over the years, numerous decipherments have been proposed, but none has been accepted by the scientific community at large. The topic is popular among amateur researchers, and there have been various (mutually exclusive) decipherment claims. None of these suggestions has found academic recognition.

8. Dispilio Tablet

The Dispilio Tablet (also known as the Dispilio Scripture or the Dispilio Disk) is a wooden tablet bearing inscribed markings (charagmata), unearthed during George Hourmouziadis’s excavations of Dispilio in Greece and carbon 14-dated to about 7300 BP (5260 BC). It was discovered in 1993 in a Neolithic lakeshore settlement that occupied an artificial island near the modern village of Dispilio on Lake Kastoria in Kastoria Prefecture, Greece. The site appears to have been occupied over a long period, from the final stages of the Middle Neolithic (5600-5000 BC) to the Final Neolithic (3000 BC). A number of items were found, including ceramics, wooden structural elements, seeds, bones, figurines, personal ornaments, flutes (one of them dating back to the 6th millennium BCE, the oldest ever found in Europe) and what appears to be the most significant finding, the inscribed Dispilio Tablet which could not be deciphered by symbologists till date.

7. Vinča Script

In 1875, archaeological excavations led by the Hungarian archeologist Zsófia Torma at Tordos, Hungary (today Turdaş, Romania) unearthed a cache of objects inscribed with previously unknown symbols. In 1908, a similar cache was found during excavations conducted by Miloje Vasic  in Vinča, a suburb of Belgrade (Serbia). Later, more such fragments were found in Banjica, another part of Belgrade. Since, over one hundred and fifty Vinča sites have been identified in Serbia alone, but many, including Vinča itself, have not been fully excavated. Thus, the culture of the whole area is called the Vinča culture, and the script is often called the Vinča-Tordos script. The nature and purpose of the symbols is a mystery. It is dubious that they constitute a writing system. If they do, it is not known whether they represent an alphabet, syllabary, ideograms or some other form of writing. Although attempts have been made to decipher the symbols, there is no generally accepted translation or agreement as to what they mean. At first it was thought that the symbols were simply used as property marks, with no more meaning than “this belongs to X”; a prominent holder of this view is archaeologist Peter Biehl. This theory is now mostly abandoned, as same symbols have been repeatedly found on the whole territory of Vinča culture, on locations hundreds of kilometers and years away from each other. The prevailing theory is that the symbols were used for religious purposes in a traditional agricultural society. If so, the fact that the same symbols were used for centuries with little change suggests that the ritual meaning and culture represented by the symbols likewise remained constant for a very long time, with no need for further development. The use of the symbols appears to have been abandoned (along with the objects on which they appear) at the start of the Bronze Age, suggesting that the new technology brought with it significant changes in social organization and beliefs.

6. Singapore Stone

The Singapore Stone is a fragment of a large sandstone slab which originally stood at the mouth of the Singapore River. The slab, which is believed to date back to at least the 13th century and possibly as early as the 10th or 11th century, bore an undeciphered inscription. Recent theories suggest that the inscription is either in Old Javanese or Sanskrit. It is likely that the person who commissioned the inscription was Sumatran. The slab was blown up in 1843 to clear and widen the passageway at the river mouth to make space for a fort and the quarters of its commander. The slab may be linked to the legendary story of the 14th-century strongman Badang, who is said to have thrown a massive stone to the mouth of the Singapore River. On Badang’s death, the Rajah sent two stone pillars to be raised over his grave “at the point of the straits of Singhapura”. The Stone, now displayed at the National Museum of Singapore, was designated by the museum as one of 11 “national treasures” in January 2006, and by the National Heritage Board as one of the top 12 artifacts held in the collections of its museums.

5. Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a handwritten book thought to have been written in the early 15th century and comprising about 240 vellum pages, most with illustrations. Although many possible authors have been proposed, the author, script, and language remain unknown. It has been described as “the world’s most mysterious manuscript”. Generally presumed to be some kind of ciphertext, the Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. Yet it has defied all decipherment attempts, becoming a historical cryptology cause célèbre. The mystery surrounding it has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript a subject of both fanciful theories and novels. In 2009, University of Arizona researchers performed C14 dating on the manuscript’s vellum, which they assert (with 95% confidence) was made between 1404 and 1438. In addition, the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago found that much of the ink was added not long afterwards, confirming that the manuscript is an authentic medieval document.

4. Byblos Syllabary

The Byblos syllabary, also known as the Pseudo-hieroglyphic script, Proto-Byblian, Proto-Byblic, or Byblic, is officially an undeciphered writing system, known from ten inscriptions found in Byblos. The inscriptions are engraved on bronze plates and spatulas, and carved in stone. They were excavated by Maurice Dunand, from 1928 to 1932, and published in 1945 in his monograph Byblia Grammata. The inscriptions are conventionally dated to the second millennium BC, probably between the 18th and 15th centuries BC.

3. Beale Ciphers

The Beale ciphers are a set of three ciphertexts, one of which allegedly states the location of a buried treasure of gold, silver and jewels estimated to be worth over USD$65 million as of 2010. The other two ciphertexts allegedly describe the content of the treasure, and list the names of the treasure’s owners’ next of kin, respectively. The story of the three ciphertexts originates from an 1885 pamphlet detailing treasure being buried by a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale in a secret location in Bedford County, Virginia, in 1820. Beale entrusted the box containing the encrypted messages with a local innkeeper named Robert Morriss and then disappeared, never to be seen again. The innkeeper gave the three encrypted ciphertexts to a friend before he died. The friend then spent the next twenty years of his life trying to decode the messages, and was able to solve only one of them which gave details of the treasure buried and the general location of the treasure. He published all three ciphertexts in a pamphlet, although most of the originals were destroyed in a warehouse fire. Since the publication of the pamphlet, a number of attempts have been made to decode the two remaining ciphertexts and to find the treasure, but all have resulted in failure.

2.Khitan Scripts

The Khitan scripts were the writing systems for the now-extinct Khitan language, used in the 10th-12th century by the Khitan people. who had created the Liao Empire in north-eastern China. There were two scripts, known as the large script and the small script. These were functionally independent and appear to have been used simultaneously. The Khitan scripts continued to be in use to some extent by the Jurchens for several decades after the fall of the Liao Dynasty, until the Jurchens fully switched to a script of their own. Examples of the scripts appeared most often on epitaphs and monuments, although other fragments sometimes surface. Many scholars recognize that the Khitan scripts have not been fully deciphered, and that more research and discoveries would be necessary for a proficient understanding of them. Our knowledge of the Khitan language, which was written by the Khitan script, is quite limited as well. Although there are several clues to its origins, which might point in different directions.

1. Cascajal Block

The Cascajal Block is a writing tablet-sized serpentinite slab which has been dated to the early first millennium BCE incised with hitherto unknown characters that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. Archaeologist Stephen D. Houston of Brown University said that this discovery helps to “link the Olmec civilization to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to [the Olmec] civilization.” The block holds a total of 62 glyphs, some of which resemble plants such as corn and ananas, or animals such as insects and fish. Many of the symbols are more abstract boxes or blobs. The symbols on the Cascajal block are unlike those of any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as in Mayan languages or Isthmian, another extinct Mesoamerican script. The Cascajal block is also unusual because the symbols apparently run in horizontal rows and “there is no strong evidence of overall organization. The sequences appear to be conceived as independent units of information”. All other known Mesoamerican scripts typically use vertical rows.


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