25 October 2011

Mysterious Coded Manuscript Cracked After 300 Years

The Copiale Manuscript is a 300 year old document handwritten in an unknown code of Greek, Roman, and abstract symbols.. It was found hidden in an academic archive in East Germany. No one knew what the document is about or what it said.

Kevin Knight of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering joined up with Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden decided to solve the mystery once and for all.

Video: Kevin Knight talking about the Copiale Cipher:

The “Copiale Cipher” is a 105 pages manuscript containing all in all around 75000 characters. Beautifully bound in green and gold brocade paper, written on high quality paper with two different watermarks, the manuscript can be dated back to 1760-1780. Apart from what is obviously an owner's mark (“Philipp 1866”) and a note in the end of the last page (“Copiales 3”), the manuscript is completely encoded. The cipher employed consists of 90 different characters, comprising all from Roman and Greek letters, to diacritics and abstract symbols. Catchwords (preview fragments) of one to three or four characters are written at the bottom of left–hand pages.

To break the Copiale Cipher, researchers tracked down the original manuscript to a private collector. They then transcribed a machine-readable version of the text to help quantify the data and study the co-occurrences of certain symbols and other patterns.

Using brain power and computer technology and not to mention a lot of hits and misses, they discovered that the document was written by an 18th century German secret society. It laid out their the rituals and political leanings. "The rituals detailed in the document indicate the secret society had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology, though it seems members of the secret society were not themselves eye doctors".

They have also posted their findings online.

Knight is now focusing on deciphering other coded messages such as the one sent by the Zodiac Killer. He is also applying his computer-assisted codebreaking software to other famous unsolved codes such as the last section of "Kryptos," an encrypted message carved into a granite sculpture on the grounds of CIA headquarters, and the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document that just like the Copiale Cipher, has remained a mystery.


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