Few stories have the power to captivate us more than those that remain unresolved. Codes, puzzles and cryptic public art tease us with their intrigue: Why is their message coded? What great secrets might they hide? Despite the efforts of our most learned historians, cleverest cryptographers and most determined treasure hunters, history is replete with riddles that continue to confound us today. Fictional tales like those featured in “The Da Vinci Code” and the movie “National Treasure” have got nothing on these real-life puzzles. Here’s our list of 10 of the world’s most cryptic unsolved mysteries and codes.
Named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912, the Voynich Manuscript is a detailed 240-page book written in a language or script that is completely unknown. Its pages are also filled with colorful drawings of strange diagrams, odd events and plants that do not seem to match any known species, adding to the intrigue of the document and the difficulty of deciphering it. The original author of the manuscript remains unknown, but carbon dating has revealed that its pages were made sometime between 1404 and 1438. It has been called “the world’s most mysterious manuscript.”
Theories abound about the origin and nature of the manuscript. Some believe it was meant to be a pharmacopoeia, to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. Many of the pictures of herbs and plants hint that it many have been some kind of textbook for an alchemist. The fact that many diagrams appear to be of astronomical origin, combined with the unidentifiable biological drawings, has even led some fanciful theorists to propose that the book may have an alien origin.
One thing most theorists agree on is that the book is unlikely to be a hoax, given the amount of time, money and detail that would have been required to make it.
Kryptos is a mysterious encrypted sculpture designed by artist Jim Sanborn which sits right outside the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Va. It’s so mysterious, in fact, that not even the CIA has completely cracked the code.
The sculpture contains four inscriptions, and although three of them have been cracked, the fourth remains elusive (Read what the first three inscriptions say here). In 2006 Sanborn let slip that there are clues in the first inscriptions to the last one, and in 2010 he released another clue: the Letters 64-69 NYPVTT in part 4 encode the text BERLIN.
Think you have what it takes to solve it?
The Beale Ciphers are a set of three ciphertexts that supposedly reveal the location of one of the grandest buried treasures in U.S. history: thousands of pounds of gold, silver and jewels. The treasure was originally obtained by a mysterious man named Thomas Jefferson Beale in 1818 while prospecting in Colorado.
Of the three ciphertexts, only the second one has been cracked. Interestingly, the U.S. Declaration of Independence turned out to be the key — a curious fact given that Beale shares his name with the author of the Declaration of Independence.
The cracked text does reveal the county where the treasure was buried: Bedford County, Va., but its exact location is likely encrypted in one of the other uncracked ciphers. To this day, treasure hunters scour the Bedford County hillsides digging (often illegally) for the loot.
The mystery of the Phaistos Disc is a story that sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Discovered by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in 1908 in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, the disc is made of fired clay and contains mysterious symbols that may represent an unknown form of hieroglyphics. It is believed that it was designed sometime in the second millennium BC.
Some scholars believe that the hieroglyphs resemble symbols of Linear A and Linear B, scripts once used in ancient Crete. The only problem? Linear A also eludes decipherment.
Today the disc remains one of the most famous puzzles of archaeology.