Identify Mystery Text, Win $1000

« previous post | next post »

From the University Chicago Library News:

Calling all historians of cryptography and stenography, Sherlockians (see “The Dancing Men”), and other amateur detectives!  The collection of Homer editions in the Special Collections Research Center – the  Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana(BHL) – includes a copy of the rare 1504 edition of Homer’s Odyssey that contains, in Book 11 (narrating Odysseus’s journey into Hades) handwritten annotations in a strange and as-yet unidentified script.  This marginalia appears only in the pages of Book 11 of the Odyssey; nowhere else in the volume.  Although the donor of the BHL is suspicious that this odd script is a form of 19th-century shorthand (likely French), he acknowledges that this hypothesis remains unsupported by any evidence offered to date.  

The donor of the BHL is offering a prize of $1,000 to the first person who identifies the script, provides evidence to support the conclusion, and executes a translation of selected portions of the mysterious marginalia.

I was not able to find high-resolution images for remote use — Can it really be true that aspirants need to travel to Chicago and inspect the material IRL?

Update: High-resolution images are now available here.


  1. Scott W said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 11:07 am

    At first I thought "stenography" was a typo for "steganography" (A typo in something from the U of C Library? Well, as they say, even Homer nods.) until I got to the hypothesis that the script is a form of shorthand, at which point "stenography" makes more sense. It fascinates me how two similar words compete in my brain that way.

  2. FM said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 11:36 am

    "In addition to the photographs in this post, the volume is available to consult in person in the Special Collections reading room."

    It sounds like they're expecting people to just use these two images:
    I'm not going to try to guess whose incompetence this reflects.

    [(myl) Well, they're apparently expecting people to rely on those two images unless they come to view the document in person. It's bizarre — you could make more useful images with a cell phone camera…

    Why bother to advertise the competition on the internet? They might as well just put a poster up at the circulation desk.]

  3. Mike K said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    From the post: "Please visit the Special Collections website for information about requesting items to get started." So it looks like they really do expect people to try and get access to the physical books. It's possible this is a "let's teach/encourage people to use our rare books library" sort of thing.

  4. Rube said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

    I don't know why all the fuss. It's obviously the solution to Fermat's last theorem, which he inadvertenly scrawled in the margin of the wrong book.

    Who do I see about collecting my reward money?

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

    @Scott W:
    I had exactly the same reaction!

  6. Milan said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

    I'm not an expert on the matter, so please correct my misconceptions, but how could that be steganography? Isn't it obvious that there is a message and that it is encrypted. Deciphering a message just be underlining specific words(line would be an example of steganography, but this?

  7. Mike K said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

    Steganography is all about hiding that there is a message. It is plain there is a message here, so while some steganographic techniques may be used, that's definitely not the primary thing going on.

    Note on the top right there is a question mark. Also the flow of lines seems to be congruous with left-to-right writing. The lengths of words seem fairly European to me, so it's likely some sort of unusual script or a shorthand of some sort, than a more elaborate cryptographic encoding.

    But until there's higher resolution photos so we can enumerate the symbols more accurately it would quite tedious to figure out.

    It could be an unusual script combined with some sort of substitution cipher or even a more complex thing like Vignere (a form of which was first described around that time).;

  8. leoboiko said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

    @Scott W: re competition: In his introductory book about the neurology of reading, Dehaene describes the lexicon as a "pandemonium" of parallel processing. As the stuff you're reading lights up the relevant neural pathways, the lexical entries act like countless little dæmons all shouting together "it's me! this one's for me!", and they narrow down as new input cues get in, until a single one's selected. (The "pandemonium" metaphor comes from artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge.)

  9. Avinor said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    Scott W, Ralph Hickok:

    I did read the correct stenography, but I think that the only thing that saved me from reading steganography was that I had already looked at the images and processed the thought: "That looks like shorthand!"

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

    The OED's definition of "steganography" is

    "Obs. exc. Hist.

    "The art of secret writing; cryptography. Also, cryptographic script, cipher."

    I'd be surprised to see a modern usage with that meaning, though.

  11. X said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

    Why do they think it's French? There are clearly Greek words scattered in the handwriting, and they don't seem to be words from the printed text, so they're not likely to be Greek quotations being discussed in French. Wouldn't it be more likely to be Greek stenography or tachygraphy?

  12. Marek said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

    I'd hazard a guess the marginalia are linguistic in nature.

    The footnote on one of the pages includes Greek words "γόον" and "γόνον", which may concern either elision or a historical sound change (alas, I don't know much about Homeric Greek). The other page also cites two forms based on the same stem. And most other notes refer to underlined expressions which bring up Homer-specific Google hits, and may possibly be translations of the more obscure vocabulary.

    Curiously enough, the footnote section also includes a shorthand sequence which is repeated 3 times (it looks a bit like 'zyn'), including in brackets following "γόνον".

    All in all, it doesn't look like a major challenge. I'm pretty sure the shorthand is a simple substitution of the Latin script with no word-specific symbols, and the only thing standing in the way of using character frequency tables to figure it all out is that the ligatures can't be easily broken down into distinct letters, at least not when the sample uploaded online is this small and has such a horrible quality.

    Oops, there's a $1,000 at stake. I should keep quiet.

  13. ShadowFox said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 2:20 am

    Simple substitution seem unlikely. At the bottom of left margin of the first page there are several lines of what looks like Roman script, with two more lines directly opposite on the right. Unless it was done by two different people, it seems odd to have both a Latin script and a stenographic substitute. "Linguistic nature" also seems to be an odd description, unless it includes an attempt to translate/interpret.

    I was thinking in a completely different direction, ignoring the original guess (French stenography 19th century). I'm no expert, but the loops and hooks, to me, suggested an authentic script, perhaps Glagolitic or Armenian. Since I'm no expert and don't speak Armenian, it's a pretty useless guess. Besides, stenographic scripts also contain a lot of hooks–the whole point of shorthand–although I don't recognize it here. The Glagolitic suggestion is really off the wall–there are really not enough loops in the script to make it look like full-scale Glagolitic and the lines do not appear to be straight (which is kind of a distinguishing feature of Glagolitic script). Fortunately, being wrong is free ;-)

  14. Marek said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 7:41 am


    My belief that it's a substitution script stems from the following: the inventory of distinctive character features is pretty limited (long horizontal line, diagonal line, left hook, right hook, etc.), but individual symbols combine them quite freely, which results in very few repeated segments. Pretty much the only consistently repeated standalone character is the little upside-down 'u'. With alphabetic scripts (including abjads and abugidas), you should expect a plenty of repeated characters in line with a Zipfian distribution, which makes me believe the ligatures have to represent character/sound sequences.

    It also doesn't look all that different from existing shorthands (my first impression was 'Quikscript'):

    The punctuation is identical to the Latin alphabet throughout, and includes colons, semicolons, and question marks (not to mention brackets).

    I don't know what the Latin parts say, but it's also possible the author was citing Latin expressions in non-shorthand, though that's just my attempt to pigeon-hole it into the historical linguistics theme :-)

  15. Nadnerb said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    Jerry Friedman: there is a well-established contemporary revival of the word, dating back twenty years or so, to mean hidden, as opposed to encrypted, information. The classic example is replacing the noisy high frequency components of a digital image or audio signal with the data to be concealed.

  16. Alex said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 11:51 am


    The notes on the left margin of the first page are clearly in French. Something about "cache le Dieu et la mortelle" (hide the God and the mortal woman) as well as "stériles" (fruitless), both of which are actually translations of the underlined Greek words in the respective lines.

    The second page has, if I'm not mistaken, "Chloris" and "Minyens" in Latin script, again next to the underlined Greek names.

    Most notes are next to underlined text, and their lengths roughly correspond. In the notes below the text, there are Greek words such as γόος and γόνος, which actually do occur in the preceding lines, and according to the dictionary, one means birth, the other lament. No evidence of an elision or sound change, just different words. There is also at least one name in Latin script: Jocaste, who also appears in the text.

    Is it therefore reasonable to assume that the notes are simply translations of difficult words and the text below the reader's thoughts on the content? On the other hand, I know nothing about historical documents and how people used to treat them, but why would a reader scribble private musings on a rare 16th century book?

    In case anyone is curious, here's a link to the Greek text, with a translation into English and a dictionary:
    The first example page comprises lines 234-263, the second page 264-293.

  17. M S said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

    They've since posted some high resolution copies on the page. I've got a good guess as to the script (waiting for them to download now to check), but it's not a language that I speak and the contest requires translation of the text.

  18. X said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    @Alex: Ah, I see that now. Definitely French. I was confused by the clear "γόον" at the bottom, which does not appear in the text.

    BTW, there are now high-resolution images available:

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 26, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

    Nadnerb: Yet another time when I see what I could have written more clearly. The reason I said I'd be surprised to see a modern use of "steganography" with its original meaning of "code, cipher" is that it now seems to have taken on the meaning you describe. I was just pointing out that this differentiated meaning is new.

    I think Question 25 in the 2011 Summer Doldrums Competition went rather well.

  20. ScottW said,

    April 27, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

    @Milan, Mike K: What Avinor said! Unlike Avinor I *didn't* follow the link first.

    @LeoBoiko: Thanks! That's exactly the mechanism.

  21. Mustafaster said,

    April 29, 2014 @ 11:41 am

    Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius …..

  22. Jason Merchant said,

    May 5, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

    The mystery has now been solved, by a University of Chicago linguistics PhD student, Gallagher Flinn (as well as by two others): article here.

RSS feed for comments on this post