I don’t often cover the Phaistos Disk here, simply because it’s almost certainly more of a linguistic mystery than a cipher mystery as such. However, I was particularly taken by some aspects of the analysis offered by Keith & Kevin Massey, so it seemed well worth discussing here.

Incidentally, despite their complementary-yet-competing philological interests, the twins didn’t start their Phaistos Disk adventure together. But, as they put it, “for Kevin to collaborate with his brother Keith was finally inevitable, like dancing with your mad aunt at a wedding reception.

Their Chapters 1-4 summarize a whole load of Phaistos research, while trying to argue for a link between various early European scripts (Cypriotic, Linear B, etc). Their Chapter 5 (pp.48-56) argues for a left-to-right reading of the Phaistos Disk (but not quite as convincingly as they hope, I think). But after all that, their Chapter 6 discards pretty much all their preceding linguistic analysis and instead proposes the hypothesis that Phaistos Disk words with slashes are actually numbers. And that’s essentially where they finish.

Now, for all the twins’ obvious linguistic smarts, I have to say I just don’t buy into this – at least, not in the way it’s currently presented. And here’s my argument why:

(1) The way that the signs are physically imprinted / stamped into the soft unfired surface of the disk is clearly systematic (i.e. it’s a consciously prepared set of shapes, not one that’s being improvised on a shape-by-shape basis), and the choice of those shapes forms part of the same system.

(2) Furthermore, the whole disk had to be fired once and once only. Hence without much doubt the imprints on both sides had to have been made at the same time using the same basic system.

(3) Regardless of whatever direction you believe it was written in, there are substantial word differences between the two sides. Many words repeat on the same side (in fact, there’s even a three-word pattern that repeats on Side A), yet only a single measly three-imprint word repeats between sides.

(4) There is an imbalance between the shapes on the two sides. The most obvious difference is the frequency of the plumed head imprint: 14 instances on Side A but only 5 instances on Side B. Yet there are plenty of others, such as the beehive (once on Side A but five times on Side B). Indeed, the most visually striking difference is the twelve { PLUMED_HEAD + SHIELD } pairs on Side A compared to the single pair on Side B.

These are the basic observations I personally work from, and the problem is that I just don’t see how these square with the number system suggested by the Masseys. Whatever the actual significance of the slashes, it doesn’t seem to me to coincide with any obvious difference in the language as used (because the PLUMED_HEAD + SHIELD pairs occur just about as often in slashed words as in unslashed ones): and (longhand) numbers are almost always a notably differently-structured part of any language.

For me, the big issue is that Side A is significantly more structured and repetitive than Side B. Also, its word lengths have much greater variance (i.e. Side A has both longer and shorter words than are found on Side B), and they use a different mix of shapes. Yet slashed words occur just as often on both sides. I just don’t get it, me.

I suspect that Side A and Side B use different kinds of language (ritual, performative, poetic, pragmatic, whatever) to assist very different functions: and probably courtly functions at that. But seeing it as a homogeneous number container for (say) Cretan tax accounting seems far too mundane. Bean counters never touched this artefact, no they didn’t! 🙂

I thought I’d take a brief sideways step over to the Beale Papers, a cipher mystery I haven’t mentioned in a while here. Most of you probably already know about my Big Fat List of Voynich Novels, expanding almost monthly with yet more Voynich-appropriating titles. But is there much fiction based around other well-known cipher mysteries?

Well… I recently bought a copy of Tom Harper’s (2007) “Lost Temple” solely because of the Phaistos Disk lookalike overlaying the front cover… but that was as close as it got. It’s actually quite a good read, with the first Minoan half touching on the same kind of sources as Gavin Menzies “The Lost Empire of Atlantis” (but more believable), and the second half moving onto Greek mythology, Achilles’ shield, and Harper’s version of Unobtainium. Sorry Tom, the house rule here is: no cipher, no review. 😉

Which reminds me that at some point, I really need to read Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid”, as that gives every impression of having been inspired by the Somerton Man “Tamam Shud” case.

And here’s another novel that does count: Alexis Tappendorf and the Search for Beale’s Treasure (Volume 1), by Becca C. Smith.

[…] Upon arriving in Virginia, Alexis discovers that for the last hundred years the townspeople of Summervale and Bedford County have been searching for a lost treasure buried somewhere in the area by a man named Thomas J. Beale. More importantly, the only clues to finding the fortune are in the form of cryptograms, codes that, when properly translated, tell the exact location of the bounty. In a heart-pounding race to Beale’s Treasure, Alexis and her new friend, Olivia Boyd, join forces to solve the Beale ciphers before the dangerous family, the Woodmores, beat them to it…

So, yet another cipher mystery gets subsumed into the Young Adult Fiction cultural Borg. (No, I still haven’t managed to finish The Cadence of Gypsies, or The Book of Blood & Shadow.) What will be next, Alexis Tappendorf and the Vaguely Heretical Rohonc Codex? [*shudders in a sudden cold draft*]

However, such cultural flimflam may well all be in vain, because – according to the webcomic ‘I Can Barely Draw’, the Beale Cipher has finally been solved. Apparently, it reads: “I accidentally the rest of it“. Well, well, well – who’d have thunk it, eh? 🙂

In a recent Cipher Mysteries post, I mentioned Peter Aleff’s theory that the Phaistos Disk was based on Senet, an Ancient Egyptian board game. All very fascinating… but something about it all triggered an old memory, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on. However, when yesterday I did finally manage to find what I had been reminded of – Mehen – it set a much larger train of thought in motion, that might point to a new Phaistos Disk board game theory. I’ll try to explain…

Five thousands years ago, board games started as Pharaonic courtly pursuits, only becoming accessible to a wider audience three thousand (!) years later when the idea of abstract gaming spread through the Roman upper middle class. With that basic framework in mind, Aleff theorizes that the Ancient Egyptian game Senet (a rectangular race game with pawns and various hazard squares) morphed – millennia later, and by routes entirely unknown – into the relatively modern Game of the Goose (a spiral race game with pawns and various hazard squares): Aleff proposes ingenious ways in which the spiral structure of the Phaistos Disk somehow fits into that mysteriously missing multi-millennia lineage. All the same, just about the only fragment of supporting near-evidence of the modern game’s ancient parentage comes from a throwaway line in Molière’s (1668) “The Miser”:-

La Flèche: Item: a trou-madame table, a draught-board, with the game of mother goose, restored from the Greeks, very agreeable to pass the time when one has nothing else to do.

Well… that’s one theory, with a lot of speculation to back-fill an inevitably enormous historical gap. But what I don’t really like about it is the lack of any cultural mechanism by which ideas were carried down the centuries. We have plenty of evidence of various Roman versions of Senet, such as Duodecim Scripta and Felix Sex (Lucky Sixes), which developed into a game called Tabula, which then developed (eventually) into modern Backgammon. The problem? These all use rectangular boards, very much like Senet and very much unlike the spiral Phaistos Disk. If you believe – wearing your Anthony Grafton-like Intellectual Historian hat – that ideas flow through time, it’s hard not to conclude that these particular ideas aren’t really flowing past the Phaistos Disk.

Yet as every X-Files-ophile knows, for every thesis, there’s an equal and opposite antithesis (let’s not talk about ‘syntheses’, they do complicate things so): so here’s my own theory. Of course, I doubt it’s new, and I’m entirely aware that there’s more than a whiff of Gavin Menzies to its intuitive leapery, but I’m generally pretty comfortable with it, feel free to disagree all you like. 🙂

While I think that Aleff’s basic idea – that the Phaistos Disk is probably a courtly board game for the Minoan palace set – is sound, I suspect the braided historical strand of games he’s trying to tie it into is the wrong one. In my opinion, if the Disk is the board for a race game such as Senet, it is far more likely to have derived from a quite different Ancient Egyptian race game, a spiral race game called Mehen (Mehen = “coiled one”, a serpent god who protected Ra at night).

Fascinatingly, there are numerous spiral Mehen game boards still extant: this illustrated list on the Jocari site is an exceptional resource. Aleff would be right to point out that these contain many more sections than the Phaistos Disk: but for me, the big question is: what happened next? Did Mehen – a game which seems to have flourished 3000BC to 2300BC during the Old Kingdom – just disappear, or might it, like Senet, have then morphed into other spiral race games on an equally winding passage through the centuries?

Fast forward to the present, and we can see a quite different race game based around snakes and hazard squares: yes, I really am referring to Snakes and Ladders. This has a direct Indian parentage going back to at least the 16th century under the names Moksha Patamu, Gyanbazi, etc: the V&A Museum has a nice game board here. According to this site, Harish Johari’s book “The Yoga of Snakes and Arrows” claims:

The origins of this game appear to be found in 2nd century BC documents from India. Some historians point out that the game may be a variation of the ancient game of dasapada played on a 10×10 grid.

Dasapada (10×10) and ashtapada (8×8) were both race games which it is reputed that Gautama Buddha would not play in the 5th century BC. Apparently, Ashtapada was played on a square board with crosses on certain squares: though intriguingly, the game’s race did not – according to famous board-game historian H. J. R. Murray – proceed in the kind of boustrophedon (alternate rows go forward and backwards) order we now associate with Snakes and Ladders, but in a spiral pattern, moving clockwise to enter/capture a castle and then anticlockwise to return. (Though here’s a link to a dissenting opinion on this that doubts Murray’s certainty.)

Of course, you’ve already worked out where all this is, errrm, racing towards: that the Phaistos Disk probably fits not into the whole Senet…Backgammon game development line, but into an entirely different line moving from [spiral snake race] Mehen to [spiral race] Ashtapada/Dasapada to [boustrophedon race] Moksha Patamu to [boustrophedon race] Snakes & Ladders.

Perhaps the “snake” in the modern game was some kind of long-standing memory of (or some long-lost cultural reference to) to the Egyptian snake god Mehen, or perhaps just the snake-like Mehen game board: I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?

Ultimately, however, I can’t prove a single thing of this whole tenuous chain (you know that, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise). And there’s the the awkward issue of the awkward gap between Phaistos and India to fill: how did idea in place A travel to place B?

The Menzies-like lateral ‘bridging’ step is the observation that it’s entirely possible that the Minoans were trading with India circa 1500 BC. For instance, chapter 17 of Gavin Menzies’ Bronze Age speculatiathon “The Lost Empire of Atlantis” (called “Indian Ocean Trade in the Bronze Age”) wonders whether the ancient Indus civilization’s port of Lothal (built around 2400BC) was connected with the Minoans (hint: Menzies concludes ‘yes’). However, my suggestion is rather more modest in scope than Menzies: it’s merely the story of a single idea, travelling with the flow of Bronze Age trade traffic.

Ultimately, for the Minoan palace elite, was the Phaistos Disk the ultimate board game, insofar as (like Mehen) might it have been a way of improving your odds in the afterlife? And if we now play Snakes & Ladders, are we not merely recapitulating 16th century Jain morality but also travelling in time on the back of a serpent to the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt? When our counter lands on a snake, is it Mehen we’re landing on? Just a thought!

A Happy Cipher Mysteries Christmas to you all! 🙂

Just to break up the monotony of far too many Unknown Man posts in a row 🙂 , here’s Anthony Svoronos’ great long list of Phaistos Disk speculative theories and wobbly decipherment attempts, together with his own notes on what he suspects it is. Peter Aleff [#47 on Svoronos’ list] recently left a comment here asserting:

There is plenty of evidence that it recorded the path of a board game similar to the Egyptian Snake Game and Senet, and surviving in today’s children’s Game of the Goose. See http://www.phaistosgame.com/volume1.htm. Enjoy that surprising story, as well as the almost self-explanatory title page of the combined volumes 1 and 2 at phaistosgame.com/phaistos1booktitlepage.htm that shows the reconstructed gameboard and will be published next Spring.

The Phaistos Disk as board game, eh? Well, Fernand Crombette suggested this some decades ago, so that is not in itself a new idea. But we shall see next Spring, I guess!

But that’s by the by: I actually wanted to post about another Phaistos Disk-related story entirely. When I was recently looking for sources on other ancient artefacts with similar symbols (e.g. the Arkalochori axe, seal fragment HM 992, etc), I found the following proper cipher mystery story in a greek ceramic website selling repro Phaistos Disks:

A very peculiar find was made in 1992 in a basement in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia: A fragment of an apparent copy of, or draft for the Phaistos disc, with the symbols incised with a stylus rather than imprinted. It is uncertain whether this artifact is genuinely ancient, a good faith modern copy of the Phaistos disc, or a bad faith attempt at forgery. The house in the basement of which the fragment was found was built in 1880. Allegedly, the object was recognized as a fake and returned to its private owner.

There’s a picture of this “Vladikavkaz Disk” on p.16 of Il disco di Festo: Un calcolatore vecchio di 4.000 anni by Rosario Vieni on Antikitera.net, a site whose description even non-Italians can read: “Il portale Italiano dell’Archeologia Misteriosa“. Vieni’s theory (that the Disk is some kind of ancient calculator) at #60 on Svoronos’ list.

Or, you might prefer Jerome Eisenberg’s THE PHAISTOS DISK: A ONE HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD HOAX? paper, which also has a picture on p.6 of the PDF. Like Svoronos, Eisenberg includes a multi-page appendix of decipherment attempts. Having said that, I’m a bit suspicious of Eisenberg’s readiness to classify the Vladikavkaz Disk fragment as a hoax simply on the basis that it resembles a handmade version of a disk he also thinks is a hoax. Though it is true that people do occasionally use hoaxes & fakes to make fools of us all, I suspect history usually does an even better job, by helping us make fools of ourselves. Caveat decryptor!

Finally, Word Geek’s Diana Gainer concludes her own Phaistos disk roundup by saying: “You know, some of the proposals that people have come up with are so far out, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days somebody claimed that Bigfoot wrote it as a love letter to the Loch Ness Monster!” Such nonsense! Everyone knows that Loch Ness Monsters can’t read, tcha… 😀

Ex-submariner Gavin Menzies attracted global attention with his eye-catching farragos “1421” and “1434”, books laying out how he imagined 15th century Chinese fleets sailed through a dried-up Egyptian canal to reach Renaissance Europe and beyond. And now he’s moved onwards and backwards to the Minoans, an ancient Mediterranean civilization he proposes were in fact the sea-faring glue holding European Bronze Age trade together. Yes, and he thinks that it was the volcanic eruption on Thera / Santorini that destroyed the Minoans (though via a tsunami), and that this is what Plato was talking about when he talked about “Atlantis”. Hence Menzies’ book is entitled “The Lost Empire of Atlantis“.

So far, so nondescript – nothing that isn’t already in a thousand books (and disputed or disproved by ten thousand more). However, Menzies’ particular new shine on all that rusty metal is that he has a vastly grander vision of the Minoans’ geographic sprawl. For one, he thinks not only that it was they who were the first Europeans to discover North America, but also that they mined and shipped out millions of tons of extraordinarily high-purity copper from beside Lake Superior. Oh, and that the Egyptian Pharaohs basically outsourced sea-trading to the Minoans, and that you can (if you squint at all the evidence) see evidence of the Minoans on the Red Sea and even in India, too. [Though not Australia and New Zealand yet, but perhaps Menzies is holding those back for a sequel, wouldn’t be the first time, eh?]

I think the main things just about any reader would notice are the book’s relentless stylistic tics and its metronomic structure. In pretty much every chapter, Menzies jumps on a plane or boat with his wife Marcella to some vaguely-connected place, looks out of a hotel window while musing to himself on how much it had all changed since he had last visited it while still in the Royal Navy, and then trolls round a local museum or historical site, where he is suddenly struck by the ineffable kindness of the ancients to have left him yet another glaringly obvious clue to add to his list – another cookie crumb in his global trail.

This struck me most strongly in Menzies’ mercifully brief Chapter 21, where he is transfixed in the Prado by the similarities between a 19th century AD drawing of bullfighting by Goya (Sketch No.90) and another image of bullfighting he had previously seen at Knossos. “What I’d been witnessing – had I stopped to think about it – was a calling card. It had been sitting out the centuries, but it was there, written in the colourful script of the Minoans.” Yes, in this book Menzies does indeed raise his pursuit of historical bull to an epic new level.

In many key ways, all he’s really doing is trying to fit into the idiot wet dream vision of ur-historians that TV producers have talked up over the last decade: genially talkative late-middle-age buffoons buffers who (conveniently for the constraints of the medium) practise history just by striding around, all the while making dramatic & striking connections to camera. But of course that’s simply a nonsensical fiction: to a very great degree, history is driven more by detailed textual study and a curiously rigorous kind of critical empathy than a series of ever-longer intuitive leaps towards an eerily uncanny mega-Truth That Lies Beneath.

For me, I think Menzies sees the great swathe of historical textures not with an historian’s eye but more as an abstract artist might see a series of impressive colours: as things demanding to be used, appropriated and joyfully displayed. Enjoy the scenery as a whole sequence of contested Bronze Age artefacts – the Nebra Disk, Stonehenge, the Amesbury Archer, the Uluburun wreck, the Antikythera device, Orkney voles, the Nabta stones, Cornish tin mines, the Great Orme copper mine, and countless others including (yes, finally) the Phaistos Disk – drift pleasantly past your eyes.

Of course, for a cipher mystery reader, YABOA (“yet another book on Atlantis”) ain’t no big thang at all: but sporting the Phaistos Disk on the front, spine & back of Menzies’ book is surely intended as some kind of provocation, right? But given that he clearly does not have the historical apparatus for decrypting the Disk’s mysterious spiral messages, why does his book sport it so jauntily?

The answer is that Menzies happened to meet Dr Minas Tsikritis, who has long been studying all the extant Cretan hieroglyphs, including the Phaistos Disk, the Arkalochori Axe, seal fragment HM 992 [which contains the Phaistos Disk’s distinctive “double-comb” symbol #21], together with all the known Linear A inscriptions… and who believes that he is now able to account for a large proportion of them. So, what’s the Phaistos Disk, then? Well, according to Tsikritis (p.320), “at least one side is a [Tragoudi]”… basically, a sea-shanty. Well, pickle my timbers and sell my soul to Captain Teague: who’d have thunk it, eh?

Buy Gavin Menzies’ book if you like: but please bear in mind that his ongoing Voyages of the Damned proceed despite capital-aitch ‘istory, not because of it. Despite a sensitive nose for what’s wrong with big picture accounts, his syncretistic urge to jam all his pieces together serves only to weaken his overall case, not to strengthen it. The reader departs with the impression of having met a kid trying to build a Lego wall without knowing how to make brick bonds: for as a discipline, history is far less about simply accreting evidence than about examining the nature and limits of the bonds binding those pieces of evidence together.

To me, Menzies’ Lego walls really don’t stand up to close scrutiny: though they’re formed of all the right sort of brightly coloured bricks, their bonds – those connections that move us along the continuum from coincidence to correlation to causality – are simply absent. So, even though what his approach yields is a series of vividly-coloured, imaginative accounts of how things might have been, these ultimately are little more than modern-day sea-shanties. What shall we do with him? Shave his belly with a rusty razor!

You may have heard the curious story from May 2008 about how Sotheby’s withdrew a picture from auction that was suspected of having been optically captured by Thomas Wedgwood in the 1790s, some 30 years before the first ‘official’ photo was taken. Photography historian Dr Larry J. Schaaf speculated that this was so “based on the letter ‘W’ that – on close inspection – can be seen inscribed in an ‘unidentified hand’ in the bottom-right corner of the image and four others” in an album of early images known to have been owned by Englishman Henry Bright.

While this is a neat little narrative built on a tiny handwritten feature in the margins, it’s – quite frankly – just not crackpot enough to make the grade here. Here at Cipher Mysteries Towers, our palettes have become accustomed to overspiced Voynich Manuscript and Phaistos Disc theories, typically high-Scoville historical decoctions that would blow most historians’ mouths off. So, all I can say to all you photographic pseudo-historians out there is – guys, guys, you’re going to have to do better than that to make the front page here.

And so it is with a sense of both pride and awe that I doff my cap to Welshman Roger Davies. His theory – which is his, and his alone, so far as I can make out – is that Dürer’s 9-inch high 1514 engraving meisterwerke “Melancholia #1” is actually a photograph of a large (but lost) drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, probably with an exposure time of several days.

What first alerted Davies was the facial similarities between Albrecht Dürer’s cherub and a Leonardo cherub in a “sketch held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Caen, France“. He then sketched out Dürer’s perspective, only to discover an underlying 532-point circle which trickily aligns to a good number of the picture’s features in a ‘sacred geometry’ kind of way. Davies then points to 1480 (34 years back from 1514, where 34 is the total of each line of Dürer’s magic square in the picture) and 2012 (532 years forward from 1480), but then corrects the figure to 2001, midway between the 1997 Montserrat volcanic events and the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Are you following all this?

With more than an echo of Wilfrid Voynich’s connecting the VMs with Roger Bacon and John Dee, “Davies believes that the artist must have possessed an extensive knowledge of mathematics, alchemy, geometry, astronomy and optics to, first, conceive the drawing and then photograph it onto a light-sensitive copper plate inside a camera obscura. The only person with such skills, according to Davies, was Da Vinci.

Not yet convinced by this? “Dürer’s connection with Da Vinci also lies in their sharing the same ‘mentor in mathematics’, Luca Pacioli“, the article continues. Well, that settles it, then. 🙂

(Note that the online article is in four pieces but the internal links are broken: so here are direct links to pages 2, 3, and 4 of it).

Just a quick note to say that I’ve been working behind the scenes for a few weeks on a revised Cipher Mysteries home page, incorporating a nice clickable list of what I think are the top unsolved cipher mysteries of all time, some of which you may not have heard of:-

  1. (–Top secret, yet to be announced–)
  2. The Voynich Manuscript
  3. The Anthon Transcript
  4. The Beale Papers
  5. The Rohonc Codex
  6. The HMAS Sydney Ciphers
  7. The Tamam Shud Cipher
  8. The D’Agapeyeff Cipher
  9. The Codex Seraphinianus
  10. The Dorabella Cipher
  11. The Phaistos Disk

Note that the HMAS Sydney Ciphers part isn’t yet live, because I haven’t written the post yet (probably later this week). 🙂  I may update the list later to insert the Vinland Map at #7, but that’s another story entirely…

Incidentally, the reason I ranked the Voynich Manuscript at #2 is because the top spot will be filled (hopefully fairly soon) with an awesome centuries-old cipher mystery I’ve been chipping away at for a while, one that will be eerily familiar to many CM readers. Don’t hold your breath, but I do think you’re going to like it a lot… 🙂

With my book publisher hat on, I’d guess that the pitch for this book probably said: “Codes! Ciphers! Cryptograms! Masonic stuff! For Dummies!” And yes, the authors (Denise Sutherland and Mark E. Koltko-Rivera) pretty much seem to have delivered on that basic promise. But… is it any good?

Bear with me while I sketch out a triangle in idea-space. On the first vertex, I’ll put recreational code-breakers – the Sunday supplement sudoku crowd. On the second vertex, hardcore cipher history buffs – David Kahn groupies. On the last vertex, historical mystery / conspiracy fans – Templars, Masons, Turin Shroud, HBHG, Voynich Manuscript etc.

“Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies” sits firmly on the triangle’s first vertex, but I have to reaches out only fairly lamely (I think) to the other two vertices. Structurally, its innovation is to tell three stories where you need to solve a long sequence (100, 80, and 55 respectively) of individual cryptograms to find out what happened. Quite a few of the ciphers use well-known cipher alphabets, such as Malachim, Enochian, and various Masonic pigpens: there are also a few trendy puzzle ciphers (such as predictive texting ciphers formed just of numbers).

Compare this to its big competitor (Elonka Dunin’s “Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms”) which sits on the same first vertex. Elonka’s book has quite a few more puzzles, is structured both thematically and by ascending difficulty, and sticks to plaintext: it also has a 40-page section on unsolved ciphers (the VMs, the Dorabella Cipher, Phaistos Disk, etc), but with no real pretense at trying to precis Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”.

For me, Cipher Mysteries sits on the opposite edge of the triangle (i.e. between hardcore cipher history and, errm, softcore cipher mysteries) to both of these, so I’m probably not the right person to judge which of the two puzzle books is better. Elonka’s book is easy to work your way through (but feels a bit more old-fashioned): while Sutherland & Koltko-Rivera’s book is lithe and up-to-the-minute (but feels less substantial, in almost every sense). OK, the first is more cryptologic, the second more puzzle-y: but ultimately they’re doing the same thing and talking to the same basic audience.

Really, I guess puzzle book buyers would do well to buy both and make up their own mind which of the two they prefer: but sadly I have to say that most Cipher Mysteries readers might prefer to buy neither. But you never know!

A few days back, two small book-shaped things arrived in the post: and I’ve been pondering what to say about them ever since. In fact, I’ve been struggling to work out what I think about them… you’ll see what I mean in a moment.

You might superficially compare them with, for example, Luigi Serafini’s famously unreadable book: however, I have relatively little doubt that, beneath all its overevolved, madly-mutated faux-alien language tropes, Codex Seraphinianus does actually express some kind of coherent linguistic knot that might ultimately be untied, whereas Michael Jacobson’s “asemic” books claim to be actively meaningless. That is, while they play with the form of narrative and abstract expressive shape, they don’t actually say anything – any kind of meaning you take away from them is your problem (or, conversely, your gift).

Perhaps the right way to classify them, then, is as some kind of visual anti-poetry, a kind of Dada take on the postmodernist anti-meaning turn. Which is to say: if all texts are ultimately meaningless in themselves (and only incidentally form meaning in the reader’s mind), then why are you surprised that these books are too?

Alternatively, perhaps there is actually a hidden higher-level message, so that if you turn the pages upside down and squint your eyes in just the right way, what emerges is something along the lines of “The Magic Words are Squeamish Ossifrage“, etc. So, a good part of the fun is working out whether there’s a joke (and if there is, whether it’s on you).

Whatever your particular take happens to be, I think you can still enjoy them purely on their own visual merits: for all their (claimed) lack of meaning, Michael’s two books do jump with a refreshingly jazz-like joy:-

  1. Action Figures (which seems to have started life in an exercise book) is, I would say, the weaker of the pair: I get the impression of an early youth (mis)spent with a spray can, trying as a young man to give expression to the same basic urges, but channelling them within structural rules (such as minimizing shape repetition, consistency of line, etc). Neat, but Mayan street-whimsical rather than obviously challenging.
  2. The Giant’s Fence is, by comparison, a far more sophisticated objet d’art, even if it is apparently influenced by Max Ernst’s Maximiliana. Here, Jacobson seems to have developed a confidence with his medium that lets him play not only with the interior calligraphic form but also with the structural rules within which they live. Shapes, gaps, multi-line things gradually intrude into the overall text-like flow, their waxing and waning presences driven by a subtly astrological metronome, where the passage of time from page to page has a enjoyably slow, quasi-geological feel. All in all, a nicely done piece that hints that Jacobson has more to come.

You can download your own free copy of Action Figures from the Literate Machine website here, though you’ll have to pay a princely £2.99 to download your own Lulu-ized copy of The Giant’s Fence.

Personally, I see asemic writing (the overall category in which these books live) as sitting on quite a different table to cipher/language mysteries, so I’m not hugely sympathetic to the suggestion that (for example) the Codex Seraphinianus, the Phaistos Disc, or the Voynich Manuscript are themselves asemic. However, it is certainly true that people project all kinds of bizarre historical narratives onto these, to a degree to which asemic writers can only faintly aspire: perhaps such vicariously vivid visions ultimately form a family of warped interpretational artworks all their own, a kind of semantic complement to asemic writing. “Asemic reading”, perhaps?

This being Cipher Mysteries, I try to read a fair bit of mysterious cipher-related stuff along the way, both non-fiction and fiction. Yet just as you’d expect, most cipher mystery fiction tends more to the ‘airport novel’ end of the spectrum than the ‘lit-rit-cher’ end. Which pleasantly brings to mind (well, to my mind, at least) Elvis Costello’s “God’s Comic” as he finally meets his Maker:-

So there He was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Requiem”

Nicely pitched scansion, and perhaps even more richly ironic if the airport novelette in question happened to have one of those interminably Byzantine two-millennia-long-conspiracy-to-hide-the-truth-about-Jesus’-non-death-on-the-cross plotlines we’re so waerily familiar with now. But I digress!

Wearing my book publisher hat, I’d say you can divide cipher mystery airport novel writers into three quite distinct camps:-

  1. The Rack Pack. People who write strings of pacy, mostly character-driven novels but who scout around for interesting historical stuff to build their fantastical plotting and obscure conspiracies around. (These books tend to suffer from “slabs”, i.e. lumps of undigested Wikipedia-style research littering the text, and to rely heavily on secondary characters who ‘just happen’ to be world-renowned Harvard Professors of Obscure Historical Linguistics etc. They can also be quite hard to tell apart).
  2. Domain Experts. People who happen to be experts in some technical / research field and fall victim to the questionable notion that a particular historical mystery that happens to overlap their field would make an amazing basis for a novel, but then decide to write that book. I mean, how hard can it be? (These books tend to suffer from inexpert plotting, clunky characterization, and non-credible relationships between characters. But at least most of the technical details are right).
  3. Wannabe Screenwriters. People who are terrifically personally ambitious and have a deep love of film, and who see the airport novel medium as a great way to express their high-octane visual imagination, while also giving themselves an outside chance of their books’ being optioned for a Major Motion Picture. (These books tend to be bad on just about every level you can name, but are probably a terrifically good read if you’re the kind of person who has a copy of “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft” in your toilet).

All of which is a fairly longwinded way of introducing David Gibbins’ (2005) novel “Atlantis”. From the moment you read that the author “has worked in underwater archaeology all his professional life” and that “[this] is his first novel“, you can be pretty sure that this is going to fall squarely into Camp #2 territory.

The cipher connection isn’t hard to work out: the front cover has a gold-embossed representation of something not unlike the Phaistos Disk, though it has to be said that the shapes are upside-down (relative to the real Phaistos Disk) and in a quite different order, while a few other plausible-looking pictogram-style shapes have been added to the mix. Though that’s OK, because these differences are part of the story (which kicks off with a second Phaistos Disk being discovered in an ancient shipwreck, but this time it’s made of gold).

Commendably, the spine of the book has one of the Phaistos Disc symbols (which Gibbins has both as “outstretched eagle god” and as the sign of “Atlantis”, though note that he requires you rotate it 90 degrees to see it even slightly as a bird), making it the only cipher novel I know of with a single genuine historical cipher mystery character shape as its central motif. Please tell me if there’s another one!

There’s actually a bit of literature on this shape, which is #21 in Sir Arthur Evans’ much-noted list of the disk’s pictograms. Here are some of the better-known theories about it proposed over the years:-

  • Comb (Godart, 1995)
  • Weaving comb (Dettmer, 1989)
  • Hoe or rake (Aartun, 1992)
  • Palace floor-plan (not sure who suggested this?)
  • Swedish rock carvings of a team of plowing oxen (Woudhuizen, !?!?!?!?)

More usefully, Balistier (2000) notes that Ingo Pini (1970) pointed out that this particular pictogram very likely has Minoan origins, as evidenced by the similarities between it and a five-toothed comb design found on clay fragment HM 992 (also found at Phaistos, and dating to the 18th century BC).  And here it is:-


Clay fragment HM 1992: the five-pronged comb-like shape is on the left

 This striking visual parallel is often cited as proof of the Phaistos Disk’s authenticity, with the only small problem being that it may well be that Luigi Pernier ‘excavated’ them both… but that’s another story entirely.

Anyway, does Gibbins manage to save himself from falling into all the Domain Expert airport novel traps? Actually… no. And what’s worse, from the minute the protagonist Jack Howard (“unlikely scion of one of England’s most ancient families“, p.13) makes “a mental note to email the image to Professor James Dillen, his old mentor at Cambridge University and the world’s leading authority on the ancient scripts of Greece” (p.16), it’s abundantly clear that Gibbins has drunk too deeply from the Rack Pack’s well of clichés. Moreover, from the breathless military helicopter fetishism and Wired editorialese, he has dipped his bucket into the Wannabe Screenwriters’ gadget-strewn watering hole more than a few times as well.

All of which superficial nonsense I could actual forgive Gibbins for (it is, after all, an airport novel, and many top-tier writers have fallen into these same traps over the years). However (and sorry if this is a spoiler) the point near the end where Jack Howard unilaterally fires a nuclear warhead onto the bad guys’ hi-tech hide-out is just not OK by me. Yes, they killed his friends, etc etc: but a nuclear warhead? Really? Really??

It’s at this point the alert reader stops to wonder whether the whole book is some kind of high-camp “The Producers” so-bad-it’s-good joke, or some knowing Alan Sokal hoax on the airport novel genre, or perhaps even some Umberto Eco-esque prolonged literary inversion. Though these all sound fairly unbelievable, the alternative – that the author really thinks that this kind of stuff is OK – is so much worse that it’s not really conceivable. And once you’ve ruled out the impossible…