The appearance of Nicholas Gibbs’ Voynich theory in the current Times Literary Supplement “Autumn Fiction Special” issue (and what deliciously outrageous irony that placement is) has caused all manner of mayhem behind the scenes here at Cipher Mysteries mansion.

Not only has my (frankly rather tired and uninterested) blog response to it been unexpectedly heavily Tweeted, his theory has also “inspired” a number of Wikipedia editors to enthusiastically bodge references to Gibbs into the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript page. Which is, as just about everyone here would be happy to point out, close to a crime against common sense.

But it’s not really their fault: it turns out that there’s a much bigger problem at play here.


As a responsible (though far from regular) Wikipedia editor, I thought I ought to try to offer some kind of balance to the worst excesses of this sudden wave of pro-Gibbs enthusiasm: for example, by removing a reference to Gibbs that had been added to the very first paragraph. *sigh*

But then yet more Wikieditors kept popping up, not unlike Gremlinized versions of Whack-a-Moles or Lernaean Hydra heads, continually inserting yet more references to Gibbs from Smart-Ars Technica or whichever other secondary media source they happened to have just surfed their way to.

Annoying as that is, they’re just the surface symptoms of something that cuts far deeper. The issue here is that in very many ways they are absolutely right to add it in: the piece in the TLS does indeed – by Wikipedia’s very exact standards – make Gibbs’ theory notable. And this causes it to transcend from the mundane world of self-published “OR” (Original Research) into published (and hence notable) work. And anything notable is fair game for inclusion in Wikipedia: indeed, if it is relevant and “notable”, there is arguably a stronger case for inclusion than exclusion.

So it turns out that these Whack-a-Mole editors are indeed actually doing their best to pursue the whole Wikipedia ‘Project’ precisely as it was intended. Can you therefore blame them for doing something that seems quite nonsensical to researchers? Well… no, not really, mad as it seems.

The First Problem With Wikipedia

Perhaps the above should make it clear one of the things that is going wrong here: that the entire Wikipedia project is nothing more than a parasitic encyclopaedia, relying on the world’s knowledge being recycled into it via fact-checked external media, such as (in this case) the Times Literary Supplement. Without the fact-checking stage being done by the media, Wikipedia would be worse than useless: this is because it has no intrinsic quality control, only enforcing measures of notability which themselves depend completely on someone else (normally in the media) paying for the fact-checking stage. Wikipedia does not check facts, it checks published sources: its editors (largely) do not know things, they know how to verify the notability of sources.

So: what happens – as seems to have happened here – when a story goes to press without even the faintest semblance of fact checking? As should be obvious, the Wikipedia editors turn the page content into a credulous extension of the idiot media that put the story out in the first place. It’s “notable” and publicly visible, so what is their alternative?

Hence one big problem with Wikipedia is that where the media omits to do fact checking, Wikipedia can quickly end up looking really, really stupid. But have you not noticed that media fact checking is these days going the way of phrenology and phlogistons?

The wider-angle picture here is that the future of the media – increasingly under pressure from online newsfeeds – is only going to get dumber and ‘dumberer’: its dequality ratchet leads only in a downwards direction. And so the less fact-checking that happens, the worse Wikipedia will get. The case of Nicholas Gibbs’ theory should make this completely clear, albeit in an edge-case kind of way.

The Second Problem With Wikipedia

Arguably, though, the second problem with Wikipedia is much worse: which is that Wikipedia is only successful when it tries to map the known. In cases such as the Voynich Manuscript where the majority of the topic is to do with the unknown, there is no sensible way Wikieditors can decide what should be included or what should be left out. And without any way of deciding the topic boundaries, a kind of thermodynamic page decay sets in: the page just accumulates stuff indefinitely. Honestly, what kind of sad sack would read the current Wikipedia Voynich page from start to finish, as anything apart from a cautionary tale of how not to structure information?

In case you’re wondering, deep domain experts are rarely welcome as Wikipedia editors: and this cuts to the core of what’s going on here. As currently defined and steered, Wikipedia cannot offer a useful guide to the unknown. It is not about original research, or really about any research at all: it’s about mapping the cultural inflow of knowledge mediated via the shabby and slow mirror of media reporting.

If all of that strikes you as a horrible, (small-c) conservative, and superficial epistemology to be building such a large knowledge-based enterprise on, I can assure you that you’re really not alone.

The Third Problem With Wikipedia

Finally: in the case of subjects where there are an almost unimaginably large number of parallel (and only vaguely overlapping) theories, Wikipedia’s neutral point of view pretty much demands that all them should be visible. I’ve suggested numerous times that everything speculative or theory-based about the Voynich Manuscript should be broken out into one or more completely separate page(s), but this too kind of defeats the Wikipedia mindset, which is more about balance-through-primary-inclusivity than trying to evaluate or manage out rubbish theories. It turns out that even forcing a division between theory and non-theory is too fundamentally judgmental for the Wikipedia project to countenance.

And so the issue here is that where you are dealing with uncertain topics, theory inclusivity almost inevitably devolves into theory shopping lists, where the most glib and flippant YouTube theory can end up being listed alongside the most comprehensive and in-depth historical hypothesis. Wikipedia editors aren’t there to judge, they’re there to avoid having to judge: and the more theories that get proposed, the bigger the hole that not-judging digs those pages into.

And yes, there are now hundreds of Voynich theories.

What’s the “Birth” bit, Nick?

People sometimes conclude that I’m cross with Wikipedia, but that’s not really true at all. Rather, I’m cross with myself and the entire research community for not offering an alternative to Wikipedia. The work we do and the communities we form are served badly (if at all) by Wikipedia, because the two worldviews are almost entirely complementary – researchers try to create knowledge out of uncertainty, while Wikipedia recycles knowledge that the media try to pass off as certainty.

The last few days have made me so angry at my own inaction that I now want to go away and do something really drastic: to build something that empowers people working with the vast worlds of uncertain knowledge that Wikipedia has no business trying to deal with.

And so this is where I am. I don’t want to blog as a primary activity (though I may well, and I’m not planning to get rid of Cipher Mysteries any time soon): rather, I want to build something better than Wikipedia – something that helps people map and deal with difficult and emerging knowledge, rather than forcing them to pretend that neutral-sounding montages of crappy media accounts are good enough beyond a sketchy first approximation.

I want to build a whole way of thinking about and mapping difficult knowledge that doesn’t pretend that real knowledge is easy or certain: it is disingenuous and fake to think that it is.

I want to build knowledge-creating communities that can work together in richer, more interesting ways than antagonistic forums that treat theories as spinning Beyblades in toytown arenas.

I want to help people find ways to tease out difficult knowledge in all manner of subjects and topics, not just historical mysteries: I want to provide a place where a research worldview isn’t alien, but a key to a giant door of opportunity.

I want to treat research as the intellectual, cultural and economic powerhouse it exactly is, and to support it in ways that make what we currently do look like cavemen banging rocks together.

I want to build things that will make every kid on the planet want to be a researcher, to grasp that what we don’t know infinitely exceeds what we do know, and that knowledge doesn’t have to be passive, recycled, sham knowledge – basically, that the future is waiting for us to do better.

Right now, geekiness is cool but research is uncool: I think our culture has this arrangment back to front. Really, research is something everyone should do: research should be how we habitually deal with uncertain and difficult topics in our lives, not just in academia.

More than anything, I wish I could be in a situation where I can write down the above – all of which I consider to be a fundamental set of values – without it sounding like a manifesto. Because as of today, it really feels like I’m the only person who thinks the above in anything like a joined-up way: and more than anything I want that to change.

For a long time, the accepted answer has been that “bloggers do things [and document what they do] so that you don’t have to“. In this worldview, bloggers are net-savvy individuals cursed by a craving for foolish adventure, but somehow redeemed (partially, at least) by their sense of openness.

But as a blogger, I get to see a lot of blogs: and I have to say that many (if not most) of the blogs I have seen emerging over the last 2-3 years are cut from a quite different cloth. Almost entirely gone is the sense of adventure (whether physical or cerebral): that entire urge seems to have lurched sideways into the “bucket list” fake world of Facebook. Also gone is the sense of vicarious and arbitrary participation, a kind of living-by-doing (and then documenting) ethic: this too seems to have been reduced in the Internet’s metaphorical sauté pan down to the rather mindless level of sharing pictures of restaurant lunches on Instagram.

The things that seem to have replaced both of these are instead shallower and rather less intense: barely-informed opinions, defensive snarkishness, an absence of any obvious critical thought, and jaw-juttingly defiant I-am-right-ness. You might disagree, but it seems to me that blogging has in general become a platform for the angrily unengaged: an opinionated echo chamber of prodigiously tiny dimensions, with no sign of any humility or experimentality.

In short, the blogger world circa mid-2017 seems to have lost its collective mojo: the pinnacle of the art has instead become a focus on Google Ads and paid-for reviews. Yeah, yeah, I know, you might think that I think that “it was all green fields here when I started blogging a decade ago“, but that’s honestly not the point I’m trying to make. Rather, it seems to me that in recent years society’s implicit contract with bloggers has changed: the more ambitious have moved on to propagandic vlogging (e.g. Stampy, Dan TDM, Zoella, PewDiePie, etc) or satirical tweeting (e.g. the ever-amusing Wor Cheryl), and it’s only the Adamsian B Ark left, sorry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I too am thinking of moving on from blogging: I’m at heart a very positive, creative and generative person, and I’m not currently finding blogging as supportive a platform for the positive, creative and generative things I want to do as I would like. As some will remember, I tried to step sideways into crowdfunded television a little while back: though that didn’t prove successful on that occasion, it’s perhaps still broadly the kind of direction that would perhaps make more sense in the current context than what I’m currently doing.

Incidentally, what I intensely dislike about the television historical documentary genre is its brutal formality, its almost koan-like edited rhythm of talking heads and nicely-shot places of faded beauty. Me, I want to make the road to history visible, not just a soft-focus glamorized version of the destination: personally, I’m fascinated not at all by the sofa-like comfort of that-which-has-been-found-and-understood-and-softened-into-a-societal-lullaby, but instead by the struggle of making history.

For anyone who wants to see the kind of documentary I’d like to make, I’d strongly recommend Icarus on Netflix. This is a completely awesome piece of film, like a forensic surgeon’s keyhole endoscope peering inside the rotting carcass of Sport – dead from the neck down, though its head seems blissfully unaware.

There are now many people who would happily classify themselves as ‘online researchers’. You don’t usually have to peer too far beyond the end of your mouse to see their forum comments, web pages, blog posts, YouTube videos, and occasionally even self-published meisterwerke.

Even though most of these people probably consider that they are engaged in serious research, is that actually the case? What is the difference between serious research and non-serious research? Is there even a difference at all? And (as I heard proposed recently) if there is a difference, surely it’s nothing more than a matter of intelligence, persistence, and luck?

Well… I have to say that that’s a position I can’t agree with at all.

Pay Per Click

Someone clicking on thousands of web pages or running a load of statistical tests can certainly be said to be searching, but this is really not the same thing as researching.

Think about this: how would your behaviour change if every click were to cost you five pounds? Yet in many ways, each click probably does: in terms of the computers you use, the mice you burn up, the broadband you rent, and (arguably the costliest of all) the portion of your life it consumes without returning anything to you. You don’t have to be a full-blown Marxist economist to see that the main thing being eaten away by this kind of activity is you.

The first main difference between searching and researching, then, is that a researcher needs to have an aim to guide his or her actions: every click needs to earn its keep. And the two basic planning tools that help researchers achieve this are research questions and research programmes.

Research Questions

Luckily there is no shortage of web pages that define and discuss research questions, because research questions often have to be included in requests for academic funding. But in many ways, though, given that researching may (being brutally realistic) come to absorb so much of your spare time / life, perhaps you should think of forming a research question as part of making a funding request to your (rational) self. No funding body would ever back someone whose research plan was just to read / try a load of stuff, so why should you back yourself to do the same?

As this web page puts it:

You may have found your topic, but within that topic you must find a question, which identifies what you hope to learn. Finding a question sounds serendipitous, but research questions need to be shaped and crafted.

As a rule, making your research question too general, too wide-ranging or too ‘loose’ is almost always unhelpful, because it means that you will struggle to ever reach an answer for it: too tight and it can come close to being tautologous. There’s a further balance to be had between the availability of evidence and the ‘speculativeness’ of the question: though it has to be said that once you’ve put together your first research question, forming others becomes a lot easier.

Even if your chosen topic is a very evidence-sparse and/or epistemologically uncertain field, you can still form practical research questions (though admittedly doing so can be a little bit less straightforward than in other, more mainstream fields). For example, in the field of Voynich Manuscript research, a partial list of the research questions I personally have pursued over the past 15+ years could contain:

* Using best-in-class Art History dating techniques, when was the Voynich Manuscript made?
* What was the original order of the Voynich Manuscript’s bifolios?
* What did the Voynich Manuscript look like in its ‘alpha’ (original) state?
* Were any parts of the original Voynich text laid down in separate codicological passes?
* Is there a direct mapping relationship between Currier A text structures and Currier B text structures?
* Is there a relationship between the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac section and the Volkskalender B family of manuscripts?
* What was the nature of fifteenth century cryptography?
* Might Antonio Averlino have been the author of the Voynich Manuscript?
* What happened between the vellum’s first being written on and the Voynich Manuscript’s reappearance in Prague?
* What did the f116v marginalia originally look like?
* Where did the f116v marginalia handwriting come from?
* Might there have been a relationship between the Voynich Manuscript and the Rosicrucian manifestos?

Note that none of the above is a ‘why’ question: all were specific enough – I hoped when I formed them – for an answer to be reached, though most have still proved to be slower to bring to a fully satisfactory conclusion than I would have chosen. 😐

Note also that a number of the above (though not all) are constructed around hypotheses: while some people are comfortable with hypotheses, others are less so. Regardless, I think it’s important to point out that a good research question need not explicitly include or rely on a hypothesis.

(I’ll leave it as an open question how many other Voynich Manuscript researchers have genuinely formed explicit research questions and research programmes: doubtless you will have your own view on this.)

Research Programmes

Following the logic through, it should be obvious that constructing a research question is only the first half of the planning stage. What you then need to do is to construct a research programme around that research question, to try to help you turn it into a focused series of practical actions you can work your way through in order to reach a worthwhile answer.

Here’s a useful list of questions to help you build this up:

* What literature should you review? (What kind of idiot would not build up a picture of the literature first?)
* What evidence can you rely on in your research?
* What similar research questions have been posed before?
* What answers did those researchers reach? (And what did approach did they follow to reach them?)
* Are there related or parallel fields where similarly-structured research questions have been posed?
* How much time and money do you want to invest in to answer this question?
* What process can you follow to move you closer to an answer?
* Are there others you can usefully collaborate with?
* Are there open source tools or data you can work with (or help develop) that would help?
* If your question is based on an hypothesis, what steps can you take to avoid presuming it is true along the way?
* How can you make sure the answer you reach will be based on causality and not merely on statistical correlation?

Trying to answer these questions (and others like it) should help you work out how you plan to reach a reliable, useful answer to your research question.

Note that “research projects” are the short term subsections you would typically decompose a medium term research programme into so as to make it achievable: project is to programme as chapter is to book.

Planning vs Action

At the end of this whole planning stage, you should have not only a research question that you’re trying to answer, but also a practical plan – i.e. some research means to help you try to reach an answer to your chosen research question.

And so it should be clear that the final difference between searching and researching is that researching requires both a pre-planning phase and some kind of systematic action.

Without conscious pre-planning and some kind of systematic research programme to guide you, you’re searching rather than researching, blindly casting your rod out into a vast evidential ocean. You might occasionally catch a fish, sure: but don’t be surprised if you go home hungry more often than not. :-/

Australian writer David Dufty’s just-released (2017) “The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau” attempts to be two things at once: a hard-nosed revisionist cryptologic history of the Second World War in the Pacific, and a disarmingly charming series of Australian vignettes glimpsing behind the Ultra curtain.

Central Bureau

Central Bureau was the (deliberately anonymous-sounding) name given to a large part of Australia’s WW2 code-breaking apparatus: yet as the war dragged on, the politicking and turf wars caused an enormous amount of fragmentation.

Dufty tries to treat this deftly, but the networks of internal intrigue and alliances read too much like subtly broken org charts to make sense as mere words on a page. (Some diagrams would be a helpful addition for the paperback release, in my opinion.)

Japanese Navy codes, Army codes, Water Transport codes, ground-to-air codes, sea-to-air codes: all of these were tackled and defeated. Yet even though the theoretical structure and nature of some were worked out early on (e.g. JN-25 by John Tiltman), the codes themselves and the additive tables used to scramble them were subject to change. So the practical cryptologic work never ended, right up to the end of the War.

What is clear throughout Dufty’s book is that historians (OK, mostly American historians) have to date failed to present a balanced picture including Australian cryptological contributions to the war in the Pacific. Sadly, this imbalance was further hindered by the hostile attitude of many Australians (particularly politicians) to non-operational veterans in the post-war period.

I’m pleased to say that Dufty’s historical research and grasp of the realpolitik going on (particularly between the USA and Australia) rings much truer than other accounts I have read: the tricky balance between being aware of Ultra information and acting upon that same information is a leitmotif that runs through his narrative.

Star Rating

As an historical account of practical code-breaking under fire, then, the book gets a 4-star Cipher Mysteries rating: had it not got caught in the shifting sands of the multiple code-breaking organizations and agendas in the first half of the book, it might even have got to 4.5 stars.

But if your interests aren’t as, well, “code-breakery” as mine, and you’re happy to skim the chapters where the narrative gets a little bogged down in the details, there’s a lot of human interest – and yes, even cryptological love-stories in the margins of TypeX messages – to be had.

In short, it’s also a pretty good summer read (in Kindle format, because the hardback is too pricey for most budgets, and there is no softback edition as yet), though perhaps only for those who already know their substitution from their transposition. :-/

What I have long tried to do with this blog is to genuinely advance our collective knowledge about unbroken historical ciphers, not by speculating loosely or wildly (as seems to be the norm these days) but instead by trying to reason under conditions of uncertainty. That is: I try to use each post as an opportunity to think logically about multiple types of historical evidence that often coincide or overlap yet are individually hard to work with – ciphers, cryptograms, drawings, treasure maps, stories, legends, claims, beliefs, mysteries.

The world of cipher mysteries, then, is a world both of uncertain evidence and also of uncertain history built on top of that uncertain evidence – perpetually thin ice to be skating on, to be sure.

A skills void?

It is entirely true that all historical evidence is inherently uncertain: people lie, groups have agendas, listeners misunderstand, language misleads, copyists misread, propagandists appropriate, historians overselect, forgers fake, etc. All the same, seeing past/through the textual uncertainties these kinds of behaviours can leave embedded in evidence is the bread and butter of modern historians, who are now trained to be adept both in close reading and critical thinking.

However, what I am arguing here is that though History-as-text – i.e. history viewed as primarily an exercise in textual literature analysis – managed to win the historical high ground, it did so at the cost of supplanting almost all non-textual historical disciplines. To my eyes, the slow grinding deaths of codicology, palaeography and even dear old iconography (now more visible in Dan Brown film adaptations than in bibliographies) along with what I think is the increasing marginalization of Art History far from the historical mainstream have collectively left a huge gap at the heart of the subject.

This isn’t merely a focus void, it’s also centrally a skills void – the main missing skill being the ability to reason under conditions where the evidence’s textual dimension is missing or sharply limited.

In short, I would argue that because historians are now trained to deal primarily with textual uncertainties, the ability to reason effectively with other less compliant types of evidence is a skill few now seem to have to any significant degree. In my opinion, this aspect of text-centrism is a key structural weakness of history as now taught.

In my experience, almost nothing exposes this weakness more than the writing done on the subject of historical cipher mysteries. There it is absolutely the norm to see otherwise clever people make fools of themselves, and moreover in thousands of different ways: surely in few other subject domains has so much ink have been spilled to so little effect. In Rene Zandbergen’s opinion, probably the most difficult thing about Voynich research is avoiding big mistakes: sadly, few seem able to achieve this.

“The Journal of Uncertain History”

Yet a key problem I face is that when it comes to presenting or publishing, the kind of fascinating historical mysteries I research are plainly a bad fit for the current academic landscape. This is because what I’m trying to develop and exercise there is a kind of multi-disciplinary / cross-disciplinary analytical historical skill (specifically: historical reasoning under uncertainty) that has quite different aims and success criteria from mainstream historical reasoning.

On the one hand, this “Uncertain History” is very much like Intellectual History, in that it is a meta-historical approach that freely crosses domain boundaries while relying heavily on the careful application of logic in order to make progress. And yet I would argue that Intellectual History as currently practised is heavily reliant on the universality of text and classical logic to build its chains of reasoning. In that sense, Intellectual History is a close cousin to the text-walled world of MBA courses, where all statements in case studies are deemed to be both true and given in good faith.

By way of contrast, Uncertain History turns its face primarily to those historical conundrums and mysteries where text falls short, where good faith can very often be lacking, and where strict Aristotelian logic can prove more of a hindrance than a help (here I’m thinking specifically about the Law of the Excluded Middle).

And so I propose launching a new open-source historical journal (Creative Commons BY-NC Licence), with the provisional name of “The Journal of Uncertain History“, and with the aim of providing a home for Uncertain History research of all types.

To be considered for the JoUH, papers should (also provisionally) be tackling research areas where:

* the historical evidence itself is problematic and/or uncertain;
* there is a problematic interplay between the types of evidence;
* to make genuine progress, non-trivial reasoning is required, not just for thinking but also for explanation;
* historical speculations made within the paper are both proposed and tested; and
* future tests (preferably empirical) and/or research leads are proposed.

I welcome all your comments, thoughts, and suggestions for possible submissions, authors, collaborators and/or editors; and especially reasons why existing journals X, Y and Z would all be better homes for this kind of research than the JoUH. 🙂

Though originally published in 1998 and 2003, and most recently published in three volumes in 2013-2014, “Maps, Mystery and Interpretation” is in reality a single (very large) book, the fruits of Geoff Bath’s vast sustained effort to till Oak Island’s unproductive historical soil.

The overall title broadly suggests its three constituent sections, in that Part 1 covers (possibly pirate) treasure maps (“Maps”); Part 2 examines the evidential haze surrounding the Oak Island “Money Pit” mystery (“Mystery”); while Part 3 attempts to put the myriad of pieces together to make sense of them all (“Interpretation”). Simples.

If only the Oak Island mystery itself were as straightforward…

Part 1: Maps

Here, Geoff presents all the “Kidd” maps that Hubert Palmer ended up with, and compares Howlett’s account of them with Wilkins’ account, as well as – and this is the good bit – lots of letters written and received by both Wilkins and Palmer.

I can’t be the only reader to find himself or herself surprised by Bath’s conclusion – that Wilkins essentially got it all just about right, while Howlett got a great deal of it wrong.

All the same, as far as reconstructing the modern history of the Palmer-Kidd maps goes, Geoff’s reasoning here seems very much on the money. I’d say his account gets far closer to what happened than even George Edmunds’ account (stripping both authors’ conclusions out of the picture first).

However, Bath gets himself in something of a tangle trying to make sense of the various maps Wilkins originated (both in Part 1 and in Part 3). Was Wilkins adapting maps or documents otherwise unseen, using them as templates for his own creations, or trolling his readers to help him identify mysterious islands? Too often Bath seems content to speculate in a way that paints Wilkins in an almost Svengali-like way, a kind of Andy Warhol of treasure maps.

In reality, I’m far from sure that Wilkins was any closer to historical clarity than we are now. Given that I can’t read more than a handful of pages of his “A Modern Treasure Hunter” without feeling nauseous (the fumes! the bad accents! the ghosts!), I just can’t see Wilkins as anything like a consistently reliable source, even about himself.

Yet one of the most specifically insightful things that emerges from Part One is Bath’s observation that it isn’t necessary for these maps to actually be Kidd’s for them to be independently genuine. That is, the set of maps’ whole association with Kidd might be something that was overlaid onto a (non-Kidd) set of maps: the supposed Kidd link might easily have been added to the mix as a way of “bigging up” someone else’s maps. If this is true (and you don’t have to believe that these are Oak Island maps for it to be so), many of the difficulties that arise when you try to link them to Kidd (e.g. dating, language, etc) disappear.

It’s still hellishly difficult to make sense of these maps, for sure, but Geoff is right to point out that Kidd may well turn out to be part of the problem here, rather than part of the solution or explanation. Something to think about, for certain.

Part 2: Mystery

In my opinion, Oak Island is a wretched, wretched subject, filled with all the slugs and snails of cipher mysteries and not the vaguest flicker of any of the good stuff. It’s a bleak, barren evidential landscape, filled with unconfirmed micro-features briefly noted by a long series of individual investigators, before being quickly razed from the face of the earth by gung-ho treasure hunters. There seems little genuine hope that any faint trace of anything historical or sensible still remains.

Putting the speculative sacred geometry and shapes picked on maps to one side, there are some (though not many) good things in Part Two I didn’t previously know about. Specifically, the idea that tunnels and features might have been dug aligned with the local magnetic compass at that time is quite cool, though obviously something that has been much discussed over the decades.

So I’m terribly sad to have to say that even a perceptive and diligent researcher such as Geoff Bath can make no real difference to this long-standing disaster area. His Part 2 is therefore little more than a Ozymandian monument to the effort and greed sunk in the pursuit of the Money Pit (not that a brass farthing or even so much as a period button has come of it to date).

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

Part 3: Interpretation

Having struggled through the unpromising desert of the previous part, my expectations as to what Part 3 might bring were fairly low. But as Bath works his way through his interpretation section (repeatedly railing against the pox of untestable hypotheses), something actually rather odd happens.

All of a sudden, he mentions the Venatores (a early 20th century treasure hunting group) and the Particulars (a set of treasure hunting documents collected together by the Venatores). As this enters the picture, it’s as if a curious wave ripples through the whole research fabric: that, contrary to what you might have thought from the two previous books, it’s all not about whether Wilkins was credible or incredible, or whether Hill Cutler was stone cold serious or laughing all the way to the Terminus Road Lloyds Bank in Eastbourne, but instead that there might actually be something behind it all.

That is to say, what emerges – though all too briefly – is a frisson of that wonderfully engaging secret history paranoia where you can just sense stuff going on behind the scenes but which you know you probably won’t ever gain access to.

In the end, Bath’s well-researched and well-written books didn’t manage to persuade me of the existence of a link between the various treasure maps and the Oak Island mystery (and that, indeed, is a hypothesis that would seem to be politically untestable) nor of any kind of geometric cartography plan driving it all. However, it did manage to convince me that the whole Money Pit enterprise might possibly be built not on a vast hole, but instead on a history whose fragmentary parts have been scattered on the winds, and yet which might possibly be reassembled in the future.

It probably won’t happen but… who can say?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a website called The Great Lost Treasure: across its sequentially-numbered twenty-four pages, it builds up a case for arguably the most audacious (and certainly the most all-encompassing) cipher history / mystery theory I’ve yet seen.

The person behind this website is Ron Justron, who sees his over-arching theory as falling somewhere between [inconveniently true] and [a thorn in nearly every other cipher theorist’s side]. It’s not hard to see why such people get so annoyed by him: his cipher mega-theory aspires not only to disprove almost all the cipher theories out there, but also to replace them, insofar as – to him – they (pretty much) all are trapped within the explanatory cage of his mega-theory.

How should I try to do justice to this awesomely epic construction? I’ll try to start at the beginning…

The Great Lost Treasure

Justron’s starting point is a treasure mystery associated with (the very real) Admiral Lord George Anson (1697-1762), and (apparently) described in Andrew Westcott’s (1999) book “El Tesoro de Lord Anson”. (If I mentioned that George Anson was born in Shugborough Hall, you might be able to guess part of where this is going).

According to Justron’s account, a treasure horde was entrusted to a certain Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla at the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1714: the Spanish Hapsburgs, having lost their ownership of the Spanish Crown to the French House of Bourbon, passed it to Ubilla for him to secrete in South America for safety.

Note that Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla definitely existed. In 1715 when the convoy of treasure ships he was commanding on the way back from Havana to Spain was hit by a hurricane close to the Bahamas, over a thousand people lost their lives, including Ubilla himself. Only one ship, the Grifon, managed to avoid catastrophe.

One treasure site recounts the story that the Capitana went down with the jewels Philip V had been required to provide as a dowry for his new wife, the Duchess of Parma: these included “a heart delicately crafted of 130 pearls, a 74 carat emerald ring, a pair of pearl earrings-each complemented with a 14 carat pearl, and a rosary of pure coral the size of small marbles“. This much-searched-for royal trove was used as a plot device in films such as The Deep (the 1977 Peter Benchley-written film, not the 2013 Icelandic film) and Fools Gold (which I thought was a bit pants, though not offensively so).

So is this Justron’s “Great Lost Treasure”? Actually no – for once, it is nothing so boringly mundane as gold, silver or diamonds: far more audaciously, Justron asserts that it is the “set of vessels, items and furnishings for the Tabernacle in the Wilderness” that Moses had had constructed, and which came to be housed in the Temple of Jerusalem. And then Justron raises the stakes yet higher, by asserting that the “Holy Grail” has been mistranslated, and that what we call the Holy Grail was actually part of the Davidic Temple trove.

The Über-Map

According to Justron’s narrative, once Ubilla had concealed this heavenly stash in South America, he somehow managed to convey a map of where he hidden it to the Royal Society in London, which (he says) “then became the reluctant stewards of what was considered to be God’s own treasure”.

According to Justron, the list of things that Ubilla passed across included (though note that many of the details come from a separate cipher mystery, courtesy of Richard Latcham, which I’ll cover in Cipher Mysteries when my brain has stopped hurting from this one):

1. A chart of the region.
2. A reference to latitude and longitude using the alchemically themed colours of the fixed stars known as the Tetramorphs and their zodiacal associated constellations.
3. A series of consecutive and geographically descriptive codewords in Spanish;
* Trinidad (Trinity)
* Herradura (Horseshoe)
* Pan da Azucar (Sugarloaf). This is a ‘sailing mark’, a distinctive rock to identify the island and the pass through the surrounding reef.
* Playa Blanca (White Beach)
* Aguada (Water)
* Ebanin (Marked rock)
4. The ‘Cero tres Puntas’: literally the ‘Zero (cipher) of the longitude for the Three Points’.

Justron also asserts that Ubilla also managed to convey a copy of the map to Spain, which was used for a later treasure hunt (Diego Alverez, Luke Barrett, Archer Brown and Killorain: ‘The Treasure of the Tuamotus’ or ‘The Bosun Bird Treasure’).

As you’d perhaps expect, Justron has decrypted the map’s subtleties: he used the Shugborough monument letters, an simple substitution cipher key used by “a lawyer names Zwack in 1786 during a political raid in England of a secret society called ‘The Illuminated Ones’, the magic number 19, the Golden Section, and a map of some South Sea islands.

The trail, then, leads to Mururoa Atoll (where some atomic tests were famously carried out): if you suddenly feel the urge to book your flight there, rest assured I won’t be offended if you open another tab in your browser. 🙂

The Cornelius Patrick Webb Letter

Justron also points to an odd letter dated to later in the 18th century:

I, Cornelius Patrick Webb, Captain of his Majesty’s Navy, Master of the Unicorn, only survivor of the Horseshoe Expedition depute this account to my Lord George Anson First Lord of the Admiralty (courtisualy) because I judgeth malady which ailleth me will not permit to wait. Departure Unicorn June nineteen crossed Cap Horn December six arrived at position lat thirty D eight M. January thirteenth opened royal orders, located secret entrance, translated Crown’s belongings, located eight hundred sixty four bags gold. Two hundred bars gold, twenty one barrels precious stones and jewellery one golden trunk containing rose of gold and emeralds, two foot high, one hundred and sixty chests with gold and silver coins. January twenty four fortress destroyed. When returning the twenty-eight of January before a violent storm, the ship suffered serious damage and lost a mast. We were forced to shelter on an island; the third of February found us at Longitude … Latitude… and it was impossible to carry out repairs for the safe transportation of the treasure; transferred to a new hiding place valley of Anson a cable length from the observation point in direction great yellow stone depth fifteen feet. Unicorn repaired for emergency crossing course Valparaiso; informed of plans for mutiny while the ship was becalmed to the West of Valparaiso I made use of the auxiliary boat (Pinnace). Unicorn blown up by me with all on board, six loyal men sacrificed for the cause of the Crown, I arrived at Valparaiso. 1761

Now, the problem for Justron is that even if this letter is genuine (and personally I’m still struggling to get to the stage where I believe that it is), its contents doesn’t quite fit his über-narrative. However, his resolution is to infer from internal evidence that the letter was originally written in Latin and then mistranslated into English.

Anson’s Papers

When Lord Anson dies in 1762, his papers were (says Justron) found to contain a file containing enciphered or coded details of something that was called the “Horseshoe expedition”, which was presumed to refer to the Webb Letter above. Justron continues:

“As the Webb report mentioned the ‘Valley of Anson’ and with Lord George Anson having published a book [“A Voyage around the World”, 1748] with a map of Juan Fernandez Island, anyone with a modicum of imagination would have recognised the similarity in shape between the robes of the Shepherdess on the monument and the island of Juan Fernandez. From that day copies of the Shepherdess’ shape were made and circulated as a ‘treasure map’.

Justron also observes that “An interesting modification that occurs for each region where the story is retold is to give the ‘dying sailor’ a local sounding name or the name of a person known to the inhabitants.” For him, the prototypical “dying sailor” was Cornelius Webb, and every one of the numerous ones ones thereafter were merely story-telling clones of Webb.

And this tweak helps him build two additional storeys to the top of his argumentary tower: that not only are all treasure maps ever made little more than variations on Anson’s original treasure map hidden in plain sight on the Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, but also all “a dying sailor bequeathed me this treasure map” stories are variations of a single meta-story.

Oak Island and Beale Papers

Justron then takes a long digression into the murky tunnels and waters of Oak Island. And then into the Beale Papers, which he says were written by some Freemasons in an attempt “to alert other Freemasons they had found the Cerro tres Puntas”.

Harold T. Wilkins and Fake Maps

Ron Justron’s next target is the wonderfully frustrating set of maps found in the 1930s: he asserts that nutty proto-Fortean hack Harold T. Wilkins had found Lord Anson’s Papers in the 1920s, and so decided to construct a long series of maps in some kind of homage to the Anson über-map. These then (so the story goes) were inserted into oldish items of furniture, which then all came into the possession of collectors Guy and Hubert Palmer in Eastbourne between 1929 and 1942.

After Hubert Palmer’s demise, the maps passed to his nurse (Mrs Dick), who then sold them all off to a mysterious Canadian/American syndicate in 1957: they have never been since since.

For Justron, however, Wilkins was pulling everyone’s legs, because he clearly (writes Justron) knew that the location referred to by Anson, Webb and Ubilla lay somewhere else entirely. And this is because – asserts Justron – it was also Wilkins and Latcham who were behind Latcham’s fake cipher / treasure maps at Guayacan.

After a digression on the Tokugawa treasure, Justron then starts to get to what I can only describe as the real meat of his argument (yes, there is in indeed more to go yet). Which links Harold T. Wilkins to…

Rennes-le-Chateau and the Priory of Sion

[Wilkins] decided to leave for posterity the final part to the grand riddle. This part would be the direct pointers to Lord George Anson and his map. […] Unfortunately Harold T Wilkins selected a right bunch for his chosen dupes; rather than just carry the clues for others to find they goofed the whole thing up completely.

In the mess that the myth of Rennes le Chateau has become one could dismiss the whole thing as a fraud perpetrated by a group of French associates in the 1950s for their own gain.

In reality the story of Rennes le Chateau is that of it being just another Masonic hoax/riddle in which the real codes have to be identified and decrypted.

Yes: just when you thought there were no more cipher-related mysteries to throw into the same bubbling pot, the Priory of Sion appears. Justron’s long argument that accompanies this claim reduces to: Wilkins was the Svengali who set the whole thing up (apparently with Anson’s Great Lost Treasure in mind), but with Wilkins’ death in 1960 everyone involved seemed to lose the plot.

The Secret of the Unicorn?

But Justron has left the best to last – and it is so stunning that he hasn’t even put it on his website yet. Which is that the Tintin adventure The Secret of the Unicorn (published in Le Soir in serial form between 1942 and 1943) contains embedded clues to much of the above.


Justron writes:

“Unfortunately the main part missed too was the hint given in Tintin, that is by assembling the (RLC) parchments, you’ll be led to the ancestral hall of a famous mariner where you will learn the Secret of the Unicorn.”

Of course, for Justron the ancestral hall of a famous mariner being referred to is not Hergé’s fictional Marlinspike Hall of his fictional Sir Francis Haddock, but without any shadow of a doubt Shugborough Hall, birthplace of George Anson. And the Unicorn is, well, the Unicorn (of course).

The Great Lost Treasure, Really?

For me, there’s something endearingly syncretic – almost Rastafarian, with their “Truth of All Truths” – about Justron’s sprawlingly all-encompassing cryptophily. For him, the whole cipher/treasure endeavour appeals to an Ur-story lurking beneath the suburban drear of mere data, much like Joseph Campbell inferred a single story laying beneath all myth.

Naturally, I don’t believe it for a minute: but I wouldn’t, would I? I’m a getting-the-details-really-properly-right kind of guy who likes to understand the arguments and evidence behind each cipher/treasure/history/mystery, one at a time. Which means that I don’t really believe that Justron has sufficient evidence to prove any single one of his claims about these historical mysteries, even though he is convinced all his conclusions holistically support one another.

All the same, Justron’s mega-narrative steamrollers its way through a whole load of cipher mysteries in (what, to me at least, comes across as) a fresh new way, and I can honestly say that it has helped make me look afresh at a lot of the ground he has covered over the last decade.

The problems Cipher Mysteries recently had with its last web hosting supplier were all logical consequences of scale: not only had the blog got larger and the number of comments shot up, but also WordPress (and all those ‘must-have’ caching and security plugins) had got larger (and slower) as well.

I genuinely thought that moving the site to a WordPress multisite installation on a far more heavyweight hosting account would be (despite the inevitable hassle the transition involved) a great technical fix for all those scaling issues. And in many ways, it was: Cipher Mysteries now seems (touch wood) to be working better than it has done for a long time (though I’m still looking for a good multisite redirection plugin, bah).

But having now sat down to start posting again after my enforced break, I realise that I had overlooked a quite different scaling problem, and the effects that has been having on Cipher Mysteries. And this turns out to be something I don’t yet have a fix for, technical or otherwise.

Small Blog, Big Stories?

Over the last year or so, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write blog posts on unbroken historical ciphers, and for one simple reason: that, having researched all the major ones in great detail over the last decade, a thousand words or so is too small a space to fit even a preamble to a new angle, let alone the new angle itself.

In practice, this is having the effect of dissuading me from writing anything about anything: inside the WordPress editor, I have thirty or more draft posts started that I just can’t find the energy to complete – in each case, having written a page or two or three, I can already tell that they’re all going to be too long.

In short: without really realising it, I’ve silently undergone a transition from medium-form to long-form, to the point that I can’t sensibly fit what I want to write into blog posts. And I don’t know what to do about it.

Schmeh For Two?

At the same time, Klaus Schmeh has arrived on the scene with his (entirely sensible, though occasionally Lego-minifigure-abusing) Krypto Kolumne, which covers a diverse collection of crypto stuff (particularly enciphered German postcards).

Klaus has a good presentation schtick, a nicely dry sense of humour, and a loyal online audience that relishes being fed unsolved cryptograms that it can (and often does) actually solve. He has taken what I would categorize as a more journalistic angle on historical ciphers: he seems less interested in solving or researching them himself than in enabling other people to grow them into a more substantial story.

By comparison, my own research interests have become far narrower and far more specific as time has gone by. This has been the perhaps inevitable result of exploring and testing the outer limits of knowledge of the “big” unsolved historical ciphers – the Voynich Manuscript, the Rohonc Codex, the Beale Papers, the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat Page, the WW2 Pigeon Cipher, the Dorabella cipher, La Buse, Le Butin, etc. It’s a list whose elements were all individually well-worn by the time Elonka Dunin put them together and posted it on the Internet.

“Opinions Are Like…”

But this process of knowledge exploration has also meant that I have developed strong technical opinions: these are not only about the range of possible decryptions, but also about the limits of what can and can’t be known about a given artefact – i.e. what evidence we do have, and what we can infer from that evidence.

And expressing such technical opinions have, of late, brought me into repeated conflict with various people on the Internet: for example, I think that there is no evidence of “microwriting” in the Tamam Shud page whatsoever that could not similarly be drawn out from almost any digital image whatsoever – I continue to receive online abuse (and indeed accusations of mental disorders) for saying this. Which is the kind of thing only libel lawyers find enjoyable reading (simply because it pays their mortgages).

It has got to the point where I’m utterly bored of moderating snarky comments written by people who want to take a cheap shot at me: being ghastly to me has become a kind of initiatory hazing ritual for cipher nutters.

The Mainstream Arriveth

Another thing that’s going on is that, thanks to what looks like extended Turing Mania, historical ciphers have moved into the mainstream. Even today’s announcement that a teleprinter for a Lorenz SZ42 machine was bought on eBay for £9.50 (which is a nice little story, but far from cryptologically earth-shaking) emerged not via (say) the CryptoCollector mailing list, but via the BBC.

Even Kernel Magazine devoted its last issue to Codes and Ciphers: though this actually turned out to have only micro-interviews with Zodiac Killer Cipher researchers and a largely unrevealing summary of the A858 (ok, “r/A858DE45F56D9BC9” in full) subreddit code thing.

Yet arguably the only good mainstream article on cipher mysteries in the last decade has been Christopher Tritto’s excellent Code Dead on Ricky McCormick: and even that barely touched the nature of those pages.

And so even though codes and ciphers are now officially “cool”, there’s almost no good writing on them out there at all: and where Cipher Mysteries fits into the overall landscape any more is something I’m struggling to see.

Finally, Nick Gets To The ‘Focus’ Bit

So what will Cipher Mysteries’ focus be, going forward?

Right now, I don’t honestly know. But what I do know is that things have to change…

Klaus Schmeh has just published a page on a previously unknown “Eliza” Masonic grave slab somewhere in Ohio, courtesy of Craig Bauer (Editor of Cryptologia, and who has a book on unsolved ciphers coming out next year).

Klaus’s commenters quickly worked out that it was actually the grave of Eliza Biehl (born 27th May 1862, died 2nd September 1915) buried in the Amboy Township Cemetery in Fulton, OH. It looks like this:


Klaus’s commenters quickly pointed out that the “John 3 – 16” on the left almost certainly refers to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life“.

The right hand side is a Masonic pigpen cipher (obviously), but with a twist: it is actually enciphered from right-to-left, and so reads:


It was actually a very nice piece of tag-team code-breaking, well done to everyone involved. 🙂

I’ve mentioned one particular Masonic gravestone back in 2008: but it turns out there are plenty of others out there, a few of which Klaus covers in this post on his site.

But here’s one he missed: that of John Farmer Dakin:-


Here’s the plaintext if you’re too bone idle to work it out for yourself (it’s not hard, go on):


Full bonus marks if you notice why this might give computer solvers a minor headache. 🙂

There are also various acrostic Masonic grave markings that occasionally turn up, such as FNDOZBTKC (which stands for “Fear Not, Daughter of Zion: Behold, The King Cometh”), and AHRHPCASDE (“And He reached her parched corn, and she did eat”).

Two More Masonic Gravestones…

But the real meat-and-two-veg of cryptic Masonic gravestones are pigpen cipher inscriptions: and so here are two more for you.

The first was from Dalkeith in Midlothian, and was cracked by amateur code-breaker Stuart Morrison. However, only really the headline of the story is on the web (i.e. no solution) and the image of the ciphertext isn’t really good enough to work with (in my opinion).

Dalkeith, St. Nicholas Buccleuch parish church. Stuart Morrison, who has cracked cipher on masonic gravestone.

If someone has access to a better quality image of this, that would be a good help. 🙂

And finally, a Freemason called Henry Harrison had some pigpen on his gravestone.


Can you crack either of these? 🙂

For me, the Internet is a truly fabulous thing: in little more than a generation, its rapid growth has transformed the way that people find and communicate with each other, and has erected what is effectively a single global stage for a staggering number of people to become actors upon simultaneously.

For arguably the first time in history, we Netizens are part of a global grouping that brings people together right in their own houses. Surrendering access to this has become unthinkable: WiFi / broadband has marched right up the list of human needs to the #4 position, just behind shelter, clean water, and food.

Yet what I love so much about the Internet is not just its freedom of expression but its tolerance of diversity – any web page can be visited by people from a vast set of nationalities, ages, religions, and opinions. To my mind, it should be a given that different people have different points of view: and that we therefore all need to learn not just to tolerate those differences, but by treating them with humour, dignity and respect, celebrate and integrate them in an overwhelmingly positive way.

Diversity and History

History, though, sits awkwardly with this worldview, because it is a discipline built on two opposing strategies. On the one hand, it would be a dull historian who did not have access to his/her widening, creative side to fill evidential gaps, using empathy and pragmatic common sense to suggest imaginative ways explanations. And yet on the other, it would be a foolish historian who did not also have a narrowing, logical side that uses disproof, deep reading, attention to detail and rigorous thought to close down foolishnesses.

This widening / narrowing duality sits, to my mind, at the core of what it means to be a good historian: tempering the fire of empathic imagination with the cold steel of historical logic is what it is all about.

On the Internet, though, History struggles to express this duality comfortably. Blogs and uncritical forums offer safe sandboxes for historical imaginations to run wild, proposing all manner of alt.history, counterfactual history, pseudohistory and pseudoscience: but without the narrowing faculty to counterbalance this widening, what gets posted can quickly degenerate into a one-sided caricature of History, rather than anything approaching a useful asset in getting to the truth of what happened.

In short, the “History” I see written on the Internet relating to the things I research and know about brooks no disagreement, let alone accepts any criticism: its authors see the whole idea of narrowing as an insult to their right to personal expression, and as such treat any form of questioning as if it were a personal attack on them, and in turn often respond disrespectfully and abusively.

“Internet History”, really?

But History is not a fiction to be written how you like. It is evidence-driven hypotheses about the past behaviour of real people who just happen, in most (but certainly not all) cases, to now be dead. My opinion – which sadly seems to be shared by few others – is that these real people have as much right to respect as living people, even if by dying they have inadvertently foregone their legal right to sue.

What all too often gets described as “Internet History”, then, is something formed into the general ‘shape’ of History but without logic (and hence without balance), and without respect for the dead (or even the living).

Even though the authors of these pages would like to pass them off as History, the point I am trying to make is that this is the one thing that they are not – for without logic, without balance, and without respect, I think they have moved sideways into a completely different area altogether.

The problem is that we lack a word to describe this other area: it’s not History, and it’s not even “faction” (fiction threaded around a densely factual backdrop) because the authors typically do not consider it fictional at all. What should we call it? “Junk History” (a term used ironically to describe Gavin Menzies’ Chinese fantasy concoctions) is just about as close as I personally can get.


You may well have your own words. 😐

The Difference…

My suspicion is that the explanatory diversity of Internet historical theories that spring up is misread by many as an parallel expression of the cultural diversity of the Internet: and that we should (so the theory goes) therefore just leave them be – let a thousand (diverse) flowers bloom, no matter how wonky or twisted their stems.

However, the explanatory diversity of different proposed “Histories” (where usually at most one of them can be right, hence they are all in competition with each other) is not at all similar to cultural diversity (where each culture has found its own way of living simultaneously with all the other cultures).

What is missing from “Internet History” is (a) the ability to disagree with people amicably; (b) the ability to accept that there is a greater-than-90% chance that any given theory is wrong; and (c) the ability to face up to evidential problems in any given theory.

In short:
* It’s OK to be different – diversity isn’t an optional extra, it’s part of the whole Internet package.
* It’s OK to disagree – it’s a natural consequence of being different.
* It’s also OK to be proved wrong – better that than waste years of your life on something which was broken from the start, surely?