Saturday, July 01, 2006

This is CRYPTCRACKER (, also known cryptically in the cyberspace underworld as Collesseum.bull.tin (a bulletin blog for offering solutions to mysteries) closely connected to the Collesseum Museum-Theatre for Scripts ( with which there is much promiscuous cross-fertilization.

It would have been called Codecracker but that name was already taken.

Never mind. Cryptcracker has a crisp and crackling sound to it.

But what does it mean? Breaking into crypts in churches and museums in search of arcane inscriptions, as in The Da Vinci Code?

That is somewhat true of the exploration to be undertaken here. I have photographs of some ancient inscriptions from Egypt, which illuminate the beginnings of the alphabet. These have been overlooked by previous researchers, and  I would like to examine their significance and signification here.

The 'crypt' segment of 'cryptcracker' alludes to words derived from Greek *kruptos* ('hidden'): 'cryptic' (secret, mysterious); 'cryptogram' (a text written in cipher); 'cryptography' (the art of writing texts in cipher); 'cryptanalysis' (deciphering cryptograms, alias ciphertexts, by analysis, without knowledge of the key); 'cryptology' (the study of secret writing, a term covering cryptography and cryptanalysis).

Thus, my word 'cryptcracking' would be equivalent to 'decryption', meaning 'decoding' or 'deciphering'.

Some aspects of our quest are examined in The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-breaking, by Simon Singh (1999). He describes various forms of secret writing and ways of decrypting them. He also recounts the decipherment of some ancient scripts and lost languages: Egyptian hieroglyphs (Thomas Young, J-F Champollion), and the Linear B syllabic script of Bronze-Age Crete and Greece (Alice Kober, Michael Ventris, John Chadwick). These were 'cryptic', not in the sense of 'secret' but 'hidden and obscure and unreadable', because the key to decoding each of them was no longer available.

But, as in all books about decipherment of ancient writing systems, the origin of the alphabet is sidelined. No one is named as the discoverer of the alphabet code. The Bronze-Age inscriptions written in the prototype of the alphabet (which we may call the proto-alphabet) have been found in Egypt, Sinai, and Cana`an (Syria-Palestine). The proto-alphabet has an inventory of less than thirty pictorial characters, and the stylized forms they eventually took in the Phoenician and Grecian alphabets are known, so the decipherment should have been a pushover. However, the inscriptions are scarce and the scholars are numerous who have proffered transcriptions and translations (all of them different!). Thus, there is no way of telling which of the proposed solutions is the right one, or whether all are wrong.

However that may be, our general aim will be to resolve some of the perennial problems in the history of human communication.

One question, which has an answer, though it is not widely understood, is the origin of the word cipher. As used above, cipher means a system for disguising a message by replacing each letter with another letter, according to a table (a key) known to the recipient. But it comes from an Arabic word (s.ifr) meaning 'empty void', and in Arabic numerals (borrowed from the Indian mathematicians and then transmitted by Arabs to Europeans) it is the name of 'nought', or 'zero' (another European attempt to pronounce Arabic s.ifr!). The use of 'cipher' with reference to secret writing came about because another system of cryptography substituted numbers for letters.

In this regard, it is worth noting that some early Muslim scholars, notably al-Kindi, invented cryptanalysis: they noticed that some letters were frequent in Arabic texts, while others were infrequent, and a table of relative frequency could be established, with each letter having a position on it. By practising 'frequency analysis' on a ciphertext, the proper values for the signs (letters or numbers or other characters) could be worked out. Simon Singh (p. 14-25) gives an example for us to play with, based on an English text (a translation of an extract from The Arabian Nights).

Incidentally, Simon Singh (p. 30) shows that strictly speaking a cipher involves substituting letters (or other characters) for letters, while a code functions with words replacing words according to an agreed system, recorded in a codebook, which is like a dictionary.

I have spent my life attempting to solve a variety of conundrums, and not only in detective stories and crosswords, but probing symbolism in literature, and seeking secret messages in music (Bach and Elgar are known to have put cryptic features into their works).

A good place for us to start our journey together would be in The Da Vinci Code, surveying the intriguing puzzles that Dan Brown has sprinkled through his novel. So the first step would be "666 and all that" (page 40).


rama said...

Hullo, I juts came across this blog which has some posts on cracking the Da Vinci code.



Pim said...

Fondly remember reading "The Decipherment of Linear B" some 50 years ago.

Mnephonics said...

I am sure you know, but just in case, are you aware of the belief that Enoch or the prophet Idris as he is known in Isalm is credited with being the father of the first alphabet (along with mathematics and much more)? Does that 'myth' have any merit? I am also a lover of ancient alphabets and would love to know your thoughts about that. Also, Language Visible by David Sacks credits the Phoenicians with the invention of the first phonetic alphabet. What are your thoughts on that?

Mnephonics said...

If you get this post, please feel free to email me the response!