Ancient Code Stumps Enigma Code-Breakers

By Alex Thompson, PA News


May 6, 2004. The meaning of a 250-year-old cryptic inscription etched on a garden monument remains a mystery today despite initial efforts to solve the riddle by Second World War code-breakers from Bletchley Park.

Past and present experts from the Buckinghamshire centre gathered at the Shepherd’s Monument in rural Staffordshire after being invited to visit the site as part of attempts to decipher the letters, rumoured to point the way to the Holy Grail.

The marble slab, depicting a mirror image of a painting by Nicholas Poussin, with the letters D.O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V.M. etched beneath, was constructed circa 1748.

It is flanked by two columns and set among rhododendrons in a corner of the garden at Shugborough, the ancestral home of the Earls of Lichfield.

Oliver Lawn, 85, and his wife Sheila, 81, codebreakers who worked at Bletchley Park during the war pledged their support to the project.

On first inspection, Mr Lawn, who was studying maths at Cambridge when he was asked to help break the German Enigma code, said he thought the task required some lateral thinking and a classical education.

He said he and his wife, who met while at the Buckinghamshire site, would look for clues in Shugborough’s archives.

He said: “The inscription is obviously a classical reference. It’s either Latin or Greek and based on some historical happening.

“The picture’s a funny one. Why it’s a mirror image is very strange.” Christine Large, director at Bletchley Park, said there were a number of possibilities the codebreakers had to consider.

One was that the letters were meaningless and etched on the monument to tease future generations.

The other was that it was not a message itself but the key to another message elsewhere.

Ms Large said it was very unlikely the code would be broken if it was a “one to one” – written from person to another.

She said: “This looks to us as if it’s probably going to need language expertise – maybe skills in Greek and maybe forgotten languages – as well as mathematics and puzzles.”

Ms Large thought language mapping techniques could be used and said the most important thing was to keep an open mind.

She said she hoped visitors to Bletchley Park would be able to assist.

“Through visual displays and code and cipher workshops, we will expose the problem to as wide an age range as possible with all sorts of different backgrounds in the hope one will throw up the clue.

“As to when that is, remains an enigma,” she added.

Shugborough’s general manager, Richard Kemp, said the monument had to be considered in its entirety.

“Bletchley Park are saying it’s not just the words, it’s the juxtaposition of the words, it’s the angle of the shepherd’s staffs, it’s the surroundings, it’s the totality of the site.

“They even say they want to get on to the top to see if there’s any significance up there.”

Mr Kemp said the Anson family, who built the estate, commissioned the monument and had strong associations with the Knights Templars.

He said: “The inscription is rumoured to indicate the location of the Holy Grail, which must rank as one of the world’s great mysteries.”

The Bletchley Park team were accompanied by the famous Enigma decoding machine.

It is estimated that work carried out at The National Codes Centre at Bletchley Park, which is now open to visitors, helped to shorten the Second World War by two years.