The Mystery of the Kryptos Sculpture

[Image courtesy of Kryptos.arcticus.com.]

If I told you that one of the most famous unsolved encrypted messages in the world isn’t lurking in the works of Da Vinci or in some vast government warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant, but rather as part of a sculpture only twenty-five years old, you might be surprised.

You’d probably be less surprised to discover that said sculpture is located in front of the headquarters of the CIA, though.

Kryptos, a flowing sculpture made of petrified wood and copper plating over a small pool of water, was revealed to the world in 1990. Masterminded by artist Jim Sanborn, it was apparently designed to both challenge and honor the Central Intelligence Agency. And for decades now, it has proven to be a top-flight brain teaser for codebreakers both professional and amateur.

From an article on Wired.com:

It all began in 1988 when the CIA Fine Arts Commission commissioned local artist James Sanborn to create a cryptographic sculpture for a courtyard on the CIA campus. Sanborn completed the two-part sculpture in 1990, which included stones laid out in International Morse code near the front entrance of the CIA campus, and a 12-foot-high, verdigrised copper, granite and petrified wood sculpture. The latter, which is the more famous part of Kryptos, was inscribed with four encrypted messages composed from some 1,800 letters carved out of the copper plate.

[Image courtesy of The Magazine.org.]

There are four distinct sections, utilizing different forms of encryption. And amazingly, the fourth section continues to elude codecrackers to this very day.

It took nearly a decade before anyone announced a solution to the first three encryptions. A computer scientist named Jim Gillogly announced in 1999 that he had cracked passages 1, 2, and 3 with computer assistance.

The CIA, not to be one-upped, then revealed that one of their own employees, an analyst named David Stein, had solved those same three passages the year before, using only pencil, paper, and lunchtime man-hours.

But a 2013 Freedom of Information Act request into records of the National Security Agency revealed that an NSA team actually cracked those same three passages back in 1993 as part of a friendly rivalry between the NSA and CIA, provoked by former NSA director and then-deputy CIA director William O. Studeman.

[Image courtesy of G.A. Matiasz.]

Passage 1 employs a Vigenère cipher, a letter-shifting cipher that has been used for centuries, also known as a periodic polyalphabetic substitution cipher, if you want to get fancy with it.

The message, penned by Sanborn himself, reads Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion. [Iqlusion is an intentional misspelling of “illusion.”]

Passage 2 also employs a Vigenère cipher, but utilizes a different keyword than Passage 1. The message, also composed by Sanborn, points toward something hidden nearby:

It was totally invisible. How’s that possible? They used the earth’s magnetic field. x The information was gathered and transmitted undergruund to an unknown location. x Does Langley know about this? They should: it’s buried out there somewhere. x Who knows the exact location? Only WW. This was his last message. x Thirty eight degrees fifty seven minutes six point five seconds north, seventy seven degrees eight minutes forty four seconds west. x Layer two. [Again, there’s an intentional misspelling here with “undergruund.”]

Passage 3 uses a transposition cipher, which relies on the positioning of given letters in order to properly spell out a message. The message is inspired by the words of Howard Carter, the archaeologist who opened King Tut’s tomb:

Slowly, desparatly slowly, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway was removed. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. And then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. The hot air escaping from the chamber caused the flame to flicker, but presently details of the room within emerged from the mist. x Can you see anything? q [Again, there’s an intentional misspelling with “desparatly.”]

[Image courtesy of Unmuseum.org.]

Although some codebreakers believe the misspellings of “iqlusion,” “undergruund,” and “desparatly” are simply Sanborn’s crafty attempts at misdirection, others believe they are clues hinting at how to crack Passage 4, which is only 97 characters long.

Sanborn has even offered hints to help frustrated solvers in their efforts to unravel the mystery of Passage 4. In 2006, he revealed that letters 64 through 69 in the passage, NYPVTT, decrypt to “Berlin.”

And in 2014, Sanborn revealed that letters 70 through 74, MZFPK, decrypt to “clock.” So the message has something to do with the Berlin Clock, although Sanborn has stated “there are several really interesting clocks in Berlin.”

[Image of the Berlin Clock courtesy of Secret City Travel.com.]

Amazingly, even if someone does crack Passage 4 someday, that’s not the end of the journey. All four passages are part of a riddle to unravel to truly solve the Kryptos puzzle, and apparently, doing so requires you to be on CIA property. That’s no small feat.

Jim Sanborn has truly created a beautiful, diabolical puzzle for the ages here. I wonder who will step up to finally solve this masterpiece.


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One thought on “The Mystery of the Kryptos Sculpture

  1. Pingback: Puzzle History: Codebreaking and the NSA, part 2 | PuzzleNation.com Blog

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