From the Caesar Shift of ancient times to a Nazi coding device called the Enigma Machine, the world before us left its mark in keys and codes for us to follow. But did you know that one of the most famous and yet unsolved codes was not carved into some precious plaque or locked in some high tech machinery, but engraved in a paradisiacal mansion in England?
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Shugborough Estate. Photo: Bs0u10e0/Flickr
Amidst garden landscapes and architectural curiosities of the Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire stands the Shepherd’s Monument. An unknown craftsman carved eight mysterious letters here—OUOSVAVV— sandwiched between two other letters, D and M. This was over 200 years ago, and since then, the seemingly random group of letters has continued to perplex historians from around the world, with doyens like Dickens and Darwin joining the gang as well. Could it hold a clue to the Holy Grail? Or was it only some whimsical graffiti of the 18th century?
The Shugborough inscription. Photo: Naggie34/Wikimedia
Bletchley Park, a network of top secret World War II codebreakers, suggest looking at the engravings as a part of a whole. The letters are carved under the Shugborough relief, which is an adaptation of a Nicolas Poussin painting called ‘The Shepherds of Arcadia’. On it are the words “Et In Arcadia Ego”, which in Latin translates to “I am also in Arcadia” or “I am, even in Arcadia.” This in its entirety is the Shepherd’s Monument of the estate, commissioned by Thomas Anson between 1748 and 1763.
The Shepherd’s Monument. Photo: Boffin PC/Flickr
What Could it Mean?
AJ Morton, an expert in graves and monuments, believed the letters were engraved by George Adams and his wife, Mary Vernon-Venables—residents of Shugborough and relatives of Thomas Anson. But many have suggested that the letters are clues to the location of the cup that collected Jesus’s blood as it fell from his crucifixion wounds. Veteran cryptanalyst Sheila Lawn proposed that it was a love letter in Latin, while another theory links it to a Knight’s Templar message “Jesus H Defy” reimposing the Templar belief that Jesus was an earthly mortal.
Yet other theories have sprung up over the years, though most revolve around theoretical speculation. Experts of cryptography expanded the letters D and M to stand for Dis Manibus, meaning “for the Manes.” This is a Roman abbreviation commonly found on Christian tombs, for the Manes were believed to be spirits of the underworld.
The only person to have purportedly cracked the Shugborough code is American scientist Keith Massey. Massey worked for America’s top secret National Security Agency after 9/11 and is a highly qualified Latin teacher. According to him, the letters stand for “Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam” meaning “I pray that all may follow the Way to True Life.” The sentence is grammatically correct, and in his belief, references a Biblical passage—John 14:6, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" (Ego sum Via et Veritas et Vita).
Despite intense work to decipher the inscription, the stately estate which was once owned by Lord Lichfield has continued to be a site of bafflement for the world. Even today tourists and locals throng the estate to take a shot at the letters in stone. Have you?