The “Copiale Cipher”, a 105-page pamphlet bound in gold and green brocade paper, is thought to be at least 300 years old, and contain the secrets of an underground group obsessed with eye surgery and ophthalmology, although the members are not thought to have been eye doctors.
The hand-written pamphlet contains 75,000 characters - a mix of abstract symbols and Roman and Greek letters. It was found in the East Berlin Academy after the end of the Cold War, and was then bought by a private collector.
An international research team including experts from Uppsala University in Sweden and the University of Southern California (USC) in the United States, managed to get access to the cipher and have cracked it – after going up at least one blind alley.
Kevin Knight, from the USC said in a statement that he and the team had initially focussed on the Roman and Greek lettering, isolating them from the abstract figures and running their patterns through a computer.
“When you get a new code and look at it, the possibilities are nearly infinite. Once you come up with a hypothesis based on your intuition as a human, you can turn over a lot of grunt work to the computer,” he said.
But after trying 80 languages, the team had got nowhere. “It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure,” said Knight.
They then realised the familiar letters were ‘nulls' – meaningless figures added to the real code to confuse would-be code-crackers.
The next hypothesis to be tested was that the abstract symbols with similar shapes represented the same letter or groups of letters and eventually the first meaningful words appeared – suitably spooky phrases such as “Ceremonies of initiation” and “Secret section”.
“This opens up a window for people who study the history or ideas and the history of secret societies,” said Knight.
“Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, but all that is yet to be worked out and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered.”
Knight said he is using similar techniques to try to crack other messages, including some by the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who terrorised California in the 1960s and 70s while sending messages to the media. He was never caught.