A Codebreaker's Nightmare
In the summer of 2004, experts from Bletchley Park, the former top secret World War II code breaking centre, were invited to the historic estate of Shugborough, ancestral home of photographer Patrick Lichfield, in an attempt to solve a 250-year-old mystery. The codebreakers fronted an effort to crack a puzzling cryptic inscription etched onto one of Shugborough's eight marble-carved garden monuments, each of national importance.
For years the monument is rumoured to point to the location of the Holy Grail - the cup Jesus Christ drank from at the Last Supper. The Anson family, who built the Shugborough estate in the 17th century, had a long-standing interest in the Knights Templar, a secret medieval order which claimed to be guardians of the grail. Others believe the inscription is simply a private message to a deceased loved one.
Known as 'Shepherd's Monument', the monument was constructed around 1748, and is located in the sublime grounds of the historic estate of Shugborough. Many notable people have visited the site in an attempt to solve the puzzle, including some of the world's greatest thinkers - Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, for example.
Based on a painting by French artist Nicholas Poussin, but carved in reverse, the etching depicts three shepherds pointing at an inscription on a tomb that reads Et in arcadia ego (And I am in Arcadia, too). Below the image is a line of letters - O U O S V A V V - and beneath that on either end, the letters D and M. Lord Lichfield's grandmother believed it stood for the opening letters of a verse: 'Out of your own sweet vale Alicia vanish vanity twixt deity and man'.
'Inscriptions like this might be considered to be a family message, but there are no records within the family archive of what it means,' said Shugborough spokesman Russel Gethings. Mr Gethings said the carving was significantly different to Mr Poussin's painting and could contain clues to the code. 'They changed what one of the shepherds is pointing to,' he said. 'He's pointing to a completely different letter than in the painting. And they've added a second sarcophagus to the picture.'
It was hoped that the true meaning behind the message would finally be solved with Bletchley Park's help. Then Bletchley Park's Director, Christine Large said: "This is such an unusual challenge that my colleagues and collaborators, who include veteran code breakers and modern day decoding experts from Bletchley Park's 'offspring' GCHQ, cannot resist. 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."
Bletchley Park also invited visitors to try and crack the code, and to contribute any historical information that may prove helpful. "We have to keep an open mind about what kind of solution we're seeking here," Ms Large said. "I think it's likely to be something more prosaic than the Holy Grail, but then most things are."
The first attempt at cracking the code took place in May 2004 at Shugborough Estate (Staffordshire) when representatives of Bletchley Park's World War II veterans were joined by modern day decoding experts. Here, on the stately lawns, they started the search through historical papers, photographs and archives stored at Shugborough, for clues that may ultimately solve the riddle.
"The inscription is obviously a classical reference," said mathematician Oliver Lawn, 85, a Bletchley Park veteran who headed the quest along with his linguist wife, Sheila. "It's either Latin or Greek and based on some historical happening." Mr Lawn, who was recruited to Bletchley Park in 1940 while studying mathematics at Cambridge University, said he was puzzled. "The picture's a funny one. Why it's a mirror image is very strange."
Bletchley Park's Murlyn Hakon said: "I have visited Shugborough before to view the monument and it is my opinion that this is a code. Every code has a key, so it is just a matter of finding it. We could solve it tomorrow, it could take months, but it seems to use a system whereby one letter is replaced with another. We have solved codes that people have sent in to us in letters, but we have never done anything like this before, Shugborough is completely unique in that respect."
END NOTE: There were many explanations presented by Bletchley Park and GCHQ codebreakers, but all were suggestive and based on theory rather than hard evidence. Some codebreakers suggested the letters were a cryptic love note, whilst others said the inscription was simply a folly to baffle visitors for generations to come.
The years rolled on and still the codebreakers tried. And then in 2014, a former NSA linguistic expert in the person of Keith Massey tried. He said O U O S V A V V stands for Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam As Veram Vitam - latin for 'I Pray That All May Follow The Way To True Life'. "I believe I've solved the mystery," he said. "My proposal provides a sensible and credible interpretation to this long standing mystery."