Scientists in California and Sweden said they have used computer translation techniques to solve a 250-year-old mystery by deciphering a coded manuscript written for a secret society.
The University of Southern California announced Tuesday that researchers had broken the Copiale Cipher, a 105-page, 18th century document from Germany.
The handwritten, beautifully bound book didn't contain any sort of Da Vinci Code but rather a snapshot of the arcane rituals practiced by one of the many secret societies that flourished in the 1700s.
It also recorded rites for some apparent sects of Freemasonry that showed political leanings.
"This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies," USC computer scientist Kevin Knight, who was on the deciphering team, said in a statement. "Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered."
The handwritten Copiale Cipher was discovered in East Berlin after the Cold War and is now in a private collection. Most of the book was written in a cipher of 90 characters that included abstract symbols and Roman and Greek letters.
Knight and Beata Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Sweden's Uppsala University went to work cracking it earlier this year. They used a computer program to automate a key code-breaking procedure _ tallying the frequency and grouping of the letters and symbols _ then automated the process of comparing the cipher to known languages.
It's a method used by many automated translation programs.
The researchers tried the Roman letters first, comparing them to some 80 languages.
"It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure," Knight said.
Eventually, they determined that the abstract symbols, not the unaccented Roman letters, bore the message. The first words deciphered were German for "ceremonies of initiation" and "secret section."
The initiation rites were for an "ocular society" that used a lot of eye-based symbolism.
For example, a candidate was supposed to look at a blank piece of paper and be asked if he can see writing. If he answers no, he is given eyeglasses, tries again, and then his eyes are washed with a cloth.
"If nothing helps, he (the master of ceremonies) will announce that they have to proceed with the operation," which consists of plucking a hair from the candidate's eyebrow, according to the text.
Knight is working on cracking other ciphers, including one that San Francisco's Zodiac Killer used in messages to police during his spree; the last section of "Kryptos," a coded sculpture at CIA headquarters, and the Voynich Manuscript, a famous work from the 1400s.