Kryptos: The Mystery Sculpture At CIA’s Headquarters

Jul 13, 2018 0 comments

For the past 17 years, a cryptographic puzzle has stood on the grounds of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, taunting cryptographers, both amateur and professional, including the Agency’s own experts.

The sculpture comprises of an S-shaped copper screen surrounded by other elements such as a piece of petrified wood, a red and green granite, a white quartz and a pool of water. On this copper screen, are cut out four ciphers in a jumble of letters—some 1,700 of them, and spread across four sections. Out of the four encrypted messages only three has been solved.


Photo credit: MAI/LANDOV

The sculpture called “Kryptos”, which is an ancient Greek word for "hidden", was created by American sculptor Jim Sanborn in 1991.

The first three messages were solved within a couple of years after the sculpture was unveiled.

The first message is a poetic phrase, which Sanborn composed himself. It reads:

Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion.

The misspelling in “iqlusion” was deliberately introduced to make the code as hard as possible to crack.

The second message hints at something buried:

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.

There is another misspelling in the message—the word “undergruund”. There is also a coordinate mentioned that points to location approximately 150 feet southeast of the sculpture.


Photo credit: MAI/LANDOV

The third message is an extract from the diary of archaeologist Howard Carter describing the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

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

But the fourth cipher, the shortest of the three containing just 97 letters, has cryptographers stumped, even the best ones working for the NSA.


Believing that he might not live to see the mystery of Kryptos resolved, artist Sanborn provided a clue in 2010, revealing that six of the last 97 letters when decrypted spell the word “Berlin”. When that didn’t help, Sanborn offered a second clue, four years later, that the next word reads “clock”. This means that the message ends in “Berlin clock”.

While there are many “really interesting clocks in Berlin,” the clock Sanborn is likely referring to is the famous public timepiece known as the “Berlin Clock” or Berlin-Uhr. The Berlin Clock is a puzzle in itself that tells time by means of colored lights and requires the viewer to calculate the time based on a complex scheme.

The four red lights on the top row denote five hours each. The second row of four red lights denote one hour each. The third row consists of eleven yellow-and-red fields, which denote five full minutes each. The bottom row has another four yellow fields, each denoting one minute each. To tell the time, you just have to add everything up—hours and minutes separately.

So if two red lights on the top row and three red lights on the second row are lit, the time will be given by 2x5 + 3x1, or 13 Hours, or 1 PM.


The Berlin Clock. The time reads 10:31 AM. Photo credit: Muritatis/Wikimedia

When the New York Times asked him about the reference, Sanborn simply replied that “there are several really interesting clocks in Berlin,” but he confessed to Wired that “the Berlin Clock in particular has intrigued him the most.”

That was four years ago.

In an interview to Wired in 2005, Sanborn revealed that when the CIA commissioned the sculpture, the artist was required to write down the solution to the ciphers and give it to the agency in a sealed envelop. Sanborn reportedly gave the envelop to the Former CIA Director, William Webster. He actually mentions this in the second encrypted message, where it says "Who knows the exact location? Only WW."

But Sanborn never gave Webster the entire solution. “I really didn't tell him the whole story. I definitely didn't give him the last section, which has never been deciphered,” he said. “That's part of tradecraft, isn't it? Deception is everywhere,” he added.


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