Featured Article: “This Sculpture Holds a Decades-Old C.I.A. Mystery. And Now, Another Clue.” by John Schwartz and Jonathan Corum
Kryptos has been in a courtyard at C.I.A. headquarters for almost 30 years. Three of its four passages have been decoded. Will one more clue unlock the last?
In this lesson, you will learn about the methods people have used for nearly three decades to try to decode Kryptos. Then, you will be given a chance to learn more about the history of code breaking, or try your hand at decoding.
Are you interested in secret codes? Have you ever created your own encrypted messages to use with siblings or friends? Do you like trying to solve codes? Why or why not?
Now, look at the photograph below and respond to the following questions:
Below, is a panel of four images created by The New York Times that include all of the text from the Kryptos sculpture. The sculpture’s two left panels contain four sections of encoded text. The two panels on the right are meant to help decrypt the encoded text on the left.
Do you notice any patterns as you look at the four panels? Does anything stand out to you about how the letters are organized?
Questions for Writing and Discussion
Read the article, then answer the following questions:
1. Why does Craig Bauer, a professor of mathematics and a former scholar at the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History, believe people are so fixated on solving the code? Are you tempted to decode the sculpture? Why or why not?
2. Why does the message of Kryptos contain intentional misspellings?
3. What are some of the common solution methods for decoding encrypted messages? Why is it harder to use those particular methods on the fourth section of Kryptos?
4. Based on the details provided in the article, how would you describe Jim Sanborn, the sculptor? What is his plan if the code is not broken before he dies?
5. Why does Dr. Bauer say that Kryptos “is the sculpture that keeps on giving”? Provide some examples from the article to support your answer.
Option I: Practice Decoding
If you are feeling ambitious, you may want to try your hand at decoding the fourth passage in Kryptos. A good place to start is on Elonka, a website for Kryptos fans. Elonka was created by Elonka Dunin, a game developer and consultant, and is filled with background information on the sculpture and support for Kryptos fans around the world.
If you want to start with something more straightforward (and that does have a response you’ll be able to check), try to decode this fictitious message (an activity that’s part of a National Archives lesson plan on the 1917 Zimmermann Telegram).
Option II: Learn About the History of Decoding
There is a long history of code breaking, but one place to begin is at Bletchley Park, a mansion in England that served as a base for British codebreakers during World War II.
Here are some ways to learn about Bletchley Park and the work done there: