Friday, December 12, 2014

The Shugborough Inscription Deciphered

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 The Shugborough Inscription is an enigmatic series of letters carved on the Shepherd's Monument at Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England. The precise meaning of these letters has eluded scholars for centuries.

 The Shepherd's Monument includes a relief based on French painter Nicholas Poussin's Et In Arcadia Ego.

Here is the inscription in question which is situated below the relief. You can see here, between the letters D and M, the series:


I believe I've solved the mystery. I was an Arabic linguist at the Top Secret National Security Agency for four years after 9/11, and I was trained there in cryptological methods. But my solution to this puzzle draws primarily on things I have learned while teaching Latin in a public high school for the last nine years.

First off, the D and M are very likely the ancient Roman abbreviation of Dis Manibus (for the Manes), found very widely on tomb inscriptions. The Manes were understood as ancestral spirits of the underworld. The abbreviation DM is even found on very early Christian tomb inscriptions, such as this 3rd century C.E. example from Rome:

And this is a clue to the correct interpretation of the longer series of letters between D and M on the Shugborough Inscription. The inscription was intended to be understood as a tomb memorial composed in Latin.

The beginning of the inscription (O·U· ) matches a 2nd century C.E tombstone of a Roman matron from North Africa:
Oro ut bene quiescat
I pray that she may rest well

(See p. 152, Roman Africa, by Alexander Graham [London: 1902])

The convention of making a distinction between the letters U and V arose in the late Middle Ages, so the Shugborough Inscription would certainly abbreviate UT as U· and not
V· as we see in the inscription above.

I was then struck by the presence of three V's near the end of the inscription. As someone trained in cryptography, I assume that anytime you have a letter that occurs more often than other letters, you are looking at an important clue. So the question we ask, is there a place somewhere in Latin literature where three V's occur prominently? If so, this inscription may be somehow quoting such a passage.

One such item that comes immediately to mind is Julius Caesar's famous quote, Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). But since my interpretation of OU as Oro Ut (I pray that) was already on very firm ground, I could not see any reasonable interpretation that allowed me to incorporate Caesar's quote here.

But then I recalled Jesus' statement in John 14:6, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," which in St. Jerome's Vulgate translation is rendered:

Ego sum Via et Veritas et Vita.

And so, I interpret the inscription and translate it as follows:


Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam.
I pray that all may follow the Way to True Life. 

I've already demonstrated that the Oro Ut portion of my interpretation is attested. Other parts of my interpretation are equally found in literature we may assume would be available to the creator of the inscription.

The phrase "veram vitam" is attested in the Vulgate New Testament itself:

ut apprehendant veram vitam.
...that they may take hold of True Life.
(1 Tim 6:19)

And notice the following in a biblical commentary on John 14:6 contemporary with making of the Shugborough Inscription:

 ...viam qua itur ad veram vitam.
...the Way by which it is gone to True Life.

(p. 217, Annotationes in sanctum Jesu Christi evangelium secundum Johannem, by Dominicus Snellaert [Antwerp: 1724])

And note finally that the phrase "ut omnes sequantur" is attested elsewhere as well, such as in the writings of Bishop Ussher, which predates the Shugborough Inscription:

...ut omnes sequantur vocantem.
...that all may follow the one calling.

(P. 19, The Whole Works, Vol. 4, by James Ussher [Dublin: 1631])

I cite Bishop Ussher not from the assertion that the Shugborough Inscription is directly quoting that passage, but simply as proof that this phrase is fully grammatical and attested in literature. Theoretically, one could argue that the  Shugborough Inscription is directly quoting the Ussher passage above and therefore the first V could be interpreted as Vocantem. In that case, the translation of the series of letters would be rendered. "I pray that all may follow the one calling to True Life." I find it more likely that the passage is alluding to John 14:6, hence my interpretation of the letters as viam ad veram vitam.


I believe my proposal provides a sensible and credible interpretation of this long-standing mystery. My interpretation produces a straightforward and grammatical sentence, all parts of which are attested in tomb inscriptions and texts predating or contemporary with the creation of the Shugborough Inscription. 

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