Moustier-bar

The encrypted altar inscriptions of Moustier, Belgium, have been puzzling codebreakers for 170 years.

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Moustier is a district of the small town of Frasnes-lez-Anvaing in Eastern Belgium. Even most locals don’t know that this place is the home of a spectacular crypto mystery: the encrypted altar inscriptions in the St. Martin’s Church. Of course, these cryptograms are mentioned in my famous Cryptologic Travel Guide.

The Moustier altar inscriptions became known to crypto history enthusiasts a few years ago, when the NSA declassified 136 editions of its internal newsletter Cryptolog. When British cipher mysteries expert and blogger Nick Pelling searched through these editions he discovered an article about this mystery he had never heard of. His blog post about the Moustier altar inscriptions made many (including me) aware of this story.

When I visited Moustier in spring 2015, I didn’t find any mention of these unusual inscriptions on the town’s website or in the church’s entry hall. No signpost was leading to it.

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Moustier is not a tourist place. I spent about an hour in St. Martin’s Church taking photographs and videos without meeting any other person.

Moustier-030
The interior of the church doesn’t look very spectacular.

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The inscriptions are located on the two side altars. The left one is named St. Mary’s Altar, the right one St. Martin’s Altar. The following picture shows the former:

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And here’s the first of two encrypted  inscriptions:

Moustier-69
Here’s a closer shot:

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The following transcription was made by Nick Pelling:

L F E G K R V Q
Y P Z H N R L B D
M F ^ N V D [
N ^ P V J H M ^
L F N ^ [ B K P
—–
N C L X B P D W
R N [ C H Z R P
M D X R ^ P L N
H F ^ L D N X W
E N L V N D ^ P N

The following picture shows St. Martin’s Altar:

Moustier-210
The inscription of this altar is encrypted, too.

Moustier-212
Both inscriptions stem from the 19th century.

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Here is Nick’s transcription:

J N L K B F P R
V M G H W H[
Q L S B N F HP
M G [ K H V R
^ L R N F S X V
—–
P F V B L P M R
R A [ G K T D
B N D F J V R W
L U B F P N I D
C [ T R ^ Q M

Both inscriptions have never been deciphered. Here is a frequency analysis made by a blog reader. Can a reader find out more about this crypto mystery?


Further reading: The Top 50 unsolved encrypted messages: 37. The Shugborough inscription

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Kommentare (4)

  1. #1 Thomas Ernst
    Pittsburgh
    8. November 2017

    By all means, do not transcribe, or frequency-count! Because it is apparent that a graphic “extender” plays a role here. a) the ligatures at the end of lines 2 and 3, counting from left: HC or IC, HP or IP? b) “G” or “C” in line 2? c) whence the gamma? d) have a close look at the L-shapes on the right. Three different types. There is more to this than just incompetence of the stone mason. Apparently, he worked from a very precise graphic design that “extended” letters. Forget a simple substitution!

  2. #2 Thomas Ernst
    Pittsburgh
    8. November 2017

    Allow me to extend my comment about the L-shapes (which someone else must have noticed before, and I didn’t read it): there are four, if not five different ones. Some of the symbols may stand for more than one letter. Or it’s just a Cardano pigpen cipher clad into a pseudo-alphabet.

  3. #3 Thomas Ernst
    Latrobe
    8. November 2017

    Having looked at the other letters in more detail, it is remarkable how few, if any of them, are executed the same way, with regard regard to top lines, feet, curvatures etc. This mystère definitely has to be approached from the variances in the letter shapes.

  4. #4 Thomas
    10. November 2017

    The mixture of Latin and Greek letters reminds me of Jan van Eyck’s ‘AIC IXH KAN’ (ALS ICH KAN) on his portrait of a man in a red turban (upper part of the frame): https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/portrait-of-a-man-in-a-red-turban-selfportrait/SAFcS1U8kYssmg