Blog reader Tony Gaffney has provided me a strange drawing from a British archive. Does it code a text? Is it a cipher tool? Any help from my readers is welcome.

Tony Gaffney, who is known to readers of this blog as a great codebreaker and crypto history scholar, has provided me an interesting document. It’s a single-paged drawing he found in a British archive in a folder labled “Deciphers of Diplomatic Papers American 1780-1841”.


The Maze Cryptogram

Here’s the document Tony found:

According to Tony, the folder contained no explanation of this drawing. It is not known whether it has actually got to do something with diplomatic ciphers.

Here are a few observations:

  • The drawing can be viewed as a maze (I will therefore call it “Maze Cryptogram”). The entrance is at the top of the sheet. The maze ends near the lower left corner.
  • However, the object shown here is not a maze in the usual sense. There are no forkings. It is therefore trivial to get from the entrance to the end.
  • The maze is divided into six sections numbered 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7. There’s no section 3.


What’s the purpose of this document?

The maze contains many elements that look like letters (especially M’s, U’s, W’s and Z’s). So, my first guess was that the object shown is an encrypted text (as a crypto-enthusiast this is usually my first guess anyway). However, I couldn’t find an obvious way how a text is coded in the maze.

Then I realized that we are dealing with a maze, which suggests that this sheet was used for a game or a puzzle. However, I can’t think of a game or puzzle that makes sense in this context.

Meanwhile I believe that the maze was a stencil for a transposition cipher. The following picture shows how it might have been used to encrypt the sentence THIS IS AN ENCRYPTED TEXT (the text can be read if you start at the entrance and follow the maze):



The different sections of the maze might represent different starting points for entering text (varying the entry point increases security if the maze is reused).


A great find

If the maze cryptogram is really a tool for creating a transposition cipher, it’s one of the most original cipher tools I have ever seen. Many thanks to tony Gaffney for providing me this great discovery.

If you think that I’m wrong and that this maze was used for something different, please let me know. I you have other ideas about this document, I would be interested to learn.

Further reading:

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Kommentare (25)

  1. #1 Max Baertl
    21. Januar 2017

    Möglicherweise handelt es sich bei dem Labyrinth um eine Art Wasserzeichen.

  2. #2 Rich SantaColoma
    21. Januar 2017

    I suspect it may be meant to be either folded, or cut up, in order to re-position the sections in a new order of some kind. Some of the rows, then, may be “nulls”. And when the proper rows are aligned with each other, the graphics will then become letters.

    This was done with drawings which were popular when I was a child: The picture would look like one thing, or nothing, when unfolded. But folded the proper way, the image would be something else. Like this:

    In fact, by searching “hidden images folded”, I found a T-Shirt with what looked like nonsense graphics, but when folded, read a very rude expression (why I did not copy it here).

    I’ve tried aligning the different sections in a graphic program (to simulate folding), and have not found anything yet. But I point it out, in case anyone else wants to try.

  3. #3 Dampier
    21. Januar 2017

    I encyphered a Text with the Maze. Here it is:

    If you write a text along the horizontal lines and then read it following the maze, you get a transposition. The different forms of the maze have no importance here. I just put one letter per field (a field is defined by a part of the maze crossed by the horizontal lines) Some fields are quite broad but I put only one letter into it, even if there was more space. Otherwise some parts of the clear text wouldn’t have been transpositioned. Can someone solve it?

  4. #4 Dampier
    21. Januar 2017

    I just deciphered it back. It works :]

    The diagonals in the Maze seem to have no function – maybe just to puzzle the reader. Or they contain another rule for using the maze, which makes the encryption more complex. Anyway, in this case they could also be rectangular …

  5. #5 Klaus Schmeh
    21. Januar 2017

    Peter Lichtenberger via Facebook:
    Echt genial!

  6. #6 Klaus Schmeh
    21. Januar 2017

    Dampier: Could you please post a scan of your encryption/decryption work? It sounds very interesting.

  7. #7 Dampier
    21. Januar 2017

    @Klaus, bittesehr:

    It was just my first idea. At least it works. Maybe there are more complex encryptions possible with this maze …

  8. #8 Klaus Schmeh
    21. Januar 2017

    @Dampier: Thank you! It is certainly possible that the stencil was used this way.

  9. #9 Sacha
    21. Januar 2017

    Another observations:
    1.Each field has one breachpoint into the next numerous field…
    2.Another guess. What if the numbers arent showing sections…more the space the lines create above the numbers..(works till 6)..
    Mazes been always a greta tool to confuse..why not on paper?..overlay a text and read the lines maybe?
    Btw im not an professional im just trying to help

  10. #10 Dampier
    21. Januar 2017

    In the end it’s just the other way round than you did it. You wrote the text along the maze and read it along the lines. I guess it’s important to use only one letter per field, otherwise parts of the cleartext remain uncrypted (e. g. the word CRYPTTE in your cyphertext).

    If you have two lines of text only, there will be letter combinations from the clear text which are not being transpositioned. So the clear text has to be long enough.

    About the line numbering I have no idea …

    But it is fun. One could design other mazes which are more entangled.

  11. #11 IstDasTrivial
    21. Januar 2017

    Nun kommt schon… soo schwierig ist das doch gar nicht.
    Man fängt oben am Eingang an und folgt dem Labyrinth, und raus kommt: THISISANENCRYTEDTEXT

  12. #12 Nick Pelling
    21. Januar 2017

    Very disappointed! From the visual structure, it immediately seemed as though the idea would be to remove the null lines (if you number them sequentially from the top) 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 12, 13, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26 and fold the page to reveal block letters written across a pair of lines.

    However, even though this would explain the construction completely… it doesn’t work. So I’m mystified. Presumably this is as far as Tony got too?

    • #13 Rich SantaColoma
      22. Januar 2017

      Nick, I still tend to think what you describe… if you scroll up you will see I suggested something similar… is on the right track here.

      While it may be possible to use the structure in the way the others suggested, doing so seems more that these techiques are bing imposed on an illustration which was not really meant to be used this way.

      So I am with folding, or maybe a re-arrangement, of some or all of the rows, in order to make up letters or numbers. I also tried folding the page into “ridges”, and sighting along them different ways. I showed it to Cathy, and she noted that the parts look more like elements of numbers, not letters…

      • #14 Nick Pelling
        22. Januar 2017

        Hi Rich, I know what you suggested, but what I wrote was specifying exactly which one of the lines were nulls, which is perhaps more directly useful.

        I have as yet no opinion as to what kind of thing this is: what I posted was based on its internal visual structure, and I’m still disappointed the answer didn’t appear straight away. 🙁

  13. #15 Dampier
    22. Januar 2017

    @Nick @Rich
    Ich think it’s a kind of stencil. The folding technique would be more suitable for a game or so. I think that folding system would be far too sophisticated and time-consuming for encyphering diplomatic papers. You would have to design and draw a new maze for every text you want to encrypt. That must be a lot of work. And the text would consist of only very few characters per page. So I think, that system isn’t feasible in everyday diplomatic correspondence.
    The stencil technique on the other hand is pretty quick to fill out and the encryption should be acceptably safe, at least for protecting your correspondence from being read by others.

    • #16 Rich SantaColoma
      22. Januar 2017

      Dampier: I thought that the paper probably found its way into this file, and didn’t think it probably had anything to do with the diplomatic papers. It also does not look pre-1841 to me. It looks late 19th through early 20th century, and does look like a game to me. Like something from a puzzle book.. like a book of “brain teasers”, or like that.

      But it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong!

  14. #17 Thomas
    22. Januar 2017

    Isn’t there any connection with a decrypted despatch in British Museum Add. Mss. 32303?

  15. #18 Tony
    22. Januar 2017

    It is over a decade since I came across this in the British Library – as I remember there wasn’t anything relating to it – I have just searched their on-line catalogue and the British Museum catalogue and cannot find it in either!
    I searched under Add. Mss. 32303 and ‘diplomatic ciphers’ – I’ll try again later.
    I have no idea what it is.

  16. #19 Thomas
    22. Januar 2017

    According to the “Catalogue of additions to the manuscripts in the British Museum in the years 1882-1887” (pp. 97, 98) the Additional Manuscripts 32303 (“Deciphers of diplomatic papers America 1780-1841) contain “deciphers of despatches between foreign governments and their ministers in England, with cipher keys”. Maybe the drawing belongs to a despatch which was decrypted by the Foreign Office and can be found in Add. Mss. 32303 in the British Museum.

  17. #20 Gerd
    22. Januar 2017

    Klaus, isn’t “Add. Mss. 32303” just the document where Tony Gaffney has found the drawing?


  18. #21 Tony
    22. Januar 2017

    Add Ms 32303 is in the British Library not the British Museum. You can find it in the Manuscripts catalogue.
    It is a folder that mainly contains nomeclatures and keys of English and French ciphers.
    The ‘Maze’ is a single sheet all by itself.

  19. #22 Thomas
    22. Januar 2017

    I relied on Griffin (1946,;view=1up;seq=30;skin=mobile, p. 148) who found Add. Ms. 32303 in the British Museum. Maybe afterwards the British Library has got the manuscripts from the British Museum.

  20. #23 Klaus Schmeh
    23. Januar 2017

    >isn’t “Add. Mss. 32303” just the document where
    >Tony Gaffney has found the drawing?
    I think it’s the folder where Tony has found the maze document as well as some others.

  21. #24 Dampier
    23. Januar 2017


    It also does not look pre-1841 to me. It looks late 19th through early 20th century

    Sounds interesting. Can you tell us more about your conclusions?

    By the way, there’s a colour gradient on the paper. is this just a bad scan, or does it have a meaning?

  22. #25 goto80
    26. Januar 2017

    It looks like kind of letter-template/grid, with “header” and “body”…