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Identify mystery text, win $1000 (uchicago.edu)
91 points by winstonsmith 1156 days ago | hide | past | web | 32 comments | favorite

The notes seem to be written in French, but Quickscript is much more appropriate for English, therefore I don't believe it's Quickscript. It's much more likely to be one of the several shorthand methods used in France throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. List here: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/St%C3%A9nographie

I'm personally betting on the Bertin method. The full book describing the method is available here, if anyone wants to go learn it: http://books.google.fr/books?id=q-hirCm0ec0C (in French, though :))

If one assumes that the unknown scripts are transliterations of the original Greek text, then shorthand or sténographie might not fit. Unless, of course, the marginalia are commentary rather than translations or translitterations.

link to actual wikipedia quikscript article:


Note: "Although the donor of the BHL is suspicious that this odd script is a form of 19th-century shorthand (likely French), he acknowledges that this hypothesis remains unsupported by any evidence offered to date."

There are a lot of shorthand scripts:


It's not enough that you say some name of the script, you have to actually read what's written there. That's the really hard part. My girlfriend can write one shorthand fast but she depended on her colleague to transcribe the texts so produced. Even when you know the idea it doesn't mean you can read it easily.

For some reason this reminds me of Google's Prizes.org (RIP) - too bad it never really took off, bounty-based crowdsourcing is an interesting approach for projects like this one.

I wonder if it could be indecipherable because it was written in a known language by someone with a brain injury?

>untreated head trauma

probably somewhat common for the time


uncommon, but then again, it's not like you find these things everyday.

  >> education
  > uncommon, but then again, it's not like you find these 
  > things everyday.
What does that mean? What about education? Do you think education was uncommon for for the average person in the 19th century? Or do you think education was uncommon for for the average person in the 19th century with access to and ability to make notes in the margin of a book from 1504?

Well, literacy hasn't been all that common up until the past century (at least not the rates we see today), and it seems like the website is saying the book is from the 15 hundreds and the writing (might?) be from the 19th century.

Someone with access to a 300 year old book would probably be educated. The guy who writes temple OS is fairly educated too and if he had been around 300 years ago, someone might have put him in charge of some stuff like this, but just look at the kind of stuff he writes: https://news.ycombinator.com/threads?id=TempleOSV2

Some people who can do extraordinary things are also capable of having serious mental issues.

But I'm not saying I'm right or wrong, I'm just putting the idea out there.

I am not saying you are right or wrong either. I asked what you meant by "education: uncommon, but then again its not like you find these things everyday." After reading your response a couple times I can't figure out if you answered that question.

I interpreted it as "education not common, but incidents of this kind of indecipherable script aren't common either so it's plausible to have some kind of uncommon circumstances produce it"

The hi res images are, themselves, also in some mysterious script: the ancient TIFF file format!

Why not just high res PNG files so that they're easier to view? :/

TIFF is a very versatile container format for various image-streams. It can encode multi-images(likes layers), with different compression (losseless, JPEG etc) and tiled images to read/write efficiently big images e.g. for astronomy, pathology (microscopy). It is the standard for archiving images.

Ok... my browser in Linux didn't handle them well and didn't even suggest a program to open them with.

How well does Windows handle them?

Does one really want to save an image to disk first to be able to view it? Would imgur have been a success if all their images were in TIFF?

First, this is obviously a problem with the browser ("I can't view a common image standard!"), not the image format (it may have other problems, but "third party software isn't supporting this format" isn't a real problem).

Second, assuming your goal is to study the picture, of course you want to save it to disk.

Do you consume a lot of hi-quality scans from museums/archives/libraries? This is the common standard. The LoC distributes all of the high quality scans in tiff format:



Why do so many projects still distribute gz or bz tarballs when xz is the best?

Had a quick look and found on the image called bhl-0002-005 on line 18: http://pagefault.se/odyssey.jpg

Which to me looks like a translitiration of the word that is underlined.

edit: translation -> translitiration

There are also some translations, you can compare with this translation : http://books.google.fr/books?id=ThC5OoAisaMC&pg=PA21&lpg=PA2... of the same page: on the last line, page 21, you can read "Il cache à la fois le dieu des mers et cette faible mortelle" (It hides both the god of the sea and this weak mortal) and on the mystery document, left margin : "Il cache le dieu et la mortelle" (It hides both the god and the mortal). There are a few other plain Greek -> French translations.

I'm not sure if it's translation, but it's definitely at least transliteration. Χλωριν - Chlorin.

Ah yes, transliteration. Of course, thanks.

A (heavily modified) form of Tironian shorthand?


i love the fact that the first century BCE Tironian et still shows up in irish gaelic signs today. [1] the shady characters blog has a great write up on Cicero and his scribe Tiro [2]

[1] http://www.shadycharacters.co.uk/2011/06/the-ampersand-part-... [2] http://www.shadycharacters.co.uk/2011/06/the-ampersand-part-...

Interesting! In the first page linked, the tironian on the page from the Belgian Bible looks like it could have been the precursor for the "+" sign.

Perhaps the marginalia in French are written in the Roman alphabet, and the other script is Latin written in the Tironian alphabet?

I definitely think that you are on the right track! (Read my other comment.)

I tried to identify the words present in the question in the header of the bhl-0002-005.tif file.

From what I can tell, after the ":" character, it seems like the author refers to "Jason" and "Aison" (Jason's father).

If this assumption is right, the "N"-like character that is heavily present can be identified as the "ON" syllable.

Other assumptions:

-> From Wikipedia: "[...] letter s appears as a long "s", "st" is a ligature [...]". This leads me to think that:

- the striked-"o" character I think is an "S" - the curved-"\" character is a "T"

This combination of both characters "ST" can be found heavily in the text.

- the "corner"-like character is the "ET" syllable

I really do think that the second name is "Aison" because in bhl-0002-005.tif, one of the french sentences on the right side says:

"Père de Jason, roi de Phères en Tessalie"

which can be translated to:

"Father of Jason, king of Pherae in Thessaly"

So "father of Jason" would refer to Aison. In the same file, on the bottom left, there is another french sentence :

"____! Tyro n'allait pas de main morte!"

which can be (very roughly) translated into:

"____! Tyro was heavy handed!"

Tyro just happens to be Aison's mother ! Just under this sentence, there are some words (mostly nouns), mixed with the other cryptic text. Here's a quick list:

- "Phères", the city of Pherae BUT it could also refer to one of Aison's brothers who has the same name - "suppliant(s)", begging - "Amythaon", other brother of Aison

Just under this paragraph, in the footer, the first two words next to the number (2) are:

"ou Jocaste" - "or Jocasta" another character of the Odyssey.

Interestingly, on the upper left side of the second file, you can find a date mentioned:

"le 25 avril 1854" so "the 25th of april 1854"

Which places the authorship of these side-notes 160 ago almost to the day. Funny coincidence!

Some useful / related links:

Jocaste / Jocasta: -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jocasta

Aison / Aeson: -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeson

Tyro: -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyro

Amythaon: -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amythaon

Pheres: -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pheres

Pherae (city): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pherae

The bit on the left of 0004 says something like:

"On trouve j'ai la ___ ancienne ____ unité d'Iolchos et de Pylos."

In legend Neleus (another son of Tyro) was king of Pylos, and he was raised in Iolcos.

But these French bits are only the reason the unknown script is "likely French" :)

I'd guess that "unité" should rather be "__ cité d'Iolchos et de Pylos".

Which would make more sense since "cité" is the french word for "city" and both Iolchos and Pylos are cities.

In that case I think it would read something like "cités de Iolchos et Pylos". I also can't reconcile 'cité' with what I'm seeing in the image - there's an extra stroke.

But yeah, I don't think 'unité' is definite :)

They are doodles from Homer's 5yr old daughter. Where do I send my address to get the check? :)

I looks to me sort of like the way Da'vinci would write Latin as a mirror image.

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