Amazing Ancient Inventions – Part 1

2.2 Codes and Ciphers

Codes, ciphers, and codebreaking have been around for millennia, with the survival of nations sometimes hanging on the security of codes and ciphers…

The oldest means of sending secret messages is to simply conceal them by one trick or another. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that when the Persian Emperor Xerxes moved to attack Greece in 480 BCE, the Greeks were warned by an Greek named Demaratus who was living in exile in Persia. In those days, wooden tablets covered with wax were used for writing. Demaratus wrote a message on the wooden tablet itself and then covered it with wax, allowing the vital information to be smuggled out of the country.

The science of sending concealed messages is known as “steganography”, Greek for “concealed writing”. Other classical techniques for smuggling a message included tattooing it on the scalp of a messenger, letting his hair grow back, and then sending him on a journey. At the other end, the recipient shaved the messenger’s hair off and read the message.

Steganography has a long history, leading to inventions such as invisible ink and “microdots”, or highly miniaturized microfilm images that could be hidden almost anywhere. Microdots are a common feature in old spy movies and TV shows. However, steganography is not very secure by itself. If someone finds the hidden message, all its secrets are revealed. That led to the idea of obscuring the message so that it could not be read even if it were intercepted, and the result was “cryptography”, Greek for “hidden writing”. The result was the development of “codes”, or secret languages, and “ciphers”, or scrambled messages.

The distinction between codes and ciphers is commonly misunderstood.

A “code” is essentially a secret language invented to conceal the meaning of a message.

In contrast to a code, a “cipher” conceals a plaintext message by replacing or scrambling its letters. This process is known as “enciphering” and results in a “ciphertext” message. Converting a ciphertext message back to a plaintext message is known as “deciphering”. Coded messages are often enciphered to improve their security, a process known as “superencipherment”.

There are two classes of ciphers.

A “substitution cipher” changes the letters in a message to another set of letters, or “cipher alphabet”, while a “transposition cipher” shuffles the letters around.

In some usages, the term “cipher” always means “substitution cipher”, while “transpositions” are not referred to as ciphers at all. In this document, the term “cipher” will mean both substitution ciphers and transposition ciphers. It is useful to refer to them together, since the two approaches are often combined in the same cipher scheme. However, transposition ciphers will be referred to in specific as “transpositions” for simplicity.

“Encryption” covers both encoding and enciphering, while “decryption” covers both decoding and deciphering. This should also imply the term “cryptotext” to cover both codetext and ciphertext, but this term doesn’t seem to be in use, although the term “encicode” is sometimes seen. The science of creating codes and ciphers is known, as mentioned, as “cryptography”, while the science of breaking them is known as “cryptanalysis”. Together, the two fields make up the science of “cryptology”.

Despite the fact that the term “code” is misleading, for the sake of readability this document will retain the use of general terms like “codebreaker”, “code bureau”, “code expert”, and “army codes”, instead of continually belaboring the distinction between codes and ciphers. As long as the distinction between “code” and “cipher” is clearly understood, this usage should cause no difficulty. By the way, in cryptographic examples, cryptographers like to use the fictional characters “Alice” and “Bob”, with Alice writing encrypted messages and Bob decrypting them. This convention will be followed in this document, along with the unconventional use of “Holmes” as a fictional codebreaker.

The earliest known use of cryptography is found in non-standard hieroglyphs carved into monuments from the Old Kingdom of Egypt circa 1900 BC. These are not thought to be serious attempts at secret communications, however, but rather to have been attempts at mystery, intrigue, or even amusement for literate onlookers. These are examples of still other uses of cryptography, or of something that looks (impressively if misleadingly) like it. Some clay tablets from Mesopotamia somewhat later are clearly meant to protect information—one dated near 1500 BCE was found to encrypt a craftsman’s recipe for pottery glaze, presumably commercially valuable. Later still, Hebrew scholars made use of simple monoalphabetic substitution ciphers (such as the Atbash cipher) beginning perhaps around 500 to 600 BCE.

The ancient Greeks are said to have known of ciphers. The scytale transposition cipher was used by the Spartan military, however it is disputed whether the scytale was for encryption, authentication, or avoiding bad omens in speech. Herodotus tells us of secret messages physically concealed beneath wax on wooden tablets or as a tattoo on a slave’s head concealed by regrown hair, though these are not properly examples of cryptography per se as the message, once known, is directly readable; this is known as steganography. Another Greek method was developed by Polybius (now called the “Polybius Square”). The Romans knew something of cryptography (e.g., the Caesar cipher and its variations).


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  1. Gary Schoenung says

    Many of the “mysterious” accomplishments from our early recorded history were left over from an earlier age and simply taken advantage of and reused, sometimes for the original purpose and other times for something entirely different. The reason for that is because they didn’t have the slightest idea what to make of them either. This link is to a video I put together of a massive ancient irrigation system in South Africa covering hundreds of miles that was not reused, and there are presently no theories that I am aware of.

    I am looking forward to reading about any explanations for it.

  2. Elijah says

    I find the article shallow perpertrating and continuing fals concepts of 100 years ago. Breasted’s 4236bc is based on the date July 18 for Memphis when Thoth was on July 20 for 4245-4242bc and then July 19 for 4241-4238bc and July 18 for 4237-4234bc. However, shifting azimuth and shifting altitude from the sun was not accounted for and thats why Chicago’s Richard Parker in later encylclopedia made it quite clear that a Thoth 20 of 2782bc is to be revised to a Thoth 17 of 2770bc. If youre a Christian Hebrew adopted by Jesus you will then see how and why 2030bc July 17 is the true new year date which after Exodus became Persian Pamenot 1 after a 70-day absence of Sothis (May 8-July 17) that was 72-day at Ur (May 7-July 18) following Peleg’s death on May 6 which is why 365 days later Nahor Mes-Kalumdug and his (grand) son Haran (A-Kalumdug) poisoned themselves and four guards killing there 68 wives (exception Lot’s mother back in the city Harran preganant or nursing) to go to heaven to join Peleg as Christ the first leader into heaven. I shouldnt use the term Christ because christos comes from Xisuthros who is the spirit of Noah, and in true Genesis, Noah died on Christmas Eve almost 9 years after this suicide, and they claimed he was the Christ in heaven. The 365-day calendar did not exist before the Flood when years were 360 days. ALSO the word for 30-day “same-sized” months is civil month. A civil month is an artificial 30-day month.

  3. Chris Allan says

    If find it hard to reconcile the statement that the Egyptians could not build dams, but had no trouble building pyramids. Is it possible that a more advanced people lived on earth long ago, and were wiped out by some catastrophic event. All the old legends of flying machines etc. are just to detailed for them not to be based on actual events. Visitations by aliens is not necessarily the only explanation, an advanced people may have existed (Atlantis???) on earth in antiquity.

  4. Brenda Brown says

    Couldn’t it be that it was a little of both? I agree, nothings to say that early man didn’t know a lot more than we do today, and because of a major cataclysm, lost a large portion of their knowledge. I wonder if such an event took out a majority of our populace today, how many would know how to work with metals, make computers, build defence weapons, etc.? But at the same time, whose to say that some space race didn’t visit us in the ancient past and help us along? Why would that be so improbable? I think it’s highly likely.

  5. bill heaney says

    It is racism, no question about it, but is it wrong to think so? Using Occum’s Razor, the pyramids at Giza were built by people just like the one’s who live there now. If that is so, how did they lose their extraordinary building knowledge? There’s no modern building or monument in all of Egypt that can compare. It’s like they regressed. The inhabitants of the New World, in all of the Americas, didn’t have the wheel. Yet we are told they built the awesome pyramids attributed to them.
    The marvel regarding the cave art has nothing to do with the work itself, it is how they were able to do it in darkness. They find no carbon deposits on the ceilings in those caves with the extraordinary art. How is that possible?

    The recent archaeology find in Turkey, Gobekli Tepe[spelling?] is 12,000 years old, making the so-called Egyptian pyramids modern in comparison. Researchers have reported on finding petrified wood in and around the Giza monuments, hinting they are very much older, and modern dating has the Spinx much older.

    Ancient man was smart, but not all ancient men were as smart as we who read your books. That stone in Baalbek is proof that ancient man, the ones like those who live there now, could not have achieved that awesome skill. Look at that stone and explain it. Look at Nazca and explain how people without metal leveled those mountain tops. Come on, man, give me a break!

  6. says

    Interesting article. I look forward to more. . . . The prevalent and pernicious idea that our lowly caveman ancestors needed the godlike help of aliens to become “civilized” needs to be set aside. It isn’t provable. I believe civilization before the Cataclysm was, in some ways, more advanced than ours. By the way, I prefer “chronocentrism”–but either will work. Thank you.


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