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Updated on April 23, 2013

The most celebrated inscription at the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia used to be “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” This biblical phrase is chiseled into marble and is displayed in the main lobby. Since 1990 another text has garnered most of the attention of CIA workers and visitors, 865 characters of apparent gibberish that are punched out of half-inch-thick copper and are part of a sculpture called Kryptos.

Sculpture Commission

During the 1980s the CIA planned an expansion known as the New Headquarters Building. They wanted some type of artwork that would sit between the two buildings, the new and the old, so a solicitation was sent out asking artists to submit proposals for a piece of art for the courtyard. This would be a piece of public art that the general public would never get to see. The winning artist would be provided with a $250,000 commission and the piece should somehow engender the feelings of well-being and hope.

The competition was won in 1988 by Jim Sanborn, a Georgetown artist. He named his sculpture Kryptos, which is the Greek word for hidden. The work is a meditation on the nature of secrecy and the elusiveness of truth, its message written entirely in code. Sanborn was introduced to Edward Scheidt, a retiring cryptographer, who gave him a crash course in the art of concealing text and helped devise the codes used in the sculpture. Sanborn and Scheidt spent four months devising the codes that would ultimately be used

Kryptos is a 12-foot high, copper, granite and wood sculpture inscribed with four encrypted messages. The sculpture’s theme is intelligence gathering. It features a large block of petrified wood standing upright, with a tall copper plate scrolling out of the wood like a piece of paper. At the base is a round pool with a pump that sends water in a circular motion around the pool. There are approximately 1,800 letters carved out of the copper plate. Some of those letters form a table based on an encryption method developed in the 16th century; the rest form the encryption itself.

Jim Sanborn
Jim Sanborn

Letter to All CIA Employees from Jim Sanborn

When his work was about two-thirds complete, Sanborn sent a letter to all of the employees at Langley. The purpose of the letter was to let everyone know exactly what he was doing and to explain how the various segments of the sculpture related to each other and to the Central Intelligence Agency.

He explained that the large slabs of stone he was using would create a natural framework for the project as well as serve as a connection to the past when the site had natural stone outcroppings before the Agency. The stones would also serve to hold copper sheets through which letters and symbols would be cut to form ciphers. He explained that the first cipher would be International Morse Code and as you moved through the piece toward the courtyard the cipher would increase in its complexity.

He further explained there would be a petrified tree that would support a curved, copper plate through which approximately 2000 letters of the alphabet would be cut. The left side of the plate would be for deciphering code and the right side would be text to be deciphered by using the table and partly by using a challenging encoding system.

He then explained how his choice of materials was symbolic; the use of lodestone which refers to ancient navigational compasses, the petrified tree as the source of paper on which written language has been recorded, and the copper which represents perforated text. Water is used in two pools, one of which is tranquil and the other which is pumped in such a fashion as to circulate in a constant state of agitation around the base. Other grasses, trees and rocks are used to make the space more visually appealing and thought provoking.

He finished the letter by inviting anyone with interest to stop by and ask him anything they cared to about the project.

Kryptos Code Encryptions on the left -- Key on the right
Kryptos Code Encryptions on the left -- Key on the right

The Encryptions

Sanborn assumed the puzzles would be cracked within a short period of time. His expert, Scheidt, with a little more of an idea of what it would take to crack the code, figured it would take about seven years. It’s been almost 23 years since the dedication of the piece and, to date, the last puzzle remains unbroken.

The first code breaker was a CIA employee who spent 400 hours of his own time working out the code with pencil and paper. He revealed his partial solution to a packed auditorium at Langley in February 1998. However, nothing was said outside of the CIA until sixteen months later when a Los Angeles based cryptanalyst announced he had broken the code using a Pentium computer and some custom software.

The first deciphered sequence was a poetic phrase composed by Sanborn: “Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion.” The misspelling was intentional and added as a method of introducing a degree of difficulty.

The second refers to an object that could be buried in the grounds at Langley and to a W.W. who knows the exact location. It is believed that W.W. refers to William Webster who was head of the CIA at the time of the commissioning of the piece and with whom Sanborn reportedly shared the secret of all four sequences.

The third sequence was a passage from Howard Carter’s account of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. This passage also contains an intentional misspelling.

The fourth sequence remains unsolved. Sanborn and Scheidt intentionally made this sequence the most difficult to solve. They have hinted that it is not standard English and would require a second level of cryptanalysis. Misspellings and other anomalies in previous sections may help, but that is conjecture. Some suspect clues are in other parts of the installation: the Morse code, the compass rose or perhaps even the fountain. One thing is for certain, the final section only contains 97 characters which does not leave very much information to study for patterns. In any code, the longer the text, the easier it is to discern patterns and break the code.

In 1996 Sanborn discovered a typo in his sculpture. He had deleted an ‘x’ from the end of a line in section two (K-2) – a section that was already solved. The ‘x’ was supposed to signify a period or section-break at the end of a phrase. Sanborn had left it off for aesthetic purposes, he didn’t believe it would affect the way the puzzle was deciphered. It in fact did; however, the correction hasn’t seemed to help anyone with deciphering the final section.

In 2000 Sanborn revealed to the New York Times that the part of the sculpture that reads “nypvtt” becomes “Berlin” once it is decoded. With the release of this information the cipher world went to work. Clues abounded. When the work was being created the Berlin Wall was coming down and it is believed that Sanborn was aware that three sections of that wall were being given to the CIA as a gift from the German government. However, there is still no solution.

Sanborn states that other than what he has revealed only two of the 97 characters have been deciphered. He has created a website to assist those who are serious in their pursuit of a solution. One gains access to the website by revealing the first ten letters of the 97-letter puzzle.

To encryption enthusiasts Kryptos is the Everest of codes. However, the solving of the last cipher doesn’t necessarily end the hunt for the ultimate truth about Kryptos. Scheidt hints there may be more to the puzzle than what you see.

For a while Sanborn was impatient the cipher wasn't being solved. It was affecting his life in ways he hadn’t imagined with people trying to contact him regarding solutions. Although he insists there is definitely a solution, he would be just as happy if no one ever solved it. “In some ways, I’d rather die knowing it wasn’t cracked,” he says. “Once an artwork loses its mystery, it’s lost a lot.”


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    • FitnezzJim profile image


      4 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      The word after BERLIN is CLOCK.

    • JOSEPH FROM SPAIN profile image


      5 years ago from Barcelona, SPAIN (Europe)

      Hello from Spain

      + Yes, the first thing I did. I wrote "peopletocr" according to my solution "clean" but in the original text may be some cryptographic mistake voluntary or involuntary (or the web site is broken).

      + I do not know the code, is a solution based solely on the place of the word BERLIN and beauty of the phrase in relation to the question of K3. the era in which this was said and the reason for the construction of the sculpture: the notion that it should “engender feelings of well-being, hope.”

      I will search for this group as you say. It is so pretty and elegant solution that should be checked.

      Thank you.

    • FitnezzJim profile image


      5 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      For Joseph from Spain:

      There is a web-site that allows folks who think they have the solution to K4 to begin a process of verifying that solution with the Sculptor Jim Sanborn. That web-site is "". Also, if you'd like there is a yahoo newsgroup that is dedicated to seeking solutions to Kryptos, where you can discuss possible approaches to solving the puzzle.

    • JOSEPH FROM SPAIN profile image


      5 years ago from Barcelona, SPAIN (Europe)

      Hello from Spain

      I propose this solution using only my logical powers of deduction:

      + I suggest a solution to KRIPTOS K4

      + IF the sculptor of Kryptos Mr. Sanborn has provided The New York Times with the answers to six letters in the sculpture’s final passage. The characters that are the 64th through 69th in the final series on the sculpture read NYPVTT. When deciphered, they read BERLIN


      + THEN in my humble opinion the best solution is this:


      + BECAUSE

      1_is a fragment of a speech of Ronald reagan in front of Berlin Wall and complies with the requirements explained by the sculptor.

      —Ronald Reagan, address at the Brandenburg Gate, June 12, 1987.


      He said:


      2_a question needs an answer:

      SO, if K 3 has a question: ” …… can you see anythyngq?“. (The account of Howard Carter, the renowned Egyptologist, as he opened King Tut’s tomb. --and breaking the WALL--)

      THEN … K 4 has an beatiful answer “ People to create a safer, freer world ……..” (a fragment of a speech of Ronald reagan in front of Berlin WALL)

      3_is a beautiful and elegant solution, is what wanted the CIA: The Central Intelligence Agency planned the expansion known as the New Headquarters Building in the 1980s and asked artists to submit proposals to create a work of art for the courtyard. The broad principles it provided for the $250,000 commission included the notion that it should “engender feelings of well-being, hope.”


      + I do not know the name of the encryption system, but this solution complies with the requirements and is lovely.

      Maybe you can find the code or cifra used


    • FitnezzJim profile image


      5 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia just did an articele that tells some of the rest of the story. In the 1990's a challenge was issued by CIA to NSA to 'solve the puzzle'. They did, at least as far as ther first three sections are concerned. Article is at (, rest of the link is


    • FitnezzJim profile image


      5 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      This is a good introduction to Kryptos. Back before a clue was offered, someone asked me if I thought that K4 could be solved if the folks were given a clue. We all thought 'yes', a clue should make it easy. Since then there have been a lot of new tries, and some really interesting techniques to get further, but no-one yet claims a full solution, where they know both what it says, and how to encode it and decode it.


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