This month’s archeological and historical mystery – the first of the year! – is a strange one. Reading about it has pushed me to the edge of a migraine, mostly because there are many, many people who believe they have solved it. I hope you’re interested in codes and ciphers, because we’re about to wade waist-deep into the mystery of the Shugborough Inscription. Let’s explore.
The monument was built sometime between 1748 and 1756 in Staffordshire, England. It was commissioned by Thomas Anson. No one knows why it was commissioned or what the symbolism of the structure represents, so let’s move onto the physical description of the monument. It is a flat structure supported by two columns. The top of the arch is decorated with three laurel icons and two heads – one head is smiling and does not appear to have hair, and the second face has two horns protruding from its forehead and has pointed ears. A rounded arch sits within the larger flat arch.
And within the flat arch is the main focus of our mystery here – a relief depicting a painting titled Et in arcadia ego by Nicolas Poussin. The painting depicts three people surrounding a tomb, two pointing at it. Several small details were changed for the relief – first, a second sarcophagus was added on top of the tomb, and an inscription was added below the relief. The inscription added below is one of two on the tomb – let’s examine those.
There are two inscriptions on the monument. The first inscription reads “et in arcadia ego,” and is found on the relief described in the previous section. There are two translations of this inscription: I am also in Arcadia or I am, even in Arcadia. This inscription is barely visible in the original painting, so the fact that it was made more prominent on the relief implies some significance. Many have interpreted it as a clue, but it could very well simply be the artist crediting the original work.
The second inscription is below the first, and consists of a line of letters reading “OUOSVAVV” with a D to the bottom left of that line and an M to the bottom right. The DM on the secondary line is believed to stand for “Dis Manibus” which means for the shades or for the ghost-gods. This phrase was often found on Roman graves, as manes were revered spirits of the dead. By placing “Dis Manibus” on a grave, the community was acknowledging that the person who died was moving from humanity on to something more.
There are a LOT of theories floating around this monument. The most popular one is the one that holds the least amount of water and has the least amount of details. It has been said, in some internet circles, that the Shugborough inscription is a clue that may lead to the location of the holy grail. Now, this theory is mostly connected with Poussin, who was allegedly loosely connected to the Knights Templar through a secret society known as the Priory of Sion. Due to this alleged connection, many historians believe that paintings such as Shepherds of Arcadia had clues to greater knowledge buried within them. It’s important to note that there is little, if any, historical evidence to support any of this.
The other theories regarding the Shugborough Monument revolve around the string of letters in the second inscription. Though there are dozens and dozens of people who believe they have solved the riddle of Shugborough, there are really only two theories that stand out – either the letters are a part of a cipher (coded message) or they are an initialism (first letter of each word of a message). There are two well-documented and as-of-yet not debunked theories when it comes to the inscription being a cipher. First, Dave Ramsden asserted in 2014 that the inscription used a polyalphabetic cypher method (which basically means letters were substituted for other letters in the alphabet, you can learn more about it here). Decoded, the inscription read Magdalen. The second cipher theory comes from a 2016 book called Anson’s Gold by George Edmunds. In it, Edmunds claims that the inscription was the coded latitude and longitude coordinates of treasure hidden by George Anson. Little is available online for how the inscription was deciphered in this theory, and a supposed expedition turned up nothing. There is more suspicious and unverified information in this book, but that’s as far as I”m willing to go for this blog post. Research on at your own risk.
Onto the initialism theories. These can be broken down into two categories: initialisms for English phrases and initialisms for Latin phrases. The first proposed Latin initialism comes to us from Oliver Stonor in 1951. Stonor suggested that the inscription stood for “Optimae Uxoris Optimae Sororis Viduus Amantissimus Vovit Virtutibus” which (kind of, with poor grammar) translates to Best of wives, Best of sisters, most devoted Widower dedicates to your virtues. The most obvious implication here is that Andon was writing about his wife, who died before him. The second Latin initialism we will examine takes things in a much more preachy direction. Keith Massey, a former linguist with the United States Department of Defense, suggested that the inscription could stand for “Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam” which translates to I pray that all may follow the Way to True Life, which correlates to John 14:6.
For English initialisms, there are also two theories I want to take a look at. The first came from the Countess of Litchfield, who thought the initialism stood for “Out Your Own Sweet Vale, Alicia, Vanishes Vanity. Twixt Deity and Man Thou, Shepherdess, The Way.” She believed the monument was meant to commemorate Andon’s wife, and was referencing a poem about a shepherdess that lived in Rome and was essentially a Christian missionary. There is, however, no record of the quote showing up anywhere else so perhaps the countess simply made it up herself. The second English initialism comes from AJ Morton, a self-described historical detective who read a much less profound meaning into the inscription, and believes that the inscription stood for Orgreave United with Overley and Shugborough, Viscount Anson Venables Vernon…simply a list of 19th century residents of Shugborough. Which is such a letdown, I can’t really express it.
I can understand why people are so desperate to believe that this inscription plays some role in esoteric Christian mythology, but I don’t think that’s the case here. To me, after a week of reading about the monument and its inscriptions, I think that Anson built it as a monument to his wife and the love he lost when she died. And if that isn’t terribly romantic, I don’t know what is. I’d love to hear what you all think, though, so send me an email or comment here with your thoughts.