For over 150 years, a series of mysterious notes in a medieval copy of Homer’s “Odyssey” left scholars baffled. The handwritten annotations were all over the margins of the 500-year-old manuscript, and were written in a language none of the scholars recognized. Although historians were pretty sure the notes had been made in the mid-1800s, nothing else was known—until the Internet got involved. After collector M.C. Lang offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who could decode the text, amateur cryptographers from across the internet and around the world set to work cracking the code.
The prize was won earlier this year by Italians Daniele Metilli and Giula Accetta. They figured out that the “unknown language” was an obscure form of shorthand invented by Jean Coulon de Thevenot in the late 1700s. The decoded text was actually in French, and appeared to be an amateur translation of the Greek text of the “Odyssey.” As you can imagine, figuring out which obscure European script the notes were written in was quite a task. Metilli is quoted as saying, “If I didn’t have access to online sources such as Google Books, the Greek Word Study Tool of the Perseus Digital Library and the French corpora of the CNRTL, I probably wouldn’t have won. What great times we live in!”