“Secret codes”, like archaeology, can set off the imagination, prompting images of spies, secret agents, and hidden treasure. It is easy, based on popular culture, to imagine that archaeologists are constantly stumbling upon glyphs that must be translated to find secret rooms or solving puzzles using hidden codes to evade dangerous traps.
But unfortunately, like many depictions of archaeology in pop culture, this isn’t really the case in real life.
One example of hidden codes in popular culture can be found in Fallout 4, utilised by the ultra secret organisation called “the Railroad”. Like their real life Civil War-era namesake, the Railroad leads a group of marginalised people (in the case of Fallout 4, these are the “Synths”, or synthetic people who are often met with violence and persecution by humans) to freedom through a series of routes and safe houses to avoid hostile forces hunting them down. In order to maintain secrecy and safety, the Railroad often utilises a series of pictures as codes to other agents – these symbols can alert others to danger, or to notify where safe houses are.
These in-game secret codes were most likely inspired by the real life phenomenon of what are generally referred to as “hobo codes”. These symbols were created by “hobos”, or transient, homeless people who travelled the United States after the end of the Civil War, usually by illegally riding freight trains that began to criss-cross the country. These “hobo codes” provided safety for other fellow hobos through warnings of dangerous people or obstacles ahead, as well as pointing out where one could find food, shelter, or work (Innocent 2015).
But what about real-life archaeology? Are there no real instances of finding secret messages amongst ancient ruins?
In many ways, we can consider the recovery of “lost” languages to be similar to this romanticised idea of unearthing hidden codes during excavation. For example, thanks in part to the recovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, Egyptian hieroglyphs – which had originally confused and mystified academics who would occasionally come across these mysterious symbols on artefacts and ruins – were finally able to be deciphered by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822 (Robinson 2012). Another example can be found in Mesoamerica regarding the Mayan hieroglyphs, which are still being deciphered to this day (Stuart 1992).
However, what most people would imagine to be “secret messages” are more in line with pseudoarchaeological ideas. In fact, many allegedly “secret symbols” that had been “recovered” in the United States are often fake artefacts used to promote the racist, pseudoarchaeological notion that hidden communities of Europeans existed in North America, pre-dating Native Americans. For example, in the Ohio Valley region alone, there are been many cases of so-called “ancient inscriptions” using Welsh and Irish Ogham. But there was little, if any, credible evidence to back any of these claims (Ball 2006).
So what is it about secret messages and symbols that so quickly excites the imagination? Maybe we just want some sort of intentional communication with the past? Maybe knowing that our past ancestors left behind something for their future generations makes us feel better about ourselves?
Or maybe its just cool. Who knows, really?
Ball, D.B. (2006) Scribbles, Scratches, and Ancient Writing: Pseudo-Historical Archaeology in the Ohio Valley Region. Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology. 21. pp. 1-29.
Bethesda Softworks. (2015) Fallout 4.
Innocent, T. (2015) The Lost Art of Urban Codemaking. Communication Research and Practice. 1(2). pp. 117-130.
Robinson, A. (2012) A Clash of Symbols. Nature. 483. pp. 27 – 28.
Stuart, D. (1992) Hieroglyphs and Archaeology at Copan. Ancient Mesoamerica. 3. pp. 169-184.