An interview with Kryptos creator Jim Sanborn from 2009 may offer clues to the solution of his yet-to-be solved CIA sculpture challenge.
Jim Sanborn grew up reading John le Carré novels in a family that rubbed shoulders with spies so when the CIA asked Sanborn if he’d like to create a sculpture for their HQ in 1988 it was a ‘no brainer’.
The CIA wanted the artwork to reflect its mission - collecting secrets - so Sanborn decided to play mind games with the CIA and its code-cracking sister agency the NSA. Sanborn spent months studying code and used retired CIA cryptographer Edward M. Scheid as a consultant. “Ed and I met at secret locations because Ed could never trust his telephone,” Sanborn recalled.
More than 30 years later, Sanborn’s mysterious code still hasn’t been broken. While the first three of the four Kryptos panels have been deciphered, the last panel has defeated the world’s brightest minds - although cryptologist Elonka Dunin isn’t ready to give up just yet.
Sanborn has dropped maddening clues over the decades (see below) but fiendishly refuses to reveal any more, so SPYSCAPE pounced when we found a 70-page transcript of a 2009 Sanborn interview in which he discusses the history of Kryptos. Surely, this must be the Holy Grail...
Cracking the Kryptos code
First, a quick recap. Here's what Jim Sanborn said on November 3, 1990, the day Kryptos was dedicated: "The tilted strata tell a story like pages of a document. Inserted between these stone pages is a flat copper sheet through which letters and symbols have been cut. This code, which includes certain ancient ciphers, begins as international Morse, and increases in complexity as you move through the piece at the entrance and into the courtyard. Its placement in a geologic context reinforces the text's hiddenness as if it were a fossil, frozen in time."
The first three panels have been cracked by the CIA and NSA, helped along the way by obsessed codebreakers, academics, computer programmers, doctors, online Kryptos clubs, and amateur spies.
Here’s the NSA’s solution to K1, K2, and K3 to get you in the right frame of mind to solve K4.
Kryptos, Sanborn, the CIA spies & the cryptic backstory
SPYSCAPE dug into Sanborn’s backstory and early influences, hunting for clues to help unravel the Kryptos challenge. Sanborn, born in 1945, grew up in Washington, D.C. where his father, also an artist, worked as the head of exhibitions at the Library of Congress.
Jim led a surreal and secretive life influenced by literature, architecture, archeology, and the Library of Congress which was his playground and study hall. He recalled once handling the Dead Sea Scrolls and another incident where his father was handcuffed to the Gutenberg Bible when the library transferred it from D.C. to a display in New York.
Architecture & archeology
Jim was already six feet tall at the age of 13 and would grow to 6’ 7”, learning to admire Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and furniture designs that could accommodate his large frame. ”All I know is that my size and strength assisted me in my belief that I could make or build anything that I wanted to make or build.”
One of Sanborn’s favorite texts was Howard Carter's notebooks describing the opening of King Tut's tomb, referred to in the third Kryptos panels. Another influence was Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann of which Sanborn has an original copy from the late 1800s. Schliemann was a German pioneer in the field of archeology.
“And those giant excavations and amazing discoveries of cultures really profoundly - profoundly - interested me… I mean, excavating and finding something that's been hidden for millennia is a very exciting thing. And whether it's an arrowhead, a simple arrowhead in a field, or whether it's an entire tomb that's been out of view for millennia, it's a wonderful thing to discover something that nobody's seen before and that you can actually… tangible evidence of the past.”
Kryptos Clues to Solve the Remaining 97 Letters in K-4
According to cryptographer Elonka Dunin’s Kryptos website:
Part 1 of Kryptos decrypts to the sentence:
"Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion"
Part 2 of Kryptos was originally thought to decrypt to the phrase below, although cryptographers have issued a correction:
"It was totally invisible. How's that possible? They used the earth's magnetic field. x The information was gathered and transmitted undergruund to an unknown location. x Does Langley know about this? They should: it's buried out there somewhere. x Who knows the exact location? Only WW. This was his last message: x Thirty-eight degrees fifty-seven minutes six point five seconds North, seventy-seven degrees eight minutes forty-four seconds West. ID by rows."
Part 3 is believed to say:
"Slowly, desparatly slowly, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway was removed. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. And then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. The hot air escaping from the chamber caused the flame to flicker, but presently details of the room within emerged from the mist. x Can you see anything q?"
Additionally, Sanborn appears to have carved roughly 1,800 (possibly) random letters and four question marks into his copper structure, one of history’s toughest codes & ciphers. Along the way he has dropped clues:
1. When commenting in 2006 about an odd spelling in passage 2, Sanborn said that the answers to the first three passages contain clues to the fourth passage.
2. In November 2010, Sanborn released another clue, publicly stating that NYPVTT, the 64th - 69th letters in passage four, become BERLIN after decryption.
3. In November 2014, Sanborn gave The New York Times another clue: the letters MZFPK, the 70th - 74th letters in panel four, become CLOCK after decryption. The 74th letter is K in both the plaintext and ciphertext, meaning that it is possible for a character to encrypt to itself. This means it does not have the weakness - where a character could never be encrypted as itself - that was known to be inherent in the German Enigma machine. Sanborn said that to solve passage 4, "You'd better delve into that particular clock," but added, "There are several really interesting clocks in Berlin." Some presume he means the Berlin Clock, although the Alexanderplatz World Clock and Clock of Flowing Time are also candidates.
4. On January 29. 2020, Sanborn gave The New York Times another clue: At positions 26 - 34, ciphertext QQPRNGKSS is the word NORTHEAST. In August 2020, Sanborn revealed that the four letters in positions 22 - 25, ciphertext FLRV, in the plaintext becomes EAST.
5. Even after all the sculpture’s four panels are solved, that will lead to another mystery.