The Shugborough Inscription is an enigmatic series of
letters carved on the Shepherd's Monument at
Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England. The precise
meaning of these letters
The Shepherd's Monument includes a relief based on
French painter Nicholas Poussin's Et In Arcadia Ego.
Here is the inscription in question which is situated below
the relief. You can see here, between the letters D and M,
I believe I've solved the mystery. I was an Arabic linguist at
the Top Secret National Security Agency for four years after
9/11, and I was trained there in cryptological methods. But
my solution to this puzzle draws primarily on things I have
learned while teaching Latin in a public high school for the
last nine years.
First off, the D and M are very likely the ancient Roman
abbreviation of Dis Manibus (for the Manes), found very
widely on tomb inscriptions. The Manes were understood
as ancestral spirits of the underworld. The abbreviation DM
is even found on very early Christian tomb inscriptions,
such as this 3rd century C.E. example from Rome:
And this is a clue to the correct interpretation of the longer
series of letters between D and M on the Shugborough
Inscription. The inscription was intended to be understood
as a tomb memorial composed in Latin.
The beginning of the inscription (O·U· ) matches a 2nd
century C.E tombstone of a Roman matron from North
Oro ut bene quiescat
I pray that she may rest well
(See p. 152, Roman Africa, by Alexander Graham [London:
The convention of making a distinction between the letters
U and V arose in the late Middle Ages, so the Shugborough
Inscription would certainly abbreviate UT as U· and not V·
as we see in the inscription above.
I was then struck by the presence of three V's near the end
of the inscription. As someone trained in cryptography, I
assume that anytime you have a letter that occurs more
often than other letters, you are looking at an important
clue. So the question we ask, is there a place somewhere in
Latin literature where three V's occur prominently? If so,
this inscription may be somehow quoting such a passage.
One such item that comes immediately to mind is Julius
Caesar's famous quote, Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I
conquered). But since my interpretation of OU as Oro Ut
(I pray that) was already on very firm ground, I could not
see any reasonable interpretation that allowed me to
incorporate Caesar's quote here.
But then I recalled Jesus' statement in John 14:6, "I am the
Way, the Truth, and the Life," which in St. Jerome's
Vulgate translation is rendered:
Ego sum Via et Veritas et Vita.
And so, I interpret the inscription and translate it as
Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam.
I pray that all may follow the Way to True Life.
I've already demonstrated that the Oro Ut portion of my
interpretation is attested. Other parts of my interpretation
are equally found in literature we may assume would be
available to the creator of the inscription.
The phrase "veram vitam" is attested in the Vulgate New
ut apprehendant veram vitam.
...that they may take hold of True Life.
(1 Tim 6:19)
And notice the following in a biblical commentary on John
14:6 contemporary with making of the Shugborough
...viam qua itur ad veram vitam.
...the Way by which it is gone to True Life.
(p. 217, Annotationes in sanctum Jesu Christi evangelium
secundum Johannem, by Dominicus Snellaert [Antwerp:
And note finally that the phrase "ut omnes sequantur"
is attested elsewhere as well, such as in the writings of
Bishop Ussher, which predates the Shugborough
...ut omnes sequantur vocantem.
...that all may follow the one calling.
(P. 19, The Whole Works, Vol. 4, by James Ussher [Dublin:
I cite Bishop Ussher not from the assertion that the
Shugborough Inscription is directly quoting that passage,
but simply as proof that this phrase is fully grammatical
and attested in literature. Theoretically, one could argue
that the Shugborough Inscription is directly quoting the
Ussher passage above and therefore the first V could be
interpreted as Vocantem. In that case, the translation of
the series of letters would be rendered. "I pray that all may
follow the one calling to True Life." I find it more likely that
the passage is alluding to John 14:6, hence my
interpretation of the letters as viam ad veram vitam.
I believe my proposal provides a sensible and credible
interpretation of this long-standing mystery. My
interpretation produces a straightforward and grammatical
sentence, all parts of which are attested in tomb
inscriptions and in texts predating or contemporary with
the creation of the Shugborough Inscription.
Explore Decipherments of Other
Ancient and Modern Mysteries
by Keith Massey, PhD