On this page I plan to attempt a layman’s description of the progression of the total Kryptos piece from start to finish. I can’t predict I’ll be done soon but I think it will be of some use to understand the intent of the $250,000 labor of love. Please feel free to disregard this section if you are only interested in deciphering K4 and becoming famous. This is only useful data for someone trying to piece it all together and understand the message Jim Sanborn left to the CIA employees. The base wording I’ll take from the CIA site and add to it as I learn more.

Before the New Headquarters Building (NHB) was finished in 1991, thought was given to enhancing the new structure with artwork that was not only pleasing to the eye, but indicative of the Central Intelligence Agency’s work. Under Federal construction guidelines, a small portion of the cost of the new building was set aside to commission original art for the structure.

To achieve the goal of acquiring fitting artwork for NHB, the CIA Fine Arts Commission recommended that the Agency utilize the services of the Art-in-Architecture program of the General Services Administration (GSA). This is a Federal program which has managed the creation of contemporary art for Government buildings for more than 25 years and which has resulted in highly acclaimed works. GSA formed a team composed of experts led by the National Endowment for the Arts and members of the CIA Fine Arts Council and other Agency employees.

Before starting the task, the Agency side of the joint team developed a Statement of Principles:

“People are the principal resource of the Central Intelligence Agency. It is their intellectual and physical energies that ultimately provide the national policymakers with superior information and analyses—the basis to formulate policies necessary to maintain this country’s position in the world. An esthetically pleasing work environment at its Headquarters is an important stimulus to the efforts of those officers assigned here.”

They also listed these key thoughts:

  • Art at the CIA should reflect life in all its positive aspects.
  • It should engender feelings of well-being, hope.
  • It should be forceful in style and manner.
  • It should be worldly yet have identifiable American roots in concept, materials, representation, and so forth.

These principles were the guidelines that artists followed as they competed for the $250,000 commission to design artwork for the New Headquarters Building. The combined NEA and CIA panel evaluated each entry and, in November 1988, chose local artist James Sanborn’s conception of “Kryptos” (Greek for “hidden”), a two-part sculpture located at the main entrance to NHB and in the courtyard between NHB and the Original Headquarters Building (OHB) cafeteria.

James Sanborn is a Washington, D.C., born artist with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Randolph-Macon College and a Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute. Mr. Sanborn is noted for his work with American stone and related materials that evoke a sense of mystery and the forces of nature.

To give shape to “Kryptos,” Sanborn chose polished red granite, quartz, copperplate, lodestone, and petrified wood. After reading extensively on the subject of intelligence and cryptography, Mr. Sanborn decided to interpret the subject in terms of how information is accrued throughout the ages. In the case of the two-part sculpture, information is symbolized in the chemical and physical effects that produced the materials and in other more literal ways.

To produce the code for “Kryptos,” Mr. Sanborn worked for four months with a retired CIA cryptographer to devise the codes used in the sculpture. Mr. Sanborn wrote the text to be coded in collaboration with a prominent fiction writer but then he changed his mind.

At the entrance to the New Headquarters building, the sculpture begins with two red granite and copperplate constructions which flank the walkway from the parking deck. These stones appear as pages jutting from the earth with copperplate ‘between the pages’ on which there are International Morse code and ancient ciphers. There is also a lodestone (a naturally magnetized rock) co-located with a navigational compass rose.

In the courtyard, a calm, reflective pool of water lies between two layered slabs of granite and tall grasses. Directly across from this is the centerpiece of “Kryptos,” a piece of petrified wood supporting an S-shaped copper screen surrounding a bubbling pool of water.

  • The petrified tree symbolizes the trees that once stood on the site of the sculpture and that were the source of materials on which written language has been recorded.
  • The bubbling pool symbolizes information being disseminated with the destination being unknown.
  • The copperplate screen has approximately 2,000 alphabetic letters cut into it.

The sculpture is like a history of cryptography. The left side of the copper screen, the first two sections, is a table for deciphering and enciphering code, a method developed by 16 th century French cryptographer Blaise de Vigenere. The Vigenere method substitutes letters throughout the message by shifting from one alphabet order to another with each letter of the key. Part of the right side of the sculpture uses the table from the left side, and another portion uses the cryptographic method of transposing letters or changing their position in a message according to whatever method the writer devised.

The sculpture has been a source of mystery and challenge for Agency employees, other government employees, and interested people outside of government. In early 1998, a CIA physicist announced to the Agency that he had cracked the code for three of the four sections. This was followed a year later by a public announcement from a California computer scientist that he had done the same. As varied as the codes in the sculpture are, so were the methods to crack them. The Agency employee used pencil and paper, and the computer scientist used his computer. No one has yet to break the code for the remaining 97-character message which utilizes a more difficult cryptographic code.

James Sanborn once said “They will be able to read what I wrote, but what I wrote is a mystery itself.” Only time will tell if the final message to this multi-layered puzzle is ever revealed.

Read here for any PR articles or media I have found.

Read here to see if it fulfills Kerckhoffs’ Principle.

Read here for ways to fail at solving Kryptos.

Read here for a variety of things.

Read here to read about books that I’ve read and recommend reading.

Watch here for movies that are worth talking about.

Read here for my review of the Kryptos restaurant.

Kryptos Fan