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The Shepherd’s Monument on the Shugborough Estate, has stumped historians due to its mysterious Shugborough Inscription. (Public domain)

SCIENCE & TECH: The Enigma of the Shugborough Inscription


In the grounds of Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England, sits an 18th-century monument known as the Shepherd’s Monument. The monument contains a relief, depicting a copy of a Nicolas Poussin painting, and a cipher text that has stumped historians and decoders for hundreds of years. What is the meaning of this outwardly simple, 10-letter text? Why was it carved onto the monument? Was it a declaration of undying love, a code to locate something, or a Biblical reference? While the meaning of the Shugborough Inscription has never been verified, there are several theories as what it could mean.

The Shepherd’s Monument on the Shugborough Estate, has stumped historians due to its mysterious Shugborough Inscription. ( Public domain )

Deciphering the Shugborough inscription and the Shepherds of Arcadia

The Shepherd’s Monument was commissioned by Thomas Anson, a member of the British Parliament, and crafted sometime between 1748 and 1763 by Flemish sculptor Peter Schee. The monument consists of a relief of Poussin’s painting entitled The Shepherds of Arcadia, which depicts a woman and three shepherds, with two shepherds pointing towards a tomb.

Carved on the tomb are the words Et in arcadia ego , Latin for “I am even in Arcadia”. A mysterious inscription that has yet to be decoded is located beneath the relief, and contains the letters O U O S V A V V. Framing these eight letters, at a slightly lower level, are the letters D M.

So cryptic is the cipher text, that it became a feature in the international bestseller The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, and Dan Brown’s historical thriller, The Da Vinci Code . Both books presented the theory that Nicolas Poussin was a member of the secretive Priory of Sion, a medieval monastic order, and that The Shepherds of Arcadia contains deep esoteric messages hidden within it.

The ten-letter Shugborough Inscription. (Public domain)

The ten-letter Shugborough Inscription. ( Public domain )

Eclectic Characters Obsessed with the Shugborough Inscription

Several famous individuals have attempted to determine the meaning of the inscription, including Charles Darwin , Charles Dickens, and Josiah Wedgewood. Each of them failed to determine the purpose or meaning of the letters. Numerous theories have been put forward regarding the meaning of this cryptic message, none of which have been verified. Some of the interpretations are acrostic, trying to match each letter to the first letter of a word, while others are non-acrostic.

  • The letters may have been a coded dedication to Admiral George Anson’s deceased wife. In 1951, it was speculated that the letters stand for Optimae Uxoris Optimae Sororis Viduus Amantissimus Vovit Virtutibus , which means “Best of wives, best of sisters, a most devoted widower dedicates [this] to your virtues.”
  • The letters may represent the Latin phrase Orator Ut Omnia Sunt Vanitas Ait Vanitas Vanitatum , which translates to mean “Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity” from Ecclesiastes 12:8.
  • The letters may represent the inhabitants of Scarborough at the time the monument was constructed, namely “Orgreave United with Overley and Shugborough, Viscount Anson Venables Vernon.”
  • The code may represent a number, in the form of Roman numerals. One individual has ascertained that the Roman numeral values of D, M, and the three Vs equals 1515, possibly representing the year 1515. Further inspection of ancient variations of Roman numerals show that values can be assigned to every letter in the series, except U. This leads to a total of 1594, which is the year Nicolas Poussin was born.
  • Another accounting of letters shows them adding to a sum of 2810. This number may be significant, as Scarborough is 2810 miles from the so-called Money Pit on Oak Island , in Nova Scotia, Canada.
  • One theory is that the letters OUSV are pronounced as losef, referring to Biblical prophet Joseph.
  • A final theory is that the letters VV amount to 10, and the remaining letters are an anagram of DEVOUT MASON.

The Shepherd’s Monument in Staffordshire, England. (Public domain)

The Shepherd’s Monument in Staffordshire, England. ( Public domain )

The Shugborough Inscription and the Priory of Sion

One of the most popular beliefs, which emerged following the world-wide fascination with The Da Vinci Code and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail , is that the inscription encodes secrets relating to the Priory of Sion . Indeed, Pierre Plantard, founder of the fringe fraternal organization, adopted the phrase Et in Arcadia ego , which appears on both Nicolas Poussin’s painting and the Shepherd’s Monument, as the motto of both his family and the Priory of Sion. Proponents of this theory believe that decoding the inscription, supposedly masonic symbols, would lead to the location of the Holy Grail .

In reference to these claims, Medium is adamant that they are “utter fiction” and “pseudohistory,” going so far as to quote the historian Richard Barber as saying that “essentially, the whole argument is an ingeniously constructed series of suppositions combined with forced readings of such tangible facts as are offered.” Others, such as Robert McCrum from The Observer is quoted as saying:

These kinds of books do appeal to an enormous audience who believe them to be ‘history’, but actually, they aren’t history, they are a kind of parody of history.

It is not clear whether the inscription will ever be decoded, nor whether it was ever intended to be. Whoever inscribed it must have known that the letters would last throughout the centuries, and be viewed by civilizations to come. It is possible that only a select few ever knew the purpose of the letters and what they stand for.

Shrugging off the conspiracy theories and fake history, thanks to an interview with a linguistic expert, Medium explained that the Shepherd’s Monument and its Shugborough Inscription at Shugborough Hall were “meant to be understood in the context of Roman funerary architecture.” Nevertheless, the Shugborough Inscription remains a mysterious puzzle for individuals to try to solve, though its true meaning may have already been lost to the pages of history.

Top image: The Shepherds of Arcadia, by Nicolas Poussin, is reproduced on the Shepherd’s Monument, along with the Shugborough Inscription. Source: Public domain

By M. R. Reese



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