Are Ancient Aliens visiting my backyard?
December 5, 2017 4:17 AM   Subscribe

These large iron bars, covered in mystery symbols, were pulled out of a lake in the American Midwest. I'm obsessed with figuring out the code/writing but don't really know where to begin. Help me solve this mystery!

Are these Masonic symbols? Stylized kana? A message from Ancient Aliens? A broken Stargate? A bored blacksmith's practical joke? I have no clue or context other than the location (man-made lake built in the 1970s) and the bars themselves (solid iron, each broken section is a couple of feet long).

A cursory Google search reveals that some of the symbols do look Masonic, but not all of the symbols are included in the Masonic alphabet examples that are publicly available. I do not know any Masons (though my Grandfather was one) and I doubt they'd reveal the message to me if I asked.

Any code breakers want to take a stand?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (59 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: poster's request -- taz

 
What is the significance of the grouping into five groups of four? Is it known that all four bars in Group 1 (say) have to "go together" somehow? And if so, how is it known?
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:31 AM on December 5, 2017


Also, the presence of both a lone "bullseye" symbol (third rod in Group 5) and a double of that same symbol within a long grouping (third rod in Group 4) argues strongly against this being some kind of English substitution cipher; it could only be A or I, and words with double A's or double I's are exceedingly rare.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:41 AM on December 5, 2017


Square Kufic or geometric Kufic is a style of Arabic calligraphy that produces similar rectilinear shapes, but these symbols seem too simple. (I can't read Arabic, though, so I don't know for certain.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:47 AM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


Since all these symbols have rotational symmetry,how was it decided that these are right-side up as pictured? Was there any other determination of up/down or is the alignment in the photo aribitrary?
posted by vacapinta at 4:48 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]


Did you take the photo? If not, a little more context, such as the original article/source, would be helpful.
posted by dbx at 5:16 AM on December 5, 2017 [2 favorites]


If they were solid iron and submerged in a lake for any length length of time, wouldn't they have rusted to hell? They look very suspiciously crisp.

In addition, the 'broken' ends are wrong. Every one 'broke' at the same angle, such that the 'bottom' surface of the bar is longer than the 'top' surface (ie, the bar is shaped like a trapezoid when viewed from the side). That doesn't seem right unless they were deliberately made to appear that way.
posted by Ausamor at 6:57 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]


Thank you everyone for putting on your thinking caps! To answer a few questions:

- The photo is my brother's, taken after washing the rust & pond scum off the rods. He is the finder & original source, and a scientist, but not an archaeologist. He happened across the rods, as the water level had dropped and one of the rods was sticking a bit above the water.

- I don't think the rods are some ancient relic; this is how they looked straight out of the water. They are extremely heavy.

- The alignment of the rods in the image is arbitrary - the rods don't seem to indicate which end would have faced up.

- The breaks don't obviously fit together, but he's going to recheck to make sure.

- 5 pieces were found; each grouping shows the 4 sides of that piece. (Each side has symbols.)

Hope this helps!
posted by muirne81 at 7:15 AM on December 5, 2017


I have to say they do not look as though they were in the water very long, especially since iron rusts faster in fresh water. What lake were these pulled out of? It doesn't look like square Kufic, but a more imagined script.
posted by parmanparman at 7:37 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


That's not any extraterrestrial script that I'm familiar with - there tends to be more curves and triangles.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:40 AM on December 5, 2017 [26 favorites]


I'll be back with the rest later, but here's a transcribed version of the image. I assigned values to each symbol in your table starting in the upper left and working my way across each row, though due to a setup error I'm not using the letter L.

So starting with the "box" symbol, then moving to the "4 dice dots" symbol, then the "||" symbol, then the "=" symbol, etc, the values I'm using are "ABCDEFGHIJKMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ123456789".

I have not noted any of the various spacings between groups, but the varied gaps could have meaning.

I'm also concerned about the orientation of symbols: presumable each bar's side is oriented the same, but from bar to bar, I don't know how you guarantee symbols could be facing the proper way.

One item of note: Bar 3 row 1 can be decoded with a substitution cipher to say SURVEILLANCE.

1:
A9BG PA7 U
D3OTKPT HFH
S2AVBNHV V?
26A6C XGN?

2:
7IX E CEYROJ?
FUMHSZD6IOO2SF
CX UBTKZE ZH4
ZPJFZDWB1UN

3:
D2FKB9WWG34B
DUBX8SBZJFC
RSWWUQFSTSY3
5EA BO1IOE3B
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:43 AM on December 5, 2017 [5 favorites]


That looks like cast iron, which rusts pretty well instantaneously in water if not protected. If they are raw cast iron, I would bet your bother found them within a day or two, if not hours, of them being tossed into the pond.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:48 AM on December 5, 2017


The designs and the way they're cut into the iron look very, very present-day to me. It seems like a setup for an ARG.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:54 AM on December 5, 2017 [4 favorites]


Those glyphs look more than a little like the alphabet and numbers from the game Fez, but I don't think they are actually those symbols. In particular that butterfly pattern in row 3 of the alternates isn't in the Fez set. Fez numbers are based on a 3x3 grid, the letters are based on a 5x5 grid but most of the features are in the central 3x3. These symbols look based on a 5x5 grid.

NSAID's decoding of Bar 3 Row 1 seems significant to me.
posted by Nelson at 8:58 AM on December 5, 2017


And the rest, with the same caveat about symbol orientation problems between bars.

4.
1 CEF3EPEKCF
HD4DQCADCUYB
?AA6QDJX2X7FC
3CNZ8 WAQAYR

5.
?E5BIJ9EOQP
B CA ACO1 A
EA9PP A 1N
EOD AYFCXTA


I should also mention that "?" indicates ambiguous partial symbols. Obvious partials, such as the top symbols on sides 3 and 4 of bar 3, are filled in.

And while Bar 3 row 1 did work with a substitution cypher, the solved values don't seem to carry over the rest of that bar, so I kind of think that's a coincidence. Anyone know the stats of a random word showing up in places on something like this?
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:58 AM on December 5, 2017


Also, in regards to the substitution cypher, most other individual sides don't come up with a match on their own either, adding more weight to the idea that it's a coincidence.

...but the last word of side 4 of bar 5 could say "AMERICA"


or ALBERTA. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:09 AM on December 5, 2017


Apologies, I didn't realize you only transliterated the one word with the substitution cypher.

There's a set of standard tools for breaking simple substitution and rotation cyphers. I don't know them myself or I'd just see if they worked. It's a pretty small sample text.
posted by Nelson at 9:19 AM on December 5, 2017


For what its worth, these are not Masonic symbols.
posted by _DB_ at 10:57 AM on December 5, 2017


Assuming it is a substitution cipher, I'm guessing that the glyphs that look similar but are rotated are very close to each other in the alphabet. In my little slapdash code, I have to do that to remember what they mean. Each symbol is additive to the previous one until I make an arbitrary break to a different looking one.
posted by Krazor at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2017


Shades of a variation on a pig pen cipher, now that I'm looking at it.
posted by Krazor at 11:39 AM on December 5, 2017


Okay, and the unifying factor in all of this is that there are lines connecting/blocking/going around the 4 side of a die. So this has to be the template around which all the symbols are based.
posted by Krazor at 11:44 AM on December 5, 2017


Are you sure these are iron? Iron doesn't break like that and it doesn't rust like that, especially if it was submerged long enough to need extensive cleaning.
posted by FakeFreyja at 11:52 AM on December 5, 2017


Cast iron breaks exactly like that.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:56 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


Huh, looking at pictures you're right. I could have sworn it sheared a little more with a slightly smoother break.

Still, if it is cast iron wouldn't it be more rusty? And wouldn't the broken bits be the most rusted surfaces?
posted by FakeFreyja at 12:08 PM on December 5, 2017


Each of the five bars is four-sided—is it possible that originally the five bars formed one long staff that was broken into five pieces? Related: do two of the five bars have flat edges that would be the ends of the original staff?

If so, you don't want to encode and then decipher the five bar separately. You should use the shapes of the broken edges to align the five bars back together into the original single staff, and then examine the sequence of characters along the four sides of that long staff.
posted by cyclopticgaze at 12:10 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


Looking at the images again, I don't see two bars that could be the ends of a broken staff. Still, I feel that trying to piece them together would be worth a try.
posted by cyclopticgaze at 12:15 PM on December 5, 2017


Is the key in the second photo for scale?
posted by Room 641-A at 12:21 PM on December 5, 2017


examine the sequence of characters along the four sides of that long staff.

Yeah. Looking at the picture again, it's hard to tell if even each side of a given bar is oriented the same way (that is, was the bar simply rotated? Bar 3, for example, looks the bar may have been flipped between pictures of sides 2 and 4 ), so it could be hard to assemble things based on the data we have.

This also throws a wrench in my transcription, as different lines might be backwards. For that matter, everything could be transcribed backwards - it sounds like there's no inherent reason for what side is up, etc.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 12:23 PM on December 5, 2017


Looking at the images again, I don't see two bars that could be the ends of a broken staff. Still, I feel that trying to piece them together would be worth a try.

I started to gimp it, but had some confusion about the picture groupings.

I was assuming group 1 is the 4 sides of 1 part?
posted by slipthought at 12:25 PM on December 5, 2017


- 5 pieces were found; each grouping shows the 4 sides of that piece. (Each side has symbols.)

Missed this, oops! But the breaks don't seem consistent in their current groupings
posted by slipthought at 12:51 PM on December 5, 2017


Could they be some form of QR code?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:01 PM on December 5, 2017


But the breaks don't seem consistent in their current groupings

I got hung up on this for a minute too, but I think there's a halo of background around each of the fragments in that image, and the tops and bottoms of those are trimmed funny and don't exactly match the silhouettes of the bars. It's hard to tell what's background and what's broken surface.
posted by aubilenon at 1:01 PM on December 5, 2017


Should we assume that the single spaces mark word ends and the double spaces mark the ends of sentences?

If it fits together to make one bar, what if instead of reading along the length of each of the sides, you're supposed read around the bar--so each individual segment has four letters you're supposed to read in sequence, then drop down to the next four, and so on?

That seems like a spectacularly irritating way to do it, but everything about this puzzle is over the top. How/why were solid iron bars with cryptic symbols on them made? How did they get broken? Why were they found in a manmade lake? Why are they so shiny and not rusted to sludge? If someone doesn't figure this out soon... I don't know what.
posted by Don Pepino at 1:05 PM on December 5, 2017


Given the decoration and cast iron's shit ability to be outdoors, think about what they'd be good for. They'd have to be visible on each side and indoors. Me, I suspect they are part of a cast iron bedframe, headboard or footboard, that have been sheered off the rest of the frame for easy disposal/due to furious lovemaking.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:11 PM on December 5, 2017 [6 favorites]


Or porch rail?
posted by slipthought at 1:30 PM on December 5, 2017


Oh, yeah, like some sort of internal balcony/stair rail. We had a plain cast iron one growing up.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:33 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


I hope this is okay - I posted this question to the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit. They're a good community and love coming up with ideas for this sort of question, so I thought they might be able to help.
posted by daisyk at 1:54 PM on December 5, 2017


I hope this is okay - I posted this question to the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit.

They've deleted it. Apparently it's too recent a mystery to qualify.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:52 PM on December 5, 2017


Do a google image search of "decorative iron railing bar" and you'll see similar items.
posted by skywhite at 4:39 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


Any links? I did that search and came up with nothing even remotely similar.
posted by fimbulvetr at 6:02 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


I looked at row four of iron bar one (26A6C, using NSAID's notation), and noticed there was a five glyph group with a repeated glyph. I did a search for all the five letter words with a repeated letter in the second and fourth positions but no other repeated letters. I used a pretty small dictionary file to keep my candidate word list small. I then used the letters in a word matching the pattern to fill out the letters in the code. Here's the full thing (sorry it's ugly), and here's a little sample:

word: state
a___ _a_ _
_______ ___
_sa_____ __
state ____


I don't think it's a simple substitution cypher.

fimbulvetr, didn't find anything like what sky white mentioned.
posted by gregr at 7:08 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]


they are trying to decifer a somewhat similar code on the tv show The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer.

it looks like possibly a movie prop to me
posted by cda at 11:35 PM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]


when were they found?
posted by cda at 11:38 PM on December 5, 2017


Some more general observations:

- Spaces could be a red herring, or at least not be symbolic of spaces between words in a sentence. Maybe silent letters?

- Though it's hard to say for certain because of the breakage, I've gotta feel like there's something else at work here, because that would be a lot of twelve letter words represented. I think it's less likely, but maybe there's a mathematical component to all of this. An equation or calendar something?

- There's something significant about the "bullseye," the rotated equal signs, the two that look like domino masks, and the one that looks like the blank four side of a die. For all the other symbols, there are four like permutations, but these only have one or two.

- Expanding on that, maybe they are like numbered chapter markers? They do appear in the "sentences," but they also are floating by themselves in small groups of 1-3. See Grouping 5, Bar 2 and 3, Grouping 2, Bar, and maaaaaaybe Grouping 1, Bar 1.

- So maybe they're numerical? I thought for a second maybe some kind of punctuation, or maybe a mark to show how the bar should be oriented to be read properly. How? I have no idea. But we have eight more symbols than letters in the English alphabet, anyway. I don't know that it is English, but that's where I'm starting.

- Going back to letters instead of numbers, though, I'm inclined to believe that the bullseye or the blank 4 die would be an initial or terminal symbol, like A or Z.

- Rather than this being a linear substitution, maybe it's on a matrix? I wouldn't know where to begin to try to figure that out, but I really feel that it looks too ordered to not be a cipher of some kind.
posted by Krazor at 6:44 AM on December 6, 2017


And lastly, (for now), I think it can be safely assumed that even though the breakage patterns may not be consistent (indicating missing segments or just a really messy break) these have got to be parts of a whole piece. It's not impossible, but I think that it's unlikely that if these were five individual segments that they would all be broken at both ends. There's not a single intact "end" on any of these.
posted by Krazor at 7:11 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's not impossible, but I think that it's unlikely that if these were five individual segments that they would all be broken at both ends. There's not a single intact "end" on any of these.

Adding to the riddles: Why are they all approximately the same length? Wouldn't a breakage pattern be a bit more random than that?

Assuming neither the OP or their scientist-brother are pranking us, I am wondering whether the symbols mean nothing at all but were sold perhaps in some SF store as 'Mystery/Alien rods' or something like that...
posted by vacapinta at 9:34 AM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


Honestly, "somebody thought it would look cool" is the likeliest explanation by miles.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:54 AM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


tobascodagama, I don't think that's unlikely, but with a quick calculation the iron bars probably weigh ~40lbs each. It just seems like a long way to go for something that would look cool.

iron is 0.284 lb/in3. The bars are about 2.5x2.5x24", so (2.5*2.5*24)*0.284 = 42.6.
posted by gregr at 10:04 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


For all the other symbols, there are four like permutations, but these only have one or two.

I keep going back to this. I don't have time to do a definitive check, but at a quick glance I think you could cut down symbols to two rotations each by flipping the bar sides around. That would give a total of... say, 20 letters max? Certainly makes a substitution cypher easier to decode than something with 34 letters, assuming English.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 10:04 AM on December 6, 2017


Just for the record, here what I think this the actual most likely, but extremely boring, scenario.

Plenty of buildings were built with cast iron frames in the US in the 1800s. Parts of the cast iron structure could be exposed at doorways, windows, stairwells, etc. Often these exposed parts would have decorative shapes and designs. Sometimes they had meaning, but often they were just designs.

So the most plausible boring explanations is something like:
(1) An office building is built in your brother's midwester city circa 1860.
(2) The office building is demolished during postwar urban redevelopment about 100 years later. The demolition was performed with wrecking balls and other heavy equipment that broke the brittle cast iron into hunks.
(3) Someone takes a few pieces home from the demolition as cool looking momentos.
(4) They or their decendants get bored with them some decades later and discard them into whatever wasteland was dredged to create the man made lake.
(5) Ancient aliens send an unconcious psychic message through time and space to your brother to go look for the pieces.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 10:09 AM on December 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


Nice, except rust never sleeps. Consider the timeline:

Office building built in 1860, torn down in 1960. "Someone takes a few pieces home from the demolition as cool looking mementos. They or their descendants get bored with them some decades later and discard them into whatever wasteland was dredged [in the 1970s] to create the man made lake. [They rust for 40-some years]. Ancient aliens send an unconscious psychic message through time and space to your brother to go look for the pieces..."

...the oxidation of which those same aliens have used interstellar telekinetic powers to prevent because the "decorative" symbols are in fact the code to open THE STARGATE!
posted by Don Pepino at 10:27 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Also, on the 1860s front these look more like modern castings to me. There's a precision that looks like someone CNC milled foam blanks and did lost foam casting.

It's a little hard for me to tell but, looking closely at the pictures it looks like inside corners of the glyphs are slightly radiused while, the outside corners are sharper which is consistent with milling.

Again, it's a little hard to tell, but it doesn't look like there's a draft angle on the castings which implies a one off piece rather than something you'd use for decoration all over a building.
posted by gregr at 10:57 AM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Well this took off more than I expected! Thank you to everyone for your thoughtful & enjoyable sleuthing!

Apologies for not being able to check in sooner. My husband & I recently found out this lovely lady has advanced stage cancer & we've dropped everything to spoil her as she prepares to visit the Great Litterbox in the Sky. Thanks for your patience. <3

So a few more clarifications:

(a) Some users have suspected this is a prank or some viral upcoming-movie promotion. I promise it's not, at least as far as I know! It's just a super random find by a 30-something geologist and his cat lady sister. Both of whom can't leave a mystery alone. I suppose it would not be beyond the Hollywood machine to plant a prop in a lake for some unsuspecting schmucks to discover & publicize, but it seems like an awful long drive from California to BFE Illinois/Kentucky... Where the internet, and people, and thus meme generating potential, are spotty. That said, the Emoji movie happened, so when it comes to 2017 film industry judgement calls ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(b) The lake is near the Illinois/Kentucky border. I'd rather not get more specific with a location (should have posted this AskMe anonymously I suppose) but I can tell you that the lake is waaaaaaay off the beaten path; hours from any major metro areas. I've never seen anything like these rods in or embedded within local architecture. (I deal with a lot of 19th/20th century salvage at the day job.)

(c) My personal guess is that these probably aren't old - there isn't enough rust for them to have been underwater long, and not enough wear to have been above water long before that. As to how they ended up broken in fairly even pieces and abandoned in a lake, it's anybody's guess. Around here, most people would just scrap metal for $$$. It seems significant that they were jettisoned somewhere not a lot of people would go looking... I like the idea of this being an elaborate ARG, though I feel bad that I may have ruined their gameplay!

(d) I also suspect that the pieces were originally one long bar, but my brother says the breaks don't really seem to fit together neatly. There were no other pieces in the area in which these were found.

(e) There are so many wonderful & helpful answers here, and since the mystery is still unfolding, I'll wait until the end to mark bests. But honestly, they're really all the best!

Keep those thoughts coming... This ask has taken off much more than I expected, and it's turned out to be a positive distraction from the aforementioned sad situation. Thank you all.
posted by muirne81 at 12:15 PM on December 6, 2017


I don't think that's unlikely, but with a quick calculation the iron bars probably weigh ~40lbs each. It just seems like a long way to go for something that would look cool.

I mean, I've seen some pretty monstrous sculptures in the backyards of hobbyist metalworkers, so I'm still not ruling it out.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:29 PM on December 6, 2017 [1 favorite]




But they're quite different in that the pattern is repeated and regular, and only on one side.
I can see what I'd use that for.

A decorative iron bar with a non repeating pattern on all 4 sides?
I don't see how or where you'd use it?
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:37 PM on December 7, 2017 [3 favorites]


I searched for images "alien alphabet" and "fictional alphabets". Only thing close was an alphabet invented by Lewis Carroll. I still think the artist was going for an alien alphabet look.
I would call it a square alphabet. Although I don't think it says anything. I think it is a made up alphabet just for looks - like a movie prop. I feel like they didn't break but were cast to look broken and old.
If we could just get some local metal workers to comment - they would know what kind of a set up you would need to do this and which locals have that set up.
I really don't know why they were in the lake, seems like they could be sold. Unless they were stolen.
Maybe ask on a local Facebook community group if they were stolen.
posted by cda at 8:25 PM on December 7, 2017 [2 favorites]


A decorative iron bar with a non repeating pattern on all 4 sides?
I don't see how or where you'd use it?


Vertical bar supporting a handrail.
posted by skywhite at 12:01 PM on December 8, 2017 [2 favorites]


On a spaceship.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:00 AM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]


I just remembered that steel can be dated to some extent by measuring radiation contamination from 1950s above-ground nuclear tests. (See low-background steel.) Cast iron might be a bit different, but maybe a scientist with the right equipment could tell whether these were made before or after the 1950s.

If they were made before the nuke tests, I think that the 19th-century building theory is supported.

If they were made after, then I think you end up resorting to the wilder movie prop or prank theories.

If the isotope mix doesn't comport with terrestial cast iron of either period, it's aliens!
posted by paper chromatographologist at 2:10 PM on December 23, 2017


« Older Stuck in the middle--or am I?   |   What are some everyday ways that I can do good in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.