3 December 2018: Beáta Megyesi (Uppsala) “Decoding secret writings from the past”




Thousands of encrypted manuscripts (ciphers) are found in libraries and archives all over Europe, documents that may contain important information for our cultural heritage but are not yet available for historical research. Examples of such materials are diplomatic and military correspondence and intelligence reports, magical, alchemistic, and scientific writings, private letters and diaries, or manuscripts related to secret societies.

In my talk, I’ll tell you about the problems and challenges with the automatic decryption of historical ciphers which is the main focus of my project DECODE: Automatic decoding of historical manuscripts (https://stp.lingfil.uu.se/~bea/decode/).  In order to reveal the content of these secret messages, we collect and digitize ciphertexts and keys from Early Modern times, build a database, and develop software tools for (semi-)automatic decryption by cross-disciplinary research involving computer science, language technology, linguistics and philology.


Short bio

I am associate professor in computational linguistics and head of the Department of Linguistics and Philology, Uppsala University, Sweden. My main research area is natural language processing with specific focus on digital humanities, more specifically the analysis of historical and modern texts in various genres to enable large quantitative studies for the humanities and social sciences. Currently I am working on historical cryptology to develop methods to automatically crack historical ciphers from Early Modern times, which I’ll tell you more about during my talk.