The UNE Museum of Antiquities challenges the public to pit their wits against the department's masters of enigma.
The museum's latest display, "Codes and Codebreaking", shows visitors the development of writing and cryptography from the Stone Age to the Digital Age, from hammer and chisel to analog and digital computers - and dares them to crack coded messages and win a replica Civil War cipher wheel.
The free exhibition (also online, for the first time: http://une.edu.au/codebreaker) is part of the museum's 60th anniversary celebrations. Founded in 1959, it is the country's only regional ancient history and archaeology museum.
"We thought it would be a good time to go through the development of writing," curator Bronwyn Hopwood said.
"So much of what we do and teach is based on writing and written sources, and we have such a nice range of them. We came across a number of references to secret writing as well; we thought: Let's mix it together, and do code-breaking, as well as codifying of messages."
The display tracks the development of writing technology from Babylonian clay and Roman wax tablets to modern iPad tablets, and reed and metal styluses to modern electronic ones.
"You've almost seen the evolution of the same tool from antiquity right through to the modern era," Dr Hopwood said.
Visitors can see Roman tombstones, Egyptian papyrus, impressions from Mohenjo Daro (ancient Pakistan), Myanmar palm leaf astrological charts, and inscribed coins; as well as the more familiar woodblocks and moveable type; Chinese calligraphy ink-brushes, fountain-pens, and ball-pens.
With writing messages came the need to obscure those messages. They begin with simple Spartan scytales (a strip of parchment wound around a cylinder), Polybius squares, and Caesar shifts (jowfoufe cz Kvmjvt).
Mediaeval Islamic scholars discovered how to break codes based on mathematical analysis of the frequency of letters (used by Sherlock Holmes to solve the riddle of the dancing men). This spawned more elaborate attempts to conceal messages, such as cipher wheels and the Trimethius tableau.
These eventually led to such complex mechanisms as the German three-rotor Engima machine, with 158 million million million possible combinations. Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park used Colossus, the first programmable computer, to crack the even more fiendish 12-rotor Lorenz machine.
Today's computers use binary to keep data safe online and the internet, while quantum cryptography uses light and chaos theory to encrypt messages - the next battle in the ongoing war between code-makers and code-breakers.
You won't need these tools to solve the museum's competition, only your brains and the good old Polybius square, Caesar shift, and Trimethius tableau.
The message, Dr Hopwood said, is a story from antiquity related to code-breaking. Hints are also hidden throughout the display.
The first person to solve the message will receive a Confederate Army Cipher Wheel from Creative Crafthouse Florida, manufacturers of cipher and puzzle machines. Woolworths and the UNE Friends of Antiquity have donated $50 Woolworths gift vouchers.
Entries close at 5pm on August 28. The winners will be announced at the free Aspects of Antiquity public lecture given by Professor Stephen Hodkinson (University of Nottingham) on Spartan warriors on Thursday, August 29, at UNE Arts Building Lecture Theatre A2, 5:25pm. Free refreshments from 5:00pm.
The exhibition can be seen at the University of New England's Museum of Antiquities in Display Cabinet 33 in the UNE Arts Building Corridor (E11), or online at: www.une.edu.au/codebreaker. Entry is free; museum open weekdays 9am to 4.30pm.
Dr Hopwood is happy to take people on guided tours; email her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Babylonian tablets may look a mess - lumps of clay covered in wedge-shaped marks like bird-tracks - but they were, Dr Hopwood explained, impressive techniques for storing masses of information in their day.
Royal libraries (preserved because burnt, firing the tablets that were in them) contain everything from literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh to shopping and laundry lists (yes, washing-bills in Babylonic cuneiform).
Scholars are still deciphering them. "Too few people in the world can read cuneiform or the original languages," Dr Hopwood explained. "There are thousands of texts, and people are slowly working their way through them."
Only recently did they discover an astrological chart recording the movement of stars and planets - a skill thought to be invented in the mediaeval period.