I just saw the film Dora and the Lost City of Gold, in which there is a somewhat meta running commentary over whether so-called "jungle puzzles", intellectual challenges typically requiring explorers to push the right buttons, pull the right levers, step on the right tiles, make the correct offering to an idol, etc., and that stereotypically guard large caches of treasure in treasure hunting films, actually exist.

Did ancient peoples ever actually guard their treasure behind intellectual puzzles? To be clear, it seems to have been extremely common for treasure to be guarded by security through obscurity solutions, with passages hidden behind fake walls, stuff buried in the middle of nowhere, and decoy artifacts and rooms, but I'm having trouble finding any instances of actual puzzles of the kind that appear in H. Rider Haggard novels, Indiana Jones films, and Dungeons & Dragons adventures, where the original designers seem to have intended that the puzzle be solved at some future time by persons deemed worthy enough by possession of the correct skills or knowledge.

The critical difference between a "puzzle" and ordinary hidden or buried treasure is the apparent intent that a future quest for the items would involve significant intellectual efforts, such as applying knowledge of traditional lore, recognizing obscure grammatical quirks, solving math problems, using lateral thinking skills, applying steganographic analysis, recognizing out-of-place elements (e.g. all these symbols are of animals that lay eggs except this one, so this is the correct lever to pull and none other), and otherwise performing cognitively significant tasks beyond bare memorization. Cases where a treasure was apparently hidden or secured without eye to a puzzle but where the effort was concentrated on making it hard to find and/or especially difficult to penetrate (secured against brute force solutions) don't count. Drilling through 10 meters of rock or searching every tree in a forest for the one that has a symbol carved into it is not a puzzle, but a chore. Having to recognize that a "star chart" is actually a map of a forest with a rectangular->polar coordinate transform and that the tree with the symbol is the one corresponding to the center of the galaxy on the map is a puzzle.

If a puzzle was actually solved in modern times by chance or brute force, but significant evidence exists that it was originally intended to be solved via a puzzle process, that can count. For example, if an ancient tomb on the side of a mountain was accidentally rediscovered when a World War One fighter pilot was shot down near it, but a later generation discovered that a 3000 year-old painting in a nearby downtown temple steganographically encodes hiking directions to the entrance, that counts. Similarly, if 18th century scurvy pirates (arr) encountered an Ancient Greek "push the button that doesn't trigger a trap" wall but decided to bypass it with explosives because they were all illiterate and had minimal knowledge of Greek lore, that would also count as long as sufficient evidence exists to reconstruct what the original puzzle configuration probably was.

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    This is hard to read with all the italics.
    – spacetyper
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 4:21
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    Define "ancient". There's plenty of examples of puzzle locks from as early as, say, the 17th century around, but those might be too recent to qualify as "ancient". Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 14:26
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    Does the Gordian Knot count?
    – nick012000
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 9:01
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    @nick012000 I think not; a prophesy doesn't really count as "treasure"
    – TylerH
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 19:40
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    @spacetyper I don't find it so. Commented Aug 30, 2019 at 1:28

4 Answers 4


One man's lock is another man's puzzle.

Combination locks have been used since at least ancient Rome. Whether the lock uses numbers or letters (or other symbols), the combination to be entered may be set based on a riddle or some other piece of knowledge as a mnemonic. The lock is meant to be solved at some future time by someone who has the correct knowledge. The intention of the one who put the lock on was most likely that it only be "solved" by authorized persons, but to a thief it is a puzzle to crack. Lockpicking is as old as locks themselves, and while mechanical solutions are probable--it is likely the codes were sometimes cracked as well.

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    Richard Feynman's lock-picking antics at Los Alamos might be of interest, as it includes attempting to guess the combinations used by fellow scientists. Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 15:52
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    @PieterGeerkens - That passage from Feynman's Autobio is one of the best layman's examples of social engineering attacks that you will see which doesn't involve computer security.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 20:18
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    Lock is not designed with intention to be opened by later worthy explorer. I believe this doesn't answer the question at all, unless you have some good evidence that someone put a combination lock with instructions how to open it. You are merely describing one particular possible tool to protect treasure (or whatever) that could be used for the purpose - but we can see many such options from watching the movies in the Q. Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 10:26
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    @called2voyage Locks are generally intended to NOT be "solved". You might be better than the one making it or using it, so you find weakness, but it isn't intended that you will find it. At least that is what I understand the question to ask. Suppose passwords: say I have a password "Goldilocks". If I never give that password to anyone, it isn't a puzzle to solve and if someone guesses, it still shouldn't count as an example to what I understand the question is asking. If I drop hints that my password is a character that met bears or something, it would be an example though. Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 13:39
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    This seems like a pretty degenerate interpretation of "puzzle". We usually think of a puzzle as something with clues or logic that you're supposed to figure out the solution from. If there's no logic, just a bunch of arbitrary numbers to guess, it's not really a puzzle.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 22:11

The Copper Scroll

The Copper Scroll is a Dead Sea scroll found in 1952, unique in that it is of copper (with a little tin), has a list of 63 or 64 locations of treasure with "obscure hints of the locations".

Although it was initially disputed whether or not the list was historical rather than legendary, a

scholarly consensus seems to be emerging that the Copper Scroll is an authentic record of ancient treasure, to be dated around 68 c.E., and that its treasure belonged either to the sectarians of Qumran or the temple in Jerusalem.

Source: Al Wolters, 'History and the Copper Scroll' (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1994)

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Strip of the Copper Scroll from Qumran Cave 3 written in the Hebrew Mishnaic dialect, on display at the Jordan Museum, Amman. Attrib: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]:

The scroll is also different from other Dead Sea scrolls in the language it uses and in its contents. Notably, it is not a work of literature and there are no legendary-type stories in it; rather, it is an inventory of hidden treasure with some quite detailed descriptions (in part) of specific location. For example,

In ‘The Ruin’ which is in the valley of Achor, under the steps leading to the east (at) forty half-brick cubits: (there is) a chest of silver and its vessels, a weight of seventeen talents.

However, much remains unclear; in particular, both the original source and the quantity (definition of a 'talent') of the treasure are disputed by scholars.

None of these treasures have yet been found. On the difficulties,

The solution to the enigma posed by this scroll is no doubt to be found, at least in part, in the precise study of the text: its topography, the identification of the important site of Koḥlit, and the meaning of the Greek letters: symbols, or rather coded anthroponyms of the individuals in charge of certain repositories.

Source: Émile Puech, 'The Copper Scroll Revisited' (2006)

To what extent the scroll is a genuine puzzle is, admittedly, debatable in that it may have been intended that only a specific individual (the person who hid it) could find a specific location unless he actually revealed key information to someone else. At any rate, it is likely, given the vagueness of the directions to the starting point of the search, that only someone with a detailed local knowledge of the landscape and buildings could find the locations listed in the scroll. It has also been suggested that a second document is needed to find the treasure as item 64 on the list says:

Item 64: In a pit adjoining on the north, in a hole opening northward, and buried at its mouth: a copy of this document, with an explanation and their measurements, and an inventory of each and every thing.

It may be argued that, on the basis that nothing has been found, the treasure is imaginary. However, the fact that the text of the scroll is very difficult to interpret (particularly given changes to the landscape over the centuries) is a major hindrance. It has also been suggested that the treasure was found centuries ago - by the Romans.

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    Would it be mad to suggest that it's part of an ancient con? "Look what I found, a treasure map, would you like to buy it? It's all obscure and everything, just like the maps in the stories" Seems legit Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 9:13
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    @MartinMlima Unlikely, I think, given that it would have been both more costly and more difficult to make than a papyrus or parchment scroll. Still, if it were a con, I imagine quite a few treasure hunters would be pretty cheesed off! Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 10:52
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    As every con man worth his salt will tell you: if you want to con the big fish, you need to think big first. If it took you 10 shekel to produce a fake papyrus treasure map, and 500 shekel to produce a copper one, you will more easily find a wealthy, but somewhat naive merchant from Tyre who is willing to spend 2 gold talents on the copper map than 1 gold talent on the papyrus one. Why? Because the copper map is both more costly and more difficult to make than a papyrus scroll so that the rich merchant will think it's unlikely to be a con.
    – Schmuddi
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 15:25
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    Well, we know that the scroll was hidden with the other manuscripts. What if the people who hid it were the victims of the con, believing that the scroll was actually valuable? But I have to admit that I don't know much more about the Copper Scroll than what I've read in response to your answer (thanks for that!). The Wikipedia article, when outlining existing theories of the origin of the treasure, does refer to Theodor W. Gaster by saying that "Gaster's own favourite theory is that the treasure is a hoax", without explaining the basis for this.
    – Schmuddi
    Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 5:40
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    @Schmuddi Credit to you, I missed that hoax bit in Wiki (I have a tendency to go straight to academic and / or primary sources). Gaster did indeed mention the possibility of a hoax; Gaster himself says "the document says distinctly that another copy was buried elsewhere in the country, and this shows clearly that it purported to be a genuine list." That seemingly rules out legend, but not quite hoax. At the time of writing (1974), though, Gester also commented that the then available translations were often contradictory so further judgement had to be reserved until these had been resolved. Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 6:04

The Egyptian labyrinth(s) could possibly be an example of actual treasure hidden behind a puzzle.

I had a little difficulty finding a source that "felt reliable". This tantalizingly detailed description:

You entered the maze from a descending stairway, hidden on the south side of the pyramid, which led to a small chamber. This apparently led nowhere; the hidden exit was in the roof of the chamber, which concealed a sliding stone trapdoor. This led to an upper chamber that opened into a wide passageway completely filled in by massive stone blocks. One thief had laboriously carved through these blocks, only to discover he had been tricked—the passageway was a dead end. The correct path was a corridor closed only by a wooden door, which opened into a dead-end passage; to get out of this passage you had to find a hidden sliding stone. The sliding stone opened into a bare room; from here a secret trapdoor led to a long passageway. This passageway was filled in with massive stone blocks at its far end, which suggested it might lead somewhere important; even better, two open burial shafts gaped in its floor. One of these shafts was completely filled in by stone slabs and thus seemed like it might have concealed the burial chamber itself, while the other shaft appeared to be empty. The correct route was actually a secret door concealed back in the middle of the long passageway.

isn't very well sourced (here) and the site seems a little more geared toward entertainment than archeology. Egyptian history attracts a lot of ... let's call it "enthusiasm".

Another source I found looks to be a little more healthily skeptical of some claims about labyrinths' descriptions. Herodotus described a labyrinth, but Petrie, who claimed to have found it, might have been wrong:

The case of Amenemhet III's funerary temple being the labyrinth is circumstantial at best. There is no trace of the funerary temple's plan, only its perimeter. It is not located at the corner of a pyramid, nor does it have underground chambers. The only evidence in its favor seems to be its questionable proximity, about 15 miles, to a lake called Moeris (the neighboring Crocodilopolis is not compelling as several other towns bore the same name). For the lake shore to reach the temple, Medinet el Fayyum would necessarily be submerged. It may well be that the labyrinth described by Herodotus and other ancient writers has not been discovered, and lies yet hidden somewhere beneath the desert sands.

Here's what Wikipedia says Herodotus says about the Egyptian labyrinth:

It has twelve covered courts — six in a row facing north, six south — the gates of the one range exactly fronting the gates of the other. Inside, the building is of two storeys and contains three thousand rooms, of which half are underground, and the other half directly above them. I was taken through the rooms in the upper storey, so what I shall say of them is from my own observation, but the underground ones I can speak of only from report, because the Egyptians in charge refused to let me see them, as they contain the tombs of the kings who built the labyrinth, and also the tombs of the sacred crocodiles. The upper rooms, on the contrary, I did actually see, and it is hard to believe that they are the work of men; the baffling and intricate passages from room to room and from court to court were an endless wonder to me, as we passed from a courtyard into rooms, from rooms into galleries, from galleries into more rooms and thence into yet more courtyards. The roof of every chamber, courtyard, and gallery is, like the walls, of stone. The walls are covered with carved figures, and each court is exquisitely built of white marble and surrounded by a colonnade

The "baffling and intricate passages" bit hints at a labyrinth designed to confuse, but maybe it was just labyrinthine to Herodotus.

My preliminary conclusion (especially after reading (well, skimming) that second reference) is that I currently have no idea how much of what people say about Egyptian labyrinths and their purpose is real, but it might be a fruitful path for you to explore if you want definitive proof of "treasure behind a puzzle" in antiquity.

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    This description sounds like what the OP calls security through obscurity, rather than puzzles. Commented May 22, 2021 at 9:15
  • @EmilJeřábek that is a legitimate critique--I would maintain that there is a difference between a labyrinth, which has a "solution" (the correct path through) and a secret panel which is just "you know this is here or you don't". But I can see how one would differ on this and say that my distinction isn't enough to call it different than mere obscurity.
    – msouth
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 15:45

The treasure of the Knights Templar is a case in point. Not the one they left for Dan Brown to find out; the one they dug out by apparent accident, which we now call money multiplier. I have no idea what name they had for the thing, nor if they were even conscious they got hold of a treasure in the form of actual, physical, solid gold coins. This however, as Robert Columbia pointed out, is not the puzzle; it is the treasure. The OP required also the treasure to be guarded by an intellectual challenge, and a "jungle puzzle" look and feel of the unlocking protocol.

In the present case, the intellectual challenge is: how do you make mortgage loans a profitable business in a context where slicing the banker alive in the episcopal palace is a socially acceptable, if illegal alternative to defaulting? And how do you collect deposits in the first place, when retirement planning usually reduces to dropping coins in a secret chest one at a time, deep down in one's own garden? The stroke of genius is in the solution: on the collecting hand, disguise your banking activity as currency exchange, and issue maturities masquerading as traveler's chèques. On the other, loaning hand, disguise your interest loans as sharecropping contracts. All this without either saying "fractional reserve" aloud, nor telling outright lies to your customers.

As for the "jungle puzzle" look and feel, it is corollary to the solution: to keep exchange services in high demand and income in fatty amounts, you must build ships, bulwark a bridgehead in Holy Land, deploy supply lines over the Mediterranean sea, op-research the schedules of the shuttling ships, trim their cargo, sails, and course, dodge storms and squirts of Greek fire, fill log books, quarantine the sick, cook for the healthy, fill immigration forms, patrol the desert in steel combat boots, fill accounting books, balance them, carry them around in auditing campaigns & what not. And you, the would-be banker, cannot subcontract this jungle crawl while presiding boards of directors in the 13th C. equivalent of tailcoat & silk hat; you must exert your own person to each of those tasks from the noblest to the meanest, on pain of acquainting nosy outsiders of your private agenda.

The Order of the Knights Templar (OoKT for short) is known to have issued promissory notes against deposits in cash minus brokerage fees. Overtly or not, these notes were managed as maturities. If covertly, that is, if no maturity date was mentioned on the note, one would be implied if they were only payable in a designated town: the implicit date being set by the duration of the physical trip the note had to survive to reach its point of payment. Hence the importance of barring the average pilgrim or colonist access to fax, or rather to the nearest 13th C. approximant. .

The consequence is, the OoKT must have soon noticed each of its exchange offices was squatting on a heap of gold of roughly constant thickness and computed that, at whatever office it showed an inclination to dwindle, this would be linked with an increased popularity of the town among tourists. Hence, the dwindling could be controlled by writing an explicit maturity date on the notes; e. g. under the pretext that secure gold transfer to that specific office is slower if every ship heading to it is full to the rim with passengers of unknown probity.

The next thing any banker in the OoKT's shoes would take notice of is, if each and every gold mattress entrusted to them has constant height over time, then gold transfer is not needed at all: so, transfer authenticated balance sheets instead (those are needed, to beacon the managers of the exchange offices to the path of righteous poverty), which can be secured at much lower cost. The provision for hijacked or lost ships thus dropping by 90%, the broker can now pocket an equal portion of the exchange fees, and make a cosy income of what was originally a minimal indemnity against the risks in his business. This however is not the actual treasure; merely the tip for the clerk and the teller.

The 3rd thing is to secure said mattresses against robbers, which as any banker will soon reflect, easily obtains by converting them to something several times heavier than a robber; to wit, real estate. This is how bankers discovered again and again that, for better and often for worse, opening credit in excess of one's reserves amounts to creating actual, physical, 79Au money out of nowhere. This, in my view, is also how Philip the Fair discovered to his dismay that the actual, physical, 79Au-based wealth of the Order litterally flew up the chimney when he sent them to the stake.

The OP only requires the jungle puzzle to appear as a deliberate setup authored by whoever buried the treasure, to select the worthy by intellectual challenge. Who did this in the case of the OoKT is anyone's guess; mine is, in long format, twas none other than Lil' Geez' o' Nazar'; witness, extant hints to the place of burial, cf. Matt. XIX:21; "go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. " Which the founders of the OoKT diligently did; only they correctly reckoned that once the Kingdom of Heaven tranferred its capital from Beloved City Up There to earthly Jerusalem down here, its central bank would follow, and down with it the promised treasure.

If this seems far-fetched, try Pope Gregory as the treasure-burier. He advocated the Jews be left free to mind their business; which traditionally includes pawnbroking and other financial services. So there might be a 1.3kyr old note describing the benefits of fractional reserve policy, somewhere in the Vatican secret archives. In short format, I don't have a clue, so your pet theory is welcome. Preferably if, unlike mine, it is backed with actual archives, secret or not.

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    What you are describing is fractional reserve banking, not a puzzle.
    – Robert Columbia
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 16:11
  • @Robert Columbia you're quite right, it is not a puzzle; in my view, it is the treasure. The puzzle is how to make banking look natural in the eyes of the prospective customers: how to convince people that their gold is safer in the banker's vault, the location of which is known to every robber in town, than in a hole in their garden.
    – Paul Borel
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 16:34
  • @Robert Columbia and the solution to the puzzle is: "well we're not here for those who stayed behind to till their garden, we're here for those who move with us, to where the Kingdom of the Lord awaits terraforming."
    – Paul Borel
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 16:41
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    You do know that the Vatican secret archives are not actually secret? It's just a mistranslation from Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum, where "Secretum" really just means "private". In fact, the archive is well-catalogued & documented, large parts of it have been digitised and are available on DVD (very expensive, but nonetheless available), and thousands of historical researchers visit it in person every year. Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 11:08
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    We are looking for answers both well researched and easily read. Writing answers that are effectively riddles as well as self-parodying is likely to attract down-votes. Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 13:03

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