A Puzzling History

Join us as we delve into the puzzling world to see what we can learn about the history of one of our favourite pastimes – puzzling!

Whimsical Wordplay

You may have noticed that we love a bit of wordplay here at Treasure Trails. In fact, for International Joke Day last year, our Pun Master, Tris, released 76 cheesy Treasure Trails puns to give us a good giggle.

Puns – both humorous and non-humorous – can be found in centuries literature; Lewis Carrol was a fan, as was James Joyce. The title of ‘King of Puns’ has to go to William Shakespeare, who used over 3,000 puns in his plays! Sorry, Pun Master Tris, that trumps your 76...


William Shakespeare Wearing a Crown | A Puzzling History

William Shakespeare: King of Puns!

It’s not really surprising that Lewis Carrol loved wordplay, considering the creative and colourful way he used language within his books. But, he also invented the popular word puzzle Doublets (sometimes called a Word Ladder) which you may have stumbled upon in an issue of Puzzler or the puzzle page in a newspaper.

Doublets | A Puzzling History

An example of Doublets.

Powerful Palindromes

It’s not just puns that have kept us entertained throughout history, though. Our ancestors loved a good palindrome – a word, phrase or sequence that’s spelt the same backwards as forwards.

One famous, ancient example can be found in the Sator Square – a five-line Latin palindrome. It has been found in various historic locations across the world including here in the UK, etched into the wall of a Roman house in Cirencester. However, the oldest version of the word square was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, meaning it existed before 79AD!

Scrabble Sator Square | A Puzzling Autumn

A Scrabbling Sator Square.

There are debates over what the phrase in the Sator Square stands for, but it is assumed to say: “The farmer Arepo holds and works the wheel (plough)”, with Arepo being a given name.

Many have attributed magical properties to the Sator Square – and palindromes in general – as they believed the repeated words would confuse demons. This is why palindromes and word squares can be spotted at several religious sites across the globe.

Palindrome on a Church Font | A Puzzling History

A Greek palindrome of the font at St Martin’s Church in Ludgate.

Image: By Andrewrabbott - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50304621

Riddle Me This

Another type of wordplay we love here at Treasure Trails is a riddle, probably even more than we love anagrams (and, if you’re a keen Trailer, you’ll know we LOVE those!).

One of the oldest, most famous riddles in history is The Riddle of the Sphinx, from Greek mythology. The story goes that a sphinx was sent to guard the entrance to Thebes, a city in Greece. The sphinx would ask all travellers a riddle and allow passage into the city for those who could answer, not that any could (you don’t want to know what happened to those who couldn’t).

The Riddle of the Sphinx | A Puzzling History

The Riddle of the Sphinx – can you guess the answer?

Eventually, Oedipus  – a tragic hero in Greek mythology – was able to best the sphinx with his answer: Man. He said that man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult and uses a third foot – a walking cane – to keep his balance when elderly.

However, this isn’t actually the oldest riddle. The first recorded riddle was discovered in the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, named after Alexander Henry Rhind who purchased the papyrus in 1858 after it was said to be found during an illegal excavation. The papyrus, an example of mathematics in ancient Egypt, dates all the way back to circa 1550BC!

In amongst the numerous mathematical problems recorded in the five-metre long document, sits the oldest recorded riddle that has been discovered. It goes a little something like this:

There are seven houses;
In each house there are seven cats;
Each cat catches seven mice;
Each mouse would have eaten seven ears of corn;
If sown, each ear of corn would have produced seven hekat of grain.
How many things are mentioned altogether?

Sound familiar? That’s because it sounds a lot like the English nursery rhyme “As I Was Going to St Ives”, made popular in the 18th-century.

Of course, as well as being a riddle, it forms a mathematical problem on the textbook-like papyrus, with the answer of 19,607! Although, with the St Ives version, the most popular belief is the answer is one – because YOU are going to St Ives.

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus | A Puzzling History

A section of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, currently looked after by The British Museum.

Strength in Numbers

School maths lessons may have seemed like a bit of a drag but looking back, a lot of the problems and equations solved have their roots in ancient mathematical puzzles. If we revisit the Rhind Papyrus, we see everything from geometry to algebra, arithmetic to tables of data, all seen as puzzles for ancient scholars to learn.

Let’s Get Logical

Not all mathematical problems are as simple as numbers on a page. For instance, take the Towers of Hanoi – a popular problem invented by French mathematician Edouard Lucas in 1883.

The puzzle involved three vertical pegs and a number of rings of varying sizes, stacked on the first peg with the largest ring on the bottom and the smallest on the top. The rings have to be moved, one at a time, from the first peg to the last peg and stacked in the same order. But, here’s the catch, a smaller ring can NEVER be placed below a larger ring.

The puzzle has proved popular, both in physical form and even as an online game! Can you crack it?

Tower of Hanoi | A Puzzling History

The Towers of Hanoi puzzle game.

Image: By Ævar Arnfjörð Bjarmason, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=228623

Taking Shape

You might know Archimedes thanks to his “Eureka!” moment in the bath when he discovered that water displacement can measure density. But he’s also one of the greatest mathematicians of all times (and engineers and inventors and astronomers… he was busy!). An ancient mathematical problem, attributed to Archimedes, is a dissection puzzle known as the Stomachion (or Ostomachion).

The puzzle contains 14 shapes inside a square, with the goal of taking the square apart and trying to fit the pieces back into place. Although some puzzlers also enjoyed rearranging the pieces to form pictures of birds and other animals.

Stomachion | A Puzzling History

Archimedes’ Stomachion. Try printing it off, cutting it out and trying to solve it!

The Stomachion was almost lost forever when a manuscript containing it, copied from Archimedes original work in the 10th century, was scraped off and reused as a prayer book in the 13th century! Luckily, centuries later, the text underneath the prayers – known as The Archimedes Palimpsest – was recovered, thanks to modern technology.

Since its discovery, many mathematicians have wondered just how many solutions there are to the Stomachion. Well, one clever-clogs called Bill Cutler gave it a go and discovered 536 distinct solutions!

Not as Old as you Look!

One surprising thing is how modern so many popular puzzles actually are. Pick up a puzzle book, and you’ll see crosswords and wordsearches and codewords and so on. But, did you know that the crossword – as we know it – was only invented in 1913?

A Timeline of Modern Puzzles | A Puzzling History

A timeline of modern puzzles that aren’t as old as you might think!

Another popular puzzle that crops up in a typical puzzle book – a favourite of Treasure Trails’ Resident Wordsmith, Rachel – is the logic puzzle, which involves deduction and, often, a grid. The goal is to determine a set of correct answers using only the limited information given to you.

You’d think this style of puzzle could go all the way back to the Rhind Papyrus or Archimedes, right? In fact, it only began to emerge in the 19th-century thanks to popular author – you guessed it – Lewis Carrol. In fact, he even wrote books about logic problems in amongst his other writing, photographic and religious pursuits!

Although these brainteasers may not seem that old, just by delving into the history of puzzles and problems, you can see how modern puzzles have been influenced by the past.

Join The Puzzle Academy

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Treasure Trails Puzzle Academy Logo | A Puzzling Autumn

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