Shug Days: Cracking a 270-year-old Epigraphical Mystery

Jack Mitchell

My wife is still hesitating between having her ashes scattered and resting modestly in some bucolic cemetery. As a Classicist, I cannot understand this. I intend to go grand. Nicholas Cage’s pyramid will look petty by comparison. Hard stone, well-drained land, protective enchantments, grave goods: the works. And, above all, plenty of clear inscriptional material – Res Gestae-tier – for my epigraphist friends. Fortunately – if fortune is on my side – I still have several decades to work out the details.

There is an alternative route to immortality, however: the utterly enigmatic memorial, so full of hints and weird allusions that the passing traveller can’t help but pause and Google it. This approach was perfected by the Picts, whose inspired choice of the Ogham alphabet long masked even the Indo-European origins of their language. But in modern times we reached peak epigraphical obscurity with the so-called Shugborough Inscription, which takes its name from Shugborough Hall in so-called Staffordshire. Using just eight letters, whoever composed it, whoever chiselled it, whoever paid for it managed to find a place even in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, that mother of all historical conspiracy theories, a feat otherwise requiring blackmail of the Vatican just for openers. [1]

What are those eight letters? O · U · O · S · V · A · V · V. These seem harmless enough. But they occur in a peculiar setting. Somewhat raised above the middle of their marble stone, they are chiselled between two other letters on a lower level, D · M – which may be presumed to stand for the common phrase Dis Manibus, “to the Manes spirits,” the pagan Roman version of the RIP formula on modern tombstones. Most of all, the whole inscription appears below a scene carved into another marble block in low relief, which is an altered version of Nicolas Poussin’s notoriously mysterious painting Et in Arcadia Ego (1637/8):[2] three bent shepherds, accompanied by a wreath-crowned upright woman, pondering a tomb inscription that means literally “Also in Arcadia am I.” (But who is the ego speaking? Death himself? The deceased? A Templar?) The Shugborough version is reversed and the tomb it depicts is taller and more ornate. Needless to say, Poussin and his painting feature prominently in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail; but what are Poussin’s shepherds doing in Staffordshire?

The short answer is that the relief, now known to most as the “Shepherds Monument”, was commissioned by Thomas Anson (c.1695–1773), MP for Lichfield (1747–70), traveller, dilettante, and member of the Royal Society, carved by the Dutchman Peter Schneemakers, and erected sometime between 1748 and 1750.[3] Or at least the Poussin scene was: the eight letters themselves, OUOSVAVV, are not attested before 1817. A pioneer of Greek Revival, Mr. Anson built the obligatory rusticated Doric enclosure for his bucolic Poussin, among numerous other estate-enhancing expenditures. He never married, and there was speculation that the Poussin relief was “perhaps… a secret memorial of some loss of a tender nature in his early days; for he was wont often to hang over it in affectionate and firm meditation. This opinion is the more probable from the… mysterious inscription… The meaning of these letters Mr. Anson would never explain.”[4]

Thomas Anson around the age of 40, unknown English artist, 1730s (Shugborough Hall, Staffs, UK).

So far so enigmatic. There are two obvious questions. First, what the hell does OUOSVAVV mean? Second, why would you carve these letters beneath a very expensive and charming marble relief of Poussin’s picture?

Unfortunately it is the second question, concerning motive, that tends to get answered before the first question, concerning content. Obscurity means mystery, and mystery means secrets, and secrets could well mean the Grail, and the next thing you know you’ve written a global bestseller. To show what I mean, here are some of the more creative solutions to OUOSVAVV that do not involve pirate treasure or Kabbalah:

Out Your Own Sweet Vale, Alicia, Vanishes Vanity. [Twixt Deity and Man Thou, Shepherdess, The Way] This solution by Margaret, Countess of Lichfield (1899–1988), was arrived at by a process akin to mantic divination[5] and gets bonus points for supplying an answering poetic line out of the blue. The Alicia in question was a shepherdess, otherwise unattested, whose virtue converted her pagan admirers to Christianity. Use of U for “You” or “Your,” the countess explained, is a common amatory inscriptional device on trees (e.g. “I ♡ U”).[6]

Dendroglyphic fancy.

In view of the letters’ being unattested before 1817, Mr A.J. Morton has suggested that D   OUOSVAVV   M is an amalgam of nearby localities and 19th-century families, observing that “It is very likely that Mary Venables-Vernon of Sudbury Hall, the Baron Vernon of Derbyshire, the honourable Edward Vernon-Harcourt and the 1st Viscount Anson of Orgreave (a hamlet United with Overley) and Shugborough were somehow involved.”[7] The seemingly random apportioning of the letters here does awaken the drowsy demon of scepticism, however.

Given the pronounced neo-classicism of Anson’s building programme, and the presence of the standard D M formula, other sleuths have proposed Latin-language solutions. The novelist Oliver Stonor (1903–87), born Frederick Field Stoner (sic), who also wrote under the name E. Morchard Bishop, suggested Optimae Uxoris Optimae Sororis Viduus Amantissimus Vovit Virtutibus (“A most loving widower dedicated [this monument] to the virtues of an excellent wife, an excellent sister”).[8] This solution has some sufficient or nearly sufficient components: U for Uxor (not least because Latin has few common nouns in u-),[9] recurrence of Optimae for the two O’s, Vovit for one of the three V’s (an almost obligatory verb in dedicatory offerings, though not in funerary inscriptions; Virtutibus Vovit would also be a more natural word order). The main problem with this solution, Andrew Baker argues, is that it does not fit the Anson family at the time the Poussin relief was erected, since there was no Viduus (“widower”) available, Thomas Anson’s father having died in 1720, his sister-in-law living until 1760, and Thomas himself never having married. (Spoiler: the Antigone solution, below, does find an available widower, though not one who dedicated [Vovit] the monument.)

Shugborough Hall from the banks of the River Sow (which flows through the estate). The “Shepherds Monument” lies beyond the tree in the left of the image… just turn left at the Doric Temple.

Mr Baker, whose book on Anson and Shugborough Hall I highly recommend, is attracted to the Platonic Revival that was part of the Greek Revival,[10] with its otherworldly idealism, and so prefers the otherworldly solution of Steve Regimbal, an American lawyer and playwright: Orator Ut Omnia Sunt Vanitas Ait Vanitas Vanitatum (something like “The orator says that everything is vanity, vanity of vanities”), effectively a translation into Latin of the King James translation of Ecclesiastes 12:8 (“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity”: in the Vulgate, Vanitas vanitatum, dixit Ecclesiastes, et omnia vanitas). This reverses the rather famous order of phrases and, fatally, reboots Latin syntax, either taking ut as a kind of Latin equivalent to Greek ὡς, introducing indirect discourse, or, if ut ait orator is taken as a parenthetical phrase, implausibly separating ut from ait.

Also sounding the “all is vanity” note is the theory of American linguist Keith Massey, who takes OUOSVAVV to mean Oro Ut Omnes Sequantur Viam Ad Veram Vitam (“I pray that all shall follow the path toward the true life”), referencing John 14:6 “Ego sum via, et veritas, et vita” (I am the way, the truth, and the life”).[11] This is grammatically sound, though there are some oddities: the Christianity doesn’t mesh well with nearby pagan Di Manes; “praying” in this context is usually a command to the reader (e.g. ora pro me, “pray on my behalf”) rather than an act in the first person; Ad (“toward”) really ought to be In (“into,” “to”); and overall the esoteric medium of a Latin cypher doesn’t suit the inclusive sentiment: if you’re so keen that everybody follow the path to the true life, write a pamphlet.

It must be said that the Regimbal and Massey theories do suit the Et in Arcadia Ego theme of the Poussin relief, as eloquently developed in a contemporary poem by the Reverend Sneyd Davies, a Lichfield prebendary, which describes it:

Upon that storied marble cast thine eye:
The scene commands a moralizing sigh;
Ev’n in Arcadia’s bless’d Elysian plains,
Amidst the laughing Nymphs and sportive swains,
See festal joy subside, with melting grace,
And pity visit the half-smiling face;
Where now the dance, the lute, the nuptial feast,
The passion throbbing in the lover’s breast?
Life’s emblem here, in youth and vernal bloom,
But Reason’s finger pointing at the tomb![12]

Reader, how heavily in my ears these lines resound! It is hard to remember a time when I was not obsessed with the Shugborough Inscription, though in fact it was just two weeks ago as I was procrastinating on paper-grading. Turning fatefully to the Antigone Twitter feed, I found the facts presented above, preceded by the warning, “If you’re looking to fritter away an otherwise enjoyable evening…” Reader, I clicked. “Dickens and Darwin failed,” Antigone promised. “But you won’t!”

In fact, credit for the breakthrough belongs not to me but to Antigone herself, who had evidently been on “the Shug” (as we’ve come to call it) for some time. The Antigone theory, for which I served mostly as reply-guy sounding-board, presumes that OUOSVAVV is Latin (what else, beneath Poussin?) and more or less contemporary with the original relief (i.e. 1748–56); it focuses on the concluding V V, an unusual sequence of letters, and notes the close connection between Anson and the nearby family of Venables-Vernon (as per Morton). This connection is contemporary with the relief in that George Venables-Vernon (1709–80) immediately preceded Thomas Anson as MP for Lichfield; George V-V’s daughter Mary V-V would later marry Thomas’s nephew George Anson, a zealous abolitionist and Thomas’ successor as MP for Lichfield.[13] George Venables-Vernon’s second wife, whom he married in 1741, was Anne Lee (1721–42), who through being resident at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire lived only 16 miles (by coach) from Anson at Shugborough Hall.

Anne Venables-Vernon (née Lee) around the age of twenty, Thomas Hudson (attrib.), c.1740 (Sudbury Hall, Derbs, UK).

So far so Grail-free: what could be more suited to the formula D M, and the Poussin picture of a tomb, than a funerary monument to a contemporary? Taking up Stonor/er’s “Optimae Uxoris…” and concluding with Anne Venables-Vernon, we have:

Optimae Uxoris OSVAnnae Venables-Vernon

It is natural, in the rhetoric of funerary inscriptions, to repeat Optimus for a second O, again following Stonor/er. What of the S…? I suggested sponsa (betrothed), but Antigone pointed out that Anne was not betrothed at death but had been married for a year. (The same problem would presumably veto V for Virginis, “maiden.”) I suggested Sororis (“sister”), and it turns out Anne did have two brothers; I suggested Sobrinae (“niece,” technically on the uncle’s sister’s side), and it turns out her uncle George Lee was indeed an MP at the same time as Thomas Anson. But really, simplicity is best, and Antigone’s suggestion of simple Sodalis (“friend”) sounds most natural, and allows Anson to have some direct stake in the monument:

Optimae Uxoris Optimi Sodalis VAnnae Venables-Vernon

[To the spirit] of the excellent wife of an excellent friend… Anne Venables-Vernon

George Venables-Vernon in his mid-twenties, John Vanderbank, 1736 (Sudbury Hall, Derbs, UK).

This leaves just the V… It would be convenient if Anne were a Vicountess vel sim., but her husband was merely a Baron, and that not until 1762. No other title (or stock adjective) suggests itself, so we must take our V with the preceding words instead. Here there are two obvious possibilities: Vidui (“widower”), modifying Sodalis (“friend”), and Viri (“man”). Vidui is attractive because George V-V was, by Anne’s death, a widower; by that very token, however, it is redundant to specify on a funerary monument that your friend, in losing his wife, has become a widower. Viri, by contrast, is almost necessary here, because Sodalis (which is technically an adjective) could otherwise be taken as modifying Uxoris (as Optimae Uxoris Optimae Sodalis: “[to the spirit] of an excellent wife, an excellent friend”), whereas the inclusion of Viri clarifies that the central three words are masculine.[14]

In sum, the Antigone solution is as follows:

Optimae Uxoris Optimi Sodalis Viri Annae Venables-Vernon

[To the spirit] of the excellent wife of an excellent gentleman friend,[15] Anne Venables-Vernon

In view of the close association of Thomas Anson and George Venables-Vernon, as successive MPs for Lichfield and as uncle and father-in-law of the subsequent MP for Lichfield, their friendship, while not positively proven, is easily assumed. As to possible objections: it is true that Anne had died some time prior to the erection of the Poussin relief, but these things do take time to organise; it is true that, as Barnaby Taylor noted, by the time the Poussin relief was erected, George Venables-Vernon had since remarried, so “Optimae Uxoris” might raise eyebrows with the new in-laws, but I think some exaggeration is permitted in this genre, and “optimae” as a typically gushing Latin superlative need not be taken comparatively.

Such then is the Antigone theory: neat, local, Latinate. But it can be a long road back from the Shug. As A.J. Morton remarked, “I’ve tried convincing myself that I’m wrong, but I can’t see any way out. While I’m pleased to have solved it, I do worry that I’ve destroyed something magical.” Objectively, however, failure is inevitable: we cannot summon Thomas Anson from the afterlife (at least not without the Grail) and question him; anyway he would likely refuse to talk. We can prove nothing. But scholarship is never more than the victory of plausibility over possibility. Before the tomb of history, we crouch like bucolic shepherds, pointing Reason’s finger, baffled but enchanted by faint traces of the past.

Jack Mitchell is an associate professor of Classics at Dalhousie University. His most recent work is an adaptation of Star Wars as an 8,000-line epic poem, The Odyssey of Star Wars.


1 The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln was a major international bestseller and an inspiration both for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and for Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), can neither be too warmly recommended as a gripping page-turner nor too cautiously relied upon as a work of historical scholarship.
2 Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) was the leading French neo-classical Baroque painter of the 17th century (though in fact he spent most of his adult life in Italy). Poussin painted Et in Arcadia Ego twice, the first version in 1627 and the second (famous) version in 1637–8. As J.S. Boparai has pointed out on this site, Poussin’s themes are frequently baffling in and of themselves; it is thus not easy to gauge how wilfully obscure Et in Arcadia Ego is.
3 See Andrew Baker, Thomas Anson of Shugborough and the Greek Revival (open-access PDF, 2020, rev. 2021) 167ff. The monument is not named specifically before 1756, but is evidently described in the poem of 1750 by the Rev. Sneyd Davies quoted in part below. Mr Baker states plainly that “There is no documentary evidence of the monument’s origin in the Anson archive” (Baker 2021, 156). It is widely stated online that Thomas’ brother George, a distinguished admiral, paid for the monument, on what basis I am unable to discover; per Baker, until his death in 1762, George was living 120 miles away in Hertfordshire and “There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the expansion of the estate [at Shugborough], the landscaping and the extensions to the house, had anything to do with George’s wealth” (p.50).
4 Sir Thomas Clifford and Arthur Clifford, A Topographical and Historical Description of the Parish of Tixall in the County of Stafford (1817) 65. To our knowledge this is the first explicit attestation of the OUOSVAVV letters, although the story given above implies that they were there at least at the time of Thomas Anson’s death (1773).
5 Andrew Baker, Thomas Anson of Shugborough and the Greek Revival, 2020 (rev. 2021) 178–82.
6 “I was astounded when the letters fitted even to the U for You,” she wrote in a letter to Mr Baker in 1983. “In those days (& before) lovers used to scratch on windows with a diamond ‘I L U’ that meant ‘I love you’. So the U is right, for it means ‘you’ in lovers language” (Baker 2021, 179–81). The countess confirmed this as her interpretation of the U in a later letter (1987) to Paul Smith.
7 Shepherd’s Monument ‘code’ was 19th-century graffiti,” Telegraph, 2 Feb. 2011.
8 Baker (2021) 183.
9 Although U and V were not distinguished in Classical Latin, and their capital form was uniformly “V”, the two were routinely distinguished in English inscriptions from the Early Modern period onwards.
10 Ibid.
11 200-year-old mystery of Shugborough Code ‘solved.’BusinessLive, 21 Dec. 2014.
12 This poem, which goes on to enumerate the wonders of Thomas Anson’s estate, was actually read aloud in Parliament in 1820, apparently in the mistaken belief that it was in praise of Anson’s brother, the distinguished admiral.
13 The reader must be warned that this family tree is replete with Ansons, Venables, and Vernons, the key caveat being that all Venables are Vernon but not all Vernons are Venable.
14 Of course, “clarifies” is not the most obvious verb in an inscription that limits itself to such infuriating abbreviations!
15 A variant of this suggestion would be sodalis virique, “of an excellent friend and gentleman,” but this would give more nouns to the widower than to the deceased.