Armchair Treasure Hunting: A Trip Through the Academic Literature

Having recently wrapped up a three-part overview (one, two, three) of the academic literature on my favorite game show, Jeopardy!, I’m now turning my attention to the scholarly conversation surrounding another of my abiding interests: armchair treasure hunts. With the general hectic-ness of my life over the last several months, I’ve had to step away from actively participating in any myself, but I’ve sunk quite a bit of time into both the Fenn treasure and Byron Preiss’s The Secret over the last couple of years.

As a historian, I am intrigued by the possibility of using treasure hunts to teach and practice historical research skills, and around this time last year, I started pulling together scholarly materials to lay the foundation for a conference presentation on that topic. Other projects (such as the book and the dissertation) intervened shortly thereafter, and so said talk has yet to materialize. A recent post on the Fenn treasure subreddit reminded me, however, that I had already done most of the legwork in terms of secondary research. I have organized those papers and presentations into three main themes below, and I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list–only that it is an extensive one. Here goes!



(“Armchair by Adrien Karbowsky, 1912-1913, Musée d’Orsay (Paris)” by Sailko is licensed under CC BY 3.0.)


Theme One: (Debunking) the Beale Ciphers

James J. Gillogly, “The Beale Cipher: A Dissenting Opinion,” Cryptologia 4, no. 2 (1980): 16-19.

Joe Nickell, “Discovered: The Secret of Beale’s Treasure,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 90, no. 3 (1982): 310-324.

Louis Kruh, “A Basic Probe of the Beale Cipher as a Bamboozlement,” Cryptologia 6, no. 4 (1982): 378-382; “Part II,” Cryptologia 12, no. 4 (1988): 241-246.

John C. King, “A Reconstruction of the Key to Beale Cipher Number Two,” Cryptologia 17, no. 3 (1993): 305-317.

Wayne S. Chan, “Key Enclosed: Examining the Evidence for the Missing Key Letter of the Beale Cipher,” Cryptologia 32, no. 1 (2008): 33-36.

Todd D. Mateer, “Cryptanalysis of Beale Cipher Number Two,” Cryptologia 37, no. 3 (2013): 215-232.

John F. Dooley, “The Beale Ciphers in Fiction,” Cryptologia 43, no. 4 (2019): 344-358.

As you have probably already guessed from the title of this section, as well as from the titles of the articles themselves, a substantial portion of the scholarship on armchair treasure hunts has been devoted to debunking the hunt and/or hoax known as the Beale Ciphers. The Ciphers, for the uninitiated, purport to describe a massive treasure (worth tens of millions of dollars today!) buried in Bedford County, Virginia, by a mysterious Thomas J. Beale roughly two centuries ago. Most of these papers were published by the journal Cryptologia, and most are statistical analyses either of the “decrypted” cipher or of the two unsolved puzzles. Two exceptions to those generalizations are Nickell’s historical inquiry into the origins of the Ciphers (a personal favorite of mine and a good place to begin your reading) and Dooley’s exploration of recent fictional works that in some form or fashion use the Beale Ciphers as a plot point. Other than skimming the articles for this lit review, I have not spent any time looking for the Beale treasure myself, and based on the findings of said articles, I don’t really see any good reason to do so.


Theme Two: Armchair Treasure Hunts and Alternate Reality Games

Ivan Askwith, Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and Tim Crosby, “This Is Not (Just) An Advertisement: Understanding Alternate Reality Games,” for MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, 2006.

Stephanie Janes, “Promotional alternate reality games — more than ‘just’ marketing,” Arts and the Market 5, no. 2 (2015): 183-196.

Both of these works situate armchair treasure hunts in the longer developmental history of alternate reality games. Kit Williams’s groundbreaking Masquerade is mentioned by each author/team (Janes actually cites Askwith et al to that end), and the general consensus is that ATHs helped set the stage for later ARGs by using the real world as the “game board,” encouraging players to get up and get out in search of the prize. Since ARGs are the primary focus of each work, there is not much else to say here, but it is good to see foundational ATHs like Masquerade getting the recognition they rightly deserve.


Theme Three: The Man, Myth, and Legend of Forrest Fenn

Forrest Fenn, “‘Clovis and Beyond’ Conference, Central States Archaeological Journal 47, no. 3 (2000): 141.

Forrest Fenn, “The Mother of Indiana Jones, ‘A Collector Strikes Back,'” Central States Archaeological Journal 48, no. 1 (2001): 3-8.

Jean M. O’Brien and Lisa Blee, “What Is a Monument to Massasoit Doing in Kansas City? The Memory Work of Monuments and Place in Public Displays of History,” Ethnohistory 61, no. 4 (2014): 635-653.

Alan King, “Treasure Hunting as an American Subculture: the Thrill of the Chase,” Human Arenas (2020).

In some ways, this is a catch-all category, with the only thread tying the articles together being the larger-than-life persona of Forrest Fenn. The first, a single page in length, is simply an announcement of an academic conference; the second, also by Fenn, is a defense of his presence at that conference and of his work in the art and archaeology worlds more broadly. (I have not read much of Fenn’s writing outside of The Thrill of the Chase, but it might be of interest to those seeking additional insight into the mind of the hunt’s creator.) The third tells the story of an enigmatic statue of Wampanoag leader Massasoit that wound up in Kansas City, MO (Fenn once owned the statue and appears as a “character” in the narrative), and the fourth, recently discussed on the Fenn treasure subreddit, is a psychological/statistical analysis of participants in the hunt.



(1) While there is little here that will aid armchair treasure hunters directly other than perhaps Fenn’s apologia, many of the articles are interesting, and the simple fact that so many scholars have researched and written on ATHs is evidence that they are an important cultural touchstone in their own right.

(2) Also, maybe don’t spend too much time looking for the Beale treasure.

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