Ooparts: Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc (Phaistos Disk, Phaestos Disc) is a curious archaeological find, likely dating to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age. Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. This unique object is now on display at the archaeological museum of Herakleion in Crete, Greece.

phaistos disc replica

Discovery
The Phaistos Disc was discovered in the basement of room 8 in building 101 of the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, near Hagia Triada, on the south coast of Crete. Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier recovered this remarkably intact “dish”, about 15 cm in diameter and uniformly just over 1 cm thick, on July 3, 1908.

Luigi Pernier discovered the disc during his excavation of the first Minoan palace. It was found in the main cell of an underground “temple depository”. These basement cells, only accessible from above, were neatly covered with a layer of fine plaster. Their context was poor in precious artifacts but rich in black earth and ashes, mixed with burnt bovine bones. In the northern part of the main cell, in the same black layer, a few inches south-east of the disc and about twenty inches above the floor, linear A tablet PH-1 was also found. The site apparently collapsed as a result of an earthquake, possibly linked with the explosive eruption of the Santorini volcano that affected large parts of the Mediterranean region ca. 1628 BCE.

Dating
Yves Duhoux (1977) dates the disc to between 1850 BCE and 1600 BCE on the basis of L. Pernier’s report, which says that the Disc was in a Middle Minoan undisturbed context. Jeppesen (1963) dates it to after 1400 on the basis of a wrong translation of Pernier’s report. Doubting the viability of Pernier’s report, Louis Godart (1990) resigns himself to admitting that archaeologically, the disc may be dated to anywhere in Middle or Late Minoan times. J. Best (in Achterberg et al. 2004) suggests a date in the first half of the 14th century based on his dating of tablet PH 1.

Similar objects
No object directly comparable to the Phaistos Disc has been found. There is, however, a small number of comparable symbols known from other Cretan inscriptions, known summarily as Cretan hieroglyphs. First, there is the votive double axe found by Spyridon Marinatos in the Arkalohori Cave, which has “similar, but not identical” glyphs. (Kober 1948:88) The altar stone found at Malia is more distantly related. Finally, there is a seal fragment (HM 992), dated to the 18th century, bearing the “double comb” sign (21). No inscription made with the same set of stamps has been found. Other artifacts bearing spiral-shaped inscriptions are known both from Crete and the Aegaean in general, and even from Etruria. A spiralling Linear A inscription is found on the golden ring of Mavro Spelio near Knossos (KN Zf 13). The Iron Age Discus of Magliano bears a spiralling inscription in Etruscan.

A very peculiar find was made in 1992 in a basement in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia: A fragment of an apparent copy of, or draft for the Phaistos disc, with the symbols incised with a stylus rather than imprinted. It is uncertain whether this artifact is genuinely ancient, a good faith modern copy of the Phaistos disc, or a bad faith attempt at forgery. The house in the basement of which the fragment was found was built in 1880. Allegedly, the object was recognized as a fake and returned to its private owner.

The inscription
The inscription was made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic “seals” into the soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiralling towards the disc’s center. It was then baked at high temperature.

Signs
There are a total of 241 tokens on the disc, comprising 45 unique signs. Many of these 45 signs represent easily identifiable every-day things. In addition to these, there is a small diagonal line that occurs underneath the final sign in a group a total of 18 times. The disc shows traces of corrections made by the scribe in several places. The 45 symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers. Some symbols have been compared with Linear A characters by Nahm[1], Timm[2], and others. Others scholars (J. Best, S. Davis) have pointed to similar resemblances with the Anatolian hieroglyphs, or with Egyptian hieroglyphs (A. Cuny). In the table below, the character “names” as given by Louis Godart (1995) are given in quotation marks; where other description or elaboration applies, they are given in parentheses.

The Phaistos Disc signs have been provisionally assigned Unicode Range 101D0–101FF, to include the 45 signs themselves as well as the combining oblique stroke described below. (Prior to the provisional acceptance of the characters for encoding, the ConScript Unicode Registry has assigned a block of the Unicode Private Use Area to be used for the script. Two fonts include support for this area; Code2000 and Everson Mono Phaistos.)

phaistos-disc-signsE6D0 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN PEDESTRIAN
E6D1 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN PLUMED HEAD
E6D2 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN TATTOOED HEAD
E6D3 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN CAPTIVE
E6D4 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN CHILD
E6D5 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN WOMAN
E6D6 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN HELMET
E6D7 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN GAUNTLET
E6D8 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN TIARA
E6D9 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN ARROW
E6DA PHAISTOS DISC SIGN BOW
E6DB PHAISTOS DISC SIGN SHIELD
E6DC PHAISTOS DISC SIGN CLUB
E6DD PHAISTOS DISC SIGN MANACLES
E6DE PHAISTOS DISC SIGN MATTOCK
E6DF PHAISTOS DISC SIGN SAW
E6E0 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN LID
E6E1 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN BOOMERANG
E6E2 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN CARPENTRY PLANE
E6E3 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN DOLIUM
E6E4 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN COMB
E6E5 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN SLING
E6E6 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN COLUMN
E6E7 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN BEEHIVE
E6E8 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN SHIP
E6E9 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN HORN
E6EA PHAISTOS DISC SIGN HIDE
E6EB PHAISTOS DISC SIGN BULLS LEG
E6EC PHAISTOS DISC SIGN CAT
E6ED PHAISTOS DISC SIGN RAM
E6EE PHAISTOS DISC SIGN EAGLE
E6EF PHAISTOS DISC SIGN DOVE
E6F0 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN TUNNY
E6F1 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN BEE
E6F2 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN PLANE TREE
E6F3 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN VINE
E6F4 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN PAPYRUS
E6F5 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN ROSETTE
E6F6 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN LILY
E6F7 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN OX BACK
E6F8 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN FLUTE
E6F9 PHAISTOS DISC SIGN GRATER
E6FA PHAISTOS DISC SIGN STRAINER
E6FB PHAISTOS DISC SIGN SMALL AXE
E6FC PHAISTOS DISC SIGN WAVY BAND
E6FD PHAISTOS DISC SIGN COMBINING OBLIQUE STROKE
E6FE PHAISTOS DISC SIGN SEPARATOR
E6FF PHAISTOS DISC SIGN BEGINNING OF TEXT

The frequency distribution of the Phaistos Disc signs is:

19-18-17-15-12-11-11-11-11-7-6-6-6-6-6-6-5-5-5-4-4-4-4-4-4-3-3-3-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1 The nine hapaxes are 04 (A5), 05 (B3), 11 (A13), 15 (B8), 17 (A24), 30 (B27), 42 (B9), 43 (B4), 44 (A7). Of the eight twice-occurring symbols, four (03, 21, 28, 41) occur on side A only, three (09, 16, 20) on side B only, and only one (14) on both sides.

The oblique stroke
There are a number of signs marked with an oblique stroke, the strokes are not imprinted but carved by hand and are attached to the first or last sign of a “word”, depending on the direction of reading chosen. Their meaning is a matter of discussion. One hypothesis, supported by Evans, Duhoux, Ohlenroth and others, is that they were used to subdivide the text into paragraphs, but alternative meanings have been offered by other scholars.

Directionality Evans argued that the disc had been written, and should be read, from the center out; because it would have been easiest to place the inscription first and then size the disc to fit the text. There is general agreement that he was wrong, and Evans himself changed his mind: the inscription was made, and should be read, from the outside in toward the centre. The centres of the spirals are not in the centre of the disc, and some of the symbols near the centre are crowded as though the maker was cramped for space. One pair of symbols are set top-to-bottom, so it is hard to tell what order they should be in. Except in the cramped section, when there are overstrikes, the inner symbol overlies the outer symbol. Jean Faucounau has proposed a reconstruction of the scribe’s movements, which would also require an inward direction; Yves Duhoux says that any outward reading may be discarded. Despite this consensus, there are still a few such attempted decipherments (e.g. Massey 2003).

In addition to the question of the directionality of the text on the disc itself, different viewpoints are held as to how the Phaistos Disc characters should be displayed when transcribed into text. The disc itself probably has right-to-left directionality (like Arabic), if reading proceeds from the outside to the centre; this means that the reading direction is into the faces of the people and animals, as it is in Egyptian and Anatolian. Phaistos Disc characters are shown with left-to-right directionality in this article; which is also the typical practice for edited Egyptian and Anatolian hieroglyphic text.

Inscription text
There are 61 “words”, 31 on side A and 30 on side B (numbered A1 to A31 and B1 to B30, outside to inside), here read outside-to-inside (putting the “plumed head” signs word-initially and the strokes word-finally). The shortest words are two symbols in length, the longest seven symbols. The strokes are here transcribed as diagonal strokes (/). The transcription begins at the vertical line of five dots, circling the rim of the disc once, clockwise (13 words on A, 12 words on B) before spiralling towards the center (18 more words on each side). There is one word-final effaced sign at A8, which Godart notes as resembling sign 3 or 20; or less probably 8 or 44. Evans considered side A as the front side, but technical arguments have since been forwarded favouring side B as the front side.

The signs in the transcription below appear in left-to-right orientation, and the reader may read into the faces of the human and animal figures (as one reads Egyptian and Anatolian hieroglyphs):


In numerical transcription: Side A:
02-12-13-01-18/ 24-40-12 29-45-07/ 29-29-34 02-12-04-40-33 27-45-07-12 27-44-08 02-12-06-18-? 31-26-35 02-12-41-19-35 01-41-40-07 02-12-32-23-38/ 39-11 02-27-25-10-23-18 28-01/ 02-12-31-26/ 02-12-27-27-35-37-21 33-23 02-12-31-26/ 02-27-25-10-23-18 28-01/ 02-12-31-26/ 02-12-27-14-32-18-27 06-18-17-19 31-26-12 02-12-13-01 23-19-35/ 10-03-38 02-12-27-27-35-37-21 13-01 10-03-38 Side B:

02-12-22-40-07 27-45-07-35 02-37-23-05/ 22-25-27 33-24-20-12 16-23-18-43/ 13-01-39-33 15-07-13-01-18 22-37-42-25 07-24-40-35 02-26-36-40 27-25-38-01 29-24-24-20-35 16-14-18 29-33-01 06-35-32-39-33 02-09-27-01 29-36-07-08/ 29-08-13 29-45-07/ 22-29-36-07-08/ 27-34-23-25 07-18-35 07-45-07/ 07-23-18-24 22-29-36-07-08/ 09-30-39-18-07 02-06-35-23-07 29-34-23-25 45-07/ The “plumed head” (02) only ever occurs word-initially, in 13 instances followed by the “shield” (12, which in some instances also occurs word-finally). Six words occur twice each: The three-word sequence 02-27-25-10-23-18 28-01/ 02-12-31-26/ occurs twice (A14-16, A20-22). 02-12-31-26/ recurs for a third time (A19). Four more words occur twice each, 02-12-27-27-35-37-21 (A17, A29), 10-03-38 (A28, A31), 22-29-36-07-08/ (B21, B26) and 29-45-07/ (A3, B20).

Decipherment attempts
A great deal of speculation developed around the disc during the 20th century. The Phaistos Disc captured the imagination of amateur archeologists. Many attempts have been made to decipher the code behind the disc’s signs. Historically, almost anything has been proposed, including prayers, a narrative or an adventure story, a “psalterion”, a call to arms, a board game, and a geometric theorem. Some of the more fanciful interpretations of its meaning are classic examples of pseudoarchaeology.

Most linguistic interpretations assume a syllabary, based on the proportion of 45 symbols in a text of 241 tokens typical for that type of script; some assume a syllabary with interspersed logographic symbols, a property of every known syllabary of the Ancient Near East (Linear B as well as cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing). There are, however, also alphabetic and purely logographical interpretations.

While enthusiasts still believe the mystery can be solved, scholarly attempts at decipherment are thought to be unlikely to succeed unless more examples of the signs turn up somewhere, as it is generally thought that there isn’t enough context available for meaningful analysis. Any decipherment without external confirmation, such as successful comparison to other inscriptions, is unlikely to be accepted as conclusive.

Origin of the script
Cretan or foreign origin? There are a few main theories about the origin of the signs. Until recently, most scholars have argued strongly against the local origin of the artifact. Evans (1909:24f.) wrote that

“when one comes to compare the figures in detail with those of the Minoan hieroglyphic signary, very great discrepancy is observable… Out of the forty-five separate signs on the Phaistos Disk, no more than ten more or less resemble Cretan hieroglyphic forms… The human figures in their outline and costume are non-Minoan… The representation of the ship also differs from all similar designs that occur either among the hieroglyphic or the linear documents of Crete”. Ipsen (1929:15) concluded that the Disc was certainly from somewhere on the Aegean. Because of its differences from Linear A or B, Ipsen found it tempting to assume, like Evans, a non-Cretan origin for the Disc. He observes, however, that since Linear A was a common Aegean script such an assumption will not resolve the problem of multiplicity.

The Arkhalohori
Axe and other finds have made Cretan origin more popular: female images with pendulous breasts have also been found at Malia and Phaistos. (Godart 1995:125). Duhoux asserts the Cretan provenance of the disc; in his review of current research, Trauth (1990:154) comes to the conclusion “Crete as source of the Disc can no longer be called into question”.

Original invention or derivation?
Ipsen (1929:11) also speaks against an entirely independent origin of the scripts, arguing that its inventors did not leap from no knowledge of writing to a syllabic script with these elegant signs. He goes on to cite Hieroglyphic Luwian as a “perfect parallel” (Ipsen 1929:17) of an original script inspired under the direct influence of other scripts (its symbol values inspired by cuneiform, its shapes by Egyptian hieroglyphs)

Schwartz (1956:108) asserts a genetic relationship between the Phaistos Disc script and the Cretan linear scripts.

Among the known scripts, there are three main candidates for being related to the Disc’s script, all of them partly syllabic, partly logographic: Linear A, Anatolian hieroglyphs and Egyptian hieroglyphs. More remote possibilities are comparison with the Proto-Canaanite abjad or the Byblos syllabary.

Linear A
Some signs are close enough to Linear A and Linear B that they may have the same phonetic value, like 12 = qe, 43 = ta2, or 31 = ku. A recent systematic comparison with Linear A is that of Torsten Timm, 2004 [1]. Based on the Linear A character distribution patterns collected by Facchetti[3] Timm concludes that the language of the Disc inscription is the same as the language of Linear A. Timm identifies 20 of the 45 characters with Linear signs, assigning Linear B phonetic values to 16.

Anatolian hieroglyphs
Achterberg et al. (2004) present a systematic comparison with Anatolian hieroglyphs, resulting in a full decipherment claim (see below).In particular, they consider the stroke symbol cognate to the Luwian r(a/i) symbol, but assign it the value -ti. The stroke on A3 is identified as the personal name determinative. 01 is compared to the logogram SARU, a walking man or walking legs in Luwian. 02 is compared to word-initial a2, a head with a crown in Luwian. The “bow” 11 is identified as the logogram sol suus, the winged sun known from Luwian royal seals. The “shield” 12 is compared to the near identical Luwian logogram TURPI “bread” and assigned the value tu. 39 they read as the “thunderbolt”, logogram of Tarhunt, in Luwian a W-shaped hieroglyph.

List of decipherment claims
Main article: Phaistos Disc decipherment claims
The decipherment claims listed are categorized into linguistic decipherments, identifying the language of the inscription, and non-linguistic decipherments. A purely logographical reading is not linguistic in the strict sense: while it may reveal the meaning of the inscription, it will not allow for the identification of the underlying language.

Linguistic

  • George Hempl, 1911 (interpretation as Ionic Greek, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Florence Stawell, 1911 (interpretation as Homeric Greek, syllabic writing); B-side first; reading inwards;
  • Albert Cuny, 1914 (interpretation as an ancient Egyptian document, syllabic-logographic writing);
  • Benjamin Schwarz, 1959 (interpretation as mycenean Greek, syllabic writing, comparison to Linear B); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Jean Faucounau, 1975, (interpretation as “proto-Ionic” Greek, syllabic writing [2] [3] [4]); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Vladimir Georgiev, 1976 (interpretation as Hittite language, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Steven R. Fischer, 1988 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Kjell Aartun, 1992 (interpretation as a Semitic language, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Derk Ohlenroth, 1996 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, alphabetic writing); A-side first; reading outwards; numerous homophonic signs;
  • Sergei V. Rjabchikov 1998 (interpretation as a Slavonic dialect, syllabic writing [5][6]); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Adam Martin, 2000 (interpretation as a Greek-Minoan bilingual text, alphabetic writing); reading outwards, side A as Greek, side B as Minoan
  • Kevin & Keith Massey, 2003 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, syllabic writing [7]); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Marco Corsini, 2003 (interpretation as a Greco-Creto-Egyptian document [8]); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Achterberg et al., 2004 (interpreted as Luwian); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Torsten Timm, 2005 (reading attempt based upon the hypothesis of a Cretan Script [9]).

Non-linguistic or logographic

  • Paolo Ballotta, 1974 (interpretation as logographic writing); Leon Pomerance, 1976 (interpretation as astronomical document); Peter Aleff, 1982 (interpretation as ancient gameboard[10] );
  • Ole Hagen, 1988 (interpretation as calendar)
  • Harald Haarmann, 1990 (interpretation as logographic writing);
  • Hermann Wenzel, 1998 (astronomical interpretation)
  • Friedhelm Will, 2000 (interpretation as number-philosophically-document of “Atlantean” origin);
  • Axel Hausmann, 2002 (document from Atlantis, dated to 4400 BC, logographic reading)
  • Rosario Vieni, 2005 (interpretation as a calendar)

Selected bibliography

  • General Balistier, Thomas. The Phaistos Disc – an account of its unsolved mystery, Verlag Thomas Balistier, 2000.
  • Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B, Cambridge University Press, 1958.
  • Duhoux, Yves. Le disque de phaestos, Leuven, 1977. Duhoux, Yves.
  • How not to decipher the Phaistos Disc, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 104, n° 3 (2000), p. 597-600 (PDF 5.9 Mb). Evans, A. J., Scripta Minoa, the written documents of Minoan Crete, with special reference to the archives of Knossos, Classic Books (1909), ISBN 0742640051.
  • Faure, P. “Tourne disque”, l’énigme du disque de Phaistos, Notre Histoire n°213, October 2003 (PDF 0.7 Mb).
  • Godart, Louis. The Phaistos Disc – the enigma of an Aegean script, ITANOS Publications, 1995.
    Kober, Alice: The Minoan Scripts: Facts and Theory. 1948, American Journal of Archaeology, Volume 52, pp. 82 – 103.

  • Timm, Torsten. Der Diskos von Phaistos – Fremdeinfluss oder kretisches Erbe?, BoD, 2005.
    Trauth, Michael: The Phaistos Disc and the Devil’s Advocate. On the Aporias of an Ancient Topic of Research. 1990, Glottometrika 12, pp. 151 – 173.

Attempted decipherments
This list contains off-line accounts of various decipherments mentioned above

  • Aartun, Kjell, ‘Der Diskos von Phaistos; Die beschriftete Bronzeaxt; Die Inschrift der Taragona-tafel’ in Die minoische Schrift : Sprache und Texte vol. 1, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz (1992) ISBN 3-447-03273-1
  • Achterberg, Winfried; Best, Jan; Enzler, Kees; Rietveld, Lia; Woudhuizen, Fred, The Phaistos Disc: A Luwian Letter to Nestor, Publications of the Henry Frankfort Foundation vol XIII , Dutch Archeological and Historical Society, Amsterdam 2004
  • Balistier, Thomas, The Phaistos Disc – an account of its unsolved mystery, Verlag Thomas Balistier, 2000 (as above); describes Aarten’s and Ohlenroth’s decipherments.
  • Faucounau, Jean, Le déchiffrement du Disque de Phaistos & Les Proto-Ioniens : histoire d’un peuple oublié, Paris 1999 & 2001. Fischer, Steven R., Evidence for Hellenic Dialect in the Phaistos Disk, Herbert Lang (1988), ISBN 3261037032
  • Gordon, F. G. 1931. Through Basque to Minoan: transliterations and translations of the Minoan tablets. London: Oxford University Press. Hausmann, Axel, Der Diskus von Phaistos. Ein Dokument aus Atlantis, BoD GmbH (2002), ISBN 3831145482.
  • Hempl, George. “The Solving of an Ancient Riddle: Ionic Greek before Homer”. Harper’s Monthly Magazine (Vol. 122, No. 728 (Jan 1911)): 187-198.
  • Martin, Adam, Der Diskos von Phaistos – Ein zweisprachiges Dokument geschrieben in einer frühgriechischen Alphabetschrift, Ludwig Auer Verlag (2000), ISBN 3-9807169-1-0.
  • Ohlenroth, Derk, Das Abaton des lykäischen Zeus und der Hain der Elaia: Zum Diskos von Phaistos und zur frühen griechischen Schriftkultur, M. Niemeyer (1996), ISBN 3484800089.
  • Polygiannakis, (The Phaistos disk speaks in Greek), Georgiadis, Athens (2000). Pomerance, Leon, The Phaistos Disk: An Interpretation of Astronomical Symbols, Paul Astroms forlag, Goteborg (1976). reviewed by D. H. Kelley in The Journal of Archeoastronomy (Vol II, number 3, Summer 1979)
  • Schwartz, Benjamin. “The Phaistos disk”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies (Vol. 18, No. 2 (1959)): 105-112.
  • Stawell, F. Melian. “An Interpretation of the Phaistos Disk”. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (Vol. 19, No. 97. (Apr., 1911)): 23-29;32-38.

3 comments

  • Mystery of the Phaistos Disk disclosed?
    Text contents of this Disk – the rulers dedication to the high-god of the moon, copied from a labels, made in the form of three bilateral poleaxes, or from inscriptions directly on poleaxes. One of these poleaxes, the largest, four-blade may be used as a lunar calendar. The Disk itself – the moon during a full moon – a sort of portable version of the dedications and calendar.
    For details, see my website: phaestos-disk.at.ua

  • This disk is a history 1 men. This is is not a code.
    Sorry for my english

  • Bouzanis K.

    An actions report of a manager of the ancient Phaistos commercial center

    The famous Phaistos Disc is a printed, per paragraph, synoptic report of a manager actions from the Phaistos commercial center. The spirals, for technical reasons, are starting with guide the edge of the disc, from the periphery to the center, and the inscription, again for technical reasons, begins reversely.
    The Phaistos Disk, the Column from Abydos, the Rosettas Stone, the plate from Egkomi, the plate from the Athena’s sanctuary of the Idalion and the plate of Kortona are some written reports or publications current accounting’s and regulatory acts for the king’s or administration’s or municipality’s informing.

    //skydrive.live.com/?cid=e39b50d7d9ea3235&id=E39B50D7D9EA3235%21105#!/view.aspx?cid=E39B50D7D9EA3235&resid=E39B50D7D9EA3235%21123&app=WordPdf

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