As you probably learned in my introduction, I am a history and archeology nerd, and this week I am very excited to share one of my favorite archeological mysteries...
The Phaistos Disk
Currently, nothing like it has been discovered, even though the archaeological community presses on to uncover the history of the world piece by piece —sometimes even fragment by fragment!
This disk was discovered on July 3rd, 1908, by an Italian archaeologist named Luigi Pernier, in the ancient Minoan city-palace of Phaistos. This is located on the south coast of the Island of Crete. This disk is still a puzzle over 100 years later, mostly because no one knows what is written on it!
There are 242 symbols with 45 distinct signs on this disk, all of which are proposed to have been made by hieroglyphic seals, or something similar, pressed into soft clay, and the spiral of symbols goes in a clockwise spiral towards the heart of the disk. The disk is uniform; about 15 cm in diameter and thickness is slightly over one centimeter; 0.39 inches.
The exact location of the disk's discovery was the Phaistos 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 content 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 centimetres south-east of the disc and about 50 cm (20 in) 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 eruption of the Santorini volcano that affected large parts of the Mediterranean region during the mid second millennium B.C.” (Wikipedia, Phaistos Disk)
Many professionals and amateurs have studied this mysterious disk and attempted to decipher the symbols, but it is unclear as to what this disk is; it may be a script, but it may not be. It is simply not known. The assumptions of what the symbols on this disk are, includes syllabary (set of written symbols meant to represent syllables, making up words); an alphabet; or a logography (a logograph/logogram is a character representing a word. Many hieroglyphs and cuneiforms are included in this, as well as Chinese).
One of the reasons all the attempts to decipher this disk have failed is the fact that there are close to no other artifacts with the same symbols, meaning there is little context as to where this disk is from, or even what culture made it.
At the discovery sight, two other significant tablets were found; Linear A and Linear B. They are Minoan in origin, and although these also were unreadable for several decades, they were studied diligently. Eventually in 1953 an ametuer philologist, Micheal Ventris, triumphed in deciphering Linear B and attention then was brought back to the Phaistos disk. But despite their best efforts, this disk is still hotly debated and what it is is still unknown. There have been many creatives efforts put into deciphering this artifact;
“For example, three symbols found together were the serpent’s tail, the eagle (bird) and the circle with seven dots. Professor Cyrus Gordon of Brandeis University offered —then later rejected— an interpretation of the three as: 'The predatory bird flies over the threshing floor in the town.' Two German philologists read the same symbol as 'from the sacrificial drink.' A partial translation of the disk by American philologist Benjamin Swartz rendered it as some sort of road map for pilgrims, describing the temples and sacred places of Crete.
In each case, the problem was the same. The philologist might be correct, or he might be totally wrong. Without some form of external verification, such as the Rosetta Stone which unlocked the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics, attempts to decipher the Phaistos disk remain no more than elegant exercises in linguistic logic. ” (Casson, Lionel Mysteries of the Past p. 91)
This is just one example of how unknown and intriguing this disk is, and how little we know of history.
The disk being a hoax is also a possibility that has been voiced before, partly because the date could not be established by thermoluminescence. This does not necessarily mean anything; many dating methods are known to be faulty, and they do not prove anything for or against the artifact's authenticity. Very few artifacts have been found that seem at all related to this disk;
“A gold signet ring from Knossos (the Mavro Spilio ring), found in 1926, contains a Linear A inscription developed in a field defined by a spiral—similar to the Phaistos Disc. A sealing found in 1955 shows the only known parallel to sign 21 (the "comb") of the Phaistos disc. This is considered as evidence that the Phaistos Disc is a genuine Minoan artifact.” (Wikipedia, Phaistos Disk)
“The 242 symbols are set on a spiral pattern of hand drawn lines and are separated into groups of between 2 and 7 symbols by vertical lines. The symbols seem to be oriented to the right, for example, a walking man and a face either walk or look to the right. This would suggest the symbols should be read from the centre of the disk outwards. Some symbols are represented vertically - a fish and a boat - and again point to the outer edge of the disk. Although the disk is unique, similar, but not identical symbols have been found on a bronze axe found at Arkalokhori in central Crete and the Mohican head symbol is similar to three clay statues found in the cave shrine of Traostalos in Crete (in use 1700-1600 BCE).” (World History Encyclopedia, Phaistos Disk)
There is little known about the disk other than that it is most likely Cretan, and considered by most scholars as being Minoan in origin. This is another reason it is hard to decipher; much of the Minoan culture has been greatly destroyed and therefore now unknown due to wars, conquerings, and other such historical events, as is most of history of many ancient cultures. The origin of the tablet itself is just as uncertain;
“The 45 different symbols represented on the disk seem to have been individually stamped (although some symbols of the same type seem to have been made with different stamps) and the disk then fired. Also, some symbols show evidence of having been erased and re-stamped either with the same symbol or a different one. Unfortunately, no stamps have as yet been found but their use in the manufacture of the disk would suggest other disks were or were intended to be, made.” (World History Encyclopedia, Phaistos Disk)
In the end, very little is known of this tablet; real or hoax? Cretan, Minoan or completely unrelated? Could it be from a completely different culture and area? It could very well be any of these or none; history is still so buried and constantly under threat of being destroyed or forgotten. Perhaps it’s from a culture that is still undiscovered and we know even less than we think we do!
What do you think?
Wikipedia, Phaistos Disk
Casson, Lionel et al., Mysteries of the Past, New York: American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., 1977. Print.
World History Encyclopedia, Phaistos Disk