The Curious Phaistos Disc – Ancient Mystery or Clever Hoax?

Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc, Side A (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1908 an Italian archaeologist ventured into the ruins of Phaistos, an ancient Minoan palace on the south coast of Crete. In an underground temple depository, among burnt bones, dust, and ashes, he found a remarkably intact golden-hued disc. The discovery is known as one of the most famous mysteries in archaeology: The Phaistos Disc.

The Phaistos (or Phaestos) Disc is a large, umber-coloured, fired clay plate, about 15 cm in diameter and 1 cm thick. Both sides of the disc are covered with a spiral of strange stamped symbols, circling clockwise towards the disc’s centre. It’s presumed the 45 unique symbols were made by pressing hieroglyphic seals into the damp, soft clay disc.

The Phaistos Disc, detail

The Phaistos Disc, detail (Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeologist Luigi Pernier found the disc in a basement room under the palace complex during excavation. The site is to have suffered collapse due to earthquake or volcanic eruption. Other artifacts, such as the Arkalochori Axe, have been discovered elsewhere in Crete which sport similar symbols, thought to be Linear A, an undeciphered writing system used in ancient Greece.

Luigi Pernier

Luigi Pernier (23 November 1874 –18 August 1937) Italian archaeologist and academic best known for his discovery of the Disc of Phaistos. (Heraklion-Crete.org)

Interkriti writes of the ancient city, “Phaistos was one of the most important centres of Minoan civilization, and the most wealthy and powerful city in southern Crete. It was inhabited from the Neolithic period until the foundation and development of the Minoan palaces in the 15th century B.C. […] According to mythology, Phaistos was the seat of king Radamanthis, brother of king Minos. It was also the city that gave birth to the great wise man and soothsayer Epimenidis, one of the seven wise men of the ancient world.”

To this day, researchers debate the purpose of the mysterious disc, what the coded symbols mean, and even where it was created.

Palace complex, Ruins of Phaistos (Φαιστός), Crete, Greece (Wikimedia Commons, Olaf Tausch)

Palace complex, Ruins of Phaistos (Φαιστός), Crete, Greece (Wikimedia Commons, Olaf Tausch)

Enigmatic Symbols

The most curious aspect of the discs is the hieroglyphics spiralled on both sides. The symbols are pictograms, portraying images including a man walking, a tattooed head, a helmet, an arrow, manacles, cats, eagles, and more.

Both Sir Arthur Evans, discoverer of the Minoan capital Knossos in 1900, and Luigi Pernier attempted to translate the discs but were unsuccessful. Since that time no fewer than 26 notable attempts have been made to decipher the code. It is presumed that the writing is Linear A, a script unconnected to any known language, but some scholars suggest it is syllabic writing related to various languages, such as Hittite, Homeric Greek, Indo-European or a Semitic language. WMMagazin writes in an article that a “persuasive” translation of the Phaistos Disc by Petr Kovar has revealed the writing to be Proto-Slavic. There has never been an official agreement to a final translation.

Linear A Script

Linear A Script. Ink-written inscriptions round the inner surface of a cup. Third Middle Minoan (Public Domain)

Interpretations as to the significance of the symbols include the disc being an ancient prayer, a game board, an astronomical document, a document from Atlantis, an adventure story, a description of the mythical labyrinth, initiation rites for young women, or a solar calendar.

Researchers debate whether the symbols should be read from the centre of the disc spiralling outwards, or vice versa. They also are not decided as to whether, once the symbols are transcribed into text, that it should be read right-to-left, or left-to-right.

Unfortunately, attempts at deciphering will likely remain unsuccessful as it is thought by experts that there is not enough context available to make a valid analysis until more examples of the symbols are found.

Symbols on the Phaistos Disc

Chart detailing a rendering of some of the symbols found on the Phaistos Disc (Partial Screenshot, Public Domain)

Authentic or Hoax?

Experts generally accept the disc as authentic, but some scholars have suggested the artifact may be a complex hoax or forgery. Excavation records made by Pernier at the time were thorough, but no definite manufacturing timeline has been established through forensic geochronology tests. As such, theories on dating range from 1400 B.C. to 1700 B.C., and more specifically in Middle or Late Minoan times.

Some wonder if Luigi Pernier simply created the disc himself, but discovery of other artifacts with the Linear A symbols suggest otherwise. In addition, creating a forgery this enduring would be an audacious and difficult fraud to pull off, fooling experts and archaeologists for more than a century.

In the end, until the Phaistos code can be cracked and the truth revealed, the golden disc will continue to draw curious linguists, analytical cryptographers, and lovers of a good ancient mystery.

 

Featured image: The Phaistos Disc, Side A (Wikimedia Commons)
Originally published at Ancient Origins
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