The Phaistos Disc is a disk of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete, possibly dating to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age. The disk is covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Its purpose and its original place of manufacture remain disputed. It is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion.
Phaistos Disc, side A
The Phaistos Disc captured the imagination of amateur and professional archaeologists, and many attempts have been made to decipher the code behind the disc's signs. While it is not clear that it is a script, most attempted decipherments assume that it is; most additionally assume a syllabary, others an alphabet or logography.
Attempts at decipherment are generally thought to be unlikely to succeed unless more examples of the signs are found, as it is generally agreed that there is not enough context available for a meaningful analysis. Although the Phaistos Disc is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists, a few scholars believe that the disc is a forgery or a hoax.
The disc was discovered in 1908 by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, and features 241 tokens, comprising 45 distinct signs, which were apparently made by pressing hieroglyphic "seals" into a disc of soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiraling toward the center of the disk. It is about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and uniformly slightly more than 1 centimetre (0.39 inches) in thickness, on 3 July 1908 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 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.
The Phaistos Disc is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists. The assumption of authenticity is based on the excavation records by Luigi Pernier. This assumption is supported by the later discovery of the Arkalochori Axe with similar but not identical glyphs.
The possibility that the disc is a 1908 forgery or hoax has been raised by two scholars. According to a report in The Times the date of manufacture has never been established by thermoluminescence. In his 2008 review, Robinson does not endorse the forgery arguments, but argues that "a thermoluminescence test for the Phaistos Disc is imperative. It will either confirm that new finds are worth hunting for, or it will stop scholars from wasting their effort."
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.
Gold signet ring from Knossos showing similar spiral configuration of script
"FIRST MOVABLE TYPE"
The inscription was apparently made by pressing hieroglyphic "seals" into the soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiraling toward the center of the disk. It was then fired at high temperature. The unique character of the Phaistos Disc stems from the fact that the entire text was inscribed in this way, reproducing a body of text with reusable characters.
In his work on decipherment, Benjamin Schwartz refers to the Phaistos Disc as "the first movable type".
In his popular science book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond describes the disc as an example of a technological advancement that did not become widespread because it was made at the wrong time in history, and contrasts this with Gutenberg's printing press.
There are 242 tokens on the disc, comprising 45 distinct signs. Many of these 45 signs represent easily identifiable everyday 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. Other scholars have pointed to similar resemblances with the Anatolian hieroglyphs, or with Egyptian hieroglyphs.
A great deal of speculation developed around the disc during the twentieth 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 is not 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.