New Research suggests recent phonetic decipherment of the Phaistos Disc is implausible
Last month, Dr Gareth Owens, a researcher at the Technological Educational Institute of Crete, claimed to have cracked the code of the enigmatic Phaistos Disc , a 4,000-year-old artifact containing strange inscriptions found in 1908 in a palace called Phaistos on the island of Crete, but has he really solved the mystery?
“Suggested decipherments are many,” writes Yves Duhoux, on the decipherment claims of the Phaistos disc. The majority of decipherment attempts assume that the text is phonetic. That is, each of the symbols have a particular sound, and the sounds string together to form words. However, the ancient idea of reading was often entirely different from ours – the idea being one of reading symbolic forms – and symbols have a whole sense on their own. Symbols combine together to convey more intricate ideas. This pattern is found in the most ancient Egyptian writings, and in the ancient Chinese writing. The sounds of the symbols have evolved through history, in Chinese for instance, while the symbols themselves have retained an analogous sense.
As an independent researcher, having worked as a researcher of ancient Chinese script, and ancient Egyptian symbols, the Phaistos disc’s text, I find, is decipherable as a body of symbolic text. The geometry of placement of the symbols in the outer ring, and in the inner spiral, the orientation of the symbols themselves, which vary between phrases, all add to the meaning.
I point out in this article a few flaws with a recent interpretation of the disc – the interpretation of the disc as the text of a prayer to the mother goddess. The interpretation, like the ones before it, interprets the text based on a syllabic alphabet. There are two major flaws in the purported decipherment by Dr. Gareth Owens, and John Coleman, professor of phonetics at Oxford.
The first flaw is that studies have shown the presence of what seems to be non-linear text on the disc. The symbol on the outer ring, say , forms a pattern, of a rather regular heptagon (see image below). If we assume this is an alphabetical text, the possibility of such a pattern forming by chance is quite low. That is, imagine writing up a prayer, or a text with a historical theme and finding all the alphabet “A’s” in the text forming an heptagon.
Several other patterns exist like this. For instance, the symbol occurs always adjacent to , and when in the middle of a text, always appears between and . The symbol occurs only at the beginning of the phrases. If the text were alphabetical, it would be as if there were rules saying where an alphabetic letter must appear, and that an alphabetic character ought always appears adjacent to another. That is not a quality we find with alphabetical texts. But symbolic bonding can exist that generates such patterns – if the text is a set of pure symbols. Patterns then covey meaning in the reading, and are not dismissed as merely random.
Image source: Author’s drawing on a graphical representation of the disc from Wikimedia Commons.
Researchers have applied themselves to the question of whether these patterns on the disc can be understood as mere coincidence. For instance, a study published in the journal Statistica Neerlandica, in 2011, applies itself to this. The research published in the article, ‘ Patterns on an Ancient Artifact: A Coincidence? ’ by A. ten Cate, in Statistica Neerlandica, looks at a particular kind of non-linear geometry in the text. For example, there are adjacent patterns of what is labelled the ‘plumed head’ glyph, between the spirals of the disc – such as those that occur between phrase 1, Side A and phrase 14, Side A. The labels used here are based on the generally accepted Louis Godart numbering of the phrases.
Image source: A. (2011), Patterns on an ancient artifact: a coincidence?. Statistica Neerlandica, 65: 116–124.
The study states, “A statistical analysis in this article shows what it is not: it is not a one-dimensional text, since there are relations between the signs in adjacent windings of the spiral. Three patterns of such relations have been identified. A Monte Carlo simulation of one of them has been performed, using a model of the spiral form. It is concluded that the probability of this pattern being coincidental is small, well below the conventional threshold.”
If the probability of this pattern “being coincidental is small, well below the conventional threshold,” it implies that the probability of the disc’s text being an alphabetic one, or a syllabic one, a string of linear text is small as well. An alphabetical string, such as a prayer, is a one-dimensional text. To repeat, if it is “not a one-dimensional text” as the Statistica Neerlandica article says, the text of the disc cannot be alphabetic, or syllabic. The text, then, cannot be a mere one-dimensional string representing sounds.
Further, if the geometrical patterns are not random, a decipherment must explain patterns such as the placement of a few phrases in the outer ring of the disc, and the placement of other phrases in the inner spiral, as well as the way in which the geometrical placement adds to the meaning conveyed by the phrases and symbols themselves.
The recent research, by Dr. Owens and Professor Coleman suggested there is a key phrase or “keyword,” and pointed out three instances of it.
The “keyword” identified by Owens and Coleman. Source: Wikimedia
The researchers attribute the same sound to the three phrases, I – QE- KU- RJA and thus the same meaning – “pregnant mother” and/or “goddess.”
The purported three key-phrases, or keywords, on finer observation, we find, are not, in fact, symbolically the same. In one of them, phrase 22, Side A, the orientation of the bird is upside down and the direction of flight is different, giving the phrase a distinct symbolic sense, and thus a distinct meaning, from the other two phrases.
Compare below phrase 22, and phrase 16, of side A, which the researchers club together as one “keyword.” The bird is positioned to convey two different meanings, by virtue of its orientation, and direction of flight.
A comparison of phrase 22 and phrase 16, which the researchers have taken as one ‘keyword’, but which have a key difference in the orientation of the bird.
A decipherment must explain, or, at least, explain-away, the presence of such intricacies, and geometrical patterns. Owens and Coleman fail to do so.
In ancient language, such as Egyptian, we find that the original writing were hieroglyphic – and not meant to be read as a phonetic or alphabetic system of writing by stringing together sounds. Later, a subset of the hieroglyphs was taken and has sounds attributed to it so that language could be used to serve common purposes, rather than to convey high esoteric ideas. Take the English letter N. The form may have its origin in a water glyph, or the form of a water serpent, with all the associated esoteric ideas. The name of the glyph may have had an initial sound ”N,” and for that may have been chosen to represent the sound N, as alphabetical scripts were developed, later in history, for useful purposes.
The analogous forms in Linear A and Linear B, the forms resembling that on the Phaistos disc, would have resulted from a syllabic borrowing – a borrowing into Linear A and B, of more ancient symbols, to represent sound. To understand what the ancient Egyptians meant by the water glyph or the imagery of a serpent from the sense of ‘N’ in English, or to read a wall of hieroglyphs as a linear body of phonetic alphabets, would often be just error, the kind of error that Dr. Gareth Owens and Professor John Coleman seem to have slipped into, in their reading of the disc.
Featured image: The Phaistos Disc. Source: Wikimedia
By Dilip Rajeev