The Curious Phaistos Disc – Ancient Mystery or Clever Hoax?
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-colored, fired clay plate, about 15 cm (5.91 inches) in diameter and 1 cm (0.39 inches) thick. Both sides of the disc are covered with a spiral of strange stamped symbols, circling clockwise towards the disc’s center. It’s presumed the 45 unique symbols were made by pressing hieroglyphic seals into the damp, soft clay disc.
The Phaistos Disc, detail. (Asb/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Where was the Phaistos Disc Found?
Archaeologist Luigi Pernier found the disc in a basement room under the palace complex during excavation. The site is thought to have collapsed due to an earthquake or volcanic eruption . Other artifacts, such as the Arkalochori Axe, have been discovered elsewhere in Crete and sport similar symbols, thought to be Linear A, an undeciphered writing system used in ancient Greece.
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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 if Phaistos is where it was created.
Panorama of ruins of the ancient Minoan Palace of Phaistos, Crete, Greece. ( dach83 /Adobe Stock)
Enigmatic Symbols on the Phaistos Disc
The most curious aspect of the discs is the hieroglyphics spiraled 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. Ink-written inscriptions round the inner surface of a cup. Third Middle Minoan (Public Domain)
Attempts to Decipher the Phaistos Disc
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 center of the disc spiraling 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. However, many experts believe that attempts at deciphering will remain unsuccessful because there is not enough context available to make a valid analysis until more examples of the symbols are found.
Chart detailing a rendering of some of the symbols found on the Phaistos Disc (Partial Screenshot, Public Domain)
But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to decipher the Phaistos Disc. For example, in 2015, a linguist named Dr. Gareth Owens put forward the idea that one side of the artifact has a hymn to the Minoan mother goddess and the other side is to Astarte, the goddess of love. This understanding of the message of the disc does not come from a direct translation, but from a vocalization of speech derived from the decipher of the ancient code by Michael Ventris (who deciphered Linear B along with John Chadwick and Alice Kober). Owens told reporters :
“We are reading the Phaistos disc with the vocal values of Linear B and with the help of comparative linguistics, ie comparing with other relative languages from the Indo-European language family. Reading something, however, does not mean understanding. The Disc of Phaistos is written in the Minoan script that records the Minoan language. This is the best sample of ‘Cretan hieroglyphics’, always in quotes, because it is not the writing system of ancient Egypt. The name is wrong. The scripts of the Phaistos Disc is also Minoan Linear A.”
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The two sides of the Phaistos Disc. ( dimcha /Adobe Stock )
In October 2018, Georgian Journal offered an alternative hypothesis – that the text on the Phaistos Disc “is written in the Proto-Kartvelian (Proto-Georgian), with the pictographic script, which existed before the invention of alphabet.”
According to Georgian Journal, this theory for the Phaistos Disc emerged when Austrian doctor Herbert Zebisch created a computer program that enabled one to compare any language to the disc marks and “The only language that responded to the program was the Proto-Georgian one.” Georgian scientist Gia Kvashilava later put forward the hypothesis that the text “is dedicated to the Colchian goddess of fertility Nana.”
Phaistos Disc. ( ooxytoul /Adobe Stock)
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 1700 BC to 1400 BC, 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 for certain and the truth revealed, the golden disc will continue to draw curious linguists, analytical cryptographers, and lovers of a good ancient mystery.
By Liz Leafloor