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 Phaistos Disc is about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols.

Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. This unique object is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion.

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.

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.

Discovery

The Phaistos Disc was discovered in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, near Hagia Triada, on the south coast of Crete specifically, the disc was found in the basement of room 8 in building 101 of a group of buildings to the northeast of the main palace.

This grouping of four rooms also served as a formal entry into the palace complex. Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier recovered the intact “dish“, about 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter and uniformly slightly more than 1 centimeter (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 inches south-east of the disc and about 20 inches (51 centimeters) 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.

Authenticity

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 of the Phaistos disc. This is considered as evidence that the Phaistos Disc is a genuine Minoan artifact.

Typography

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.

The German typesetter and linguist Herbert Brekle, in his article “The typographic principle” in the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, argues that the Phaistos Disc is an early document of movable type printing since it meets the essential criterion of typographic printing, that of type identity:

An early clear incidence for the realization of the typographic principle is the notorious Phaistos Disc (ca. 1800–1600 B.C.). If the disc is, as assumed, a textual representation, we are really dealing with a “printed” text, which fulfills all definitional criteria of the typographic principle.

The spiral sequencing of the graphematical units, the fact that they are impressed in a clay disc (blind printing!) and not imprinted are merely possible technological variants of textual representation. The decisive factor is that the material “types” are proven to be repeatedly instantiated on the clay disc.

As a medieval example for the same technique, he goes on to cite the Prüfening dedicatory inscription.

In his work on decipherment, Benjamin Schwartz also 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.

Signs

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 by Nahm, Timm, and others.

Other scholars (J. Best, S. Davis) have pointed to similar resemblances with the Anatolian hieroglyphs, or with Egyptian hieroglyphs (A. Cuny).

Oblique stroke signs

There are a number of signs marked with an oblique stroke; the strokes are not imprinted but carved by hand, and are attached to the first or last sign of a “word“, depending on the direction of reading chosen.

Their meaning is a matter of discussion. One hypothesis, supported by Evans, Duhoux, Ohlenroth, and others, is that they were used to subdivide the text into paragraphs, but alternative meanings have been offered by other scholars.

Directionality

Evans, at one point, published an assertion that the disc had been written, and should be read, from the center out; because it would have been easiest to place the inscription first and then size the disc to fit the text.

There is general agreement that he was wrong, and Evans himself later changed his mind: the inscription was made, and should be read, from the outside in toward the center.

The centers of the spirals are not in the center of the disc, and some of the symbols near the center are crowded, as though the maker was cramped for space.

One pair of symbols are set top-to-bottom, so it is hard to tell what order they should be in. Except in the cramped section, when there are overstrikes, the inner symbol overlies the outer symbol.

Jean Faucounau has proposed a reconstruction of the scribe’s movements, which would also require an inward direction; Yves Duhoux says that any outward reading may be discarded. Despite this consensus, there are still a few such attempted decipherments.

In addition to the question of the directionality of the text on the disc itself, different viewpoints are held as to how the Phaistos Disc characters should be displayed when transcribed into text.

The disc itself probably has right-to-left directionality, if reading proceeds from the outside to the center; this means that the reading direction is into the faces of the people and animals, as it is in Egyptian and Anatolian.

Phaistos Disc characters are shown with left-to-right directionality in this article, with the glyphs mirrored compared to their orientation on the disc; which is also the typical practice for edited Egyptian and Anatolian hieroglyphic text.

*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.