in our e-book
by H. Peter Aleff
Volume 1: its siblings Senet and Snake Game,
and its surviving sequel the Royal Game of the Goose
ThePhaistos Disk has long been one of the most puzzled- about artifacts in archaeology. Its pretty little pictures invite contemplation, and many people have sensed that there must be some special meaning behind those neatly arranged, visually attractive, and oddly intriguing signs. You will see here that these people were right beyond their highest expectations, though not in the way the authors of its many proposed translations imagined.
This object of continued curiosity turned up almost a century ago on the Mediterranean island of Crete, at the cult center of Phaistos on the southern coast. The Italian archaeologist Dr. Luigi Pernier discovered it there in July 1908 inside a rectangular clay compartment in a floor-level storeroom near the north-west angle of the palace1.
Someone had placed the Disk into that cubbyhole about three dozen centuries earlier. An earthquake then buried it around 1600 BCE under debris from the collapse of an upper floor which protected it and secured its dating2.
That dating is well established because the same room contained also several vases of a style popular during the 17th century BCE, as well as a tablet inscribed with signs from the still undeciphered Linear A script which came into use at that time. Said tablet had fallen to that level from an upper floor during the earthquake and has no other connection with the Disk3.
1.2. The Disk compared with writing tablets
Unlike the usually unbaked and mostly rectangular clay tablets which the ancient Cretans used for writing, the Disk is made of intentionally baked fine clay which Pernier compared to that in the fine pottery from nearby Kamares. It is also roughly round, with a diameter of slightly over six inches.
In further contrast to the writing tablets which were unruled back then and began to be ruled with parallel lines a couple of centuries later, the Disk has a spiral-like track of irregularly long fields on each side, 30 on one and 31 on the other, all arranged between the incised curving borders of the track; each field is separated from its neighbor by an incised radial line.
The symbols on the Disk itself, if they were writing, would belong to an earlier period than the date assigned to it: they are primitive pictographs at a time when the much more advanced Linear A script had already been used at Phaistos perhaps a couple of hundred years earlier4.
One could try to explain those primitive pictures as sacred script in which archaic forms often survive, as happened in Egypt long after linear characters were employed for secular purposes. However, none of the missing links in this postulated evolution have been found, and the script theory would require more unsupported assumptions than Ockham’s razor allows.
1.3. Attempts to decipher the Disk as writing
That little Disk is so unique, and so puzzling, that it occupies a central glass case all by itself in the Herakleion Museum near Knossos in Crete. The guidebook there calls it one of the most valuable exhibits in the Museum and its "great enigma"5.
Indeed, that small piece of clay, no larger than your hand with spread fingers, has caused much speculation among amateurs and scholars alike who tried to recognize its origins as Lycian, Carian, Cypriote, Libyan, Anatolian, Semitic, and more6. It has also become probably the single most treasured target anywhere for the efforts of would-be decipherers who insist on "reading" its signs as "writing".
Some translated the Disk as a sacred hymn to the goddess Rhea, or to the Basque rainlord, or to the Zodiac sign Aquarius7. Others saw it as a legal document, a farmer's almanac and constellation list, a crossword puzzle8, or as a schedule for palace activities as well as a site plan description for the palace of Phaistos9.
One of the reasons for much of this confusion is that Sir Arthur Evans had insisted the signs on the Disk must be syllabic writing because he promoted the Cretan-Mycenaean culture as the cradle and earliest blossom of European civilization. Already in 1894, before the Disk turned up and before Evans began his first dig, he argued in one of his Oxford lectures on early Greek scripts that a system of writing must have been developing in Crete and Greece because, as he asked rhetorically:
"Is it conceivable that in the essential matter of writing they were so far behind their rivals on the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean?"10
Evans continued to reflect this Victorian preconception throughout his career, and his opinion carried much weight when he became the eminent excavator of the "Minoan" civilization who also coined its name and created much of its modern perception11. Because of his authority, his verdict became the reigning opinion12.
However, this view contradicts some of its repeaters’ own documentation that the visual symbols of primitive picture writing tend to convey their meaning directly, without expressing speech or language or sounds. For instance, the scholar of ancient languages and writing systems I. J. Gelb wrote:
"The symbolism of visual images in the earliest stages of writings, like that of gesture signs, can express meaning without the necessity of a linguistic garment and both can profitably be investigated by a non-linguist. (...) In the beginning pictures served as visual expressions of man’s ideas in a form to a great extent independent of speech. (...)
Some of these symbols were pictographs which means they represented the object depicted. Others functioned as ideograms in which the picture of, say, a boat, no longer means "boat" but expresses an idea like "travel". However, such associations of the object with its main qualities, uses, or features were usually direct, quite obvious, and widely recognized.
For instance, my toddler son recognized the local supermarket’s logo on our shopping bags long before he learned to read the letters in it, and neurologists have confirmed that most people are inherently more able to understand pictographs and ideograms than signs with more abstract meanings. One of them noted, for instance:
"A number of cases have been reported of Japanese aphasics who developed a severe alexia for kana [the Japanese phonologic symbols of syllabic writing], but were relatively unimpaired in reading kanji", the parallel type of Japanese writing which is based on ideograms."14
The famous Narmer Palette from the beginning of Egypt's first dynasty is a typical example of such early emblem and rebus writing. It contains a few hieroglyphs as writing signs used for their phonetic value, but most of the signs on it are pictographic symbols that mean the object depicted15.
For words that were not easily pictured, such as the king’s name, the writers often used the phonetic rebus principle of substituting the picture of an object representing a similar-sounding word16.
Examples of modern picture-writing are the modern language-independent traffic signs and computer icons that each compress into a concise picture the often much longer written instructions that would be required to convey their meaning.
All this suggests strongly that the pictures on the Disk may have been meant as pictures. You will see in this book that their puzzle falls into place and conveys coherent as well as easily verified meanings when you take the pictures not as writing signs for syllables or sounds but at their face value as the easily recognizable symbols with well- documented ancient symbolisms which many of them are.
But Evans was an authority, and most of those who attempted to tackle the Disk tried therefore to read those pictures as syllabic or phonetic writing, often with funny results. A recent web search yielded long lists of proposed translations, and if you would like a sampling of other attempts that were not mentioned there, or much to briefly, click on Appendix 1.
More serious linguists concluded that "deciphering such an isolated document is impossible, and the content of the inscription must remain an enigma"17.
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