The messenger of the forgotten world
DECEMBER 6, 2021 | LITOCHORO | 18 MIN
A few weeks ago, during my bicycle trip around Crete, several kilometers after Agia Galini on the southern coast of the island, among olive groves and small hills, but already in the large, flat Mesara valley, I saw this small sign by the road – Phaistos Palace 2 km. It was difficult to ignore such a famous place. I turned right.
I was walking among the foundations and low, reddish walls of an erstwhile palace, trying to imagine the multi-story structures, splendor, dazzling colors, and religious processions following the wide steps. The great courtyard, the king’s megaron, the queen’s megaron, the princes’ rooms… Every now and then I came across a plate with a description of what this or that pile of rubble used to be, and I was almost sure that I would also find a plate with the words ” Phaistos Disk “. I have not found. Only a nice lady from the service showed me this place – completely to the side, in the corner of a small room, close to the outer wall of the palace, now in the shade of a few trees. So what is this unusual object?
Seal Of Pylos
what is Phaistos Disk?
Phaistos Disk is round in shape, approx. 16 cm in diameter and 1.5 to 2.1 cm thick. It is made of clay with spirally arranged signs on both sides. There are exactly 241 of them, including 45 unique ones. The characters are divided into sections – two to seven characters each, separated by clear dashes; according to assumptions that are words. There are 30 of these “words” on one side of the disk and 31 on the other. It is also known that the signs were not engraved by hand, but were stamped with stamps prepared in advance. The disc is also burned out, rather on purpose, and not, like all other clay tablets from this period, by accident during a fire. For an item that is approximately 3700 years old, the disk is in excellent condition; all marks are perfectly visible, there are no cracks or cavities.
This unusual item is now stored in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, in a separate glass case, in the center of the room with the greatest treasures of Minoan culture, so that everyone can see it closely from all sides. When I was there a few days ago (mid-November), the room was completely empty and the museum has a minimal number of visitors.
The disc is not actually pretty, it is not a work of art by some archaic artist, like the Seal of Pylos, the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion or even various vases and vessels displayed in the same museum room. It has a pale brownish-gray, dull color (if this can be settled in quite low light) and is far from the golden-brown, shimmering colors in some photographs. There are no crazy colors immortalized on the walls of the Palace of Knossos or the individual hand of the artist leaving an immortal mark of individual style. So what’s so fascinating about it? What makes the Heraklion museum pride and causes thousands of people around the world to experience a constant thrill of emotion, delight and passion for action? It turns out that what we don’t know about it is more important than what we can see. The secret is the most important in Phaistos Disk!
item with no context
kind of natural language?
But let’s move on to the details. It is commonly believed that the characters on the disc are some kind of natural language text. Of course, it is not known where the beginning and the end is. Which side is A and which side is B (if it has any importance). Should the inscription be read starting from the center or the edge? Of course, it is not known what language the string is in and what kind of characters it is. In the Bronze Age Crete, three different types of writing were found. Minoan versions of hieroglyphs, Linear A and Linear B. Out of this set, only Linear B was read in a spectacular and brilliant way by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick. However, the characters on the disk are not characters of any of these types of writing. They do resemble some characters of Linear A, but nothing more. And since the Linear A script has not been read, the alleged relationship does not make it easier to understand in any way. Not only is the disc unique as an object, also the signs placed on it are completely unique and they have not been actually found anywhere except this clay messenger of the forgotten world. And if so, the chances of reading the string are virtually zero. 241 characters is far too little to read the unknown code.
First 70 symbols from so called side A Phaistos Disk. From unknown reason the author of this drawing turned one symbol with 90 degree (in third row) and made some other changes. Source: theatrecomments.weebly.com
how to decipher unknown code
In general, reading an unknown language (and writing) is a very difficult and complicated art, and in fact it cannot be done just by analyzing – even the most sophisticated – statistical, or any other, of the inscription itself. The two most famous readings of forgotten languages used a kind of historical “cheat sheet”. In the case of the Egyptian hieroglyphs read by Jean-François Champollion, it was the discovery of the so-called the Rosetta Stone, containing the decree of the Egyptian priests, written in two languages (Greek and Egyptian) and three versions of the script. In the case of the reading of Linear B by Ventris, it was a substitution for a carefully researched and defined formal structure of the signs of an unknown script the structure of a well-known ancient Greek language and the association of the word probably denoting a port near Knossos with the name of this port – Amnissos mentioned by Homer.
Rosetta Stone. Found by French officer Pierre-François Bouchard in Egipt in 1799. Now in British Museum in London. Source: www.beeswaxrubberstamps.com
If the Phaistos Disk is indeed a fake, we even know who might have made it. Émile Gilliéron (1850-1924), an outstanding draftsman and painter, documentalist and copyist of archaeological excavations, worked with Artur Evans and other archeologist for many decades, . Gilliéron had great talent and extraordinary skills, and a business mind as well. He also had a great knowledge of the artifacts of ancient Greece, after all, he was one of the first people who had the opportunity to see them after many millennia. He also did not hesitate to perform very risky reconstructions, going far beyond the rigor of the scientific method. Today we know that some of these reconstructions are completely false, notably the famous Saffron Gatherer, whom Gilliéron and Evans recognized as the boy in the garden, and today we know that he is a monkey. If anyone could produce such a Phaistos Disk, Gilliéron is certainly the best candidate. Adding flavor to the whole story is the fact that Gilliéron had a son, also named Émile, and also a talented artist. In the later period, the gentlemen worked together, and the authorship of many reconstructions is uncertain – Émile Gilliéron, but which one?
Phaistos Disk - brilliant fake?
This uniqueness of the Phaistos Disk has also led to the serious consideration in the scientific community that it is a brilliant fake. Officially, the disk was found on July 3, 1908 in the palace in Phaistos by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier. However, the American art historian Jerome Martin Eisenberg (and not only him) claims that it was Pernier himself who fabricated and planted this unusual object in the excavation site to gain fame, which was shared by Arthur Evans – the discoverer of Knossos.
There are many arguments against the authenticity of the disk: the lack of other similar objects, the lack of other tablets with characters stamped with similar stamps, excellent condition, deliberate burning of the disk – when the Minoans never did it with clay tablets, and finally the uniqueness of the characters used and their irregular distribution ( on one page some characters are repeated many times, on the other they are not at all). Perhaps, however, the characters from the disk are not so unique. At least two objects bearing similar marks were later found: a labrys (double-bladed axe) from a cave in Arkalochori and a stone block in the Palace of Malia (both in Crete). This would strengthen the theory of the authenticity of the artifact, but on the other hand, the opinions of scientists as to the similarity of these marks to the marks from the famous disk are divided. The matter could be easily settled by performing a thermoluminescence analysis, which allows to determine when the disc was burned, but the authorities of the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion do not want to agree to such tests.
unlimited number of readings
It is interesting, however, that despite all these ambiguities and the lack of certain information, we have an almost unlimited number of readings of the inscription from the disk. Some argue that it is a hymn to Mother Earth in the Ionian dialect, others that a call to a war expedition against the Kara people, others that it is a magic formula with sacrificial smoke and a pair of horses, written in one of the Semitic languages, there are also suggestions suggesting the presence of a bloated eroticism rubbing against pornography on the disk, and a Russian geologist claims that it is a religious call to discover new lands, written in some Slavic dialect (!).
It seems, therefore, that we are at a standstill: on the one hand, we do not have other monuments of a similar type, we do not know examples of similar writing, and on the other hand, we have hundreds of “readings” of the inscription, mutually contradictory, which is the best proof that they are only the result of the exaggerated imagination of the authors these spectacular “achievements”. Plus, it’s very possible that all of this is a common scam. So are we completely powerless in the face of Phaistos Disk? Not completely.
The aforementioned statistical-linguistic analysis does not allow the reading of signs, however, it provides a lot of very interesting information.
Let’s start with a fairly obvious matter. It is commonly believed that the writing on the disc is syllabic. 45 characters is too much for an alphabet (European languages have, for example, twenty-something characters each), definitely not enough for pictograms (in Japanese or Chinese writing systems, pictograms go into thousands). The statistical analysis also shows a very probable possibility that there should be more characters of this script (about 60). So we do not have the entire semantic resource, which would additionally make it very difficult to read. On the other hand, it is possible that there are more characters on the disk than the commonly accepted number of 45. Because what is a sign? Some of the symbols are placed on the disk under a different ancle of the spiral line than others. It is very unlikely that such a “twist” of the sign is accidental. Comparative statistics of many known languages indicate that it is an intentional and such a distorted sign, although virtually identical to others, nevertheless carries a different meaning. So there are perhaps more than 45 symbols!
Even more interesting is the statistical comparative analysis of the two sides of the disk. It turns out that they are very different. The distribution of words of different character lengths on the A side and the B side is so divergent that it does not correspond to any known language, and generally no language that we can imagine. Simply put, it means that either the text on two sides is in different languages (very unlikely due to the repetition of most symbols) or it is not a natural language text. Also, the averaged distribution of “words” of varying length (2 to 7 characters) over the entire disk deviates from the average distribution of words of the same length in other known languages that use syllabic notation. From all this it follows that it is probably not a natural language inscription!
Arkalochori axe. One of two items on which we can find similar symbols as on Phaistos Disk. Source: Wikipedia.
other possible understandings
OK, this does not mean that the disk from Phaistos is a complete gibberish, a fake or a chaotic set of pseudo-writing. In addition to natural languages, we know many other symbols sets that can create meaningful content. It can be, for example, a kind of astronomical table, board game or a natural “cheat sheet” indicating the order of performing, for example, some ceremonial activities or … preparing a strawberry cake (all these theories have appeared so far, of course). To be precise: at this point it is not about the description of these activities (that would be the language), but about their direct graphic representation. However, the semantic structure of this type of signs is completely arbitrary, so “reading” it without detailed descriptions is completely impossible. The Minoan version of monopoly would be even more difficult to decode than the Minoan language.
Speaking of encryption … There is also a possibility that the writing on the disk is a type of cipher, and therefore a higher-order language, which, without knowing the cipher, is impossible to read, even if we knew the hypothetical Minoan language and all its characters. Some clues in this direction are suggested by the graphical analysis of the disk. If we connect some repeating signs with straight lines, we get surprisingly regular geometric shapes, e.g. three almost perfectly rectangular triangles and an amazingly regular regular heptagon. Analyzes of this kind could probably reveal more similar revelations, but in recent times there has been a kind of discouragement among serious scientists regarding the study of this artifact, since the suspicion as to its authenticity – although so serious – cannot be settled due to the position of the museum authorities.
why Phaistos Disk is so interesting?
The most interesting thing in the whole story, however, is not whether the disc is authentic or not, what is written on it, and whether it is actually an inscription or some other kind of symbols. The most interesting thing is what makes it evoke so many emotions? Why are letters from various enthusiasts coming to the museum’s address almost every day, trying to read the “inscription” on the disk and sending ever different versions of the hymn to Mother Earth or other possible gods and goddesses? Why are there hobbyist websites that propose their own reading versions and regularly supplement the content of the page? Why can I have a Phaistos disc on a ring, on a pendant, on a necklace, as a paperweight, as a fridge magnet, and in hundreds of other incarnations. How is it that some serious scientists (however) work for years to read a disc – with the same results as hobbyists? And why is there some inconspicuous and theoretically very fragile clay tablet in the most honorable place of the most important museum in Crete? Let’s try to answer these questions.
Secret Life of Cicada
First – the shape.
Phaistos Disk is perfectly round. It is a ideal incarnation of the most perfect figure on a plane that has “always” stimulated the human imagination. Hundreds of clay tablets have been found in Crete – all rectangular or square in shape and in much worse condition than our disk; all covered in handwriting and all not of the slightest interest! Especially now, when the Linear B script was read and it turned out that all these tablets had some bookkeeping notes: so many liters of oil for the blacksmith, so much for the servant, so much for the priests. No hymn to the Goddess, no prayer, no literature or even a lame proverb.
Second – a mystery.
The disk is, as it were, mysterious by definition. After all, nothing is known for certain about him, there is no context. Subsequent attempts to read this mystery do not eliminate this mystery at all – on the contrary, they build it more and more, since it enables such a huge number of interpretations, there must be a hidden power in it. And it is known that modern culture loves secrets, conspiracy theories, secret codes, hidden meanings, etc.
Third – the material.
There is probably no other such famous artifact in the world that would be made of such a base material as clay. The mask of Agamemnon is gold, the bust of Nefertiti in limestone covered with stucco, the statue of David in marble, not to mention the many iconic paintings of famous painters fixed on canvas or board (icons). But the clay? This material is banal and theoretically unstable. However, if the real message of the disk was to be hidden in some way, the use of such prosaic material is perfectly justified. How to hide is best in both content and form.
Fourth and finally – the context.
Earlier, I wrote that the Phaistos Disk does not actually have context, understood as a set of other similar items or other similar characters used in spirally twisted text. However, each item has some general context. The disc was found in a specific place, in the Minoan palace in Phaistos, Crete, in a specific archaeological layer, which is the basis for its dating. In this sense, it is part of what we now call the Minoan culture. And although it is difficult to find anything stylistically connected the disk with this culture, it has become its involuntary representative, perhaps even the most important symbol. Yet the Minoan culture itself is an embodiment of mystery and almost unimaginable dissimilarity from any other known form of social organization.
First of all, it is the only non-violent culture known to us. Lots of Minoan paintings have been discovered, none of them feature a battle scene! Several magnificent rulers’ palaces have been found in Crete, full of treasures of all kinds – none of them surrounded by defensive walls! Minoan painting surprises with vivid combinations of colors, the freedom of brush strokes or stylus in the ornaments of ceramics and the unrestrained joy flowing from virtually all the paintings. In addition, the female element seems to be dominant in all these representations. It is hard to find a greater contrast than between the Minoan culture and the Mycenaean culture that follows it historically, with its enormous cyclopic walls, the all-encompassing war (the Trojan War is about this epoch) and the cult of male, brute force. All this means that on a deeper level we are actually unable to understand the Minoan culture and while walking around the museum in Heraklion, we ask ourselves every step of the way – how is this possible? What was the mindset of the people who created these masterpieces?
From left to right: Mask of Agamemnon, David by Michelangelo, Nefertiti Bust, The Trinity by Rublev. Source: Wikipedia
even King Minos won't help
Therefore, if Minoan culture remains largely impenetrable and mysterious for us, Phaistos Disk becomes its excellent representative, and persistent attempts to read it become more understandable if we were to receive any trace of the thoughts of King Minos and his court. With full conviction that there is a hymn to the Mother Goddess on the disk, some basic founding myth, and not a recipe for a strawberry pie. Because who would like to read recipes – we have plenty of these, and the desire for transcendence remains unquenchable.
Therefore, further suggestions for reading the mysterious disk will continue to be sent to the address of the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. After all, it’s a pretty innocent hobby that has a great future. Because as John Chadwick, who read Linear B script together with Michael Ventris once said: “Even if King Minos appeared in a dream to someone and revealed the true meaning of the inscription, others would not believe it.” Yes, and they would be absolutely right.
For those who want to investigate the secret of Phaistos Disk more,
I am putting here a set of 27 various claims of decipherment. Have fun reading!
1. George Hempl, 1911 (interpretation as Ionic Greek, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading inward
2. Florence Stawell, 1911 (interpretation as Homeric Greek, syllabic writing); B-side first; reading inward
3. Albert Cuny, 1914 (interpretation as an ancient Egyptian document, syllabic-logographic writing)
4. Benjamin Schwarz, 1959 (interpretation as Mycenean Greek, syllabic writing, comparison to Linear B); A-side first; reading inward
5. Jean Faucounau, 1975, (interpretation as “proto-Ionic” Greek, syllabic writing; A-side first; reading inward
6. Vladimir I. Georgiev, 1976 (interpretation as Hittite language, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading outward
7. Steven R. Fischer, 1988 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading inward
8. Kjell Aartun, 1992 (interpretation as a Semitic language, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading outward
9. Derk Ohlenroth, 1996 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, alphabetic writing); A-side first; reading outward; numerous homophonic signs
10. Adam Martin, 2000 (interpretation as a Greek-Minoan bilingual text, alphabetic writing); reading outward, side A as Greek, side B as Minoan
11. Achterberg et al., 2004 (interpreted as Luwian); A-side first; reading inward
12.Torsten Timm, 2005 (syllabic writing, comparison to Linear A) B-side first; reading inward
13. Gareth Alun Owens, 2007 (interpretation as Indo-European, syllabic writing, comparison to Linear A) A-side first; reading inward
- Non-linguistic or logographic:
1. Paolo Ballotta, 1974 (interpretation as logographic writing)
2. Leon Pomerance, 1976 (interpretation as astronomical document)
3. Reiner J. van Meerten, 1977 (interpretation as documentation of a gift to Minos)
4. Peter Aleff, 1982
5. Ole Hagen, 1988
6. Harald Haarmann, 1990 (interpretation as logographic writing)
7. Bernd Schomburg, 1997
8. Patrick Berlingame, 2010 (interpretation as the mythical labyrinth)
9. Hermann Wenzel, 1998
10. Alan Butler, 1999 (interpretation as calendar)
11. Friedhelm Will, 2000 (interpretation as number-philosophically-document of “Atlantean” origin)
12. Axel Hausmann, 2002 (document from Atlantis, dated to 4400 B.C., logographic reading)
13. Helène Whittaker, 2005 (a votive miniature version of a game board similar to the Egyptian Mehen)
14. Wolfgang Reczko, 2009.