The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #4 July / August 2013
Artifacts
The Phaistos Disc
Puzzle of Crete
by Lucille Martin
July / August 2013 | 

Ancient Crete has been a source of a few language puzzles. In the palace of Knossos, three different writing systems were discovered, in the forms of a hieroglyphic script, Linear A, and Linear B (see Parrot Time issue two for Linear A - Lost Minoan). But they weren't the only mysteries found.

A single disc containing an unknown writing system was also found in the ruins of the nearby palace of Phaistos. This circular clay disc, covered with inscribed symbols on both sides which are unlike any signs in any known writing system, became known as the Phaistos Disc, and to this day, remains undeciphered.

Discovery

The symbols themselves resemble common objects. These include human figures and body parts, weapons, fish, birds, insects, plants, a boat, a shield and a staff.

Phaistos was an ancient city near Hagia Triada on the south coast of Crete, dating perhaps as far back as 6000 BC. The city rose up from the fertile plains of the Messara region and became part of the growing Minoan empire. The first Minoan palace of Phaistos was built around 2000 BC, about the same time as the main palace of the empire was built in Knossos. Both of these Palaces were destroyed by a strong earthquake in 1700 BC and rebuilt on top of the old ones. The earthquake was caused by a volcano erupting on the nearby island of Thera (modern day Santorini). The palace of Phaistos was destroyed a few centuries later, and again, rebuilt. Around 1400 BC, Crete was invaded by the Achaeans of Greece and both cities of Phaistos and Knossos were destroyed. The Phaistos palace seems to have been abandoned after that, but the city itself was rebuilt and thrived for a few more centuries, even minting its own coins. However, the city was finally destroyed in the first century BC by the neighboring city of Gortyn.


Map of Crete, showing both Knossos and Phaistos

During the Minoan empire, Phaistos became a major city-state, with its power stretching from Lithinon to Psychion, including the Paximadia islands, during its peak. It was a participant in the Trojan war, as recorded by the Greek poet Homer, and had two ports, Matala and Kommos. The palace controlled the Messara valley and was the center of the city as well as the administrational and economical center for the area. It was surrounded by luxurious mansions and crowded urban communities.

The precise location of Phaistos was first established by British admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt, commander of the Spitfire, a paddle steamer, during the Mediterranean Survey of 1853. The survey was cataloging the topography and settlements of Crete. The location was a ridge, rising from the middle of the Yeropotamos river valley and extending from the sea to the Messara Plain. There was a small village of sixteen houses there, but the remains of some walls showed that a city had once been existed on that spot.


Stairs in the remains of the palace of Phaistos, leading down to a storeroom like where the disc was found

An archaeological investigation of the palace started in 1884 by Italian archaeologists Federico Halbherr and Antonio Taramelli. After removing the houses, they began to discover what remained of a large palace complex. They found three distinct construction phases showing the destruction and rebuilding of the palace. From continuous archaeological excavations, the true magnificence of the palace was revealed. It had great royal courts, a theatre, and numerous storerooms, which were used for mainly holding traded goods.

The disc was discovered in July, 1908, in the basement of one of the rooms of the palace. Its finder was another Italian archaeologist, Luigi Pernier. The basement was the main room of an underground "temple depository" in which all the rooms were only accessible from above. The contents of the rooms were mostly black earth and ashes, and everything was covered in a layer of plaster dust. The disc wasn't the only item found in the room. Several centimeters from it was a stone tablet containing text written in Linear A.

Description


The Phaistos Disc, today on display at the Iraklion Archaeological Museum

The disc itself is around 16 centimeters (6.5 inches) in diameter. Both sides of the disc are covered with symbols, arranged in a spiral pattern, going clockwise around into the center. The symbols are similar to hieroglyphs, being more drawings then simple letters. There are 241 of these hieroglyphs on the disc, composed of only forty-five unique ones. They are further grouped together as "words" with vertical lines separating them. Some of these words are recurring, suggesting a refrain of a song or ritual. There are sixty-one of these words.

The symbols were imprinted into the disc when the clay was still wet, and the consistency between similar glyphs suggest that they were pressed in using hieroglyphic "seals", or stamps. These would suggest some kind of mass production, although no other such discs have yet been discovered.

The symbols themselves resemble common objects. These include human figures and body parts, weapons, fish, birds, insects, plants, a boat, a shield and a staff. Some of the last symbols in a word also have a small diagonal line under them which was scratched on, not pressed in.

Translation Attempts

Over the years, many amateur and professional archaeologists have made attempts to decipher the code of the disc. It is not necessarily a script, but most attempts have assumed that it is, even going further in believing that it is a syllabary , an alphabet or a logography. The main problem in deciphering is that there is simply not a large enough body of text to analyze. This has left the meaning open to some wildly speculative guesses.

Writing Systems

Alphabet - set of basic written symbols or graphemes, called letters, in which each letter represents a phoneme (basic significant sound) of the spoken language.

Syllabary - set of written symbols that represent the syllables which make up words.

Logography - set of written symbols in which each symbol represents a word, morpheme or semantic unit.

How the symbols should be viewed is another point of debate. A symbol could be a pictograph, meaning it is translated directly as the object it shows. A symbol that looks like a boat would be translated as "boat". However, it the symbol is an ideogram, it might represent an idea instead. In that case, a boat might mean something like "travel".

While it is generally accepted now that the characters should be read from the outside moving clockwise into the center, rather than from the center moving outward, there is not an agreement on how the characters should be displayed when transcribed into text. Because of the clockwise rotation of the text with the bottom of the characters facing out from the center, the text is probably meant to be read right-to-left, like Arabic. This also means that the reading direction is going into the faces of the people and animals, as it is with Anatolian and Egyptian hieroglyphics. This is disputed by the idea that if the text moves clockwise, then it should also should be read left-to-right.

Some symbols have been shown to be similar to Linear A characters. Other scholars have pointed to similarities with Anatolian or Egyptian hieroglyphs. However, no matches for all the characters in single set of characters has been found. These similarities, along with the finding of tablets written in Linear A in both palaces, makes these three writing systems the best candidates for providing a solution. Some of the signs are close enough to Linear A and its translated counterpart, Linear B, that some scholars believe they might have the same phonetic values. In his recent book, Der Diskos Von Phaistos (The Phaistos Disc), Torsten Timm declares that the language on the disc is the same as Linear A. However, only 20 of the 45 characters match those found of what is known of Linear A, leaving over half of them still unaccounted for. And even if they are the same, it doesn't truly aid in the decoding, since Linear A itself has yet to be deciphered.

Other scholars look at Anatolian hieroglyphics being the key, not just to Linear A but to the Phaistos Disc as well. During the 1960s, a theory evolved that Linear A could be an Anatolian language, close to Luwian, an extinct language of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. Part of that is the idea that the extra stroke under some of the characters is similar to a symbol used in Luwian. These could then be used to match up with logograms, the basic characters in a logography, found in Luwian.

Solutions

Many people have claimed to have solved the mystery of the disc, but none of them have really been proven beyond doubt. The main reason for that is because without a larger body of text to compare to, there is no means of testing the theories.

Some of the signs are close enough to Linear A and its translated counterpart, Linear B, that some scholars believe they might have the same phonetic values.

One theory is that the disc is a calendar system. One side has 12 words, each ending in a disk-helmet combination, which could depict the twelve months. The words between those could denote special events, such as changing of seasons, or dates. The other side has just a single word ending with the disk-helmet combination and the side is divided into 30 words, which could represent the days of a month. One obvious complaint about this proposed solution is whether something almost four-thousand years old would confirm so closely to our modern idea of a calendar. Nonetheless, a number of people have latched onto this theory.

The dissension between them seems to be how its interpreted. While some have thought the extra symbols and words among the months would be natural events, like a farmer's almanac, others have claimed that the images describe ceremonies or duties that should be performed on specific dates. It has even been proposed that the disc is a schedule is for palace activities.


A version of "Game of the Goose", which might have descended from the Phaistos Disc

Another strong idea is that it is some kind of puzzle or game board. It does have some traits with Egyptian games which track the sun god and moon goddess, both astronomically and mythologically. Another game it could be related to is known as "Game of the Goose". This is a board game played on a spiral with numbered space, usually 63, with the starting point on the outside. The players move pieces according to the throw of dice. The name comes from the depictions of a goose that are scattered throughout the board. Landing on such a character allows the player to move again the same distance. Other symbols can cause a player to move to other positions, move backwards, or lose a turn. Some believe the "Game of the Goose" could have been derived from the game on the disc.

The proposal of it being a puzzle can be shown by connecting identical symbols to see patterns, much the same as a connect-the-dot puzzle of modern day. Each group of these connections is alleged to depict something specific. One of these images is said to be the cave where the Nimrud lens, the oldest discovered lens in the world, was found. Another image is purported to be an image of the constellation Argo. Other images might depict the star Sirius in the center of seven planets and one of the the Great Pyramids.

A few problems with this conclusion exist, though. First, a simple drawing consisting of straight lines to points can't be accurate enough to be a single item. It's similar to an ink blot test, in which the observer is asked what they see. The way the dots are connected to make these drawings vary, as if the person is forcing a specific image to be there. For example, the cave is "found" by connecting three circles, one inside the other. However, the drawing for the pyramid only appears by connecting five dots directly to a single top dot. If the pyramid dots are connected in any other way, the image is completely different. Another problem is the randomness of these images. Just from the four listed, two refer to astronomical occurrences, one to a man-made structure, and one to a location, a cave. The person or persons that made the disc would have to have knowledge of all those things. That brings us to a third problem: why? Why would someone go through so much trouble to produce a hidden depiction of unrelated items?


Copy of the disc, showing both sides

A commercially available explanation of the Phaistos Disc became available in 1997 when Steven Roger Fischer published his book "Glyphbreaker". In it, Fischer to claims to have cracked the code of the disc, explaining that it is actually a call to arms, to repel the Carians, invaders from Anatolia, written in some form of ancient Greek. This is produced first by an assumption at what each symbol means as a syllable, then this basic decoding is "cleaned up" to what might be Greek. This cleaned Greek is then decoded. And example of this is a series of words being "e-qe ku-ri-ti, / de-ni qe, / ma pa-si / ma ma-pi. ". This can then be made into more proper Greek as "Ekue, Kurwitis Deneoi-que: ma pasis, ma mapoi" which could translate as "Hear ye, Cretans and Greeks: my great, my quick!". The entire translation would then go as:

'Hear ye,Cretans and Greeks: my great, my quick! He ye, Danaidans, the great, the worthy! Hear ye, all blacks, and hear ye, Pudaan and Libyan immigrants! Hear ye, waters, yea earth: Hellas faces battle with the Carians. Hear ye all! Hear ye, Gods of the Fleet, aye hear ye all: faces battle with the Carians. Hear ye all! Hear ye, the multitudes of black people and all! Hear ye, lords, yea freeman: Hear ye, Lords of the Fleet: To Naxos!'

'Hear ye, ye immigrants, the great and the small; ye countrymen skilled, most stalwart; lords Idaian; all Cretans: Strike ye out with the Greeks and smite the Carians, mine enemy, and succor my stricken. Safeguard me, Idaians: I am sore afraid. Loose me now. My night, my great: Ye loose me now. These afflictions so terrible and so great, verily so molestful: Ye loose me now. Down to the sea, everyone! Yea, deliver me of my great afflictions!'

Some have credited this as being the true solution, while others view it to be far too many assumptions to be factual. This is because a general problem with decoding bodies of text is the lack of checks to eliminate bad assumptions. With a short text like that on the Phaistos Disk, if you make enough assumptions you can get a legible text in whatever language you want. But perhaps the biggest problem with this solution is that the Carians didn't appear in the Mediterranian region until a few thousand years after the disc was created.

Besides claims of the text being in some form of Greek or Luwian, it has also been proposed by Sergei V. Rjabchikov that both Linear A and the disk are some unknown Slavonic language. He also says the disc signs are a decorative version of Linear A script.

Adam Martin suggests the disc is actually bilingual, with one side being the text for a funeral service in Greek, and the other side is a Minoan version of the same text.


Drawings of the tablet found near the Phaistos Disc. The writing is Linear A, which might be related to the writing on the disc.

Hedwig Roolvink claims she too has translated the disc, and that is describes the expedition of mountain people in their efforts to find a new place to settle.

Kevin and Keith Massey claim it is in a Greek dialect, and that the disc is a receipt for goods, which would then have been destroyed.

There are even suggestions that the disc was created by extraterrestrials that visited the Earth in ancient times.

The list of possible solutions continues on, with over sixty published explanations already. None have gained widespread acceptance, and most conflict with all other claims.

Hoax?

Naturally, with no decipherment found, many people have speculated that the Phaistos Disc is a hoax. Most scholars believe that it is valid, though, especially given its connection to other proven writing systems of the time as well as its proximity to similar artifacts, such as a tablet in Linear A.

Conclusion

After one hundred years of speculation, people still are working to crack the meaning of the Phaistos Disc. One of the proposed solutions may be correct but unverifiable. It may also forever remain a mystery. What it does tell us that we still have so much more to learn about our ancient languages.

The Phaistos Disc - Puzzle of Crete
Writer: Lucille Martin
Images:
Jerzy Strzelecki: View of Paistos, Crete (title)
Olaf Tausch: Stairs in ruins of palace
Bibi Saint-Po: Map of Minoan Crete
Aserakov: Phaistos Disk. Side A. Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Greece
Helix84: Large image of the replica of Phaistos disk
Kramer96: Messara plain in South crete
Petey: Goosy Goosy Gander Game
Sources:
• "Phaistos Disk" World Mysteries <http://www.world-mysteries.com/sar_9.htm>
• "Phaistos Disc" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos_Disc>
• "Phaistos Disc" Crystalinks.com <http://www.crystalinks.com/phaistosdisc.html>
• "The Phaistos Disk" cs.rochester.edu <http://www.cs.rochester.edu/~nelson/courses/cryptology/phaistos_disk/phaistos_disk.html>
• "Phaistos" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos>
• "Phaistos Disc decipherment claims" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos_Disc_decipherment_claims>
• "Information about the Efforts to Decipher the Phaistos Disk" Anthony P. Svoronos Home Page <http://users.otenet.gr/~svoronan/phaistos.htm>
• "Game of the Goose" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_of_the_Goose>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.

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In this issue:
Main Contents
Letter From The Editor Letter From The Editor - Linguist or Polyglot
The Phaistos Disc The Phaistos Disc - Puzzle of Crete
Otto Jespersen Otto Jespersen - Progress of Language
At the Cinema At the Cinema - Kukushka - The Cuckoo
Celebrations Celebrations - Carnival
Languages in Peril Languages in Peril - The Salish Tragedy
Word on the Streets Word on the Streets - Kannada Writers
Where Are You? Where Are You?
Revisited Revisited - Stories In The Names Of Places
New Souls New Souls
Language Learning Methods Language Learning Methods - Software
Sections Sections - Parleremo YouTube
Credits




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