The Phaistos Disc is a disc of fired clay, discovered in the Minoan palace at Phaistos, Crete, in 1908 and thought to date to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age (c1700 BC). Though relatively small (c.15cm in diameter), the disk has captured the fascination of many, due to its intricate and intriguing decoration; it is covered on both sides with a series of stamped symbols arranged in a spiral design.
The disk is unique not only because of the uncertainty surrounding its purpose, dating, and even geographical origin, but because the text inscribed on it has eluded decipherment. The script is comprised of 45 different symbols, occurring 241 times, most of which represent familiar objects, such as weapons, animals, body parts and human figures, arranged in a spiralling pattern. The signs make up groups divided from each other by vertical lines, and each of these groups should represent a word. Because almost no differentiation between different copies of the same symbol can be detected, it has been proposed that each symbol was impressed onto the wet clay using a set of pre-made stamps. For this reason, some have considered the Phaistos Disc to be one of the earliest examples of typographic printing.Over the years, many scholars have attempted to decipher the text, but no conclusive answer has been agreed upon. While some have sought to find similarities between the symbols on the Phaistos disc and the also undecipherd Linear A script used in Crete in Minoan times, others have pointed to comparisons with Anatolian and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and some believe that the disc represents not just one dialect, but an amalgam of scripts from many different places.
In 1998, Dr. Keith Massey and his brother Rev. Kevin Massey believed they had come a step closer to cracking the code, through study of another ancient writing system, the Proto-Byblic semitic script used in the early second millennium BC in Byblos, modern-day Lebanon. This script also used a wide variety of symbols similar to those on the Phaistos Disc, and comparison of its consonantal values with the symbols on the Phaistos Disc have provided consonantal assignments for a substantial amount of the text on the disk. The Massey brothers’ approach thus constituted the first attempt at cracking the code on the disk using objective determinations.
Equally a matter of debate is the purpose or function of the object. Ideas have ranged from a symbolic game board, to a sung hymn or poem, possibly of religious import, to some sort of inventory of commodities. Despite the efforts of scholars to determine its significance, the theory has even been posited that the disk is a fake.
The meaning of the Phaistos Disc, then, continues to remain elusive…
Author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek.
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