Phaistos Disc

What is it?

This enigmatic fired-clay disc, dating to around 1700-1600 BC, was discovered in the palace of Phaistos on the Greek island of Crete. It is 16.5cm in diameter, 2.1cm thick, and its two faces bear 45 different pictographic signs – a total of 241 symbols – spiralling from the edge to the centre within incised bands. Vertical hand-carved lines group the symbols into sets of two to seven, probably forming single words or syllables.

The signs of the Phaistos Disc were impressed with individual stamps, as in modern typography, although in some instances the same symbol was produced multiple times using different stamps. The maker of the disc made a few mistakes on the fine-grained clay: some of the symbols were erased before reinscription, in other sections margins were widened to fit everything in.

Where was it found, and when?

As Arthur Evans was uncovering the Minoan palace of Knossos in north-central Crete, an Italian archaeological team – led by Federico Halbherr – began work to the south at what they hoped was just as grand a complex. Between 1900 and 1907, they revealed the palace of Phaistos, perched on a hill above the fertile Messara Plain. The Minoan palace, first established in 1900 BC, covered an area of around 8,000m² and had a labyrinthine architectural layout. Its multi-storey buildings – which included luxurious rooms with hypostyle halls, monumental gateways, and decorative façades – surrounded the grand, open-air Central Court. In 1908, excavating in one of the palace’s underground dependencies, Luigi Pernier found the inscribed clay disc in a layer of black earth and ash – remnants, experts suggest, of a great earthquake and fire following the eruption of Santorini during the mid 2nd millennium BC.

Why does it matter?

Since its discovery over 200 years ago, the Phaistos Disc has been the subject of consistent controversy. Debate continues over whether it is a forgery, and the attempts to decipher its mysterious pictographs are legion. The disc has been interpreted variously as an adventure narrative, prayer, political administrative document, almanac, and even as a board game. Its peculiarity has also attracted more fantastical interpretations: some argue the disc is a message from extraterrestrials or a cosmic portal to hidden dimensions.

The Phaistos Disc is generally assumed to be Minoan in origin, owing to the similarity of some its symbols and its style with other, indisputably, Minoan objects. The Mavro Spilio gold signet ring, found by Evans at Knossos in 1926, is inscribed with a spiralling Linear A script. The bronze Arkalochori Axe from a shallow cave in central-eastern Crete bears some 15 pictographic signs that are reminiscent of the disc, though none of the symbols directly match.

Even without a conclusive translation, the beauty and mystery of the unique Phaistos Disc continues to capture the imagination of scholars and enthusiasts alike. It has become a symbol of Crete, a major draw to Heraklion, where it is currently on display, and the logo of the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH), one of the largest research centres in Greece.

SEE FOR YOURSELF
The Phaistos Disc is on permanent display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete.

This article appeared in issue 84 of Current World Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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