The Phaistos Disc
Ah, the Phaistos Disc. (Click on image above for full size version.) It’s a fired clay disc about 5 1/2 inches wide with symbols pressed into each side in a spiral pattern. There are 45 unique symbols, comprising a “message” of 241 symbols. It was discovered in 1908 in Crete, and apparently dates from around 1500BC, give or take a few centuries. It was found in the basement of a Minoan Palace, where apparently it had lain since the basement collapsed in an earthquake. OK, kinda cool I guess, what is its significance? The significance is that no one knows what it says. The Phaistos Disc is indeed one of the greatest mysteries of archeology, despite a century of scholarship, the disc remain unreadable.
Is anything known about it? Not much. For a number of reasons scholars think it was meant to be read from the outside spiraling in. There are some other marks that may represent paragraph breaks, and a certain amount of editing and correction was done. So it’s pretty certain it is writing of some sort, not just decorative markings. It bears little resemblance to any other known writing, so scholars don’t really have much to go on. A few scholars still think it might be an early 20th century hoax, but most think it’s provenance is pretty solid. And a votive axe of similar age that was found in 1934, the Arkalochori Axe, shares some of the same symbols. Though they are of no help in deciphering the Phaistos Disc because scholars concluded that the symbols carved on the axe were carved by an illiterate and were just strung together for looks. The bottom line is that 241 symbols simply isn’t enough text to decipher an unknown language written in an unknown alphabet. Until more examples of the text or a Rosetta Stone is found, it is unlikely the Phaistos Disc will be understood.
Of course this hasn’t stopped people from trying. Scholars of all stripes have made various stabs at it through the years. One particularly creative translation claims that the language is Basque, and the Disc reads as follows:
Side A: The lordling threshing the back of the vessels, the water-pitchers, the wine-holding olpe; | the lordling, fish with a pair of thongs, foul-skinned, leather scourge footed; | the lordling, horned reptile, the lordling of (or plying) the shuttle, | who smites the threads; the lordling, star holding a fowl | covertly (or in a bunch of flowers); the panting lord of the arrow, Rain-lord; | the lordling, little-horn, the lordling with plenteous-foaming hide, holding a fish; | the lordling, little-horn, the panting lord of the arrow, Rain-lord; | the lordling, little-horn; the lordling walking on a horseman (or hide), flaxen-coated; | the little horned one, sucking at the teat; the lordling, the thresher, | who holds a dewy spray, twin horse-head star; | the lordling with plenteous-foaming hide, the thresher, twin horse-head star.
Side B: The lordling skimming the girdle-tracks; the lord clenching the fist, bruising the skin | with delight, hewing at the flower of the teeth, | smiting with cestus, driving home; the lord walking on wings the breathless path, the star-smiter, | the foaming gulf of waters, dogfish smiter on the creeping flower; | the lord, smiter of the horse-hide (or the surface of the rock), the dog climbing the path, the dog emptying with the foot the water-pitchers, | climbing the circling path, parching the wine-skin, | the tall jars, the high-stemmed vessel, climbing the circling path, the solitary rocks; | the lord clasping to the breast the pillars; the dog holding and seizing the pitchers.
Well, that clears things up. As the gentle reader may surmise, this translation has not been accepted by the scientific community at large. And being an “unexplained” item, the Phaistos Disc has gotten plenty of attention from, shall we say, the more creative interpreters of all things ancient. Yes, some have seen signs of ancient aliens on the disc. One of the symbols even “looks like” a UFO on its side. And the Atlantis crowd finds support for their “theory” as well. It really is amazing to me that people with essentially no credentials whatsoever in a field actually think they will succeed where the experts have failed. Granted I’m sure it’s happened a few times in history, but still, we’re talking ancient languages and such, this is pretty arcane and academic stuff. Until actual evidence for UFOs or Atlantis is found, I think we can safely leave the Phaistos Disc out of that debate.
Lastly, the Phaistos disc does have one other unusual attribute. It apparently was made using movable type, IE the symbols weren’t carved by hand, they were pressed into the clay from stamps with raised symbols on them. This predates the next known invention of movable type by about 1500 years! In other words, some unknown and unsung genius invented a labor saving way to write more than a thousand years before anyone else hit on the same idea. My theory is that this is more proof of “Doug’s Theory of Laziness.” I posit that all of civilization’s great advances have been made or inspired by lazy people. In this case probably a bored slave who said “There’s got to be an easier way to inscribe all these fucking clay discs.”
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Credit and copyright: Wikipedia User PRA. Coming soon, more ancient and archeological mysteries. The Hinterkaifeck pickaxe massacre. The Hollingsworth dog mummies. The Crocker Land expedition. Or whatever takes my fancy.)