Nice discussion of the Phaistos disk for what it is worth. Whatever the object is it is currently a one off sample of an unknown system of writing. In as much the Bronze Age Mediterranean was a hotbed of experimental alphabetics that surely ebbed and waned as one unsatisfactory system replaced another unsatisfactory system, this sample conforms nicely. Translation is presently hopeless and no other samples have arisen. And yes it may well be a pure hoax foisted on us. The lack of additional samples supports the hoax explanation for the present. Yet we may well be dealing with a specialized palace script used to send mail between various rulers, while the more common scripts in use was dedicated to the needs of commerce.
There is a vast difference between the offer to sell thirty cows and the proposal to beat up on a neighbor. That it was formed in clay shows it was taking advantage of the messaging system used in Mesopotamia. Using carved stamps tells us that the vocabulary was very small and that some of the content is naming conventions. In short, it is likely to be a cleverly developed method for sending messages between palaces in a reasonably secure manner. Symbol recognition could even be prearranged at gatherings in order to make it completely impenetrable.
So the use of such a disc fits the information milieu of the times and for that reason alone should likely be accepted. The chance of finding even this disc was remote and if they were in fact critical messages of a diplomatic nature and easily changeable, it makes good sense to destroy upon receipt. Thus archives may simply not exist.
It is additional evidence that a culture was struggling to develop a superior writing system, and the exigencies of using clay discs to send letters would promote an efficient alphabet. In fact this is strong evidence that our alphabet was originally shaped around the needs of carving stamps. This is an important insight regarding the formation of a writing system. Cuneiform arose because of reed styluses, Chinese arose out of hair brushes and Mesoamerica had large brushes to work with.
The Phaistos disk: hoax, ancient calculator, or Piltdown cookie?
May 25, 9:25 AM
I mentioned the Phaistos Disk in a previous column, just in passing, and thought it merited a meandering discussion of its own. This famous disk is a saucer-sized clay object, about six inches across, that was found in Phaistos, a city on the island of Crete, which is south of the Greek mainland in the Mediterranean Sea – for those of you who are weak in geography. This disk has what appears to be writing on it, spiraling in from the rim. Unless, of course, it’s really spiraling out from the center. The writing, if that’s what it really is, appears on both sides, but the “message” is not the same on the two sides. A long time ago, I came up with my own fanciful “decipherment” because I was getting tired of reading everybody else’s, as no two of these experts agreed with each other in the slightest. Mine doesn’t agree with anybody else’s either, though, so I won’t bother you with a rendition of it.
One hypothesis concerning this famous disk, a hypothesis that was making the rounds of archeology circles about a year ago, is that the disk is actually a fake. Shades of that infamous fake fossil, the Piltdown Man! Supposedly, the Phaistos Disk was created and then put in the dig to be found by some local but not too famous archeologist (one Pernier) back in the early years of the 20th century. The purpose was to impress Sir Arthur Evans, an archeologist who had dug up some real neat stuff at Knossos on Crete and had become very famous indeed. The famous Sir Evans was impressed all right.
So was a lesser known fellow named Michael Ventris, who took a shot at cracking the code of the enigmatic script. Ventris failed to decipher the Phaistos disk, but he did figure out how to read another ancient system of writing, some of which was found at Knossos, mostly on rather ordinary clay tablets. That clay tablet system was called Linear B. It wasn’t supposed to be Greek, according to Sir famous and influential Arthur Evans. Fortunately, Ventris didn’t know that, and assumed it was Greek, just the same. Once he’d applied his skills as a code-breaker to it, he was able to prove it was Greek, just as he’d suspected. Fortunately for all concerned, the famous and influential Arthur Evans had departed for the next world by that time, so Ventris became famous and his discovery was accepted by all and sundry.
More recently, another type of writing also found at Knossos has been deciphered, but you don’t see much mention of it in the English language. That’s because a Frenchman did the deciphering and he did it only recently. This was Hubert LaMarle and he deciphered Linear A. That’s not Greek, but something related to Old Persian. This identification turned out to be quite a surprise, since Linear A was supposed to be either Semitic (related to Hebrew, Ugaritic, Babylonian, and Assyrian) or else Anatolian (related to Hittite and Luwian). But the language on those tablets steadfastly refused to be either Anatolian or Semitic for years and years despite all the efforts of many gifted linguists, until LaMarle tried another tack.
Still, no one has managed to decipher the Phaistos Disk to the satisfaction of anyone but himself. The language of this fascinating object has been “revealed” to be Greek a few times, like Linear B. But it’s also been shown to be Slavic which is quite impossible. It’s also been proven to be not linguistic at all but purely mathematical. Others have said it was Anatolian or Semitic at different times, and a few other things as well. It’s a calendar according to several folks, a prayer according to others, cult instructions in still other versions, and a chart of some constellations in yet other versions. Obviously somebody out there can’t be right!
Why has the Phaistos Disk proved such a difficult nut to crack? Well, the big problem is that it is unique. There’s only the one disk, which leaves all would-be code crackers with a very small sample to work with. Besides that, it’s nothing like a Rosetta Stone – no bilingual inscription to give a clue to the meaning. So what possible key can one use to unlock it? The symbols aren’t the same as Linear A or Linear B and they’re not the same as those used in Luwian hieroglyphs across the Aegean “pond” to the northeast of Crete. They don’t like anybody else’s symbols, in fact. The symbols were stamped onto the disk, too, and stamping hardly seems worth the bother unless somebody was going to make a lot of these. But still there’s only the one.
Since there’s only one disk, the scholar Jerome Eisenberg suggests it’s nothing but a fake. He published a long article spelling out why he thought this, concluding that the thing ought to be tested via thermoluminescence, to see how old it is. If it turns out to be only 100 years old, dating to the time of its own excavation, it’s definitely a fake. If it turns out to be about 3,200 years old, maybe it’s authentic, since it would go back to the Bronze Age. It seems pretty cut and dried.
But there happens to be a certain bronze wolf, a she-wolf to be precise, who was always proclaimed to be Etruscan by a certain museum in Italy, and this wolf was recently tested and found to be medieval and so not Etruscan at all. How embarrassing! After this fiasco, the Heraklion Museum, the one showing off the famous disk, isn’t taking any chances. They’re not letting anybody test their disk!
But it may not be a fake, just because of a few other facts wandering out there, seldom noted. There’s supposedly an axe (possibly from an island next door to Turkey unless I have that confused with Etruscan) that has two or three symbols on it that are reminiscent of some that are on this here disk, so maybe it’s not entirely unique and therefore authentic after all. This is the so-called axe of Arkhalokouri, which I have yet to see, so I can’t really vouch for its similarity to the disk. I’ve only heard about it.
More exciting is another disk that showed up in, of all places, the Caucasus. It’s known as the Disk of Vladikavkaz because it turned up in Vladikavkaz. Yes, I figured you would have figured that out! You’re very clever. Unfortunately, this “new” disk is incomplete, but what there is of it resembles the Phaistos Disk quite closely in the signs on its surface. Well, that is, the newly found disk looks like an untalented amateur drew its signs, whereas the old Greek one has very neat and tidy and clever stamped signs. But the signs are recognizable anyhow. The disk of Vladikavkaz has the little pagoda-like building that some say is a beehive, the little jogging man, and the circle with dots that some call a warrior’s shield but that looks more like a chocolate chip cookie to me. It has the Mohawk that’s probably the head of a warrior with a feathered helmet. Plus, there’s the flying bird, although apparently without those little eggs falling under her. Maybe those were her feet and weren’t considered important in Ossetia, where this was found. There is a symbol that looks like the hide of some animal on the Phaistos Disk, a hide that I always figured was a bull’s hide for some reason that I no longer recall. On the Vladikavkaz fragment, it looks much less like a hide and more like a cartoon of a stuffed toy or a doll with an eensy-weensy head. But I suppose it’s meant to be the same symbol. Then there are those two bunny ears and the wiggly horn as well. I have no earthly idea what any of this really represents and I suspect that no one else actually does either. But it’s fun to speculate.
For a good look at both disks and some other examples of early writing, look for a pdf document online called “Il disco di Festo: Un calcolatore vecchio di 4.000 anni” by Rosario Vieni, on Antikitera.net. This author’s hypothesis is that the Phaistos disk, along with a number of other enigmatic items, is a 4,000 year old calculator. Since my Italian is a little weak, I won’t try to spell it all out for you, but his illustrations are excellent even if you don’t understand a word of it. He shows both sides of the Phaistos Disk, both the one with the repetitions of the feathered warrior and the shield, and the other side which you almost never get to see. He also shows a close-up of this newly discovered Vladikavkaz Disk, so you can compare the clumsy drawings.
As a bonus, Vieni also talks about and shows two little amber plaques found in Tuscany, Italy. One has a face on one side and three symbols in either Linear A or Linear B on the other side. The second plaque has four symbols from the same writing system. Since Linear B derived from Linear A, I can’t tell them apart at a glance, not with such short inscriptions. The author seems to be saying that the first one reads sarano, in Linear A, while the second one is Linear B for three symbols but I don’t follow his conclusion about the last symbol.
Vieni goes on to tell about several ancient calendars, showing a picture of the famous scene of the man in the cave at Lascaux from the Paleolithic. This scene may depict a dead man, or he may be a shaman. He’s lying next to a bird on a stick, and both are in front of a bison which seems to have its intestines hanging down, as well as a spear through it. Yes, it’s a gloomy scene all around!
The author also shows a still earlier object dating to the Aurignacian period of the Paleolithic, a piece of ivory bearing incisions that are either tiny circular indentations or short diagonal lines. According to Alexander Marshack, this piece of mammoth ivory, so decorated, was an early calendar, a record of phases of the moon. His reasoning is rather long and technical, plus it involves some math that I really can’t follow in the Italian. I once read it in English but I don’t remember it very well except to say that it was impressive.
Another example of an early calendar or calculator is supposedly the monument of Stonehenge, the plan of which is shown on another page. This stone monument was constructed over a long period of time but it dates generally to the Bronze Age. It, too, was apparently set up to enable its ancient users to predict phases of the moon, including eclipses. At least, this is an older hypothesis. Nowadays, I understand a British archeologist has excavated a Woodhenge, the Excursus, a long lump in the earth on the other side of Stonehenge from the river, plus some famous avenues linking these three. He concludes from all this that Stonehenge was a place of funerals and Woodhenge a place for the living, for seasonal festivals. Still, it might have required sighting the moon and perhaps some stars at particular times, such as solstices.
Following this there seems to be a picture of the Antikythera device, an extremely complex and clever “proto-computer” discovered on the seafloor in the Mediterranean. It was most certainly used by some classical Greeks as a calendrical device, as shown in a recent article in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Finally, we are treated to a short discussion of an unusual bronze disk with perhaps a similarly calendrical purpose from Germany, the Nebra Disk, which is 3,600 years old. The symbols on it definitely look like moons and stars, so I’m perfectly willing to believe it had something to do with astronomy. But I haven’t gotten that far in my translating.
For a brief discussion of the merits of the various “translations” of the Phaistos disk as well as a summary of Eisenberg’s reasons for considering it a hoax (which is why I called it a Piltdown cookie), you can sample the archaeology site at about.com:
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the Phaistos Disk is a star chart, since that shield plus warrior head motif keeps repeating on the one side. What star would do that? Assuming that it is authentic, I also can’t imagine how the language of the thing could be anything other than one of the languages of the ancient world, namely of the Bronze Age. That rules out Ukrainian and makes it most likely either Mycenean Greek or else the contemporary Eteocretan language that we now know to be a version of Persian. I suppose it might possibly be some Semitic or Anatolian language, an import as it were. But since those people – Semites and Persians – all had writing systems of their own that we know about (like cuneiform and Linear A), none of which look anything like what’s on the Phaistos disk, it hardly seems likely. You know, some of the proposals that people have come up with are so far out, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days somebody claimed that Bigfoot wrote it as a love letter to the Loch Ness Monster!