James Landers of Cave City visited the Guard office recently, bringing with him a clipping of one of long-time Guard associate editor Larry Stroud's columns. For many years the title of Larry's column was “What the ???” and it covered many topics that he and our readers found interesting. Landers, who enjoyed visiting with Larry many times while he was a resident at Cave City Nursing Home, asked that we reprint the following column. Larry passed away Dec. 27, 2020.
Another ancient mystery
The Phaistos Disc was discovered in 1908 in the Minoan palace of Phaistos about 20 inches above the floor in a basement room that could be entered only from above. The room also contained black earth, ashes and some burnt cattle bones.
The disc is thought to date to the eruption of the Santorini Volcano that affected a large area of the Mediterranean region about the middle of the second millennium B.C. In other words, it is thought to date between 1850 B.C. and 1600 B.C.
This was also about the middle of the Minoan Bronze Age.
The disc is now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
The Phaistos Disc is slightly less than 6 inches in diameter, about four-tenths of an inch thick and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Now, 100 years and five months after its discovery, its purpose and meaning and even its original place of manufacture is disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology.
Of course, potential budding archaeologists of this day and age in the U.S. will never hear of the Phaistos Disc in our public schools. That's sad because mysteries such as this could very well spur young minds in a direction to eventually turn one of those scholars into a cryptologist who could crack the disc's code.
Should one of those students read this column and have enough interest, they can type "Phaistos Disc" into an Internet search engine and find drawings and pictures of the disc. Characters imprinted on the disc start at the edges, on both sides, and continue in a spiral to the center.
That the inscriptions start on the edges and not at the center is told by the fact that as the imprints reach toward the center they get closer together and, in cases, slightly overlap, as if the artist is running out of room.
Had the inscriptions begun at the center and were to be read from there toward the edge, the crowded symbols would be at the edge of each side.
The inscription was made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic style seals into the soft clay, before it was fired at high temperature to harden it. The entire disc was made this way, meaning the text was created with reusable characters — the first known document made with movable type printing.
What we have here is a printed text. However, no other examples of such moveable type printing is known for the next thousand or so years. No other known examples exist from Minoan times, so someone was way ahead of their time here.
Of course, archaeological excavations at Minoan sites may yet turn up more.
Forty-five pieces of moveable type were used to make the disc, and the message often strings several pieces of the type together in "words." Some pieces of type stand for obvious things, such as captive, pedestrian, plumed head, tattooed head, child, woman, helmet, gauntlet, tiara, arrow, bow, shield, club, manacles, mattock, saw, lid, a boomerang or carpenter's square shape, ship, horn, hide, bull's leg, cat, ram, eagle, dove, vine, papyrus, rosette, lily, flute, small ax, wavy band (thought to represent water) and a few others.
An oblique stroke, not imprinted but drawn in by hand, separates the words.
If, as thought, the disc is to be read from the outside to the center, it reads into the faces of the people and animals in the text — a style that is reminiscent of Egyptian and Anatolian writing. The disc contains 61 words – 31 on side A and 30 on side B.
However, without a translation, no one knows which side should actually be labeled as A and B.
Many people have tried to decipher the message. So far, no go.
The Wikipedia entry on the Phaistos Disc shows it in its blackened state and also a representation of each side with the markings clearly shown. In another entry, Wikipedia discusses the Arkalochori Axe, which is inscribed (but not by the printing method) with 15 characters. Three of the characters are the same plumed head character that is printed on the Phaistos Disc.
The double axe was discovered in 1934 in the Arkalochori Cave on Crete.
A tablet referred to as object PH-1 found by archaeologists was also found near the Phaistos Disc in 1908. The tablet contains a number of carved characters, about a dozen to a side, but none of them look anything like those on the disc.
It, too, remains undeciphered and is in the same museum as the disc.
Since students may now conduct their own research on their own subjects, because of the availability of the Internet, maybe a student reading this column will someday decipher the mystery of the ancient Phaistos Disc.
(Column first printed on Dec. 24, 2008.)