Phaistos Disc, Iraklion Museum Crete. Never been deciphered!

April 3, 2024

The Minoan civilization, which flourished on the Greek island of Krete in the southern Aegean Sea during the early Bronze Age, is one of the most fascinating cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world. It saw its earliest beginnings in the second half of the fourth millennium BCE and reached its cultural apogee from around 2000 BCE onward. It flourished for over half a millennium after that until the Mycenaean civilization of mainland Greece conquered it sometime around 1450 BCE. It is finally considered to have died out sometime around 1100 BCE, over six hundred years before the time of Socrates.

Sadly, almost the only time the general public ever pays any attention to the Minoan civilization is when they are indulging in all sorts of completely unfounded pseudohistorical speculations about it supposedly being the historical Atlantis. (As I discuss in this post I wrote back in March 2019, Atlantis is a fictional place that Plato completely made up, his story of Atlantis is primarily inspired by events that happened in the Greek world in his own time, and it almost certainly has nothing to do with the Minoan civilization.)

This is a real shame, since the Minoan civilization poses all kinds of very real unsolved ancient mysteries. Particularly mysterious are the scripts that the Minoans wrote in, all of which remain undeciphered and impossible for anyone alive today to read. The majority of surviving Minoan documents are written in two scripts: Kretan hieroglyphs, which the Minoans developed around 2100 BCE, and Linear A, which they developed a few centuries later, around 1800 BCE. They continued to use both scripts until around the middle of the fifteenth century BCE. It is a third undeciphered script, however, that has proven most alluring to the general public. This script is securely attested only in one place: a single clay disk known colloquially as the “Phaistos disk,” which has captivated both scholars and amateurs for over a century.

The discovery of the Phaistos disk

In July 1908, a team of excavators led by the Italian field archaeologist and ancient historian Luigi Pernier were excavating at the ancient Minoan archaeological site of Phaistos on Krete, which is evidently a large Minoan complex of some kind.

Modern scholars frequently refer to large complexes like Phaistos as “palaces,” but this is a highly misleading and problematic designation. The term “palace” suggests that Phaistos was a luxurious home for some ancient king or queen. In reality, archaeologists simply do not know whether any royalty ever resided at Phaistos; there is no clear evidence to indicate an answer to this question either way. Moreover, even if a king or queen did reside at Phaistos, the site was certainly much more than just a royal residence; it appears to have functioned primarily as an important administrative center.

In any case, at around 7:00 p.m. on 3 July 1908, the Greek foreman of the excavation Zakarias Iliakis was doing his regular evening inspection of the site when he discovered a unique artifact in the basement of Chamber VIII of Building XL/101 of the Phaistos complex (a small underground room, which archaeologists have described—rightly or wrongly—as a “temple repository”).

There, roughly fifty centimeters above the floor level of the room, lying amid ashes, burnt cattle bones, and pottery sherds, only a few centimeters away from a small rectangular clay tablet bearing writing in the Linear A script, Iliakis found a mysterious disk handmade from fine-grained, intentionally-fired, reddish clay. This is the object known today as the Phaistos disk.

The disk measures roughly fifteen centimeters in diameter. It bears, on the surface of both sides, a total of 241 signs (123 signs on Side A and 119 signs on Side B, comprising forty-five unique symbols), arranged in a clockwise spiral, in an apparent script that is not securely attested anywhere else and that remains completely undeciphered—and perhaps indecipherable—to this very day.

Scholars continue to debate how old the disk is, but most believe that it dates to either the Middle Minoan IIB or Middle Minoan IIIA Period (i.e., sometime roughly between c. 1750 and c. 1650 BCE), making it roughly 3,600 years old. It is currently held in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum on Krete.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the entrance to the Minoan “palace” at Phaistos on the island of Krete

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of the ruins of the Minoan “palace” at Phaistos, showing a portion of the so-called “theatral area”

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of more ruins at Phaistos on Krete

Reasons why the Phaistos disk is so unique

A 3,600-year-old script that no one alive today can read is, of course, fascinating on its own, but not especially unusual. It is actually quite common for scripts of such great antiquity to be undeciphered. Indeed, as I have mentioned, the main Minoan scripts, Kretan hieroglyphs and Linear A, are both still undeciphered.

Many other ancient scripts that were used in the second millennium BCE in other parts of the world remain undeciphered as well. The Indus script, which was used in the Indus Valley Civilization from around 3500 until around 1900 BCE or thereabouts, famously remains undeciphered and unreadable. Meanwhile, the first detailed, near-complete decipherment of Linear Elamite (the writing system that was used to write the Elamite language in what is now the southwestern part of Iran from around 2300 to around 1850 BCE) was published just earlier this year.

The Phaistos disk, however, is unique for a couple of reasons. The first reason is because, as I have mentioned, the apparent script on the disk is not securely attested anywhere else other than the surface of the disk itself. This is in marked contrast to Kretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, the Indus script, and Linear Elamite, which are all known from numerous surviving examples.

As I will discuss in a moment, there are a couple of surviving examples from Minoan Krete of very similar writing that may represent the same script that appears on the Phaistos disk. This, however, remains a matter of dispute among scholars and, even if the other examples do represent the same script, the Phaistos disk remains the longest surviving text in the script by far.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons showing Side A of the Phaistos disk

The enigma and allure of the Phaistos disk is further enhanced by the highly unusual manner of the disk’s construction. It is one of only two surviving examples of writing in a spiral formation from the Bronze Age Aegean and the only surviving example of a clay disk with writing on it in a spiral formation.

Additionally, instead of drawing each symbol into the clay by hand, the maker of the disk appears to have impressed all 241 symbols into the clay using stamps, with one stamp for each symbol. This manner of imprinting is not attested for a long text of this kind anywhere else in the ancient world and has been described as a prototypical form of moveable type, used roughly three thousand years before Johannes Gutenberg was even born.

Finally, unlike all the surviving clay tablets written in the Linear A and Linear B scripts, which were all written in “raw” clay and fired accidentally when the palatial complexes they were housed in burned, the Phaistos disk appears to have been deliberately fired in a kiln to bake and harden the clay.

The Phaistos disk is so unusual and so unlike anything that had ever been found in the Aegean world at the time of its discovery that, for a long time, many scholars questioned its authenticity and argued that it was a hoax. Now, thanks to the well-documented discovery of a few examples of very similar or possibly the same writing from Krete, we can confidently say that it is authentic. Nonetheless, sadly, we are still no closer to deciphering it than we were over a hundred years ago when the disk was first discovered.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons showing Side B of the Phaistos disk

The context of the find

No one alive today can read what the writing on the Phaistos disk says, but, using evidence from the context in which it was found, other artifacts found on Krete that bear similar symbols, the script, and the disk itself, there are some data about the nature of the writing and the text that we can most likely reasonably infer.

First, let’s talk in some greater depth about the context of the find. As I mentioned earlier, archaeologists believe that the underground room in which Iliakis found the Phaistos disk was most likely a temple repository. Unfortunately, the disk was found in the ashes of a destruction layer, so it is impossible to know from the context in which it was found how it was originally stored or displayed.

The Linear A tablet that Iliakis found next to the Phaistos disk is known as Tablet PH1. Unlike the Phaistos disk, it has generally attracted very little public attention. Although the language that it was used to write is still largely undeciphered, scholars can understand some of the Linear A signs, including the signs that represent numbers. Tablet PH1 bears a couple of number signs and is most likely an administrative record of some kind, perhaps a record of the number of objects of certain kinds that were at some point stored in the repository or in a temple storeroom elsewhere.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: 1921 illustration, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, showing the Linear A tablet PH1, which was found directly next to the Phaistos disk

Comparanda

Over the course of over the past century since the Phaistos disk was first discovered, archaeologists have found at least three artifacts on Krete that bear writing with some similarities to that which occurs on the disk. These artifacts seem to confirm—or at least point strongly in favor of—the disk’s authenticity. They also strongly suggest that the disk was originally made on Krete and not merely brought to Krete from someplace else in the Mediterranean world.

In 1926, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated a gold signet ring at the Mavro Spilio cemetery at the site of Knossos. This ring dates to around the early sixteenth century BCE or thereabouts and is known today as KN Zf 13 or the Mavro Spilio ring. This ring bears an inscription in Linear A in the formation of a clockwise spiral and is the only known example of spiral writing from the Bronze Age Aegean other than the Phaistos disk.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from the website Mnamon showing the Mavro Spilio signet ring discovered by Sir Arthur Evans

In 1934, the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos excavated a bronze votive double axe head in the Minoan sacred cave at Arkalochori in central Krete. This axe head, which is known as the “Arkalochori axe head,” is currently estimated to date to sometime between c. 1700 and c. 1450 BCE and is currently housed in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum.

A column down the middle of the axe head along the socket bears a total of fifteen symbols. Two of these symbols are unique and are only known to occur on the axe head. The other thirteen symbols, on the other hand, are extremely similar, but not identical, to symbols that occur on the Phaistos disk.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons showing the Arkalochori Axe

Finally, a clay seal impression that was excavated at Phaistos in 1955 (CMS II 5.246) bears one sign (Sign 21, “the Comb”) that also appears on the Phaistos disk.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Detail of the comb sign as it appears in the clay seal impression from Phaistos (CMS II 5.246)

What kind of writing system is this?

Scholars generally classify three different kinds of scripts. Each kind of script usually has a number of characters within a certain range. An alphabetic script is one in which each character represents a single phoneme (i.e., a sound). An abjad is a kind of alphabetic script in which each character usually represents a consonant and vowel sounds are not normally written with letters. Examples of this kind of script include the Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabets.

A true alphabetic script, meanwhile, is a kind of alphabetic script in which some characters usually represent consonants and other letters usually represent vowels. Examples of this kind of script include the Greek, Etruscan, Latin, Coptic, and Cyrillic alphabets.

Alphabetic scripts usually have somewhere between twenty and forty different characters. For instance, the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets both have twenty-two letters, the Greek alphabet has twenty-four, the ISO basic Latin alphabet has twenty-six, and the Coptic alphabet has thirty or thirty-one (depending on the dialect).

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Image from Wikimedia Commons showing the letters of the Phoenician alphabet

A syllabary is a script in which each character usually represents a full syllable. Examples of syllabaries that are in use today include the Japanese hiragana and katakana scripts and the Cherokee syllabary, which was invented in the late 1810s and early 1820s by the Cherokee polymath Sequoyah and is still used to write the Cherokee language today. Syllabaries typically have somewhere between roughly fifty and two hundred distinct characters. Modern standard hiragana and katakana each contain forty-eight base characters and the Cherokee syllabary contains eighty-five.

Finally, a logographic or ideographic script is one in which each character usually represents a full word, idea, or concept. One example of a purely ideographic writing system is the Chinese Hànzì character system. The ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform writing system combines ideographic and syllabic elements and is often described as a “logo-syllabary.” Scripts that are purely or predominantly ideographic usually have many thousands of distinct characters.

The Phaistos disk bears a total of forty-five distinct characters. The Arkalochori axe head, if it represents the same script that appears on the Phaistos disk, adds two more distinct characters that do not appear on the disk. This amounts to a total of either forty-five or forty-seven distinct characters in the script that are attested, depending on whether one counts the Arkalochori axe head as belonging to the same script. In addition to these, it is highly probable that the script contains at least a few more characters that are not attested. We can therefore reasonably surmise that this script, if it were complete, would probably contain somewhere between maybe fifty and seventy characters.

This is significantly more characters than one would expect for a purely alphabetic writing system, indicating that the script on the Phaistos disk is probably not purely alphabetic. This is hardly surprising, since purely alphabetic scripts were not widespread during the Bronze Age and did not become widely used until the first millennium BCE.

The probable number of distinct signs in the Phaistos script is far less than we would expect for any purely ideographic writing system, but exactly in the right range of what we would expect for a syllabary. This especially makes sense, since the only Bronze Age Aegean script that has been fully deciphered, Linear B, which the Mycenaean Greeks of the Bronze Age used to write a very early archaic form of the Greek language known as Mycenaean Greek, is a syllabary. The most likely conclusion is therefore that the script represented on the Phaistos disk is some kind of syllabary as well.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a clay tablet with writing on it in Linear B, recovered from the archive of the Mycenaean city of Pylos

What kind of text is this?

The Phaistos disk bears several possible clues that may hint at the kind of text it bears. The fact that, unlike the surviving clay tablets with writing on them in Linear A and B, the disk appears to have been intentionally fired in a kiln strongly suggests that it is not a mere, everyday administrative record, but rather an object that was meant to last a long time and may have been meant for display.

This hypothesis is further supported by the fact that all the surviving examples of writing from Bronze Age Krete that bear similarities to the Phaistos disk all come from artifacts that also held ceremonial or official significance: an ornate ring, a ceremonial axe head, and a seal impression. The Phaistos script may very well have been a special ceremonial script that the Minoans only used for objects of religious or official importance.

Finally, as the specialist in Minoan archaeology Dr. Giorgia Baldacci points out in an interview with the ancient historian Dr. David Miano for his YouTube channel, the Phaistos disk bears many repeated combinations of signs. Baldacci argues that this indicates that the text is most likely religious or magical in nature, perhaps some sort of hymn, liturgy, or incantation, since a document would not normally contain this kind of repetition unless it held some kind of ritual or ceremonial purpose.

The Baffling Ancient Unsolved Mystery of the Phaistos Disk - Tales of Times Forgotten

ABOVE: Scene on Side A of the Hagia Triada sarcophagus, a painted limestone sarcophagus discovered at the site of Hagia Triada on Krete depicting a ritual ceremony of some kind, now held in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum

Will it ever be deciphered?

Unfortunately, the decipherment of the script represented on the Phaistos disk is not possible under the current state of information. The first problem is that scholars know absolutely nothing about the language that the script was used to write.

The Minoan language is extinct with no known living descendants. Scholars don’t even know which language family it belonged to or if, indeed, it belonged to any known language family at all. Most scholars currently believe that it was most likely not Indo-European, but even this is still disputed. We don’t even know if the language on the Phaistos disk is the same language that the Minoans wrote using Linear A, since it could be an entirely different language—potentially one that is attested nowhere else.

On top of this, an additional problem is that extremely little writing in the script is currently known and there are currently no known bilingual inscriptions that bear writing in the Phaistos disk script alongside writing in any known script. This combination of our complete lack of knowledge about the language of the script and the minute quantity of surviving writing in it basically makes it immune to even the most sophisticated modern codebreaking techniques and also makes any proposed decipherment effectively impossible to prove.

Probably the only way that someone might one day be able to decipher the Phaistos disk would be if a massive amount of new material in the Phaistos script is suddenly uncovered and/or someone deciphers Linear A and we find that Linear A and the Phaistos script were used to write the same language. Until either or both of these things happen, I believe that the Phaistos disk will most likely remain an enigma.