The ancient world sometimes seems to be almost something from an alien realm. Full of unanswered questions and inscrutable ruins, we are often left without answers to what these people were up to, our view to the past obscured and hazy. The ancients often left behind various enigmas that we struggle to understand and which seem to taunt us through the centuries, and one of these is a mysterious disc uncovered in Greece, which is full of strange cryptic symbols and for which we have no answer.
In July of 1908, an Italian archeologist by the name of Luigi Pernier was doing an excavation at the Old Palace of Minoan Phaistos, a mysterious Bronze Age archaeological site dating from 1900 to 1700 BC on the south coast of the island of the Greek island of Crete. There in the dank dark in an ancient basement of the palace he unearthed a small clay disc that had lain down in the dark for untold centuries, which upon inspection would capture the imagination and turn out to be one of the most mysterious and hotly debated archeological oddities ever uncovered in Greece.
Measuring from 15.8 to 16.5cm in diameter and 1.6 to 2.1cm in thickness, seemingly handmade from fired, baked clay, it is a truly curious little artifact. The disc holds etched upon both sides of it a spiral pattern of hand drawn lines within which a total of 45 different strange symbols are set in groups demarcated by vertical lines for a total of 242 symbols in all, each one apparently individually stamped into the clay before it was fired and in some cases showing evidence of having been erased and re-stamped. These symbols are largely pictographic in nature, featuring human figures, faces, animals such as fish, dolphins or cattle, boats, and plants and trees, as well as less discernible cryptic symbols. In addition to these symbols, there are what appear to be hand drawn dashes, slashes, and dotted bars throughout. Besides being an odd find, the thing about these various symbols is that, although they are all arranged as an obvious message, they represent no known language or writing system. It resembles none of the forms of writing found in Bronze Age Crete, called hieroglyphic, Linear A and Linear B, and archeologists have no idea what they say or why they were arranged in spirals on this lone disc.
Some things about what has come to be known as the Phaistos Disc are mostly largely agreed upon. It is mostly accepted as probably being Cretan in origin quite possibly a version of the Minoan language, and likely dates back to from 1850 to 1550 BC. It is also mostly believed that because many of the symbols seem to be arranged to face the right towards the outer edge of the disc, it is thought that it should be read clockwise from the center outwards. On the outer edge of the disc is a clearly delineated straight line marked with five or six points that is agreed by most to be the intended starting point for reading it all. That is pretty much where any agreement ends, and the disc, its origins, and the meaning of its enigmatic symbols have been discussed and debated ever since its discovery.
When trying to decipher the meaning of this oddity, there has been pointed out that the total number of different symbols are too few to represent a purely pictographic system of writing, that is in which one image is one word, but too many to be an alphabet system, meaning it is probably what is called a “syllabary.” This would mean that each different symbol represents a separate syllable of the language, and each of the groups of symbols would make up one word. However, if this is the case it should be expected that there would be an even distribution of the symbols through the text, but there are wild imbalances between them on the disc, and also considering that the symbols are grouped in mostly groups of 3 to 7, it seems strange that the language would be so syllable heavy. This has led to another idea, which is that the mysterious writing system could be some combination of pictographs and syllabaries, but no one really knows for sure.
As to the significance of the disc, theories have varied considerably. Ideas include that it is a prayer, hymn or a religious chant, sacred text, magic inscription, a spell or curse, a simple letter, ritual, game, funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, or even a nursery rhyme or musical notes. As you can see, no one really has a clue, and it could be anything. One idea that has been floated around is that the disc is not real at all, but rather a more modern forgery and hoax. It was for a while a subject of some debate, only fueled by the Greek Ministry of Culture refusal to let anyone test it because they deem it to be a national treasure that would be damaged if it were to be analyzed. If it is a forgery, then the main culprit is seen as probably being Luigi Pernier, in order to make a name for himself and step out from the shadows of other more famous archeologists also working in Crete at the time. After all, what better way to get the field’s attention than a mysterious disc with some inscrutable ancient language no one had ever seen before? However, it is common for governments to refuse to have artifacts tested out of fear of damaging them, and the majority of archeologists both in Greece and beyond are of the general consensus that it is authentic. What it actually is and what it signifies is another story altogether.
One of the most frustrating things is that since the symbols came from individual stamps, someone spent the time to make the actual die for each symbol, yet none of these die have been found. It would also imply that these discs were meant to be mass produced, yet as of yet, none other has been found. This is a problem, because without other similar examples of this mystery writing or a Rosetta Stone-type finding, there is simply not enough context to derive any meaning from it. There have been numerous claims over the years that the disc has been solved and translated, but these are unconfirmed, with little chance of a concrete confirmation in the absence of a comparison to other inscriptions. The fact is, despite the various claims of decoding the mysterious writing, it remains a perplexing unsolved mystery.