The Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc (shown here side A) is a disk of fired clay with about 15 cm diameter.
Side B of the Phaistos Disc.
The Bronze seal of Troy VIIb, from the 12th century BCE, is still the only piece of writing found at Bronze Age Troy.
This Late Bronze Age golden ring with Linear A script was found in royal tomb IX at Mavro Spelio near Knossos in 1926.
This lead disk was found in Magliano in the Toscana near Grosseto (Italy) in 1883 and bears an Etruscan script dating to the 5th or 4th cent. BCE.
A clay disk fragment bearing sings similar to those of the Discos of Phaistos was discovered in 1992 in the city of Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia-Alania. It disappeared in 2001.
Ink-written Linear-A-inscription around the inner surface of a cup, found by Arthur Evans in 1909.
Luwian hieroglpyhs (left) and equivalent pictograms on the Phaistos Disc (right).

The famous Phaistos Disc is one of archaeology’s greatest mysteries. Neither its origin nor the meaning of the inscription could yet be determined. Countless speculations and attempts to decipher it, especially by laypeople, have caused scholars to deal with this object only reluctantly, if at all. It is hoped that future excavations will eventually unearth more documents of a similar nature.

CURRENT STATE OF KNOWLEDGE

The Phaistos Disc consists of fired clay and is about 15 centimeters in diameter. It was found on 3 July 1908 during excavation of the Minoan palace of Phaistos, near the south coast of Crete. The excavations, conducted by Italian archaeologists, were directed by Luigi Pernier. However, Luigi Pernier was not present at the site when the clay disc was discovered. The disc is one of the most famous Bronze Age finds and one of the great mysteries of Mediterranean archaeology. It contains over 240 spirally arranged human, animal and plant motifs that were printed with individual stamps. Its sophisticated manufacturing technology with movable type is in direct contrast to the uniqueness of the find. The use of reusable stamps only makes sense if used several times or even frequently. Practically everything that concerns the disc is controversial; this even includes the orientation of the writing and the language used.

SUGGESTIONS

A Luwian letter to Nestor

Reputable scholars usually tend to avoid controversial issues that have been tackled by too many amateurs. Hardly any subject is more notorious than the Phaistos Disc, because of the countless attempts that have been made to decipher it.

The Dutch linguists Jan Best and Fred Woudhuizen have independently come to many conclusions during the past few decades that confirm the model put forward in this website. One of these is a most remarkable decipherment of the Phaistos Disc. The team’s epigraphic investigation shows that the writing direction is from the outside to the inside and that side A was inscribed first. Based on the context of the find, 1350 BCE has been determined as the date of the disc’s production.

In her extensive research on Linear B the American linguist Alice Kober found that various characters appeared over and over in the same order and that each sequence was completed with different alternating characters. Kober assumed that the same sequences corresponded to the root of a verb or noun and that the final characters marked case endings or inflections. This finding led to the decipherment of Linear B by the British architect Michael Ventris shortly after Kober’s early demise.

The Phaistos Disc, too, includes such fixed sequences with different endings, and the same applies to Luwian hieroglyphs. Of the 47 different characters used on the disc, a total of 29 can be correlated with Luwian hieroglyphs. The similarities go so far that whole words on the disc are immediately readable in Luwian, including a-su-wi-ya (B11) for “Aššuwa.” Best and Woudhuizen, therefore, came to the conclusion that the script of the disc is not that unique, but rather represents a local variant of Luwian hieroglyphic writing. When these circumstances are taken into consideration, the text becomes fully legible.

According to this interpretation, a number of places are mentioned that still bear the same name today: Messara, Phaistos, Lasithi and Knossos. Other geographical names that are familiar from the Late Bronze Age appear as well, including Achaea, Arzawa and Aššuwa. Some words are also found in Akkadian, Linear B or Egyptian hieroglyphic texts. Two personal names even appear more than 500 years later in Homer in a similar context: Nestor of Pylos and Idomeneus of Crete.

Not only the script but the language, too, is very similar to Luwian. If the above reading is correct, the text on the disc intends to settle an ownership dispute in a place called Rhytion near Pyrgos in the southwest of the plain of Messara: The Greek king Nestor has a principality in Crete that includes Knossos and parts of the plain of Lasithi and of the Messara. In the name of Nestor, Idomeneus reigns from his court at Knossos as viceroy of Lasithi and as governor of the Messara. His sphere of influence includes the local petty kings Kuneus for Phaistos and Uwas for the hinterland of Phaistos. Uwas is in a dispute with another vassal king about the control of Rhytion and wants Nestor to make a decision concerning this matter. Nestor apparently contacts the Great King of Arzawa, probably the most important Luwian state. The king of Arzawa tells Kuneus to inform Uwas about his right to rule.

The Phaistos Disc is therefore a copy, intended to remain with Kuneus in Phaistos. Uwas, too, should have received a copy. The creation of multiple copies would explain the use of stamps. In this case, the disc was probably produced at the court of the king of Arzawa, that would be in Apaša, near Ephesus, and it was written in the local dialect spoken in the Luwian part of Crete. Consequently, the Luwians would have had a lot of influence on Crete before the Mycenaeans seized power over the island. According to this hypothesis, parts of Crete even belonged to the Aššuwa league, an association of Luwian petty states.

Future excavations in Apaša, the former capital of Arzawa, could possibly bring to light other documents of similar style to the Phaistos Disc.

REFERENCES

Achterberg, Winfried et al. (2004): The Phaistos disc: A Luwian letter to Nestor. Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, Amsterdam, 1-135.
Best, Jan G. P. & Fred Woudhuizen (1988): Ancient scripts from Crete and Cyprus. Publications of the Henri Frankfort Foundation, Brill, Leiden, New York, 1-131.
Mellink, Machteld (1964): “Lycian Wooden Huts and Sign 24 on the Phaistos Disk”. Kadmos 3, 1-7.
Rietveld, Lia (2004): “The Text”. In: The Phaistos disc: A Luwian letter to Nestor. Winfried Achterberg et al. (Hg.), Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, Amsterdam, 85-95.