Phaistos Disc: roll ‘em
The enigmatic Phaistos
disc has been interpreted in so many different ways that most
have given up all hope that it may ever be properly understood.
But amongst the myriad opportunities, there is one possibility
that is supported by the available evidence.
– also Phaestos and Phaestus – is one of the ancient
“palaces” on Crete. In early July 1908, riding on
the wave of Sir Arthur Evans’ discovery of Knossos, a curious
clay disc, dating to about 1700 BC, containing a sophisticated
pictographic writing, was discovered in similar to less-known
ruins on the southern coast of the island. Known as “the
Phaistos Disc”, its purpose, meaning and even geographical
place of manufacture, remain disputed. Today, many walk past its
display case in the archaeological museum of Heraklion, while
not all guides point out the intriguing artefact. Dozens of theories
about its origin and purpose have been proposed, but in the final
analysis, none has been satisfactory. Still, hidden amongst the
dozens of theories, there is one, which has not been accepted
by many, but may be the right answer.
The Phaistos Disc was discovered
in the basement of room XL-101 of the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos,
near Hagia Triada, on the south coast of Crete. The Italian archaeologist
Luigi Pernier recovered this remarkably intact dish, which is
remarkably small, measuring about 15 cm in diameter and uniformly
just over 1 cm thick. There is nothing remarkable about the disc
itself: the inscriptions were made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic
seals into the soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiralling towards
the disc’s centre. It was then baked at high temperature.
The palace was possibly destroyed and abandoned when the Santorini
volcano erupted – one of the biggest geological dramas that
has upset the Mediterranean world in the past 10,000 years. If
it had not been for the sudden and dramatic end of palace life,
the disc may very well never have survived the millennia, until
its discovery in 1908.
There is no enigma about how
the disc was made. What is at the centre of the controversy are
the inscriptions on the disc and their meaning. There are a total
of 241 figures on the disc, created out of “only”
45 different glyphs. This, some believe, could be an alphabet,
a hieroglyphic alphabet. Many represent easily identifiable, everyday
things, including human figures, fish, birds, insects, plants,
a boat, a shield, a staff, etc. Such depictions are also found
in the Egyptian hieroglyphic script.
But there is little one can do beyond classification, for the
inscriptions on the disc are largely an isolated occurrence –
unique – and thus any decodation is extremely difficult.
If it is a language, so far, no other instances of it have been
discovered anywhere. Some researchers have stated that there are
some possible family members. One is a votive double axe found
in the Arkalohori Cave, also on Crete, but it contains only superficially
similar hieroglyphics and only a potential three out of 51 markings
share some resemblance. The second is a fragment of a smaller
clay disk, found at Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, which however
disappeared mysteriously and can thus not be used for comparison.
Eisenberg, an American specialist in faked ancient art, believes
that Luigi Pernier, the archaeologist who discovered the disc,
as having invented the Disc, and that the writing means nothing.
Eisenberg argues that Pernier needed to impress his colleagues,
but Eisenberg has not presented any evidence whatsoever to back
up his serious allegation, which, if Pernier was still alive,
would definitely have resulted in a lawsuit. Experts, in general,
tend to disregard Eisenberg’s allegation, as there are somewhat
similar inscriptions from known archaeological sites, such as
a bronze double-axe in Arkalokhori, which has 16 characters, two
of which resemble characters of the disc.
Most theories propose that the disc represents a text in an unknown
language. As there are a number of glyphs marked with an oblique
stroke, some believe these designate words, or even paragraphs.
As to the text’s meaning: it rangers from prayers, a narrative,
an adventure story, a call to arms, a legal document, a schedule
for palace activities, etc. Others argue that the disc is not
text at all, but perhaps a calendar. A token. Or a geometric theorem.
Or a board game. A message from extraterrestrials who visited
Earth thousands of years ago. A portal or star gate. In fact,
almost the only thing most theories agree on is that the text
has been written from the exterior to the centre.
That the disc is not a language,
despite widely being accepted in some corners, seems quite logical,
as the language is totally unique, yet its surroundings –
Phaistos – and its date – 1700 BC – would suggest
that no such isolated language would exist. Even if Phaistos had
a language of it own, why was it only discovered on one disc?
In further contrast to the writing tablets that were unruled back
then and began to be ruled with parallel lines only a couple of
centuries later, the Disc has a spiral-like track of irregularly
long fields on each side, 30 on one and 31 on the other, all arranged
between the incised curving borders of the track. Still, one of
the reasons for much of this confusion is that Sir Arthur Evans
had insisted that the signs on the Disd “must be”
syllabic writing, because he promoted the Cretan-Mycenaean culture
as the cradle and earliest blossom of European civilization.
So what is it? At present, the most convincing theory is that
it is a game board. It looks like one and the usage of stamps
in its fabrication suggests a form of mass-production. Its ruled,
leading inwards to the centre, path, is a classical example that
game-boards have shared throughout their history.
kind of game, is more difficult to asses. Some argue that it was
based on the journeys of the sun god and the moon goddess, both
in astronomical and mythological terms. That game had close parallels
in ancient Egypt, which allow the reconstruction of its main features
and event fields. In fact, such analysis revealed that these fields
coincided with many virtually identical fields in the still popular
“Game of the Goose”, which are still in the same locations
along the track of this “modern” game as on its direct
Intriguingly, on some of the Senet boards, these signs were impressed
into the clay-like soft mass before firing, and they were impressed
with stamps. In other words, as unusual as the stamping on the
Phaistos Disk may have been for imprinting a text, stamping was
in no way exceptional for impressing signs on game-boards. Another
clue that also points in the game-board direction comes from the
eight-leaved rosette which occurs four times on the disc. That
sign is frequently found on ancient game-boards, including those
found in the Royal Graves of Ur in Sumer from about 2500 BCE –
centuries before the Phaistos Disc.
the framework of a game-board, the origins of the disc can also
be explained: the existence of game-boards in neighbouring civilisations,
specifically Egypt. There was a profound Egyptian influence in
Crete, so much so that several of the levels at Knossos are dated
by the Egyptian artefacts that were recovered in them. Even the
base of a 12th Dynasty Egyptian dignitary’s diorite statuette
came to light at Knossos, in a deposit from a couple of centuries
before the disc. That an Egyptian board game would have made its
way to Crete, is thus absolutely possible – and likely,
seeing what other Egyptian items ended up in Crete.
So what is Senet? It is an Egyptian race game and may be the ancestor
of our modern backgammon. A lot of information about Senet has
survived in the form of actual game-boards, descriptions, and
tomb paintings of Senet players with captions. The oldest known
representation of Senet is in a painting from the tomb of Hesy
(Third Dynasty, ca. 2686-2613 BC). Edgar B. Pusch published a
series of photographs and drawings with descriptions of all known
Senet boards (about forty) and Senet playing scenes in papyri
and murals. According to a scroll fragment that dates to Graeco-Roman
times (but seems to record a much earlier tradition), the 30 squares
on the Senet board represented the 30 days in the standard ancient
Egyptian calendar month, and more specifically the month of Thoth,
the first month of the Egyptian year. The first Senet square was
the “House of Thoth”, and the festival of Thoth was
indeed celebrated on the first day of his month which was also
New Year’s day. The thirtieth square stood for the last
day of the standardized month “when the moon is invisible”.
We note that the disc has 30 “long fields” on one
side, 31 on the other. So, in this thinking, those theorists who
concluded that the disc was a calendar, were not far off.
if it is a game-board, the correspondence with Senet cannot be
one on one. Furthermore, the most common version of the Senet
board was laid out as a rectangular grid of 3 x 10 squares –
and not a disc.
Though the Senet and other board-games have survived, the rules
of the game itself have not. As such, archaeologists have tried
to guess how the game was played and have come up with their own
rules. No doubt, the rules of the game changed in Antiquity as
well; the rules of football have changed several times over the
past century. And some games have transformed into others. In
fact, the likely scenario that the Phaistos Disc is a game-board,
is the best interpretation we can give for the artefact –
and it is the most logical. But it is probably impossible to ever
accurately decipher how this game was played. It seems clear that
it was adapted from similar Egyptian games, but like everything
about the Minoan culture, it must have been adapted and given
a specific local turn.
Still, we can look towards the Egyptian Senet to imagine how it
could possibly have been played. It is believed that for Senet,
sticks were thrown to see how many squares the piece could be
moved forward. If you threw a one, four or six, you got an extra
turn. You could not land on one of your own pieces. If you landed
on the other player’s piece, you switched places with them.
However, you can’t switch with them if they have two or
more pieces in a row. If the other player has three or more pieces
in a row, you can’t pass them. Some squares were “safe”
squares and some were “danger” squares. The first
player to get all of their pieces off the board had won the game.
Still, it is equally possible that the game was purely “chance”:
that the roles of the dice or throw of the sticks allowed progress
on the track, until the centre of the field was reached. And perhaps
the Phaistos Disc could be used for both a chance game, and a
“rule game”, like backgammon.
No doubt, the Phaistos game had slightly different rules and the
pieces that were placed on top, will most likely never be recovered
– unless they are small artefacts found amongst the rubble
of the palaces that archaeologists may have misidentified and
that may sit in display cases or museum vaults, waiting for a
proper identification. Senet and other ancient Egyptian games
are slowly being revived. Antiquities scholar Peter Aleff has
already recreated a Phaistos-like game, which have gone in commercial
production. As such, the mystery of the disc is not only being
recovered, but is beginning to entertain the 21st century world
– four millennia after it was first created. For those who
believed that the disc was a time portal… they too seem
to have been quite right, though not in the manner they proposed.