The Phaistos Disk, another unsolved mystery of Crete

Once again, I wander from the script of my travel journals to tell you a story less about my travels, but about an unsolved mystery that reaches back thousands years.  For any of my readers who love puzzles or breaking codes, this story is for them. 

We’re back in Crete again, an island full of mysteries, but this mystery struck a chord with me.

One side of the disk - author Ian Kent

One side of the disk

To begin, the Phaistos, or Phaestos Disk is a fired clay disk, fifteen cm. diameter, found in the ruins of a Minoan palace in Phaistos, southern Crete in 1908.  The disk is ‘engraved’ with 241 strange figures which include 45 distinct signs, that circle the disk in a spiral, on both sides.  The ‘mystery’ is the fact that even after more than a hundred years of intense study by the world’s best archaeologists and linguists, and I’m sure, cryptographers, they really have no idea what it says.  Some guesses think it could be some religious prayer or fertility token.  It is not written in Greek or any of the other languages like ‘linear A’ and ‘linear B’.  The closest guess so far is that it is from the Minoans, but mainly because it was found in an ancient Minoan palace at Phaestos, but still no idea what it says.

The other side - author Ian Kent

The other side

There is even one scientist who did a ‘TED’ talk on the disk, claiming he recognized the ‘letters’, and recited the entire thing during a talk.  For me, I cannot figure how you can recite the document if you do not know what it says or recognize the language.  Most archaeologists agree they need another artifact with the same writing, sort of a ‘Rosetta Stone’ to help translate it.

Their best guesses date it to the middle or late Minoan Bronze age about the second millennium BC, which makes it three to four thousand years old.  The fact that the clay was fired and lost in a the dirt of the ruins is the only reason it has survived this long, and is still ‘readable’.

I find that one of the most interesting features of this disk is that the figures were stamped into the clay, not scratched in.  This means the originators used some kind of carved type stamp, sort of ‘moveable print’ technology, a technology not used anywhere until many centuries later.  This makes the item one of the first known ‘printed documents’.  As a writer/author myself, I am fascinated to see such a document from that long ago.

The original disk occupies a special place in the Museum in Heraklion, in a glass case to protect it from any further wear and tear.

Phaestos Disk jewelry - author Ian Kent

Phaestos Disk jewelry

While I was on Crete, I bought a lovely pendant based on the disk.  Jewelry stores and souvenir shops make a good living from this disk by copying it in all manner of ways, from earrings, brooches, lapel pins, belt buckles and pendants like the one I bought..  On Crete, the disk (my pendant around my neck) is recognized everywhere, people know exactly what it is.

On North America, not so much.  Most times I have been asked if it was an Aztec Calendar pendant . . . you know, the ones you can buy in any souvenir shop in Mexico?


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