17 Leon Pomerance: "The Phaistos Disk: An Interpretation of Astronomical Symbols", Paul Aströms förlag, Göteborg, 78 pages.
18 Edgar B. Pusch: "Das Senet-Brettspiel im Alten Ägypten", Deutscher Kunstverlag, Munich and Berlin, 1979, Volume 1:2; see Plate 82 for a well preserved board from the time of the 19th Dynasty, now at the Israël Museum in Jerusalem, on which the last five squares bear ten deep and probably once inlaid impressions from nine or ten different stamps; Plates 65, 84, and 88 show other examples.
19 As reported by Erwin Glonnegger: "Das Spiele-Buch: Brett- und Legespiele aus aller Welt, Herkunft, Regeln, und Geschichte", Hugendubel Verlag, Ravensburg, 1988, page 40 top left.
19A William M. Schniedewind: "How the Bible Became a Book", Cambridge University Press, 2004, page 36
20 Dr. Timothy Kendall "Passing through the Netherworld -- the meaning and play of Senet, an ancient Egyptian funerary game", Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Department of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art, and KIrk Game Company, 1978, see page 3 of "Additional notes and comments".
21 Kendall "Passing through the Netherworld", cited above, see page 2 of "Additional notes and comments".
Solomon's Sky : The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk
1.4. A new perspective on the Disk
The Phaistos Disk is only slightly larger in diameter than a modern computer CD, but if you consider its unique riddle-solving and gap-filling value for shedding light on the early science and still reverberating religion of that time and region, it carries an even higher information density than many of its digital counterparts.
It shows us the Bronze Age Cretan cosmos and pantheon which resemble those of ancient Egypt but differ in telltale details and deeply influenced later religious ideas in a wide area. It also assembles many previously separate fragments of ancient Egyptian myths into a unified whole, and it adds new background to some events in the Bible. It thereby opens a new window on many of the beliefs from the ancient Near Eastern world, including some that survive in major modern religions.
That old Disk even offers an animated tutorial on how this world worked. When you drive your gamepieces over its board with throws of your dice, they will perform for you the literally interactive stories of its fields with their path- and rule-directed moves. They will make you appreciate the powers of those symbols, and they let you follow live their myths in motion.
But unlike modern computer disks, that ancient record needs no electricity, it gives you no error messages, and even if you dropped this 5/8 inch sturdily thick baked piece of clay on a stone floor, its information would still be preserved on its sherds, so it does not crash even when it breaks.2. The Disk and ancient gameboards
2.1. Stamped decorations on gameboards
Some scholars have claimed that this feature of the Disk anticipated by some three millennia the spread of this by then centuries-old Chinese and Korean technology in the West. They usually ascribe this invention to Johannes Gutenberg (1397 to 1468) although his contribution was to have adapted this initially cumbersome and hard-to-use Far-Eastern invention to our more user-friendly alphabetic system of writing.
However, already the ancient Sumerians from Naram-Sin on routinely impressed bricks with hand-held and sometimes highly elaborate stamps for the name and deeds of the ruler who had commissioned the building, and they as well as many other ancient people stamped their portable seals into clay or wax. Gutenberg's contribution was rather to immobilize many separate movable stamps by mounting them together in a fixed matrix for printing a whole page at a time. Only after the print run was done did he take those stamps back out of the matrix and made them movable again, ready for re-use in all the new combinations that individual letters allow.
As it turns out, the signs on the Disk were apparently also not impressed with freely movable stamps or seals. Each side appears to have been rather formed from groups of stamps held in a matrix and mounted together in their fixed relationships -- actual Gutenberg technology instead of just "moveable stamps" or common seals.
This is what the astronomer and Disk researcher Leon Pomerance found when he examined his museum-quality cast replicas of the Disk with a magnifying glass. He saw significant differences in line and design between supposedly identical symbols, and he described them in his 1976 booklet "The Phaistos Disk: An Interpretation of Astronomical Symbols"17.
The enlarged photographs in Pomerance’s book of a few adjacent "sun head" impressions show indeed that they were not made by the same stamp. They led me to magnify a sharp photograph of the original Disk and to count the number of rays in the crowns of a half dozen clearly lit impressions of such heads on both sides. I found 11, 12, 12½, 13, 13, and 14 rays, as well as the major differences in the shape of the head and position of the ear which Pomerance had noted.
These differences are greater than those which varying lighting angles and depths of stamping could explain, and they are great enough to lay the individually-movable-stamps theory to rest. The Disk maker appears to have assembled stamps for all the signs on each side into a form or frame where they could not move, even if that meant making duplicates of signs which occurred more than once in each frame.
Pomerance offered the tentative assumption that the entire design may have been
"... cut into a soft limestone matrix for each side and then impressed on a pancake of soft clay. The two Disks of clay were then trimmed around the edges, not quite accurately, placed back to back, and joined with slipped clay."
He says this joint is most obvious on the modern cast (where it could result from the parting line between the halves of the rubber mold typically used for such casts) but can also be seen on the original(pages 51 to 55).
Pomerance may well be right about the two Disk halves having been made separately and then joined because it would have been difficult to stamp the second side of a single disk while the clay of the first side was still soft: turning it over and applying pressure from the second side could easily have deformed the impressions on the first.
However, carving all the stamp ridges for each side on a limestone slab seems to be an unnecessarily hard method. The signs and lines on the Disk are recessed into the clay. Such impressions would have required raised relief signs and ridges in the mold similar to those in the above brick stamp for Aram-Sin's temple of Enlil. However, the level of detail on the hypothetical Disk stamp would have been much more intricate with many more and smaller signs in an only slightly larger area, and with all the raised ridges much sharper and more brittle. Sculpting these many tricky ridges without a single work-destroying error from a monolithic small stone slab would have been highly impractical, if at all feasible.
If each sign was instead made by its own seal-like stamp, the method of mounting these together into their matrix could have been different. For instance, sticking the individual raised-ridge seals sign-side-up into a slab of wet clay and then drying that slab would have been sufficient to hold them in place.
Greasing the so embedded seals beforehand could have made them easily re-usable by breaking that slab, anticipating even Gutenberg's idea of re-using his fonts. However, there was probably no point in making these sign stamps re-usable since they served only the single purpose of imprinting Disks. They would not make much sense if they were recombined in other ways since they were not letters or syllables that could be used to produce other "writing".
The apparent anachronism of that early Disk imprinting technology with grouped stamps would be similar to that of finding a modern wristwatch under the intact bandages of a Ramesside mummy -- but only if those grouped stamps had been used for the reproduction of written texts. That time warp disappears, and that wristwatch stops ticking, when we compare the stamping on the Disk with the decoration methods used on other objects, from everyday pottery and brick-making to gameboards.
For instance, some of the fields on boards for the ancient Egyptian gameSenet were often identified and/or embellished with hieroglyphic signs. On some of the Senet boards made from faience, these signs were impressed into the clay-like soft mass before firing, and they were put there with stamps18. We don't know whether these stamps were applied individually or mounted together into their fixed and tradition-prescribed sequence, but it seems that some makers of such gameboards would easily have seen the advantage of ganging those stamps when they made a series of several such gameboards in a row.
In other words, as unusual as the stamping on the Phaistos Disk would have been for imprinting any text, stamping pictures into clay or faience paste was in no way exceptional for impressing signs on gameboards.
So, if the Disk was not a text but happened to be a gameboard, it would be no longer the equivalent of that mummy's wristwatch. It would then be as much in tune with its time as any of the ingenious shadow clocks occasionally found in tombs from back then (even though these worked only in the sunlit world of the living, and enabling the mummy to measure the time of eternity would arguably have been futile anyway).
This ruling out of "writing" on the Disk would also bear out those perceptive researchers who speculated from time to time that the Disk might have something to do with a spiral game19.
2.2. Eight-leaved rosettes on gameboards