The Phaistos Disk has baffled many scholars and lay folks alike ever since July of 1908, when the Italian archaeologist Dr. Luigi Pernier discovered it in a floor-level storeroom at the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the southern coast of the Mediterranean island of Crete. An earthquake had buried it there around 1,600 BCE, but we are not certain how old it was already by the time of its burial. This enigmatic object is a round tablet of baked clay, about fifteen centimeters (six inches) in diameter. It is covered on both sides with two hundred and sixty-one spiraling impressions from forty five different stamps that represent people, animals, and objects. Some researchers believe that it was made from two halves that were fused together, because an attempt to stamp one side while the other side was still soft would have risked deforming the symbols already impressed on the first side.
The Phaistos Disk, showing both sides. Wikimedia Commons
Palace complex at Phaistos. Olaf Tausch, Wikimedia Commons
Since its discovery, the mysterious markings on the Disk have been the source of much speculation among the many people who attempted to decipher its meaning and purpose. Most believe the symbols are a form of writing, but few of them concur on what language that purported writing represents, and some have translated its “text” from a long list of sometimes implausible idioms, such as Basque, Baltic, Slavic, and even some otherwise unknown, such as Phoinic and Arbanetic. Those Disk readers who claim that it is some rare form of archaic Greek diverge from the very beginning on the specific type; already in the first two entries from the long list of published decipherments, George Hempl claimed in 1911 that it was Ionic Greek, whereas that same year Florence Stawell insisted it had to be Homeric Greek and not Ionic. Others, like Benjamin Schwarz in 1959, asserted it is Mycenaean Greek that can be compared to the language recorded in Linear B, the first known written form of early Greek.
To cite just a small sampling from the much longer lists of those interpretations in books and at sites such as Wikipedia and http://users.otenet.gr/~svoronan/phaistos.htm, Bernd Schomburg in 1997 and Alan Butler in 1999 described the Disk as a calendar; Friedhelm Will in 2000 and Axel Hausmann in 2002 saw it as a document from the legendary sunken island of Atlantis, with the former describing it as a “number-philosophical” document; the linguist John Chadwick quoted in his 1958 book “The Decipherment of Linear B”, various dilettante “translations” into hymns, including one that sounded like a cross between a pious chant and a kitchen recipe; Andis Kaulins explained it in 1980 as an astronomical document with an advanced but long-lost mathematical proof for the “Paradox of Parallel Lines” that meet where infinity begins; and the Doctor of Theology and Philosophy Kjell Aartun, recipient of many awards and honors, read the Disk in 1992 as a steamy, fertility ritual sex fantasy.
On the other hand, Professor of linguistics Harald Haarmann offered in his 1990 book, Language in its Embedding: Studies in Anthropological Linguistics, his support for some earlier proposals that the signs on the Disk were logograms which stood for complete words and language-independent concepts instead of just syllables or sounds. This made sense and turns out to be true, as you will see. But oddly, the book is listed together with a few others in amazon.com’s section of books on “Humor and Entertainment/Phaistos”. Not many lay people seem likely to fully grasp the hysterical hilarity of Anthropological Linguistics.
Unlike most of those highly creative but unsupported guesses about the solution to this ancient puzzle, author Peter Aleff documents in his new book Solomon’s Sky: The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk
that those signs are actually markings for the fields on an ancient game board path, and he offers abundant evidence to prove this analysis.
To begin with, the eight-petaled rosette (pictured right) on four of the Disk fields was a frequent sign on many ancient Near Eastern gameboards, where it always marked the same fields on boards of the same type. This rosette was also well-known from other contexts as a symbol of birth, death, and rebirth, and this meaning of transition from one state of existence to another fits all its appearances on the Disk as a gameboard path. Two are at the beginning of the path on each side of the Disk, one in the center of one side and another one three fields before that center. Those in and near that center share their fields with a bald head (pictured below) which is the same size and profile view as the head with the “crest of rays” (pictured below) but lacks this prominent hedgehog hairdo.
Abundant hair was a sign of life and strength, as in the biblical story of Samson, and its conspicuous absence typically signified death. Having this life-deprived head with the death-rosette so close to the end of the path in the center evokes the “death field” shortly before the end of the path in the ancient Egyptian board game of Senet. The Senet pieces simulated the life of the players, including their mandatory passage through the “death” field and embalming shack before they could proceed to the entrance into the blessed afterlife on the last field of their board. This end of the track parallels the bald head and rosette in the last field of that Disk side where the rosette then stands for that head’s rebirth three fields after its death into the Cretan equivalent of that Egyptian paradise.
In Senet, the field right after death was of great danger, with a setback for the gamepieces. It represented the gate-guarding monsters and other dangers the newly deceased encountered on their way to their heart-weighing judgment before they became immortal with or even as Osiris. In the corresponding field on the Disk, the “ray-haired head” is shown fallen on its side, and the two “T-shirt-like” signs in that field are upside down. This position is a universal signal of distress and was also a feature of the pharaonic underworld which the Egyptians described as equally inverted. Moreover, matching the setback from that field on the Senet board, the signs from the Disk field after death appear also twelve spaces earlier in the same order, except that here the “T-shirts” are right side up and so highlight the distress of their inverted copies in the danger field after death.
Left: The Disk field after “death” Right: Its upright copy 12 fields earlier
Since death and then rebirth marked the end of the gamepieces’ journey, this clear similarity with the well documented Senet board establishes these two pairings of the rosette with the bald head as the end of the path on the Disk and so makes it possible to rejoin its two halves in their proper order and direction and to number the fields. The rosette on the periphery of the opposite side represents then its “birth” meaning and marks the entrance into that path, and the corresponding rosette at the start of the other side must have announced at this new entrance the symbolic rebirth through initiation which was a well-documented forerunner of the adult baptism familiar from the New Testament.
In addition to Senet, the ancient Egyptian game that left us the oldest known gameboards of any kind was also related to the one recorded on the Phaistos Disk. Its path was the spiral of a coiled snake that represented “Mehen”, a beneficial divine snake who protected the dead. We are familiar with this game through Old Kingdom tomb paintings and a few surviving game boards carved from limestone and alabaster. The snake’s head was in the center of the board, while its tail was at the rim and sometimes ended in the head of a goose. Both the snake and the goose were emblems of the earth god Geb, father of Osiris and yet another friend and protector of the mummy set. The mortuary function of this game was made clear in one of the Pyramid Text inscriptions where King Unas exclaimed that he had won the Snake Game and was now ascending to heaven.
Another game that Aleff compares with the one portrayed on the Phaistos Disk is the “modern” Game of the Goose, which is in some countries called the Snake Game but has the same spiral track and follows the same rules. This is now a children’s race game and is said to have been invented during the 16th century of our era in northern Italy. Back then, it was much praised for its educational value in helping to teach children not only counting and reading but also coping with adversity and building their character with the setbacks. For adults, it elevated their souls. We know this from inscriptions on some early Goose Game boards which explain that the journey of the game pieces along their path represents the players’ own pilgrimage through their lives.
One of the most obvious connections of this Goose Game with the Phaistos Disk is that there is a “death” field on both game paths, and that in both cases that field is at 58. To even have a “death” field in the Game of the Goose would be surprising if that game had really been created during the Renaissance. Unlike the ancient Egyptians who denied death and treated it as merely the transition into a paradise-like afterlife, Renaissance Europeans greatly feared death. They associated it with decaying corpses and disgusting decomposition, vividly remembered from the recent and still occasionally flaring bubonic plague which they called the “black death”. They were unlikely to allude to this horrifying event on a gameboard meant for people’s entertainment and enjoyment. But alas, there it is, and still in the exact same location as three millennia earlier.
The “Initiation” field of symbolic rebirth by rosette is 31 on the Disk. Goose field 31 is “The Well” which evokes the baptismal well and also the fountain of youth as survivals of the same transition and renewal already expressed on the Disk in the same location along the path. Another such similarity is the “Prison” on Goose field 52 which matches Disk field 52 where the otherwise always upright “raptor-bird” is turned upside-down and so conveys a similar idea of distress as a “Prison”. Moreover, half of the twelve chevron-shaped “forward arrows” on the Disk are in the same fields where the Goose Game shows six of its twelve geese that send the gamepieces forward. The combination of all these matching fields in the same places goes beyond coincidence and is best explained as traditional features of the game inherited from the Disk.
In addition to the relation with the aforementioned game, when you fold the path from the Disk with two U-turns to form a square mini-labyrinth, some fields fall into place to form a “hub” around which the fields with the “raptor-bird” and the “horn” appear to rotate with jumps like those of a chess knight. Furthermore, many of the signs in that apparent rotation have their counterparts among the star groups that rotate in our night sky around the celestial North Pole.
Aleff’s interpretation of the Disk is solid and well-documented. By simply looking at this much puzzled-over artifact, it is hard to guess it was originally meant to record the path on a game board, particularly for a game that still survives today. However, the veil of inscrutability that long enshrouded this famous relic has finally been removed, and you can now explore the intriguing treasure trove of information it had been hiding. Learning about these ancient connections and mysteries regarding the Phaistos Disk opens a new window to the past and reminds us how fascinating history can be.
A commentary note from Peter Aleff, author of
Solomon’s Sky: The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk
Contrast the above article with yet another "decipherment" of the Disk as "writing":
On the same weekend when Popular Archaeology posted Victoria Shockley's and my above article about the Phaistos Disk as a board game, two additional reactions to this famous artifact entered cyberspace.
The first of these is yet another attempt to "read” the Disk as "writing". You find it as an article headlined "X-Files - Have Researchers Cracked The Mystery of The Phaistos Disk? (VIDEOS)" at http://www.hellasfrappe.blogspot.com/2012/12/x-files-have-researchers-cracked.html. The two videos show some nice but irrelevant scenes from Crete, and the article announced that a small group of impressively titled academics from prestigious institutions had again pursued the often tried and always failed assumption that the signs on the Disk were writing:
"This past week it was announced that researchers confirmed that the language on the Phaestus Disk, one of the earliest Minoan artefacts, is related to Linear B, the earliest recorded Greek script, and uploaded their report on the web on Friday. The Disk, still undeciphered, is written in Linear A, one of two scripts used on Crete as early as 2000 BC. Researchers Gareth Owens and John Coleman put up their results on the Technical University of Crete site, Phaestus Mayor Maria Petrakogiorgi announced.
Released a day before the commemoration of Crete's union with Greece 99 years ago, research results confirmed the continuity of Greek civilization, according to Owens, who also thanked the municipality for its support in the research."
Dr. Owens works at the Technical Educational Institute of Crete in Heraklion. He co-ordinates the Disk study with Oxford University Professor of Phonetics Coleman and with Christophoros Charalambakis, Professor of Linguistics at Athens University.
This report only warmed up for this political celebration some earlier and similar assertions by the same group which it had already presented in a 2010 documentary by National Geographic and then again at a day-long symposium with speeches by many local dignitaries, including the Governor of Crete. However, presumably due to the academic status of its authors, this no-news item was duly dispatched by the state news agency on Friday, and it got picked up by other news organizations from as far away as China.
None of the articles explains the alleged "confirmation" about the "language" on the Disk, but the account posted at http://www.scribd.com/doc/64221830/%C2%BFLeer-el-Disco-de-Festos-Por-Gareth-Owens-En-memoria-de-Michael-Ventris-TEI-CRETA-2 says that this result is based on two years of discussions within that group on whether the "head of the punk" sign should be read as an "A" or an "I". Their final agreement on "I" led them to the assertion, based on "epigraphic continuity and partial parallel texts", that the “first two” signs spell the Indo-European word "AKKA" for "mother". They don’t clarify their switch back to the "A", or how they decided where the sequence starts, but they use this revelation to suggest that the "text" on the Disk was a hymn in early Greek to the Cretan mother goddess -- conveniently just as the initial excavator of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, had guessed over a century ago, and suitable for the patriotic commemoration.
The group also claims, although again without offering any evidence, that they can now "read" the Phaistos Disk "with strict scientific criteria c. 60% as a working hypothesis", and that they have identified "possible Indo-European phenomena on the Phaistos Disk and Arkalochori Axe which can likewise be compared with other Minoan Indo-European Religious Inscriptions."
Then they conclude:
"The Phaistos Disk is perhaps to be interpreted as part of the Minoan Libation Formula found throughout Minoan Crete, both in time and space, both diachronically and geographically. Is the Phaistos Disk a Minoan Prayer, "Our Mother..." c.1700 B.C.?"
Their effort neatly illustrates the ancient verse by Horace "Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus" (Mightily labor the mountains to bring forth a ridiculous mouse"). It also invites some reflection about the value of Big-U brand names in the knowledge industry and whether you can trust their alleged experts for reliable and relevant knowledge any more than your own common sense and sound logic.
Update: On March 20, 2014, the Greek Reporter published another assertion from Dr. Owens under the title "This Summer, Scientists will Reveal the Context of the Phaistos Disc", as posted at http://greece.greekreporter.com/2014/03/20/this-summer-scientists-will-reveal-the-context-of-the-phaistos-disc/.
On a lighter note, you might like to know that a set of two additional videos about the Phaistos Disk got posted the same weekend as our above article and the "announcement" of those would-be decipherers. Those single-image videos are titled "The Noisettes, The Phaistos Disk Part I" and "... Part II”, and each offers you 44 minutes of probably avant-garde music that sounds strange but not unpleasant to listen to, at least in the few spots of those long pieces I sampled. However, neither appears to contain a single word or any clue about what they have to do with the Disk.
Check them out at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeaBMYBaaRk, and have fun!
All illustrations, except those from Wikimedia Commons, are © 2015 Peter Aleff
Continue to the next installments of this article series:
Part 2: The reconstructed ancient labyrinth gameboard and its chart of the northern sky. 3/5/2013,
Part 3: The race between the light and dark sides of the moon on the Phaistos gameboard. 6/1/2013,
Part 4: Eclipses and lunar standstill cycles on the Disk, 9/1/2013
Part 5: Parallels between the path of the "sun head" and the Life of Christ 1600 years before Christ,
to be published in the 12/1/2013 issue of Popular Archaeology
Part 6: The Labyrinth gameboard as template for the layout of Solomon's Temple,
to be published in the 3/1/2014 issue of Popular Archaeology.
Part 7: The evolution of the game on the Labyrinth board into Chess,
to be published in the 6/1/2014 issue of Popular Archaeology
A complete reading of this new interpretation of the Phaistos Disk will be published in Peter Aleff’s upcoming book “Solomon’s Sky: The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk
For the next 30 days, interested readers may access the online copy of his entire book from the page http://phaistosgame.com/PhaistosforPopularArchaeology.htm.
Victoria Shockley is a freelance writer and editor, as well as a copy editor for Wandering in the Words Press. She is currently a sophomore student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, with a major in English (language and writing) and a minor in French. Victoria is taking extra courses in order to graduate a year ahead of her class to pursue a career in professional writing or editing. In her spare time, she enjoys reading novels, traveling, and following science and technology news.
Peter Aleff started inquiring about history and mythology even before he learned to read, and he has continued ever since. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Basel in Switzerland as well as mathematics and the dismal science of economics. Then he decided to earn a living and took technical courses at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers in Paris, France, to begin a career in engineering and managing manufacturing companies. He worked first in France and then in several American states where he was awarded three U.S. patents for some of his inventions.
In his free time, he researched in particular the history and meanings of board games and wrote in 1982 the rough but essentially entire draft outline of the present story about the Phaistos Disk under the title "The Labyrinth Game", then re-created that ancient game for modern users. Over the next three decades, during a busy work life but in anticipation of some day finding the time to compile and publish this fascinating story, he collected relevant books and articles and notes to flesh out the context and ramifications of the information found on the Disk. Then he pulled it all together in "Solomon's Sky: The Tapestry of Heaven from the Phaistos Disk
" for your surprise and delight.
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