Phaistos Disc

The Phaistos Disc (Phaistos Disk, Phaestos Disc) is a disk of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos, possibly dating to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC). It is about 15 cm in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. This unique object is now on display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion in Crete, Greece.


The Phaistos Disc was discovered in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, near Hagia Triada, on the south coast of Crete; specifically the disc was found in the basement of room 8 in building 101 of a group of buildings to the northeast of the main palace. This grouping of 4 rooms also served as a formal entry into the palace complex. Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier recovered this remarkably intact "dish", about 15 cm in diameter and uniformly slightly more than one centimetre in thickness, on July 3 1908 during his excavation of the first Minoan palace.

It was found in the main cell of an underground "temple depository". These basement cells, only accessible from above, were neatly covered with a layer of fine plaster. Their content was poor in precious artifacts but rich in black earth and ashes, mixed with burnt bovine bones. In the northern part of the main cell, in the same black layer, a few inches south-east of the disc and about twenty inches above the floor, linear A tablet PH-1 was also found. The site apparently collapsed as a result of an earthquake, possibly linked with the explosive eruption of the Santorini volcano that affected large parts of the Mediterranean region ca. 1628 BC.


Yves Duhoux (1977) dates the disc to between 1850 BC and 1600 BC (MMIII) on the basis of Luigi Pernier's report, which says that the Disc was in a Middle Minoan undisturbed context. Jeppesen (1963) dates it to after 1400 (LMII-III). Doubting the viability of Pernier's report, Louis Godart (1990) resigns himself to admitting that archaeologically, the disc may be dated to anywhere in Middle or Late Minoan times (MMI-LMIII, a period spanning most of the 2nd millennium BC). J. Best (in Achterberg et al. 2004) suggests a date in the first half of the 14th century BC (LMIIIA) based on his dating of tablet PH 1.

The possibility that the disc is a forgery has been raised. An article in the July/August 2008 issue of Minerva concludes that it was made shortly before its discovery, possibly by Pernier from jealousy of Arthur Evans' discoveries at Knossos. A thermoluminescence test could discount such a date, and an editorial in the following issue of Minerva reported that "a broad cross section of those who have entered the debate [over its authenticity] are calling for the authorities of the Herakleion Museum in Crete to allow the Disk" subjected to a thermoluminescnce test, arguing that this test is "a relatively destructive-free dating technique" and this will "allow scientific 'truth' to end this debate once and for all.

Stamping technology

The inscription was apparently made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic "seals" into the soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiraling towards the disc's center. It was then fired at high temperature. The unique character of the Phaistos Disc stems from the fact that the entire text was inscribed in this way, reproducing a body of text with reusable characters.

German linguist Herbert E. Brekle theorizes that the Phaistos Disc is an early document of movable type printing in his article "The typographical principle" in the Gutenberg-Jahrbuch:

An early clear incidence for the realisation of the typographical principle is the notorious Phaistos Disc (ca. 1800-1600 BC). If the disc is, as assumed, a textual representation, we are really dealing with a "printed" text, which fulfills all definitional criteria of the typographical principle. The spiral sequencing of the graphematical units, the fact that they are impressed in a clay disc (blind printing!) and not imprinted are merely possible technological variants of textual representation. The decisive factor is that the material "types" are proven to be repeatedly instantiated on the clay disc.

In his work on decipherment, Benjamin Schwartz also referred to the disc as "the first movable type".

In his book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond describes the disc as an example of a technological advancement made at the wrong time in history. Diamond notes the absence of any subsequent rise in movable type in the Minoan culture, citing this as evidence of the enigmatic problem of necessity and invention. Specifically, Diamond argues that human beings often invent things without clear need, as evidenced by the Phaistos Disc, and that sometimes such inventions take off, while at other times they do not. Diamond reasons that movable type was less efficient than simply scribing by hand in clay, perhaps explaining why the technology never developed further in the Minoan civilization. He contrasts this with Gutenberg's printing press, arguing that its further development was due to a large number of commercial backers, and to societal growth which nurtured cheaper access to the printed word.

The inscription


There are 241 tokens on the disc, comprising 45 unique signs. Many of these 45 signs represent easily identifiable every-day things. In addition to these, there is a small diagonal line that occurs underneath the final sign in a group a total of 18 times. The disc shows traces of corrections made by the scribe in several places. The 45 symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers. Some symbols have been compared with Linear A characters by Nahm, Timm, and others. Others scholars (J. Best, S. Davis) have pointed to similar resemblances with the Anatolian hieroglyphs, or with Egyptian hieroglyphs (A. Cuny). In the table below, the character "names" as given by Louis Godart (1995) are given in quotation marks; where other description or elaboration applies, they are given in parentheses.

The Phaistos Disc signs have been assigned to Unicode 5.1. These include the 45 signs themselves as well as the combining oblique stroke described below, and occupy range 101D0-101FF of Plane 1 (the Supplementary Multilingual Plane).

Sign PHAISTOS DISC SIGN (Godart and UCS name) Description Count Remarks
01 𐇐 PEDESTRIAN marching figure of a man 11

𐇑 PLUMED HEAD head of man with crested helmet 19 the most frequent symbol, always word-initial

𐇒 TATTOOED HEAD a bald head in profile, with "tattoo" or jewellery on the cheek 2

𐇓 CAPTIVE a standing human figure with bound arms 1



𐇖 HELMET woman's breast, a bell-shaped symbol 18

𐇗 GAUNTLET fist with cestus 5


𐇙 ARROW 4 on side A only

𐇚 BOW 1

𐇛 SHIELD 17 12 times in the group 02-12

𐇜 CLUB 6

𐇝 MANACLES the flat tops of the two prominences in this figure as well as the slots in the base are characteristic features of manacles, the slots being for the attachment of thongs 2


𐇟 SAW knife 2

𐇠 LID instrument for cutting leather 1

𐇡 BOOMERANG carpenter's angle 12

𐇢 CARPENTRY PLANE Y shape 3 on side A only

𐇣 DOLIUM handled vase 2

𐇤 COMB Palace floorplan? 2

𐇥 SLING double pipe 5 on side B only

𐇦 COLUMN square headed mallet 11

𐇧 BEEHIVE pagoda-like building 6

𐇨 SHIP 7

𐇩 HORN of ox 6

𐇪 HIDE of animal, probably an ox 15

𐇫 BULLS LEG ox's foot 2

𐇬 CAT head of animal of the feline genus 11

𐇭 RAM head of horned sheep 1

𐇮 EAGLE flying bird 5 on side A only

𐇯 DOVE seated dove 3

𐇰 TUNNY fish (the horse mackerel or common tunny, Thunnus thynnus) 6

𐇱 BEE insect, possibly a bee 3

𐇲 PLANE TREE plant or tree sign; the Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) 11

𐇳 VINE olive branch 4 on side B only

𐇴 PAPYRUS plant with a fan-shaped flower 4

𐇵 ROSETTE maguerite or star-anemone; eight-petaled flower 4

𐇶 LILY saffron flower, Ψ shape 4




𐇺 STRAINER triangle with internal granulation 1


𐇼 WAVY BAND water 6

The frequency distribution of the Phaistos Disc signs is: 19, 18, 17, 15, 12, 11, 11, 11, 11, 7, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 5, 5, 5, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1.

The nine hapaxes are 04 (A5), 05 (B3), 11 (A13), 15 (B8), 17 (A24), 30 (B27), 42 (B9), 43 (B4), 44 (A7). Of the eight twice-occurring symbols, four (03, 21, 28, 41) occur on side A only, three (09, 16, 20) on side B only, and only one (14) on both sides.

The oblique stroke

There are a number of signs marked with an oblique stroke; the strokes are not imprinted but carved by hand, and are attached to the first or last sign of a "word", depending on the direction of reading chosen. Their meaning is a matter of discussion. One hypothesis, supported by Evans, Duhoux, Ohlenroth and others, is that they were used to subdivide the text into paragraphs, but alternative meanings have been offered by other scholars.


Evans argued that the disc had been written, and should be read, from the center out; because it would have been easiest to place the inscription first and then size the disc to fit the text. There is general agreement that he was wrong, and Evans himself changed his mind: the inscription was made, and should be read, from the outside in toward the centre. The centres of the spirals are not in the centre of the disc, and some of the symbols near the centre are crowded, as though the maker was cramped for space. One pair of symbols are set top-to-bottom, so it is hard to tell what order they should be in. Except in the cramped section, when there are overstrikes, the inner symbol overlies the outer symbol. Jean Faucounau has proposed a reconstruction of the scribe's movements, which would also require an inward direction; Yves Duhoux says that any outward reading may be discarded. Despite this consensus, there are still a few such attempted decipherments (e.g. Massey 2003).

In addition to the question of the directionality of the text on the disc itself, different viewpoints are held as to how the Phaistos Disc characters should be displayed when transcribed into text. The disc itself probably has right-to-left directionality (like Arabic), if reading proceeds from the outside to the centre; this means that the reading direction is into the faces of the people and animals, as it is in Egyptian and Anatolian. Phaistos Disc characters are shown with left-to-right directionality in this article; which is also the typical practice for edited Egyptian and Anatolian hieroglyphic text.

Inscription text

There are 61 "words", 31 on side A and 30 on side B (numbered A1 to A31 and B1 to B30, outside to inside), here read outside-to-inside (putting the "plumed head" signs word-initially and the strokes word-finally). The shortest words are two symbols in length, the longest seven symbols. The strokes are here transcribed as diagonal strokes (/). The transcription begins at the vertical line of five dots, circling the rim of the disc once, clockwise (13 words on A, 12 words on B) before spiralling towards the center (18 more words on each side). There is one word-final effaced sign at A8, which Godart notes as resembling sign 3 or 20; or less probably 8 or 44. Evans considered side A as the front side, but technical arguments have since been forwarded favouring side B as the front side.

The signs in the transcription below appear in left-to-right orientation, and the reader may read into the faces of the human and animal figures (as one reads Egyptian and Anatolian hieroglyphs):

(A1) (A2) (A3) (A4)
(A5) (A6) (A7) (A8) [.]
(A9) (A10) (A11) (A12)
(A13) (A14) (A15) (A16)
(A17) (A18) (A19) (A20)
(A21) (A22) (A23) (A24)
(A25) (A26) (A27) (A28)
(A29) (A30) (A31)
(B1) (B2) (B3) (B4)
(B5) (B6) (B7) (B8)
(B9) (B10) (B11) (B12)
(B13) (B14) (B15) (B16)
(B17) (B18) (B19) (B20)
(B21) (B22) (B23) (B24)
(B25) (B26) (B27) (B28)
(B29) (B30)

In numerical transcription:

Side A:

02-12-13-01-18/ 24-40-12 29-45-07/ 29-29-34 02-12-04-40-33 27-45-07-12 27-44-08 02-12-06-18-? 31-26-35 02-12-41-19-35 01-41-40-07 02-12-32-23-38/ 39-11
02-27-25-10-23-18 28-01/ 02-12-31-26/ 02-12-27-27-35-37-21 33-23 02-12-31-26/ 02-27-25-10-23-18 28-01/ 02-12-31-26/ 02-12-27-14-32-18-27 06-18-17-19 31-26-12 02-12-13-01 23-19-35/ 10-03-38 02-12-27-27-35-37-21 13-01 10-03-38

Side B:

02-12-22-40-07 27-45-07-35 02-37-23-05/ 22-25-27 33-24-20-12 16-23-18-43/ 13-01-39-33 15-07-13-01-18 22-37-42-25 07-24-40-35 02-26-36-40 27-25-38-01
29-24-24-20-35 16-14-18 29-33-01 06-35-32-39-33 02-09-27-01 29-36-07-08/ 29-08-13 29-45-07/ 22-29-36-07-08/ 27-34-23-25 07-18-35 07-45-07/ 07-23-18-24 22-29-36-07-08/ 09-30-39-18-07 02-06-35-23-07 29-34-23-25 45-07/

The "plumed head" (02) only ever occurs word-initially, in 13 instances followed by the "shield" (12, which in some instances also occurs word-finally). Six words occur twice each: The three-word sequence 02-27-25-10-23-18 28-01/ 02-12-31-26/ occurs twice (A14-16, A20-22). 02-12-31-26/ recurs for a third time (A19). Four more words occur twice each, 02-12-27-27-35-37-21 (A17, A29), 10-03-38 (A28, A31), 22-29-36-07-08/ (B21, B26) and 29-45-07/ (A3, B20).

Decipherment attempts

A great deal of speculation developed around the disc during the 20th century. The Phaistos Disc captured the imagination of amateur archeologists. Many attempts have been made to decipher the code behind the disc's signs. Historically, almost anything has been proposed, including prayers, a narrative or an adventure story, a "psalterion", a call to arms, a board game, and a geometric theorem. Some of the more fanciful interpretations of its meaning are classic examples of pseudoarchaeology.

Most linguistic interpretations assume a syllabary, based on the proportion of 45 symbols in a text of 241 tokens typical for that type of script; some assume a syllabary with interspersed logographic symbols, a property of every known syllabary of the Ancient Near East (Linear B as well as cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing). There are, however, also alphabetic and purely logographical interpretations.

While enthusiasts still believe the mystery can be solved, scholarly attempts at decipherment are thought to be unlikely to succeed unless more examples of the signs turn up somewhere, as it is generally thought that there isn't enough context available for meaningful analysis. Any decipherment without external confirmation, such as successful comparison to other inscriptions, is unlikely to be accepted as conclusive.

Origin of the script

Cretan or foreign origin?

There are a few main theories about the origin of the signs. Until recently, most scholars have argued strongly against the local origin of the artifact. Evans (1909:24f.) wrote that
"when one comes to compare the figures in detail with those of the Minoan hieroglyphic signary, very great discrepancy is observable... Out of the forty-five separate signs on the Phaistos Disk, no more than ten more or less resemble Cretan hieroglyphic forms... The human figures in their outline and costume are non-Minoan... The representation of the ship also differs from all similar designs that occur either among the hieroglyphic or the linear documents of Crete".

Ipsen (1929:15) concluded that the Disc was certainly from somewhere on the Aegean. Because of its differences from Linear A or B, Ipsen found it tempting to assume, like Evans, a non-Cretan origin for the Disc. He observes, however, that since Linear A was a common Aegean script such an assumption will not resolve the problem of multiplicity.

The Arkalochori Axe and other finds have made Cretan origin more popular: female images with pendulous breasts have also been found at Malia and Phaistos. (Godart 1995:125). Duhoux asserts the Cretan provenance of the disc; in his review of current research, Trauth (1990:154) comes to the conclusion "Crete as source of the Disc can no longer be called into question".

Original invention or derivation?

Ipsen (1929:11) also speaks against an entirely independent origin of the scripts, arguing that its inventors did not leap from no knowledge of writing to a syllabic script with these elegant signs. He goes on to cite Hieroglyphic Luwian as a "perfect parallel" (Ipsen 1929:17) of an original script inspired under the direct influence of other scripts (its symbol values inspired by cuneiform, its shapes by Egyptian hieroglyphs)

Schwartz (1956:108) asserts a genetic relationship between the Phaistos Disc script and the Cretan linear scripts.

Among the known scripts, there are three main candidates for being related to the Disc's script, all of them partly syllabic, partly logographic: Linear A, Anatolian hieroglyphs and Egyptian hieroglyphs. More remote possibilities are comparison with the Proto-Canaanite abjad or the Byblos syllabary.

Linear A

Some signs are close enough to Linear A and Linear B that they may have the same phonetic value, like 12 = qe, 43 = ta2, or 31 = ku''. A recent systematic comparison with Linear A is that of Torsten Timm, 2004 Based on the Linear A character distribution patterns collected by Facchetti Timm concludes that the language of the Disc inscription is the same as the language of Linear A. Timm identifies 20 of the 45 characters with Linear signs, assigning Linear B phonetic values to 16.

Anatolian hieroglyphs

Achterberg et al. (2004) present a systematic comparison with Anatolian hieroglyphs, resulting in a full decipherment claim (see below).In particular, they consider the stroke symbol cognate to the Luwian r(a/i) symbol, but assign it the value -ti. The stroke on A3 is identified as the personal name determinative. 01 is compared to the logogram SARU, a walking man or walking legs in Luwian. 02 is compared to word-initial a2, a head with a crown in Luwian. The "bow" 11 is identified as the logogram sol suus, the winged sun known from Luwian royal seals. The "shield" 12 is compared to the near identical Luwian logogram TURPI "bread" and assigned the value tu. 39 they read as the "thunderbolt", logogram of Tarhunt, in Luwian a W-shaped hieroglyph.

List of decipherment claims

The decipherment claims listed are categorized into linguistic decipherments, identifying the language of the inscription, and non-linguistic decipherments. A purely logographical reading is not linguistic in the strict sense: while it may reveal the meaning of the inscription, it will not allow for the identification of the underlying language.


  • George Hempl, 1911 (interpretation as Ionic Greek, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Florence Stawell, 1911 (interpretation as Homeric Greek, syllabic writing); B-side first; reading inwards;
  • Albert Cuny, 1914 (interpretation as an ancient Egyptian document, syllabic-logographic writing);
  • Benjamin Schwarz, 1959 (interpretation as Mycenean Greek, syllabic writing, comparison to Linear B); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Jean Faucounau, 1975, (interpretation as "proto-Ionic" Greek, syllabic writing ; A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Vladimir Georgiev, 1976 (interpretation as Hittite language, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Steven R. Fischer, 1988 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Kjell Aartun, 1992 (interpretation as a Semitic language, syllabic writing); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Derk Ohlenroth, 1996 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, alphabetic writing); A-side first; reading outwards; numerous homophonic signs;
  • Sergei V. Rjabchikov 1998 (interpretation as a Slavonic dialect, syllabic writing ); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Adam Martin, 2000 (interpretation as a Greek-Minoan bilingual text, alphabetic writing); reading outwards, side A as Greek, side B as Minoan
  • Kevin & Keith Massey, 2003 (interpretation as a Greek dialect, syllabic writing ); A-side first; reading outwards;
  • Achterberg et al., 2004 (interpreted as Luwian); A-side first; reading inwards;
  • Torsten Timm, 2005 (reading attempt based upon the hypothesis of a Cretan Script );

Non-linguistic or logographic

Comparison with other scripts

No Sign Linear A Arkalochori Axe Luwian hieroglyphs
02 04,07,10 A2
10 AB79 ZU
15 A364 B232 𐃈
16 AB74 ZE ?
17 A322
18 AB37 TI
19 AB31 SA 11
22 A318
23 AB05 TO or AB06 NA 13
24 AB54 WA
25 AB86
29 AB80 MA 08
30 AB13 ME, AB85?
31 AB81 KU
34 AB39 PI
35 AB04 TE 09
36 AB30 NI
39 AB28 I 02 TARHUNT
40 AB26 RU or AB27 RE
43 AB66 TA2
45 AB76 RA2


Selected bibliography


  • Balistier, Thomas. The Phaistos Disc - an account of its unsolved mystery, Verlag Thomas Balistier, 2000.
  • Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B, Cambridge University Press, 1958.
  • Duhoux, Yves. Le disque de phaestos, Leuven, 1977.
  • Duhoux, Yves. How not to decipher the Phaistos Disc, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 104, n° 3 (2000), p. 597-600 (PDF 5.9 Mb).
  • Evans, A. J., Scripta Minoa, the written documents of Minoan Crete, with special reference to the archives of Knossos, Classic Books (1909), ISBN 0-7426-4005-1.
  • Faure, P. "Tourne disque", l'énigme du disque de Phaistos, Notre Histoire n°213, October 2003 (PDF 0.7 Mb).
  • Godart, Louis. The Phaistos Disc - the enigma of an Aegean script, ITANOS Publications, 1995.
  • Kober, Alice: The Minoan Scripts: Facts and Theory. 1948, American Journal of Archaeology, Volume 52, pp. 82 - 103.
  • Sornig, Karl (2006). "The ultimate assessment". Grazer Linguistische Studien (65): 151–155.
  • Timm, Torsten (2004). "Der Diskos von Phaistos - Anmerkungen zur Deutung und Textstruktur". Indogermanische Forschungen (109): 204–231. (PDF 0.5 Mb)
  • Trauth, Michael: The Phaistos Disc and the Devil’s Advocate. On the Aporias of an Ancient Topic of Research. 1990, Glottometrika 12, pp. 151 - 173.

Attempted decipherments

This list contains off-line accounts of various decipherments mentioned above

  • Aartun, Kjell, 'Der Diskos von Phaistos; Die beschriftete Bronzeaxt; Die Inschrift der Taragona-tafel' in Die minoische Schrift : Sprache und Texte vol. 1, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz (1992) ISBN 3-447-03273-1
  • Achterberg, Winfried; Best, Jan; Enzler, Kees; Rietveld, Lia; Woudhuizen, Fred, The Phaistos Disc: A Luwian Letter to Nestor, Publications of the Henry Frankfort Foundation vol XIII, Dutch Archeological and Historical Society, Amsterdam 2004
  • Balistier, Thomas, The Phaistos Disc - an account of its unsolved mystery, Verlag Thomas Balistier, 2000 (as above); describes Aarten's and Ohlenroth's decipherments.
  • Ephron, Henry D, (1962), " Tharso and Iaon: The Phaistos Disk, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 66. (1962), pp. 1-91. JSTOR URL
  • Faucounau, Jean, Le déchiffrement du Disque de Phaistos & Les Proto-Ioniens : histoire d'un peuple oublié, Paris 1999 & 2001.
  • Fischer, Steven R., Evidence for Hellenic Dialect in the Phaistos Disk, Herbert Lang (1988), ISBN 3-261-03703-2
  • Gordon, F. G. 1931. Through Basque to Minoan: transliterations and translations of the Minoan tablets. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Hausmann, Axel, Der Diskus von Phaistos. Ein Dokument aus Atlantis, BoD GmbH (2002), ISBN 3-8311-4548-2.
  • Hempl, George "The Solving of an Ancient Riddle: Ionic Greek before Homer". Harper's Monthly Magazine (Vol. 122, No. 728 (Jan 1911)): 187–198.
  • Martin, Adam, Der Diskos von Phaistos - Ein zweisprachiges Dokument geschrieben in einer frühgriechischen Alphabetschrift, Ludwig Auer Verlag (2000), ISBN 3-9807169-1-0.
  • Ohlenroth, Derk, Das Abaton des lykäischen Zeus und der Hain der Elaia: Zum Diskos von Phaistos und zur frühen griechischen Schriftkultur, M. Niemeyer (1996), ISBN 3-484-80008-9.
  • Polygiannakis, Ο Δισκος της Φαιστού Μιλάει Ελληνικά (The Phaistos disk speaks in Greek), Georgiadis, Athens (2000).
  • Pomerance, Leon, The Phaistos Disk: An Interpretation of Astronomical Symbols, Paul Astroms forlag, Goteborg (1976). reviewed by D. H. Kelley in The Journal of Archeoastronomy (Vol II, number 3, Summer 1979)
  • Schwartz, Benjamin "The Phaistos disk". Journal of Near Eastern Studies (Vol. 18, No. 2 (1959)): 105–112.
  • Stawell, F. Melian (1911). "An Interpretation of the Phaistos Disk". The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 19 (Vol. 19, No. 97. (Apr., 1911)): 23–29;32–38. JSTOR URL
  • Whittaker, Helène, "Social and Symbolic Aspects of Minoan writing", European Journal of Archaeology 8:1, 29-41 (2005)

See also

External links

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