Tech UPTechnologyWhat does it say on the mysterious disk of...

What does it say on the mysterious disk of Festus?

In the museum of Heraklion, in Crete, we can see a singular object: a 15 cm disc of fired clay with inscriptions on both sides and dated to the end of the Bronze Age, towards the second millennium before our era. It was discovered in Crete in 1908 in the Minoan palace in the city that bears his name by the Italian Luigi Pernier. It comprises 45 signs (many of them easily identifiable, such as a tattooed head, a helmet or a fish) that appear to comprise 61 ‘words’ on one side and 30 on the other . It also appears to follow a clockwise direction that spirals from the outside to the center. It is one of the objects that has most attracted the attention of amateur archaeologists and mystery seekers, and there has been someone who claims to have deciphered it. In fact, anything we think can be said about the album has already been said : sentences, an adventure story, a psalter or book of psalms, a call to arms, a board game… even a geometric theorem. . That’s not counting the more fanciful ones involving ancient lost civilizations and extraterrestrials.

Most interpretations assume that it is a syllabary with logographic symbols interspersed (a logogram is a sign that alone represents a meaning of a language, usually the meaning of a word). This is a characteristic of the syllabaries we know from the ancient Near East such as linear B -the system used to write Mycenaean Greek, in continental Greece-, cuneiform or hieroglyphics.

Has the disk been decrypted?

The last to claim that he has managed to decipher it was Gareth Owens in 2018, a linguist at the Educational Institute of Technology of Crete, in combination with John Coleman, professor of phonetics at Oxford. According to Owens, with the help of comparative linguistics, he has determined that we are dealing with a text “with the vocal values of Linear B” . For him “the Phaistos disc is the best example of ‘Cretan hieroglyphs’” and he affirms that around 80% of the Phaistos disc can be read using Linear B or Mycenaean Greek, the oldest phase of the Greek language. Of course, as he points out, it is one thing to read it and another to understand what it says . He added: “The writing on the Phaistos disk is also Minoan Linear A.” This form of writing was used by the Cretans from 1800-1450 BC. C., and belongs to a group that evolved independently of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian systems. The most interesting thing is that, despite all efforts, it has not been fully deciphered. This was succeeded by Linear B, which the Mycenaeans (mainland Greeks) used as an early form of Greek.

The relationship between Linear A and Linear B is close: they use the same numerical system and many of the signs of Linear A have their equivalents in Linear B, although there are signs in B that do not have their correspondence in A. One One of the problems with deciphering Linear A is that not many examples survive . The largest collection of tablets with this type of writing comes from the Minoan palace of Hagia Triada, very close to Phaistos, in southern Crete. Tablets have also been found scattered throughout the island, so we can assume that it was used throughout Crete and for mercantile purposes : numerical records of men and women, animals and products have been found. Since inscriptions have also been found in mainland Greece, historians assume that Linear A was used by the Minoan civilization not only in Crete but also in their overseas possessions. It was written from left to right, although some signs sometimes appear inverted, as if reflected in a mirror, which indicates that for a time the right-left direction could also be used.

Time will tell if Owens is right and if it turns out to be useful in deciphering one of the ancient languages that still eludes us. As long as the disc is not a hoax committed by its discoverer, Pernier , Jerome E. Eisenberg claimed in an article published in the July-August 2008 issue of the ancient art and archeology journal Minerva .


Eisenberg, JM (2008) “The Phaistos Disk: one hundred year old hoax?”. Minerva (July/August): 9–24

Schwartz, Benjamin (1959). “The Phaistos Disk”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 18 (2): 105–112 (107). doi:10.1086/371517

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