The Mysterious Phaistos Disc

Apr 7, 2022 1 comments

The Phaistos Disc is an enigmatic disk of fired clay discovered in the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the Greek island of Crete, possibly dating to the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age (second millennium BC). The disc is about 15 cm in diameter and covered on both sides with a spiral of stamped symbols. The purpose and the meaning of these symbols have been the source of much fascination and dispute among scholars for the past hundred years.

The side A of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo: C messier/Wikimedia

The Phaistos Disc is stamped by a total of 242 symbols comprising 45 distinct signs. Many of these 45 signs represent easily identifiable objects, such as plants, animals, fish and objects such as helmet, bow, shield and boat. The symbols are arranged on a spiral pattern starting from the edge to the center within incised bands. They are also separated into groups of between 2 and 7 symbols by vertical lines, probably forming single words or syllables.

The 45 different symbols represented on the disk seem to have been individually stamped by pressing hieroglyphic “seals” into the soft clay, and then fired at high temperature. Some of the symbols show evidence of having been erased and re-stamped, with the same symbol or a different one. Unfortunately, no stamps were found during the excavation of the Minoan palace where the disc was discovered.

In addition to the symbols on the disk, there are also dashes and dotted bars impressed in the clay. The dashes or slanted lines seem hand-drawn, rather than stamped, and always occur under the symbol to the left of the symbols within a group as demarcated by the vertical lines. It has been suggested that these are markers to indicate the start of the word, or pre-fixes or suffixes, maybe even extra vowels or consonants, or punctuation marks.

The side B of the disc of Phaistos, as displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo: C messier/Wikimedia

The number of distinct signs (45) suggests a syllabary rather than an alphabet, because it has been suggested that the number of different symbols on the disk are too few to be part of a purely pictographic system and too many to be an alphabet. Although the Mycenaean did develop a similar writing system, attempts to decipher the symbols have been a failure so far, because the forms of the signs are unlike those of any other known writing system. In the century that has since passed since the discovery of the Phaistos Disc, not a single scrap of the strange script have turned up. Thus, it remains unknown whether it represents an indigenous Cretan script or a foreign import to Crete.

According to German typesetter and linguist Herbert Brekle, the Phaistos Disc is an early example of movable type printing, a view that has been echoed by others. In his popular science book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond calls the Phaistos Disc “the earliest printed document in the world.” Diamond writes:

The Phaistos disk anticipates humanity's next efforts at printing, which similarly used cut type or blocks but applied them to paper with ink, not to clay without ink. However, those next efforts did not appear until 2,500 years later in China and 3,100 years later in medieval Europe. Why was the disk's precocious technology not widely adopted in Crete or elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean?

According to Diamond the disc is an example of a technological advancement that did not become widespread because it was made at the wrong time in history.

There are many theories regarding the content of the disc. It has been suggested that the disc include a prayer to the earth goddess, a court list, an index of religious centers, a letter of greeting, a fertility ritual, musical notes, and even a board game. However, it is unlikely that the riddle will ever get solved until a Rosetta stone-like discovery is made that will allow linguists to decipher the enigmatic disc.


  1. The disc is a 20th century forgery by the excavators who were jealous of the discoveries in Knosos. It anticipates two technologies by thousands of years: block printing and firing at high temperature.


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