Feature Articles – The Phaistos Disc: roll ‘em
The enigmatic Phaistos disc has been interpreted in so many different ways that most have given up all hope that it may ever be properly understood. But amongst the myriad opportunities, there is one possibility that is supported by the available evidence.
by Philip Coppens
Phaistos – also Phaestos and Phaestus – is one of the ancient “palaces” on Crete. In early July 1908, riding on the wave of Sir Arthur Evans’ discovery of Knossos, a curious clay disc, dating to about 1700 BC, containing a sophisticated pictographic writing, was discovered in similar to less-known ruins on the southern coast of the island. Known as “the Phaistos Disc”, its purpose, meaning and even geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed. Today, many walk past its display case in the archaeological museum of Heraklion, while not all guides point out the intriguing artefact. Dozens of theories about its origin and purpose have been proposed, but in the final analysis, none has been satisfactory. Still, hidden amongst the dozens of theories, there is one, which has not been accepted by many, but may be the right answer. The Phaistos Disc was discovered in the basement of room XL-101 of the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, near Hagia Triada, on the south coast of Crete. The Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier recovered this remarkably intact dish, which is remarkably small, measuring about 15 cm in diameter and uniformly just over 1 cm thick. There is nothing remarkable about the disc itself: the inscriptions were made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic seals into the soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiralling towards the disc’s centre. It was then baked at high temperature. The palace was possibly destroyed and abandoned when the Santorini volcano erupted – one of the biggest geological dramas that has upset the Mediterranean world in the past 10,000 years. If it had not been for the sudden and dramatic end of palace life, the disc may very well never have survived the millennia, until its discovery in 1908. There is no enigma about how the disc was made. What is at the centre of the controversy are the inscriptions on the disc and their meaning. There are a total of 241 figures on the disc, created out of “only” 45 different glyphs. This, some believe, could be an alphabet, a hieroglyphic alphabet. Many represent easily identifiable, everyday things, including human figures, fish, birds, insects, plants, a boat, a shield, a staff, etc. Such depictions are also found in the Egyptian hieroglyphic script.
But there is little one can do beyond classification, for the inscriptions on the disc are largely an isolated occurrence – unique – and thus any decodation is extremely difficult. If it is a language, so far, no other instances of it have been discovered anywhere. Some researchers have stated that there are some possible family members. One is a votive double axe found in the Arkalohori Cave, also on Crete, but it contains only superficially similar hieroglyphics and only a potential three out of 51 markings share some resemblance. The second is a fragment of a smaller clay disk, found at Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, which however disappeared mysteriously and can thus not be used for comparison. Jerome Eisenberg, an American specialist in faked ancient art, believes that Luigi Pernier, the archaeologist who discovered the disc, as having invented the Disc, and that the writing means nothing. Eisenberg argues that Pernier needed to impress his colleagues, but Eisenberg has not presented any evidence whatsoever to back up his serious allegation, which, if Pernier was still alive, would definitely have resulted in a lawsuit. Experts, in general, tend to disregard Eisenberg’s allegation, as there are somewhat similar inscriptions from known archaeological sites, such as a bronze double-axe in Arkalokhori, which has 16 characters, two of which resemble characters of the disc.
Most theories propose that the disc represents a text in an unknown language. As there are a number of glyphs marked with an oblique stroke, some believe these designate words, or even paragraphs. As to the text’s meaning: it rangers from prayers, a narrative, an adventure story, a call to arms, a legal document, a schedule for palace activities, etc. Others argue that the disc is not text at all, but perhaps a calendar. A token. Or a geometric theorem. Or a board game. A message from extraterrestrials who visited Earth thousands of years ago. A portal or star gate. In fact, almost the only thing most theories agree on is that the text has been written from the exterior to the centre. That the disc is not a language, despite widely being accepted in some corners, seems quite logical, as the language is totally unique, yet its surroundings – Phaistos – and its date – 1700 BC – would suggest that no such isolated language would exist. Even if Phaistos had a language of it own, why was it only discovered on one disc? In further contrast to the writing tablets that were unruled back then and began to be ruled with parallel lines only a couple of centuries later, the Disc has a spiral-like track of irregularly long fields on each side, 30 on one and 31 on the other, all arranged between the incised curving borders of the track. Still, one of the reasons for much of this confusion is that Sir Arthur Evans had insisted that the signs on the Disd “must be” syllabic writing, because he promoted the Cretan-Mycenaean culture as the cradle and earliest blossom of European civilization.
So what is it? At present, the most convincing theory is that it is a game board. It looks like one and the usage of stamps in its fabrication suggests a form of mass-production. Its ruled, leading inwards to the centre, path, is a classical example that game-boards have shared throughout their history. What kind of game, is more difficult to asses. Some argue that it was based on the journeys of the sun god and the moon goddess, both in astronomical and mythological terms. That game had close parallels in ancient Egypt, which allow the reconstruction of its main features and event fields. In fact, such analysis revealed that these fields coincided with many virtually identical fields in the still popular “Game of the Goose”, which are still in the same locations along the track of this “modern” game as on its direct predecessor.
Intriguingly, on some of the Senet boards, these signs were impressed into the clay-like soft mass before firing, and they were impressed with stamps. In other words, as unusual as the stamping on the Phaistos Disk may have been for imprinting a text, stamping was in no way exceptional for impressing signs on game-boards. Another clue that also points in the game-board direction comes from the eight-leaved rosette which occurs four times on the disc. That sign is frequently found on ancient game-boards, including those found in the Royal Graves of Ur in Sumer from about 2500 BCE – centuries before the Phaistos Disc. Within the framework of a game-board, the origins of the disc can also be explained: the existence of game-boards in neighbouring civilisations, specifically Egypt. There was a profound Egyptian influence in Crete, so much so that several of the levels at Knossos are dated by the Egyptian artefacts that were recovered in them. Even the base of a 12th Dynasty Egyptian dignitary’s diorite statuette came to light at Knossos, in a deposit from a couple of centuries before the disc. That an Egyptian board game would have made its way to Crete, is thus absolutely possible – and likely, seeing what other Egyptian items ended up in Crete.
So what is Senet? It is an Egyptian race game and may be the ancestor of our modern backgammon. A lot of information about Senet has survived in the form of actual game-boards, descriptions, and tomb paintings of Senet players with captions. The oldest known representation of Senet is in a painting from the tomb of Hesy (Third Dynasty, ca. 2686-2613 BC). Edgar B. Pusch published a series of photographs and drawings with descriptions of all known Senet boards (about forty) and Senet playing scenes in papyri and murals. According to a scroll fragment that dates to Graeco-Roman times (but seems to record a much earlier tradition), the 30 squares on the Senet board represented the 30 days in the standard ancient Egyptian calendar month, and more specifically the month of Thoth, the first month of the Egyptian year. The first Senet square was the “House of Thoth”, and the festival of Thoth was indeed celebrated on the first day of his month which was also New Year’s day. The thirtieth square stood for the last day of the standardized month “when the moon is invisible”. We note that the disc has 30 “long fields” on one side, 31 on the other. So, in this thinking, those theorists who concluded that the disc was a calendar, were not far off.
Still, if it is a game-board, the correspondence with Senet cannot be one on one. Furthermore, the most common version of the Senet board was laid out as a rectangular grid of 3 x 10 squares – and not a disc.
Though the Senet and other board-games have survived, the rules of the game itself have not. As such, archaeologists have tried to guess how the game was played and have come up with their own rules. No doubt, the rules of the game changed in Antiquity as well; the rules of football have changed several times over the past century. And some games have transformed into others. In fact, the likely scenario that the Phaistos Disc is a game-board, is the best interpretation we can give for the artefact – and it is the most logical. But it is probably impossible to ever accurately decipher how this game was played. It seems clear that it was adapted from similar Egyptian games, but like everything about the Minoan culture, it must have been adapted and given a specific local turn.
Still, we can look towards the Egyptian Senet to imagine how it could possibly have been played. It is believed that for Senet, sticks were thrown to see how many squares the piece could be moved forward. If you threw a one, four or six, you got an extra turn. You could not land on one of your own pieces. If you landed on the other player’s piece, you switched places with them. However, you can’t switch with them if they have two or more pieces in a row. If the other player has three or more pieces in a row, you can’t pass them. Some squares were “safe” squares and some were “danger” squares. The first player to get all of their pieces off the board had won the game. Still, it is equally possible that the game was purely “chance”: that the roles of the dice or throw of the sticks allowed progress on the track, until the centre of the field was reached. And perhaps the Phaistos Disc could be used for both a chance game, and a “rule game”, like backgammon.
No doubt, the Phaistos game had slightly different rules and the pieces that were placed on top, will most likely never be recovered – unless they are small artefacts found amongst the rubble of the palaces that archaeologists may have misidentified and that may sit in display cases or museum vaults, waiting for a proper identification. Senet and other ancient Egyptian games are slowly being revived. Antiquities scholar Peter Aleff has already recreated a Phaistos-like game, which have gone in commercial production. As such, the mystery of the disc is not only being recovered, but is beginning to entertain the 21st century world – four millennia after it was first created. For those who believed that the disc was a time portal… they too seem to have been quite right, though not in the manner they proposed.