Friday, 21 September 2012

Phaistos Disc : most famous puzzles of archaeology

Phaistos Disc
The mystery of the Phaistos Disc is a story that sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Discovered by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in 1908 in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, the disc is made of fired clay and contains mysterious symbols that may represent an unknown form of hieroglyphics. It is believed that it was designed sometime in the second millennium BC.

Some scholars believe that the hieroglyphs resemble symbols of Linear A and Linear B, scripts once used in ancient Crete. The only problem? Linear A also eludes decipherment. 

The disc of Phaistos is the most important example of hieroglyphic inscription from Crete and was discovered in 1903 in a small room near the depositories of the "archive chamber", in the north - east apartments of the palace, together with a Linear A tablet and pottery dated to the beginning of the Neo-palatial period (1700- 1600 B.C.).
The exact location of Phaistos was first determined in the middle of the 19th century by the British admiral Spratt, while the archaeological investigation of the palace started in 1884 by the Italians F. Halbherr and A. Taramelli. 
After the declaration of the independent Cretan State in 1898, excavations were carried out by F. Halbherr and L. Pernier in 1900-1904 and later, in 1950-1971, by Doro Levi, under the auspices of the Italian Archaeological School at Athens.
The Phaistos Disk, today on display at the Iraklion Archaeological Museum,
was discovered in Crete in 1908.
Although many inscriptions were found by the archaeologists, they are all in Linear A code which is still undecipherd, and all we know about the site, even its name are based to the ancient writers and findings from Knossos.
According to mythology, Phaistos was the seat of king Radamanthis, brother of king Minos. It was also the city that gave birth to the great wise man and soothsayer Epimenidis, one of the seven wise men of the ancient world.
Excavations by archaeologists have unearthed ruins of the Neolithic times (3.000 B.C.).
During the Minoan times, Phaistos was a very important city-state. Its dominion, at its peak, stretched from Lithinon to Psychion and included the Paximadia islands. The city participated to the Trojan war and later became one of the most important cities-states of the Dorian period.
Phaistos continued to flourish during Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic times. It was destroyed by the Gortynians during the 3rd century B.C. In spite of that, Phaistos continued to exist during the Roman period.
Phaistos had two ports, Matala and Kommos.
Since 1900, continuous archaeological excavations from the Italian Archaeological School, have brought to light the magnificent Minoan palace of Phaistos with its great royal courts, the great staircases, the theatre, the storerooms and the famous disk of Phaistos.
The first palace was built at 2.000 B.C. This palace was destroyed at 1.700 B.C. by an earthquake. It was built again, more luxurious and magnificent and it was destroyed again, probably by another earthquake, at 1.400 B.C.
The location of the palace was carefully chosen, so as not only to absolutely control the valley of Messara, but to also offer a panoramic view of the surrounding area with the scattered villages, just like today, at the foot of the mountains Psiloritis and Asterousia.
The palace dominated and controlled the Messara valley and it was the center of the city. It was the administrational and economical center of the area.
Goods not only for consumption but mainly for trade were kept in its huge storerooms. The palace was surrounded by luxurious mansions and crowded urban communities. Along with the surrounding settlements covered an area of 18.000 sq. meters.
A paved road leads to the ruins of the Royal Minoan villa of Agia Triada, 3 km west of Phaistos.


Both surfaces of this clay disc are covered with hieroglyphs arranged in a spiral zone, impressed on the clay when it was damp. The signs make up groups divided from each other by vertical lines, and each of these groups should represent a word.

Forty five different types of signs have been distinguished, of which a few can be identified with the hieroglyphs in use in the Proto- palatial period.
Some hieroglyphic sequences recur like refrains, suggesting a religious hymn, and Pernier regards the content of the text as ritual. Others have suggested that the text is a list of soldiers, and lately Davis has interpreted it as a document in the Hittic language in which a king discusses the erection of the Palace of Phaistos.

In a century which has seen the cracking of Linear B, Ugaritic, and other orthographic systems, the Phaistos Disk has eluded decipherment. The disk is thought to date from around 1700 BC. It is a roundish disk of clay, with symbols stamped into it. The text consists of 61 words, 16 of which are accompanied by a mysterious "slash" mark.
There are 45 different symbols occurring 241 times. The symbols portray recognizable objects like human figures and body parts, animals, weapons, and plants. Since the text of the disk is so short, decipherment by the statistical cryptographic techniques employed by Michael Ventris in cracking Linear B are impossible. 
Late last year, however, Dr. Keith A.J. Massey and his twin brother Rev. Kevin Massey-Gillespie discovered the secret they believe provides the key to cracking the Phaistos Disk.
Another ancient writing system provides the key to reading the Phaistos Disk.
At Byblos in modern day Lebanon, an advanced culture flourished for centuries. There are many signs of contact between Ancient Crete and Byblos, including signs of orthographic borrowing as pointed out by Victor Kenna in "The Stamp Seal, Byblos 6593" Kadmos 9 (1970) pp 93-96.
Further, examples of the yet undeciphered Linear A script have recently been found in Turkey, providing evidence of orthographic relationships between Crete and Asia Minor.
The Proto-Byblic script was used in the early part of the 2nd millenium BC, a time contemporary with the supposed date of the Phaistos Disk. The underlying language of the Proto-Byblic script was Semitic. It is a linear script which displays many identifiable objects, like weapons, human figures, and body parts. The Proto-Byblic script, catalogued by Maurice Dunand in the 1940's bears striking resemblance to the symbols of the Phaistos Disk. The similarity of one Proto-Byblic character to a Phaistos symbol was noted by Dunand in his book Byblia Grammata, Beyrouth, 1945 on p 90, "Il est presque identique a celui du disque de Phaestos qu-Evans avait identifie avec une colombe." [ It is almost identical to something from the disk of Phaistos which (Sir Arthur) Evans has identified with a dove.] Dunand did not pursue his observation of the similarities, yet it is this Proto-Byblic script which is demonstrated by the Massey twins as being a closely related orthographic system to the Phaistos Disk. Eduard Dhorme, one of the decipherers of Hittite, published the first consonantal values for the Proto-Byblic script in SYRIA XXV 1946 in an article, "Dechiffrement des Inscriptions Pseudo-Hieroglyphicques de Byblos." A comparison of these values with the symbols of the Phaistos Disk yielded consonantal assignments for a surprising amount of the writing on the disk.
It should be noted here that all previous attempts to decipher the Phaistos Disk have been subjective attempts, assigning phonetic values to the characters with no true objective criteria. This is therefore the first effort at cracking the disk by OBJECTIVE determinations. When these consonantal values are examined, elements of an Hellenic language emerge in the text of the disk. Scholars had never known what the significence of a mysterious "slash" on 16 of the words of the Phaistos Disk. We observed, based on our values, that each of these 16 words are numerals counting commodities on the disk, similar to the majority of Linear B texts.

Today the disc remains one of the most famous puzzles of archaeology.


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