On this day in 1908, Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier discovered the Phaistos Disc on a dig around the Minoan palace of Phaistos, close to Hagia Triada on the southern coast of Crete. The excavations were not in the actual palace, but rather in the basements of a group of buildings to the northeast, which were buried under an earthquake thousands of years ago.
Nowadays, the Phaistos Disc stays on permanent display at the archaeological museum of Heraklion, alongside many other artefacts of the Ancient Minoan civilisation that ruled over Crete and the Aegean Islands in the second millennium BCE. There are still many mysteries surrounding the relic; no one is really sure of what it says, what it is, or even where it is from. To this day it remains one of the great puzzles of archaeology.
The Phaistos Disc is a circular tablet of fired clay, around 15 centimetres (6 inches) in diameter, stamped on both sides with a series of hieroglyphic symbols that are still undeciphered. These symbols were not carved into the clay, but rather were pressed into it with pre-formed hieroglyphic seals—therefore, some consider it the very first instance of movable type printing, long before the 15th century Gutenberg Press.
The disc is decorated with 241 tokens made up of 45 unique signs, suggesting that it is some sort of primitive, pictorial alphabet that spirals towards its centre. It includes signs also found in a number of ancient languages, including Anatolian, Indo-European, Linear A, Linear B, Proto-Ionian, and Semitic, and many of the symbols are obvious representations, including animals such as an eagle, figures such as a captive, plants such as papyrus, and weapons such as a bow.
Nevertheless, the message is not clear, mostly because the symbols are arranged into compound sequences that are almost impossible to translate without any other references (so far the only similarly inscribed artefact found has been the Arkalochori Axe, which was found in a Cretan cave). Thus all sorts of interpretations of the Phaistos Disc’s true meaning have been proposed: a story, a prayer, a call to arms, and even a board game.
There have also been suggestions that the whole thing is a forgery, perpetrated at the time of its discovery in 1908. Its age has never been scientifically verified through thermo-luminescence, so it could be a lot younger than suggested. Archaeologists still tend to agree that the Phaistos Disc is a genuine Minoan treasure, but beyond that they are utterly unsure of what secrets are inscribed on its surface.
Caption: Although discovered in 1908, archaeologists are still unsure of what is inscribed on the Phaistos Disc.