Brian E. Colless
This is a printed document, from around 1700 before the current era, long before printing was invented!
A detailed photograph of the lower part of Side A is available here.
The Phaistos disc was discovered in 1908 in a Bronze-Age building, at Phaistos
in SW Crete. It is indeed a 'provenanced' find, but it could have been 'planted'
(deliberately inserted into the soil to be uncovered/discovered in situ the next day)?
Could the Phaistos disc be a forgery?
That would be a very elaborate hoax to perpetrate: making 45 little stamps
to imprint on clay, on both sides of the object, and printing 30 clusters of
signs (words or phrases ?) on one side and 31 on the other.
I know personally two different scholars (out of a host of hopefuls) who have
published confident attempts at decipherment (both read it as Hellenic, but
produce entirely different transcriptions and translations).
My observations on it, after looking at all the other scripts of Crete (and
Cyprus) is that it does not belong to the same family as Linear B (used for
Mycenean Greek texts).
There is a line of development in Crete from a set of pictographs to
stylized Linear A characters (language uncertain, but I think it is West Semitic)
and even more stylized Linear B; and on Cyprus a derived syllabic script from
the same source (through Linear A), used for a Hellenic dialect and other languages.
My judgement is that the Cretan pictographs and the Phaistos pictographs
(in spite of similarities and apparent correspondences) do not belong to the
same system. And they are not Egyptian, Sumerian, Luwian, or Canaanian
If the characters on the Phaistos Disc do not have any known counterparts,
what would be the purpose of such fakery? Our analogy cannot be with the
forgeries from Israel, which use scripts and languages that are known, and
can fetch a good price because of their pseudo-historical connections.
We must accept the Phaistos document on trust, hoping that a companion will
be found for it to aid in its elucidation. (Well now: there's a motive and a
project for a forger!)
Jerome M. Eisenberg, The Phaistos Disk: A 100-Year-Old Hoax? Minerva 19, 4 (2008)
However, a claim has been made that the object was forged by its discoverer, and
Jerome Eisenberg, a specialist in fake ancient art, has pointed the finger at
Luigi Pernier, the Italian archaeologist who found it in the Phaistos palace.
A motive would possibly have been to compete with the remarkable discoveries
being made at Knossos by Arthur Evans (whose drawing of the two sides of the disc
is reproduced above).
Eisenberg sees the forger's error in creating a terracotta 'pancake' with a clean-cut
edge and firing it. Cretan clay tablets (as evidenced at Knossos and Phaistos) were
rough and ready, and not deliberately fired, though it could happen accidentally
(when the buildings containing them were destroyed by fire).
Perhaps so, but if the Phaistos Disc really is ancient, and if its maker considered it
to be a significant or sacred object then it may well have been purposefully baked.
Eisenberg has given us nothing but speculation, so far, and his idea could be verified
or falsified by thermoluminescence dating, but because of the risk involved (the
object could be damaged) his request has been refused by the Heraklion Museum.
Actually this method of dating determines the latest time the object was fired,
and if it had been put in an oven to dry it out in 1908 or later , the original date
would have been obliterated.
Eisenberg has given a quite a few suggestions for sources the forger could have
used to copy various signs from, notably Linear A. My answer to that is to see two
different but related writing systems on the island of Crete:
the Knossos script (northern), a picto-phonetic syllabary > Linear A and B;
the Phaistos script (southern), a picto-phonetic syllabary.
Looking at the 30 accountancy tablets from Phaistos (as distinct from adjacent
Hagia Triada, where the Linear A script was used, a stylized form of the northern
picto-phonetic script), most seem to be Linear A, but some (PH 8, 9, 13, 15, 17, 26)
have signs known from the Phaistos Disc, and notably PH 12:
PhD sign 14 (fetter, Greek pedé, Linear B PE),
PhD 1 (striding man),
PhD 22 (cuttlefish, Greek sépia, Linear B SA),
PhD 27 ( hide, talent?).
Actually, if we apply the syllables PE-YE-SA-TA to this inscription, we seem to be looking at the name Phaistos.
PH 13 has a fish (Phaistos Disc sign 35), which is not found in the northern picto-syllabary or its descendant, Linear A.
Thus the Phaistos script has its own set of signs, but some of them are shared with the Knossos syllabary.
The 45 characters on the Phaistos Disc (after Arthur Evans)
If this is a discovery I have made, it will still not help us read the Phaistos Disc!
Or perhaps it will. If enough signs are common to both systems, and we substitute
the known values from Linear B, then we are on our way with a flying start.
I could argue for at least 20 correspondences out of 45 (the number of separate
signs on the Disc), and I will do that in another article. This was the approach of
Steven Fischer in his attempt at decipherment.
But the fact remains that the Phaistos script is represented on other documents from
Phaistos, and so the forgery hypothesis is unnecessary.
Moreover, these tablets found with the Disc (some having the same set of signs as the
Disc, others exhibiting Linear A signs) not only support the authenticity of the Disc,
but also show that it was produced in the palace of Phaistos, and not sent from some
other place, near or far (beyond Crete).
We have other evidence to draw on. The comb sign (PD21 on the table above) was
found on a lump of clay in the Phaistos palace (document HM 992).
And the Arkalokhori Ax has 15 characters, some of them duplicates, with apparent
connections to the Phaistos Disk set of signs, and/or to the Knossos inventory.
With regard to the general question of the scripts, languages, and ethnic groups of Crete
in the Bronze Age, I would tentatively respond to genetic evidence offered
by Tristan Carter et al:
Differential Y-chromosome Anatolian influences on the Greek and Cretan Neolithic’
Annals of Human Genetics 72(2) (2008): 1-10 (205-214).
They posit newcomers from Syria-Palestine and East Aegean/NW Anatolia.
This suggests Semitic-speaking people (let's call them Semites!), and Trojans or Etruscans (!), or even Hellenes. I am struck by the possibility that Greek words fit acrophonically with the syllabograms (two examples are given above: pedé, sépia).
I surmise that the Semites were invaders (incidentally, the disc has been interpreted as a response to an invasion by sea) in the Late Bronze Age or earlier. Their presence in the south is evidenced at Hagia Triada (near Phaistos), where the accountancy documents use the term KU-RO for 'total', possibly Semitic kull (Cyrus Gordon). There are Semitic words and names on the Linear A tablets from the south (example: TINITA could be the West Semitic goddess).
Knossos, on the northern part of the island, would originally have been the home of another group. They devised the picto-syllabic script that became Linear A, and which developed into Linear B (used by Mycenean Greeks). But the era of "King Minos" of Knossos would have been West Semitic, presumably.
How the very ancient Phaistos Disc, with its picto-phonetic text, fits into this picture is a puzzle, but it might be Semitic rather than Hellenic (the solution I prefer).
The Disc has a script that was inspired by the West Semitic logo-syllabary (23rd Century BCE),
I presume, but it is not the same as the similar picto-phonetic syllabary found in the north of Crete (the ancestral script of Linear A and B, and of the Cyprus syllabary).
My hypothesis aims to tidy up the epigraphic landscape on Crete: I am arguing for two scripts in Bronze-Age Crete, invented by two groups of inhabitants. Perhaps they were the Pelasgians (meaning early Hellenic?) that Homer included among the ethnic types of Crete. The model for both scripts was not the Egyptian hieroglyphic consonantal script (no vowels represented, as in the original alphabet) but the acrophonic syllabary of Byblos (with vowels built into the syllabic characters, expressing the consonant and vowel of the initial syllable of the word that goes with the picture of the object, as in DA from Semitic dalt, door, and subsequently alphabetic Dalet and Delta).
At the moment, in the light of the new genetic evidence I am thinking once again that a Semitic approach should be taken to some, most, or all of the administrative and religious texts written in Linear A script on clay tablets and on on cultic objects. Cyrus Gordon and Jan Best have published studies on this possibility. My results are appearing in preliminary form here:
An East Semitic as well as a West Semitic test should be applied (Cyrus Gordon wavered between both), since Akkadian (Babylonian) was the international language in those times; but the evidence fits satisfactorily into a West Semitic matrix .
For an examination of the Phaistos script see Phaistos Syllabary.
Another puzzle has arisen in my mind, and I will state it here and elsewhere, seeking a solution or explanation.
If we ask which of the Cretan cities (ninety in number, on the testimony of Homer, Odyssey 19.172-180.) would have been the seat of a paramount ruler in the era of Linear A writing, it would appear to be Haghia Triada (with Phaistos), in the south, in the LM (MR) 1B period. At the same time, Knossos has yielded few tablets. Could the Linear A archives have been destroyed, accidentally by natural disaster, or deliberately by the regime (Homer's Akhaians?) that left us the Linear B archives?
And what does Homer mean by saying that Knossos was the place where Minos reigned (as king) "nine-yearly", and conversed with great Zeus?