Review: Omniglot

Omniglot is an encyclopedic web site detailing the structure and history of the world’s writing systems.  Created in 1998 by Simon Ager, a web developer who is both polyglot (a learner of many languages) and linguist (scholar of language), it reminds me in so many ways of the Phrontistery – a site that began as one young man’s obsession and has turned into something more over the past decade.   I consider it to be the best online information source for writing systems; sure, you could go to Wikipedia, whose page on the topic is currently very good, but why bother?  If you can’t afford The World’s Writing Systems (Daniels and Bright 1996), the best print volume out there, then Omniglot is a good place to start.   I don’t know Ager personally, but I think when my book comes out that I’ll see what can be done about improving his numerals page, which really isn’t as informative as it could be.

Simon Ager also runs an Omniglot blog, which is primarily about second-language acquisition and topics related to multilingualism, particularly discussions of specific differences among words in different languages, but digresses into all sorts of other topics of interest to lingustically-minded anthropologists, such as literacy studies, animal communication, and language evolution.  It’s all written in a very accessible and engaging style, and requires virtually no background knowledge of the subjects in order to be enjoyed.  Refreshingly, he is always happy to admit when his knowledge of a topic is imperfect and to use his readers to learn more.

Recent posts of interest

Txtng nt bd 4 U

Television and stinky badgers

Writing systems and manuscripts

Works cited

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Macarthur news: Stephen Houston

I woke up this morning to some exciting news for those of us involved in writing and literacy studies in anthropology.  Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology at Brown University, has been awarded one of this year’s Macarthur fellowships.   The Macarthur is probably the most prestigious award any social scientist or humanist can receive, providing $500,000 in funding over five years with absolutely no strings attached.

Steve is one of the most fascinating scholars I know, and his work on Maya hieroglyphic writing and iconography exemplifies the social and integrative approach to linguistics, epigraphy, and archaeology that motivates me.  His paper, ‘The archaeology of communication technologies’ is in my opinion the most important and accessible existing statement of this perspective; I foist it on my students at every opportunity (Houston 2004).  In it, he makes the case that archaeological decipherment needs to focus both on extracting meaning from ancient texts and on situating those writings in their sociocultural and political context.    Two years ago he and a team of Mesoamericanists published the (undeciphered, and possibly undecipherable) ‘Cascajal block’ in Science, exposing the scientific community at large to an artifact which seems likely to be the oldest Mesoamerican writing yet known (Martinez et al. 2006).   Because he is an anthropological archaeologist, his perspective on epigraphy is both rigorously social-scientific and unapologetically comparative.

I ought to mention that Steve is my ‘uncle’ in scholarly genealogy; he and my doctoral supervisor, the late Bruce Trigger, both studied under Michael Coe at Yale.   He has been of tremendous help to me in thinking about my book, and his kind invitation to me to participate in the School of Advanced Research seminar ‘The shape of script’ last year (edited volume to be out soon, I hope!) led to one of the most productive weeks of scholarly exchange in my life to date.

This award is obviously important to Steve, who now has the pleasurable burden of figuring out how best to use his Macarthur, but it also has ramifications for the field of archaeological decipherment as a whole.  I’m really excited about the attention that this news will draw to our small corner of the world.

Edit to add: Well, it seems as if this post is coming up on all sorts of search keywords related to Stephen Houston, so, welcome to newcomers!  I should probably include a couple of informative links:

Stephen Houston’s research page including publication list

Brown anthropology department page

Works cited

Houston, Stephen D. 2004. The archaeology of communication technologies. Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 223-250.

Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez, Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos, Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Stephen D. Houston, Karl A. Taube, and Alfredo Delgado Calderón. 2006. Oldest writing in the New World. Science 313(5793): 1610-1614.

The politics of pinyin

One of the understudied intersections of linguistics and material culture is what I would call ‘contemporary epigraphy': the study of modern inscriptions, ranging from traditional subjects (monumental inscriptions) to things like public signs and graffiti.  In my work on numbers, I am constantly on the alert for unusual and interesting uses of number in public texts (see this, e.g.), and recently, I and a group of senior undergraduates at McGill undertook a quantitative, spatial, and linguistically-focused survey of stop signs in Montreal, which has become the ongoing Stop: Toutes Directions project.   This sort of work combines the rigor of linguistics and grammatology (the study of writing systems) with the social analysis of archaeology and urban geography and the textual focus of classical epigraphy and semiotics.

For this reason, I was very interested to see in the news that Taiwan is simplifying its romanization of Chinese writing and will be replacing a huge number of public signs.  Essentially, before now, there was no standard way to transliterate Chinese into a Roman script (not to mention the difficulties in transliterating Chinese into Chinese script).  The existence of multiple standards can lead to all sorts of confusion, because, as the article linked above points out, ‘Minquan Road’ and ‘Minchuan Road’ may in fact be the same road named using two different standards.   This Wikipedia article illustrates the enormous difficulties this might present.  The cost of changing signs that are not in the variant chosen as the new standard (hanyu pinyin) will be considerable.

The pinyin system that has been chosen by the Taiwanese government is probably the most common one used today, primarily due to its official acceptance in the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the mainland) since the 50s and internationally since the 70s.  The article presents the most recent Taiwanese reform as one aimed at international visitors / non-native Chinese speakers, and undoubtedly that is part of the answer.  But any change that brings Taiwan closer to China is not only a business decision but also a sociopolitical one.  The article notes, “Ma’s predecessor resisted the writing system to snub China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island, critics say,” which is no doubt another part of the story.   This change in sign policy is part of ongoing tensions between pro-independence and pro-reintegration factions in Taiwan, and such, echoes the sorts of issues that I have witnessed firsthand in Montreal, where sign texts are important subjects of political and social discourse.

These questions, then, cannot be fully separated from issues of language ideology – how particular languages, dialects, and utterances are conceptualized and evaluated (positively or negatively) both by individuals and by institutions.  It will be very interesting to follow this story as the new changes come into effect.

News: The supernatural and natural selection

A recent book by anthropologists Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman, The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success (Steadman and Palmer 2008) attempts to account for the evolution of religion in a novel way, linking sociality, communicative practice, and reproductive fitness.   I will be very interested to see the book (whose publication date is this week) and may give it a more thorough review then; for now, I am relying on a recent report in ScienceDaily.

The claim that interests me most is the assertion that religion does not primarily serve an individual, cognitive function – that its evolutionary basis is not that it explains the unexplainable or gives comfort in times of need.  Rather, they argue, religious belief serves to increase social cohesion and cooperative behavior among non-kin because of the kin-like model of society it creates.  This, so far, is not a novel claim, and can be found in anthropologists as far back as Edward Tylor (1920 [1871]).

Palmer and Steadman go further, however, using observable instances of communication of the acceptance of supernatural claims as analogues to the way that children accept their parents’ influence.  Rather than focusing about what people say about what they believe as evidence for what they believe, they treat what people say as communicative acts and observe what consequences these acts have on other human beings. In other words, they assert, religion creates kin-like social ties through the mutual acceptance of otherwise unobservable social realities.  Further evidence for this position, they assert, is found in the widespread use of basic kin terms (especially for parents, siblings, and children) in religions throughout the world.  This is an interesting combination of linguistic, anthropological, and evolutionary-psychological insights that deserves

Now, this theory is bound to cause controversy.  I don’t even want to address whether I think it is correct until I have a look at the book.  I’ve been interested in the rather different theory espoused by Pascal Boyer in his The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Boyer 1994), which focuses on the evidence from child development and is essentially a cognitive account rather than a social one.   I’ll be particularly interested to see how Palmer and Steadman have handled the cross-cultural evidence, and the extent to which they are able to deal with differences as well as similarities among the world’s religious systems.

Works cited

Boyer, Pascal. 1994. The naturalness of religious ideas. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steadman, Lyle B. and Craig T. Palmer. 2008. The supernatural and natural selection: religion and evolutionary success. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Tylor, Edward B. 1920 [1871]. Primitive culture. New York: Putnam.

Teaching linguistic anthropology as integrative science

Linguistic anthropology is often treated as a ‘kid brother’ subfield of cultural anthropology.  The working assumption is that if you are working on anthropological issues relating to language, you must be an ethnographer first and foremost.   Part of the reason why I have started this blog is that I just don’t buy into this view.  Anthropology in North America has been conceptualized as a four-field subject – biological, archaeological, cultural, and linguistic anthropology – and I’m a four-field guy through and through, so I don’t see linguistic anthropology as naturally or inherently linked to any of the other three fields.  If it were, we wouldn’t have four fields, and linguistic anthropology would be just another cultural subject, like economic anthropology or the anthropology of religion, tied to linguistics as the others are to economics or religious studies, but ethnographic nonetheless.  I call shenanigans on that, and am more than happy to use my archaeological and evolutionary training to set out a better path for linguistic anthropology (or ‘anthropological linguistics’, but that’s a post for another day).

This year I’m teaching a course entitled ‘Language and Culture’, which I conceptualize as a cross-cultural investigation of the cognitive and social aspects of language within an unapologetically four-field anthropology.   (It helps that, as a required course for all majors, the class has plenty of archaeologists and biological anthropologists.)  To make my point, I’ve started out with a set of aggressively evolutionary readings on language origins, challenging the students to deal with the paucity of archaeological and fossil evidence without dismissing it entirely, and to acknowledge the utility of comparative primatology and child development studies to fill in some of the gaps.  I adopt an unapologetically evolutionary approach to most of my teaching, which I no doubt picked up from my mentor, the late Bruce Trigger (himself an archaeologist and ethnohistorian), and my aim is to really get the class to think about what exactly language does for us (selectively speaking) that other forms of communication do not.

I begin with a high-theory article (D’Andrade 2002), an imperfect and speculative article that nonetheless forces the reader to acknowledge the interlinked nature of language and culture while addressing the very big question, “If language is so great, why don’t all sorts of species talk?”  But D’Andrade is a cognitive anthropologist, and we really need some data to address the where, when, and how questions.   Buckley and Steele’s (2002) evolutionary-ecological (yet fundamentally social) argument connects the dots using anatomical and archaeological data, but lack the direct behavioural foundation needed to test their hypotheses.   So I turn to our evolutionary cousins, the nonhuman primates, and the old master Robbins Burling presents a complex if ultimately unconvincing argument (Burling 1993) that human language is radically distinct from primate gestures and calls, and in fact originated as a non-communicative cognitive system for thought before any ape ever spoke a word.  We wrap up with perhaps the tightest and most curious account, Greg Urban’s (2002) account that links ape calls to human language through the intermediary of ‘metasignals’, signs that make reference to other signs.

There is a lot of other material I could have presented, and perhaps in future years if I am feeling like giving the students a greater mental workout, I may do so.  Certainly there is absolutely no agreement even among anthropologists as to the likely origins of language, and I’ve hardly addressed the massive literature in linguistics and evolutionary psychology.  But for now I am quite happy with the tone and scientific emphasis I have set for the course, and although I certainly won’t ignore the more humanistic side of the subfield in the weeks to come, I’m aiming for something really innovative here and won’t blindly follow anyone’s party line.

Works cited

Buckley, Carina and James Steele. 2002. Evolutionary ecology of spoken language: co-evolutionary hypotheses are testable. World Archaeology 34: 26-46.

Burling, Robbins. 1993. Primate calls, human language, and nonverbal communication. Current Anthropology 34(1): 25-53.

D’Andrade, Roy. 2002. Cultural Darwinism and language. American Anthropologist 104(1): 223-232.

Urban, Greg. 2002. Metasignalling and language origins. American Anthropologist 104(1): 233-246.

Review: A Very Remote Period Indeed

[Since one of the things that makes academic blogging so fascinating to me is the opportunity to be part of a network of interesting people working on interrelated subjects, from time to time I will post little reviews of blogs that I think might be of interest to my readership -- SC]

A Very Remote Period Indeed is the brainchild of my friend Julien Riel-Salvatore, a Paleolithic archaeologist who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at our mutual alma mater, McGill University.   Julien is one of those sorts of people whose career path should make one envious or infuriated, by all rights.  I first met him in 1996 when he was a wide-eyed freshman in the undergraduate Prehistoric Archaeology course I was TAing, and by 2001, two years before I had published anything, he had a major article in Current Anthropology (Riel-Salvatore and Clark 2001).   Nothing like being lapped to instil a little humility in you.

But anyway, the fact is that Julien is one of the humblest, nicest, and funniest future academic superstars you will ever meet, and his blog reflects that fact.  His academic posts largely focus on Middle and Upper Paleolithic Europe, his area of specialty, on topics such as the relationship (or lack thereof) between Neandertals and anatomically modern humans, the nuances of Paleolithic lithic technology in Italy, or the recent controversies over the Liang Bua ‘hobbit’ hominin.  He’s quite hooked into the rather specialized network of paleoanthropologists and has an uncanny ability to extract useful information from media reports and preprints, and to present it in a fascinating way to an educated but nonspecialist audience.

But like all us McGillians, Julien has the soul of a theorist, and you will find some pretty significant insights at AVRPI about why Paleolithic archaeology is important, and how it relates to our knowledge of human behavior, and more generally the advantages and disadvantages of working in an area whose database is both vital for our understanding of human biology and culture and also depressingly sparse.   From my own perspective, his work leads me to think about the evidence for the evolution of mathematical capacities in relation to the early (and contradictory) evidence for Paleolithic symbolic behavior (d’Errico et al. 2003), a subject I and my students investigated last term in our bibliographic research project on Paleolithic notations.  Archaeological research is at times maddeningly detail-oriented, but it is only through those details, rather than the idle speculations of armchair philosophers (not to mention evolutionary psychologists) that big questions about the evolution of human language and cognition can be addressed.

Recent posts of interest:

Surveying Surveys

The unbearable lightness of the Paleolithic record

Mad Neanderthal disease

Archaeology and the public: a complicated relationship?

Neanderthals, now in color!

Works Cited

d’Errico, F., C. Henshilwood, G. Lawson, M. Vanhaeren, A.-M. Tillier, M. Soressi, F . Bresson, B. Maureille, A. Nowell, J. Lakarra, L. Backwell, and M. Julien. 2003. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music: an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17:1–70.

Riel-Salvatore, Julien and Geoffrey A. Clark. 2001. Grave markers: Middle and early Upper Paleolithic burials and the use of chronotypology in contemporary Paleolithic research. Current Anthropology 42(4): 449-479.

On ‘Western numerals’

For the past nine years, really ever since I defended my dissertation proposal, I have been using the term ‘Western numerals’ to describe the set of signs 0-9 used in a decimal fashion with the place-value principle.  This is not standard practice (although it is not unique to me), and after someone asked me about this, I thought I’d explain myself, since I’ll undoubtedly be using the term repeatedly in my numerical posts.

In the English-speaking world, we all learn these signs under the name ‘Arabic numerals’, which reflects the fact that they were borrowed by Western Europeans from Arabs living in Spain, Sicily, and North Africa in the tenth century CE.  In the scholarly literature on numerals, these are most often called ‘Hindu-Arabic numerals’, which reflects a little more of the history of the system, because the Arabic script got its numerals from an antecedent system used in northern India as early as the fifth or sixth century CE.   The historian of mathematics, Carl Boyer, whose early work on numeral systems played an important role in my development as a ‘numbers guy’, argued somewhat facetiously that we might more properly call it the ‘Babylonian-Egyptian-Greek-Hindu-Arabic’ system (1944: 168) – although in this case I think he was wrong, and that ‘Egyptian-Mauryan-Hindu-Arabic’ would get the history straight.

The most basic problem with these formulations ‘Arabic’ and ‘Hindu-Arabic’ is that they do not adequately distinguish the set of signs 0123456789 from the set of signs ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩ used in Arabic script from the set of signs ०१२३४५६७८९ used in the modern Devanagari script, and any number of other decimal, place-value systems, all descended ultimately from that 5th-6th century CE Indian ancestor.  To make matters more confusing, in Arabic the numerals used alongside Arabic script are called arqam hindiyyah (Hindi numerals).

The problem of ambiguity is thus a serious one.  Because several such systems are in active use (particularly the Western European 0-9 and the ‘Arabic’ set) it becomes a nightmare to try to distinguish these systems meaningfully.  We need different terms for each set of numerals.  Not only is there potential ambiguity, but using the term ‘Arabic’ or ‘Hindu-Arabic’ for 0123456789 tends to obscure the continued existence and active use of actual ‘Arabic’ and ‘Hindi’ numerals in the Middle East and south Asia.

So I talk about Western, Arabic, and Indian numerals to refer to the place-value systems used in three different script traditions.  Structurally the systems are identical, but paleographically – in terms of the history of the signs themselves – they are quite distinct. Now, one could argue that just as we talk about the ‘Latin alphabet’ we could call 0123456789 the ‘Latin numerals’ instead of ‘Western’, but this would only create confusion with the ‘Roman numerals’.  ‘Western numerals’ reflects the fact that the particular graphemes (sign-forms) developed in a Western European context and were first and most prominently used in Western Europe.

Now, there is a counterargument, that by calling them ‘Western numerals’ I am denying them their history, obscuring the fact that they derived from Indian and Arabic notations, which I certainly do not wish to do!  But I think that Boyer has a point – why stop at ‘Hindu’, since the Hindu place-value numerals derive from a non-positional system used in Brahmi inscriptions in India as early as the 4th century BCE, which in turn probably derive from Egyptian hieratic writing going back as early as the 26th century BCE!  And if we decide that the history is wrong, do we change the name?

Basically I am dissatisfied in general with the notion that we should name extant phenomena after their place of origin; it causes so many problems, including ambiguous nomenclature, that I decided to give up the practice entirely.  Hence ‘Western numerals’.

Works Cited

Boyer, Carl. 1944. Fundamental steps in the development of numeration. Isis 35(2): 353-368.

Why numerals?

Over the past few weeks in my new job, I have had many opportunities to introduce myself or be introduced as an expert in the ‘anthropology of mathematics’, which is probably the simplest and most accurate way to describe my work (although I also have strong research interests in other areas, such as writing systems and cross-cultural theory).  The comments I receive on this are mostly of two sorts:

(a) Oh, how interesting! I had never imagined there was such a thing!

(b) Oh, how interesting! Are there many people working in that field?

Both of these are perfectly understandable responses, because there aren’t really very many of us out there; perhaps a dozen working anthropologists who publish regularly on numerals, and a couple dozen more linguists.   There are many more anthropologists and linguists who at some point have written something on the subject, but aren’t specialists in the field.   But in comparison to, say, psychologists working on mathematical cognition, or to historians of mathematics, there aren’t too many of us.  And honestly, I’m okay with that, because it means that there are plenty of great questions that are completely untouched.

The question of why one would study the anthropology of mathematics is actually more interesting, from my perspective, and usually it doesn’t take much to get me onto that subject, particularly with people who answer (a).  For me, the fantastic thing about the subject is that it is so often taken for granted that there is one thing called ‘number’, or one thing called ‘mathematics’, and that there should be limited cross-cultural difference in the domain.   But at the same time, anthropologists generally work in domains where there is a lot of variability and assume that there are few or no constraints on human behavior, but in numeral systems there are all sorts of constraints, some evolutionary, some functional, and some social.  So teasing out the differences and similarities, without assuming in advance that the phenomenon is highly regular or highly variable, is fascinating stuff.   In other words, the fact that I am a comparativist (rather than a cultural particularist) and the fact that I study mathematics are closely linked.

The other really fascinating thing about number systems, for me, is that numbers can be represented using spoken or written language, but can also be represented using graphic numerical notation systems (like the set of signs, 0123456789, which laypeople generally call Arabic numerals but I call Western numerals).  So you have one system that has its origins in auditory media and is linked to linguistic abilities, and another that gets away from directly representing language and is trans-linguistic, but is nonetheless probably linked somehow to language.  So from an anthropological perspective, you have one linguistic and one non-linguistic (graphic) representation of number, which allows you to ask all sorts of interesting questions about the intersection of language and culture.

The last thing that is really cool about number is that within the domain of numerical notation, we have a pretty good database of all the numerical notation systems that have ever been used, and can without too much difficulty reconstruct the relationships between them (i.e. which systems are ancestral to which others, or which systems replaced which others).   This allows us not only to look at each system as a structured system of signs in a synchronic fashion (omitting the time dimension) but also to engage in a diachronic analysis, examining how systems interact and change over 5000 years of written history.   This is why I describe my forthcoming book as a ‘comparative history’.  But I’m writing about numbers, not about cross-cultural theory, which will have to be an essay for another day, because right now my book manuscript isn’t going to edit itself.

Phaistos phakery redux

(Originally published at The Growlery, 2008/08/21)

Prior to writing my previous post about Jerome Eisenberg’s conclusion that the Phaistos Disk is a recent forgery perpetrated by its excavator, Luigi Pernier, I unfortunately did not have access to the original article in Minerva magazine in which Dr. Eisenberg announced his findings (Eisenberg, Jerome M., ‘The Phaistos Disk: one hundred year old hoax?’, Minerva, July/August 2008, 9-24). Happily, once he found my post, Dr. Eisenberg commented on it and later sent me an electronic copy for my consideration. I can now report that while I previously thought I knew a lot about the disk, I now have a much better knowledge of the disk and the nature of the hoax claim. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced, even though I admit that I do want to believe the hoax claim, but I think that the evidence from the sign-forms just isn’t strong enough, that it relies on unproven visual similarities to too great a degree. Let me explain what I mean.

In the previous post, I focused on Eisenberg’s evidence from a) the uniqueness of the artifact’s manufacture, which is unlike the Linear A tablets; b) it uses ‘movable type’ of which no other example has ever been found; c) the idea that Luigi Pernier’s rivalry with Arthur Evans would lead him to do this. In dealing with the first two, I pointed out that comparisons with the Linear A tablets aren’t necessarily that useful if in fact the PD was part of a highly specialized text genre – i.e. it would be like using a monumental inscription to proclaim a handwritten note to be a forgery. Of course we don’t know that it’s part of such a genre, or indeed what genre it could have represented at all – hence the mystery.

The one thing I didn’t focus on is the sign-forms or graphemes on the Disk. In fact, Eisenberg spends a good deal of his paper looking at resemblances between Phaistos signs and signs on other inscriptions from the ancient world in order to assert that the latter formed the models on which Pernier based his forgery. In particular, he aims to show that there are similarities between the Phaistos graphemes and authentic artifacts made much later, but that were known to 19th century archaeologists / epigraphers and thus could have been known to Pernier.

This is an unusual line of argument; it is in fact a sort of cousin to the standard techniques by which experts on scripts postulate cultural borrowings from one society to another. If we have a 10th century BC Phoenician inscription and a very early, 8th century BC Greek inscription that use many similar letter-forms, we make the reasonable inference (all right, it is more complex than this, but you get the idea) that the Phoenician script is ancestral to Greek. In particular this is the case because there is known cultural contact (e.g. trade) between the two societies, and more importantly, because there is not just a graphemic similarity but also a phonetic similarity – the signs don’t just look the same but they have the same / similar sound-values. What Eisenberg is doing, effectively, is turning these resemblances on their heads. If there are similarities between the PD signs and known inscriptions from elsewhere, then those inscriptions may have acted as a model for the forger. If the inscriptions are later in date than the PD, Eisenberg argues, it is far likelier that these artifacts served as a model for the disk’s forger than that the Disk script served as a model for the later artifacts. Similarly, if the PD shows influences from several different regional styles, this suggests that a forger just cobbled together signs from different inscriptions to make something really unique.

Now, the reason I’m unconvinced is that I just don’t think the similarities bear up, and that even where they do they don’t point unequivocally to a hoax. For instance, let’s have a look at Phaistos sign 03:

Now, this is seen by Eisenberg as being modelled after an 18th Dynasty Egyptian wall painting (16th century BC) in which the figure, a Cretan captive is facing the other direction, has extensive facial features, has hair (long, flowing hair), and has a torso with arms. The only major similarity is the two circles on the face. But this seems to go directly against the notion of the Disk as a hoax; the time is right, the captive is Cretan, so the most parsimonious explanation is that they are both genuine representations of some sort of facial decoration (indeed, as Eisenberg suggests, it may be a Cretan ‘double earring’). But, writing, “It was certainly derived from the wall painting”, Eisenberg proceeds to write as if it is now a given that Pernier did, in fact, use this as a model for sign 03 (Eisenberg 2008: 17).

When we get to one of the more unusual characteristics of the Disk – the presence of five hand-incised dots on each side of the disk, and ‘word-separating’ vertical lines – I’m in my element, because these, Eisenberg sees as being modelled after the Cretan five dots = the numeral 50 and vertical bar = the numeral 100. This is dangerous territory though – dots and lines are ubiquitous in scripts and numerical systems. And are we really to believe that Pernier needed a model to think of the idea of adding bars and dots to a forgery? These are stylistic elements found in virtually any script worldwide, and are not indicative of anything. One of the real problems with the study of writing systems is the assertion of cultural relationships based on passing visual similarities, and one of the things that we do not yet know how to do well is to know how similar two graphemes must be before a claim of diffusion can be sustained. This is the same sort of reasoning used to argue for a hoax in this case, and ultimately its inclusion greatly weakens Eisenberg’s argument, and made me look much more critically at the remainder of his claim.

But the heart of the issue is that Eisenberg is working at cross-purposes here. On the one hand, he wants us to believe that the Disk is so unique, so different from other inscriptions that it cannot possibly be genuine. On the other, he wants us to use evidence of similarities with known scripts as proof of ‘forger’s models’. While a hoax can, of course, be both unique and based on models, we’re left with the impression that virtually any similarity or difference can be evidence of forgery, and that just isn’t sound argumentation. So I’m not convinced. I do still think the idea is worthy of consideration, and I do think that it is worth trying a thermoluminescence test, not only because it can settle the hoax issue but also because it can resolve the question of the artifact’s age even if it turns out to be genuine. In this respect, I believe that Eisenberg and I are in full agreement.

In conclusion I want to thank Dr. Eisenberg for sending me this paper, and also for inviting me to the upcoming International Conference on the Phaistos Disk, which unfortunately I am unable to attend due to my new work commitments. It does highlight however the real value of blogging as a means of social interaction and information exchange.

But of course the real question remains unanswered: should it be disk or disc?

Is the Phaistos disk a phony?

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/08/04)

The Phaistos Disk is one of the more enigmatic and bizarre artifacts in the field of ancient writing systems. Found in Crete in 1908 by the archaeologist Luigi Pernier and associated archaeologically with the Minoan civilization (dating to roughly 1850 – 1600 BCE), it remains completely undeciphered and has no obvious connection either to the Minoan (Linear A) script or to any other known script, deciphered or otherwise. Now, a very notable claim has been made by the American art historian / art dealer Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on forgeries, that the Disk was in fact an elaborate hoax constructed by Pernier himself, which Eisenberg has published in his own magazine, Minerva (Eisenberg 2008).

I’m not an expert on Minoan writing by any means, but my scholarly focus lies heavily in the study of ancient scripts and the anthropology and archaeology of literacy. I use Yves Duhoux’ hilariously entitled ‘How not to decipher the Phaistos Disc’ in my course on the anthropology of literacy (Duhoux 2000). Moreover, the century of scholarship on the Phaistos Disk is legendarily riddled with cranks, frauds, and loons, and as I have more than a passing interest in pseudoarchaeology, Phaistos-related material is of ongoing interest to me. Honestly, it would make a lot of things a whole lot simpler if we could just deny the disk’s authenticity – but this is no ordinary hoaxbusting exercise, and the importance of the artifact demands that we give the claim close scrutiny.

Phaistos Disk, Side A
Phaistos Disk, Side A. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Before we get to the Eisenberg claims, we need some context. So, firstly, what do we know about the PD?
– It is a fired clay disk, roughly 16 cm in diameter and 1-2 cm thick.
– It was found at a Minoan palace site at Phaistos in southern Crete.
– It appears to have been fired intentionally (with care) to produce a permanent record, whereas other Minoan documents were fired accidentally (e.g., when buildings were burned).
– Glyphs are stamped on both sides using distinct punches or stamps, not carved/incised into the clay.
– It has 241 signs in total, consisting of 45 distinct characters / glyphs. However, the total ‘signary’ (all the signs in the system) was probably greater, since some rare signs almost certainly do not appear in this particular text.
– The ‘text’ is divided into 61 sections of up to 5 characters apiece.
– The prior two facts suggest that it may have been a syllabic writing system, recording syllables rather than single phonemes; it has too many unique signs to be an alphabet but too few to be a logographic (word-signs) or some other sort of system. However, this does not rule out the possibility that it was not phonetic writing at all (e.g., if it was a calendar or a game).
– Because the signs in the centre are slightly compressed, it seems to have been written from the outside spiralling inward.
– Judging by the overlap in some signs, it was stamped/written from right to left, suggesting that that is how it was meant to be read.
– There is no useful resemblance of the glyphs to those of any other writing system in the Mediterranean or elsewhere, although it was found in close association with a Linear A (Minoan) tablet.
– Its date is established solely through its archaeological context, and while the early second millennium is the most likely period, it may date as late as 1400 BCE.

Now, on to Eisenberg’s paper. The first thing worth noting is this is not a peer-reviewed academic venue, and the author is the founder, editor, and publisher of the magazine. A better analogy would be to think of it as editorial opinion. It also is not the result of any particular new research undertaken by Eisenberg or anyone else. In fact, as seen in the comments here, Dr. Eisenberg has been making this claim for nearly a decade, and there is no new evidence that demonstrates the likelihood that it was a forgery. Pernier, the artifact’s excavator excavator, is labelled as a forger, not on the basis of any particular evidence, but has simply been ascribed motives (rightly or wrongly) that might lead him to falsify the document. So we don’t have anything like the revelations in the early 1950s that debunked the Piltdown hoax on the basis of physical or chemical analysis; neither do we have the spectactular video evidence that revealed Fujimura Shinichi planting fake discoveries at his sites in the Japanese Paleolithic hoax in 2000 (Hudson 2005). It is a highly circumstantial case. It is nonetheless one that ought to be vetted seriously, both because it is plausible on its face and because Eisenberg has been responsible for several other (much more solid) hoax-busting episodes over the past few decades.

The starting point for Eisenberg’s claim of a Phaistos ‘hoax’ is the uniqueness of the artifact, both the object itself and the writing on it. Given that no other examples of this form of writing have been found, it is striking (pun intended) that its creator would have made 45 distinct seals to stamp into the clay rather than simply incising the signs as necessary. No actual stamps/seals resembling the signs have been found, either, suggesting that this early instance of ‘movable type’ was used to create only one artifact, and then the process was abandoned entirely. In his popular Guns, Germs and Steel, the evolutionary biogeographer Jared Diamond (1997: 239-259) asserts that the PD was indeed a very early and remarkable example of movable type, but one that could not be exploited by the Minoans because in other respects their society lacked the technology and organizational expertise to develop it further. Eisenberg’s perspective is different – he argues that the uniqueness of the artifact’s medium suggests that it is a hoax, designed by Pernier to intrigue and mystify other scholars and to boost his own prominence, and that of Phaistos, in relation to his rivals (particularly Arthur Evans).

The PD is a singular artifact and a very short text, making it literally impossible to decipher unless more examples of the writing system are found. Yet John Chadwick, whose career was built upon his work with Michael Ventris in deciphering the Mycenaean Linear B script (Chadwick 1990), was plagued by purported Phaistos decipherers and purportedly received one new solution per month; there is a fairly thorough list of purported decipherments in this Wikipedia article. Basically, every remotely plausible script tradition has been claimed as an influence, and the disk itself has been asserted to be in languages ranging from Greek to Egyptian to Basque to Atlantean (!!!). Alternately, it has been suggested to be a game board, a calendrical document, or some sort of mystical text. Unless more documents in the same script are found, no one is going to be able to resolve the matter definitively. If it were confirmed to be a hoax, however, everyone could just stop looking. Eisenberg is suggesting, in effect, that the futility of the search rests in part on Pernier’s ingenuity in creating such a mystery.

The crux of Eisenberg’s argument, however, lies in the physical properties of the artifact: the fact that it was very carefully, intentionally fired, and that it has a very cleanly cut edge in comparison to other Minoan clay tablets, and here, he finds fault with Pernier. Because it is so different from other Minoan clay artifacts in this regard, this sends up a red flag for Eisenberg suggesting that its uniqueness may be due to Pernier’s ignorance of these facts. The counterargument to this, however, would be that while Minoan clay tablets with Linear A writing are all economic documents not intended for long-term archiving, the PD, if ancient, is almost certainly of a very different textual genre and script tradition than these texts. This doesn’t disprove the notion that it may be a hoax, but neither does it act as substantial confirmation. For instance, if the disk is a gaming board, a calendar, or a devotional inscription, its makers would have a good reason to fire the clay at the time of manufacture, and a potentially good reason to cut its edges so cleanly. It simply was not the same sort of text as the copious clay economic documents. We need to answer the question, “Could the Minoans have chosen to preserve some forms of information permanently and not others?”

One potential resolution to the mystery lies in its dating. The artifact has never undergone any sort of radiometric dating, and indeed for most of the past century could not have been dated except through archaeological context, as discussed above. However, thermoluminescence dating allows archaeologists to non-destructively determine the date when clay was fired, and if TL dating were used on the disk, one could find out if it was truly of ancient manufacture. Yet this test has not been permitted by the museum that holds it (in Heraklion, Crete), because, Eisenberg claims, “no Greek scholar or politician would dare to help ‘destroy’ such a national treasure”. This is unfortunately true; museums are rarely open to this sort of inquiry, even from major scholars. Archaeology is frequently tied up in nationalistic fervor and institutional pride, and the failure to undertake a standard, well-accepted test will haunt the study of the Disk from now on, now that the claim has been made so publicly. Thus, I regard Eisenberg’s public claim as a valuable stimulus, hopefully forcing the issue of the thermoluminescence dating. It would also be highly informative even if the PD proves to be ancient, because the TL could establish whether it was an early second millennium artifact (1800-1600 BCE) or more in the range of 1400 BCE.

Ultimately, this is suggestive, and I would not exactly be astonished if Eisenberg’s claim were to be verified, and if the PD turned out to be a fake, but I cannot agree that the matter is now settled. Because literacy is not simply an ‘on/off’ phenomenon – we must deal with the possibility of different text genres, different media, and different purposes for writing – we can’t use the Linear A clay economic documents to prove the disk’s anomalous nature. A date from an independent lab would go a long way toward resolving my doubts. This would still leave the question of how it was done and by whom – remember that there is no direct evidence against Pernier. However, I for one look forward to this claim receiving greater attention over the next couple of years.

Chadwick, John. 1990. The decipherment of Linear B, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press.
Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, germs and steel: the fates of human societies, W.W. Norton.
Duhoux, Yves. 2000. ‘How not to decipher the Phaistos Disc: a review article’,American Journal of Archaeology, 104, 3, 697-700.
Eisenberg, Jerome M. 2008. ‘The Phaistos Disk: one hundred year old hoax?’, Minerva, July/August, 9-24.
Hudson, M.J. 2005. ‘For the people, by the people: postwar Japanese archaeology and the Early Paleolithic hoax’, Anthropological Science, 113, 2, 131-139.