Is the Phaistos disk a phony?
Posted by schrisomalis on September 14, 2008
(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. 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.