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Is the Phaistos disk a phony? - The Growlery
In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni
Is the Phaistos disk a phony?
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.

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16 comments or Leave a comment
From: irene_adler Date: August 5th, 2008 01:34 am (UTC) (Link)
I remember writing a paper about the Phaistos Disk in college, struggling to say something clever, and yet I didn't have the imagination to even consider this.
forthright From: forthright Date: August 5th, 2008 04:15 am (UTC) (Link)
It's the sort of theory that I'm sure has been bandied about over drinks at the bar among experts, but as far as I know Eisenberg is the only one to put it into print.
elzebrook From: elzebrook Date: August 5th, 2008 02:35 am (UTC) (Link)
I bet it was some kid's school art project..."Look what I made today, Mommy!"

Is one of those symbols seriously a guy with a mohawk?
forthright From: forthright Date: August 5th, 2008 04:18 am (UTC) (Link)
One of my archaeological colleagues uses the 'kids did it' theory - only half-jokingly - to explain all sorts of weirdness in the record. Or at least he wants to get people thinking about potential alternate explanations for seemingly anomalous data.

And yes, it is a guy with a mohawk (officially described as a man with a crested helmet).
glenniebun From: glenniebun Date: August 5th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm surprised there hasn't been too much made of the one that looks like a cross on a hill.
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 5th, 2008 04:09 am (UTC) (Link)
To my mind, one of the most important issues that this post brings up is why, if "Eisenberg has been responsible for several other (much more solid) hoax-busting episodes over the past few decades" as you say, the phrase "Eisenberg uncertainty principle" has yet to enter the archaeological lexicon.

- Sol
forthright From: forthright Date: August 5th, 2008 04:14 am (UTC) (Link)
From: (Anonymous) Date: August 6th, 2008 02:59 am (UTC) (Link)
But on a more serious note, this is quite a claim. Two years ago in Archaic Greek History Prof. Beck told us a story in which one his trusted colleagues with whom Beck had done his Master's called him in a frenzy one afternoon, claiming to have deciphered the Phaistos Disk, and then proceeding to explain that it was none other than landing instructions for an extraterrestrial aircraft. I don't know where this colleague is now. (Or if he ever existed, to be fair.)

- Sol
forthright From: forthright Date: August 6th, 2008 03:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, it's true, that Wikipedia article I linked to only contains the published theories, not all the crackpots whose ideas haven't seen the light of day. It's pretty much and endless source of pseudoscientific ideas, and most scholars of writing systems won't touch the subject with a ten foot pole.
gats From: gats Date: August 5th, 2008 09:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh come on. The script is clearly Wingdings.
forthright From: forthright Date: August 6th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Of course! Why didn't I think of that?

Seriously though, the Phaistos signs have been included in the Unicode standard for several years (see http://www.alanwood.net/unicode/phaistos-disc.html) and if this claim were proven, boy would they feel stupid.
From: oldantiquarian Date: August 7th, 2008 12:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Phaistos Disk

In reply to ‘forthright’’s posting of 8/4, it is obvious that he based his comments on the recent articles that have appeared in print and postings on the web concerning my article ‘The Phaistos Disk – A 100-Year-Old Hoax’ that appeared in the July/August 2008 Minerva, but has not read the article itself. He posts ‘It is not the result of any particularly new research undertaken by Eisenberg or anyone else’. My 16-page article is based primarily on research that I initiated last year in view of the 100th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the disk (July 1908), although I publicly questioned the authenticity of the disk as early as 1969 in a series of lectures on forgery that I gave at New York University. My original research actually began in 1971.

He also writes that ‘The crux of Eisenberg’s argument, however, lies in the physical properties of the artifact…’ However, in the article, I have analyzed most of the 45 signs, many in detail, giving their possible origins, some as late as the 6th century BC (for two of these, based on Attic black-figure vases, he might also refer to my ‘Addenda’ that will be published in the September/October issue of Minerva. Additional details on my research on the disk will be presented at the Phaistos Disk Conference, sponsored by Minerva, that will be held at the Society of Antiquaries, London, on 31 October – 1 November.

- posted by Jerome M. Eisenberg, Ph.D.
forthright From: forthright Date: August 7th, 2008 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Phaistos Disk

Hello, and thank you for your comment! All of us here are eagerly awaiting the appearance of your work in a venue to which we have access, and unfortunately, the two universities with which I am affiliated do not have access to it. So you are quite right that I have not read your original article, and, like many, am trying to figure out what is going on based on bits and pieces (like Robinson's piece in Nature). I hope you did not view my article as in any way a refutation or even a serious critique; on the whole I am positively inclined towards it.

Furthermore, I didn't mean to imply by my 'not any particularly new research' comment that there was nothing new or intriguing about your claim, merely that we don't have a definitive new piece of evidence, akin to Oakley's physical analysis of Piltdown in 1953 or the 'caught on tape' exposure of Shinichi's salting of sites.

The three points that to me remain open (and interesting) are the ones I mentioned in my article:
- The dating (in which I presume we are agreed that the thermoluminescence test is absolutely mandated by the canons of scholarship)
- The identity of the hoaxer (Pernier of course being the most likely)
- If not a hoax, I would insist that the physical and graphical properties of the artifact may differ from the Linear A tablets due to a difference in textual genre, so a failure to conform to the other tablets does not directly demonstrate the likelihood of a hoax.

Please feel free to continue the discussion here or by e-mail (which can be found on my Livejournal profile page).

- Stephen Chrisomalis
ankhorite From: ankhorite Date: August 8th, 2008 03:23 pm (UTC) (Link)

Hebrew Modernizing Too Quickly?

Thought you might like to see this.
forthright From: forthright Date: August 8th, 2008 03:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Hebrew Modernizing Too Quickly?

You must be reading my mind; I was thinking just this morning about writing a post about that article.
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 20th, 2008 04:06 am (UTC) (Link)

clay disk

i see a small person in the middle walking out in a circle. I believe it means "follow the yellow brick road" Or it could be an ancient billboard showing what is coming up down the road.
16 comments or Leave a comment