Phaistos disk: ancient treasure or modern hoax?
Posted on Thursday, 4 March, 2010 | 10 comments
Columnist: Geoff Ward
International controversy continues over the refusal to date Crete's famous - some say infamous - Phaistos Disk to prove once and for all whether it is a priceless treasure of the ancient world dating to at least 1,700BC, or a clever hoax from the early years of the last century.
A recent plea to solve the mystery, by carrying out a special scientific test on the disk, was turned down in Greece on grounds that it is a national treasure and "untouchable".
Professor Ioannis Lyritzis, of the University of the Aegean, Rhodes, applied for a permit for a thermoluminescence test but the Greek Ministry of Culture's conservation directorate refused because the test would involve drilling into what they regard as a unique artefact.
The baked clay disk, measuring only six inches in diameter, kept at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete, has a spiral of strange hieroglyphs on each side which have baffled scholars for a century and have never been satisfactorily deciphered (see “Interpreting the Phaistos Disk” below).
A twist was given to the dispute last year by the mysterious disappearance of a petition calling for the test which was to be sent to the Ministry of Culture after International Conference on the Phaistos Disk in London in the autumn of 2008. In an informal vote among the 40 scholars who attended, a majority favoured the disk's authenticity.
The disk was discovered by the Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in July 1908 during excavations at the site of the Palace of Phaistos in Crete. He dated it to about 1,700BC.
Wealthy New York art collector Dr Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on ancient forgeries, is convinced that Pernier forged the disk because he was jealous of the successes of fellow archaeologists, the Italian Federico Halbherr and the Englishman Sir Arthur Evans, at other excavations in Crete.
Dr Eisenberg, who himself applied for a thermoluminscence test in 2007 and was turned down, believes Pernier decided to outdo his rivals with a discovery that would astonish the archaeological community - a relic with an untranslatable pictographic text. "He had found nothing at Phaistos that could surpass or even equal the amazing finds at Knossos by Evans, begun in 1900," said Dr Eisenberg.
Asked about the petition, Dr Eisenberg revealed: "It mysteriously disappeared following the end of the conference. Perhaps one of the participants in favour of its authenticity absconded with it! I would indeed like to see a good petition find its way to the Greek government, but it would probably have to be launched by a sufficiently important organization to have any effect upon them."
Dr Athanasia Kanta, the new director of the Heraklion Museum, told me: "The reply to the Lyritzis application was negative because, apart from its uniqueness, the disk is complete and the policy is not to test complete artefacts with destructive methods. However, with the progress of science, I am certain that, before long, there will be non-destructive processes.
"I have no doubt that the disk is authentic. We must not forget that it was found during excavations by a very eminent scholar. For us a hundred years later to accuse him of fraud without evidence which would stand in a court of law is inconceivable and very unfair. How would you like it if, when you are dead and cannot answer back, somebody comes and says you are a felon or a thief?"
Signs within the script on the disk were known from other artefacts whose authenticity was not disputed, Dr Kanta added.
Edmund Marriage, one of the delegates at the 2008 conference, who believes the disk is authentic, said: "Some of us felt that if there was a strong undercurrent that disk was a fake, there was no way the Greeks would want to date it. They have the most to lose on the claims that the disk is a forgery. However, the clear conclusion of the conference, with only three people believing it was a forgery, should have been put to the Greek authorities to encourage them and give them confidence to go ahead with dating."
Another delegate, Bill Considine, said: "The suggestions that it might be a forgery seem at least partly engendered by 100 years of failure to 'read' it.
"It was pointed out at the conference that, since there is the possibility that the disk might be a forgery, it is unlikely to be tested. If it was, the Heraklion Museum would risk losing one of its prize exhibits. It's a much better attraction as the enigma that it has become. Even an accepted rational explanation of its use would take away some of the mystery."
Interpreting the Phaistos Disk
Numerous attempts have been made by scholars to interpret the Phaistos Disk text over the past century. They have included translations as a poem, hymn, prayer, sacred text, a magic inscription, curse or aid to a healing ritual, a funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, proof of a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, a board game and even musical notation for a stringed instrument.
Perhaps the most colourful idea is that the disc displays a prototype of the "Little Boy Blue" nursery rhyme. This explanation was given in the 1980s by the late Christian O'Brien, an ancient history and languages specialist.
Edmund Marriage, a British ancient civilisations researcher promoting O'Brien's scholarship, said O'Brien saw the disk as telling "an everyday story of country folk". O'Brien's view was that the die-stamped vertical picture signs demonstrated a unique use of the earliest known Indo-European pictorial text, and described a "pastoral disaster": the oxen of the seven lords escape from their field, stampede through corn, knock over beehives and disrupt the order of farming life.
O'Brien likened the theme to that of "Little Boy Blue come blow on your horn, the sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn..." He said the disc's simple picture language was similar to, but pre-dated, the Sumerian cuneiform of the Kharsag Epics - regarded as the world's oldest religious text, dated to about 2,500BC - and was evidence of a link between the Sumerian and Cretan civilisations. An early date for the Phaistos Disk would therefore be a most important discovery in the history of writing, said Mr Marriage.
Tying in with O'Brien's translation, the Epics tell of the foundation of an agricultural settlement near Mount Hermon in modern-day Lebanon which O'Brien believed was the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden - "kharsag" means "head enclosure". Article Copyright© Geoff Ward - reproduced with permission.