Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Phaistos Disc

- 2nd millennium BC (?)

edited by: Maurizio Del Freo (translation by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

Phaistos Disc (side A). Archeological Museum of Herakleion.

The Phaistos Disc is a disk of fired clay from the Palace of Phaistos in Crete. Both faces of the disk are covered with spiral sequences of signs pressed in the soft clay before firing it. The disk comes from a disturbed context and therefore cannot be dated stratigraphically. It is held at the Archeological Museum of Herakleion in Crete.

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Online resources


Context of Discovery

The disk was found on 3 July 1908 in a room in the northeast area of the Palace of Phaistos in association with ceramic materials which can in part be attributed to the final phase of the first Cretan Palaces (18th century BC) and in part to the Hellenistic period. Stratigraphic dating of the object is therefore impossible.

Type of Writing

45 different signs can be found on the disk. This has led to the hypothesis that the writing was syllabic. In fact, statistically, 45 symbols are too many for an alphabet and too few for an ideographic system. The writing on the Phaistos Disc would therefore seem to be a syllabary, like the Cretan hieroglyphic, Linear A or Linear B. The sequence of the symbols are preceded and followed by straight lines which “box” them inside the two spirals. Rare cases of partial overlapping between signs indicate that they were pressed from the outside towards the inside. The sequence of the signs is thus right to left, and they were pressed into fresh clay using pre-prepared forms.

Relationship with other Cretan syllabic writing systems

There are many similarities among signs on the Phaistos Disc and other Cretan writing systems from the 2nd millennium BC. A careful study shows, however, that these correspondences are rather vague and probably casual.

Origin of the writing

Some analogies can be found between some signs on the disk and typical archeological objects from Bronze-Age Crete. This would tend to favor the hypothesis of a Cretan origin of the writing. However, the theory that the disk was produced elsewhere and subsequently brought to Crete cannot be excluded.

Possibility of decipherment

Many attempts have been made to decipher the Phaistos Disc, but none can be considered conclusively valid, since in the absence of similar inscriptions, no proposed decipherment can be verified.