Copy of the Phaistos disc
Materials: Glazed, fired clay
Dimensions: 10.5 centimeters diameter
Place acquired: Charity shop, London
Place of manufacture: Crete
I found this in a London charity shop, but most probably it originated in the town of Heraklion, on the island of Crete. It is a copy of the Phaistos disc, a famous Minoan archaeological find now on display in the Museum of Archaeology in Heraklion. Its story goes like this:
In 1908 Luigi Pernier, an Italian archaeologist, was excavating the Minoan palace site of Phaistos in southern Crete. Whilst working to expose a collapsed basement room he uncovered a remarkable find – an inscribed baked-clay disc. Coming soon after Arthur Evans’ spectacular excavations at the Palace of Knossos, the disc caused a sensation. It was a beautiful object, mysterious in many ways, but in two aspects it was quite unique. Firstly the script was completely unknown. It had a few characters that were similar to Linear A (the script that was found at the Knossos site) but many more unique and unknown ones. Secondly the hieroglyphs had been created by using individual seals or punches for each character, that had been pressed in turn into the soft clay to form the inscription. It is therefore a very ancient example of moveable type technology which was not to reappear in Europe until Guttenberg, over 3,000 years later. More accurately, it could be likened to a mechanical typewriter where the same relief punch is used each time its character is needed. There have been literally dozens of attempts to decipher the script, but all to no avail. Without another example of the script to work with the task is pretty impossible.
If we were to put this story in to a category it would be the classic scientific ‘gaining of knowledge’ story, except that it remains unresolved. It relies for its power on our curiosity about what the script says, and the anticipation of some sort of explanation yet to come.
But in the absence of that explanation a second, competing story has begun to circulate in archaeological journals – the disc is a fake! In this version Pernier, the hero of the first story, is now the villain, accompanied perhaps by an unknown forger, and the scientific community are the foolish dupes. This is a modern ‘detective’ story, but with similarities to morality stories like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. An added twist is that the Greek authorities refuse to allow a dating test which would resolve the matter. The museum thereby comes under suspicion of being an accessory after the fact by putting its vested interests above the impartial enquiries of science.
At some point new evidence will probably resolve the matter one way or another. But in the meantime we must take sides according to which story we prefer. I prefer the first story, and the viability of my little replica as a saleable product relies on it being the correct one. If it’s a fake, the tourist shops will lose out and their stock of copies of the disc will be worthless. My copy will get more interesting though – evidence now of a duplicitous modern world rather than an ancient minoan one.