The writing's on the disc - but no one can yet read it

The Bronze Age Computer Disc
November 12, 1999

One can see a picture of the celebrated, even notorious Phaistos disc in very many places, and the dust-jacket of this book is one of them. But better than any picture is a trip to Iraklion, Crete, where the cruise ships dock, and their passengers come ashore to visit the museum. There they all must file past the small display case where the disc is seen by itself. The guide will tell them it is 3,600 years old, more or less, and that what is obviously writing on both sides belongs to the Minoan civilisation. Most important, however, is the fact that no one yet has been able to read the writing.

The disc is made of fine clay, the writing is impressed on the two sides with stamps, and the string of their impressions starts at the edge, goes from right to left, and coils inside until it comes to the centre. Short lines divide the string into 30 or 31 groups of signs. The 45 different signs look like people, animals, a ship, and almost anything. When the whole thing was complete and 241 signs had been impressed on both sides, it was well baked; since then, the disc has lost only one small chip.

It was found in 1908 by Italians excavating in Phaistos, in south-central Crete. They published it promptly in 1909, and in the same year a second excellent publication was offered by Sir Arthur Evans, excavator since 1900 of Knossos. This came with fine photographs and good drawings, as an appendix to his new book dealing with the earliest written documents from Minoan Crete, Scripta Minoa I (1909).

Adventurers are challenged by anything new, and there were very soon many people trying to read whatever it is that the disc says. Most of the "decipherments" published in the past 88 years generally resemble one of the very first attempts, by F. Melian Stawell, of Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1911, in the Burlington Magazine , she gave a clear account of how she went about the novel task of deciphering a text written with characters that had never been seen before. It would prove to be much more difficult than Edgar Allan Poe's "Goldbug".

Stawell began with an important assumption; the text was certainly written in Greek, earlier than Homer's to be sure, but Greek. In 1911 this was very reasonable; Crete, where Greek had been spoken for three millennia, had become part of the state of Greece just a few years earlier.Moreover, in the previous half-century early inscriptions in Cyprus had been deciphered, and their texts were Greek written with syllabic signs, not letters.

Stawell assumed that the disc's 45 signs could be syllables of such forms as a , pe , ti , and even kn , in Greek letters. Stawell and many others found their values for the symbols in their language's name for a person, animal,or thing as revealed in the shape of the symbol, eg a symbol resembling a bee would represent be in English. Their other important assumption was that the text was religious.

Those who have successfully interpreted the disc since then have introduced much variety in languages: West Semitic, Etruscan, Pelasgian are popular, and unpublished versions accept Russian and more languages. The text is very often religious - apparently of sorts never actually experienced by the decipherers. Finally, all interpreters offer a translation into their own language. But they do argue about whether to read from the rim to the centre, or the centre to the rim, and whether side A and side B form a continuous text or perhaps side A follows B. They argue most vigorously about the values of the symbols.

Stawell's version is quite poetic in form. Evans, in 1909, had remarked on the metrical patterns in the text of the disc. In 1920, R. W. Read examined them at length, and concluded that the disc was "the oldest music in the world". But he made no guesses about pitches or tempi.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the most frequent language choices were Greek, and the unknown Minoan language found on the Linear A and B tablets from Knossos, Haghia Triada, and Phaistos. In 1930 Stawell published a slightly revised version of her first try, and F. G. Gordon offered decipherments of some Linear tablets and of the disc, in which the basic language was said to be Basque. His English version of the disc is interesting enough, but the text of one of the tablets is a very charming poem, not at all like the prosaic text of Linear B tablets in Greek. Greek is still in the running, however, and Steven R. Fischer not long ago published his Glyphbreaker , to celebrate his linguistic interpretation of 1988.

The list of subjects found in the deciphered discs is long. Aside from more or less literary decipherments, there is a book by Pierre Edouard Aussant on Minoan medicine, and books on astronomy as a background for astrology by Leon Pomerance. For astrology itself, an anonymous author has a book (not published) with astrology on the surface, geography as a subtext, and a really cryptographic text, in the form of a message from our Cretan brothers to the partisans in Egypt. Not long ago Harald Haarmann found in the disc a narrative account of a funeral procession, or of its representation on a Minoan sarcophagus.

This brings me to the current author, Alan Butler, who is so impressed by the presence of the 30 and 31 groups of signs reflecting a calendar that he pays no attention to what the signs may mean. His explanation, entirely mathematical, if not numerological, begins on page 37. As a result our disc-book-buyer's expectations are now demolished. Butler admits there may have been a text, but to read it is of no importance.

The rest of the book is built on the fascination Butler has with numbers. There is arithmetic in the forms of tallying, addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, but there are no roots. Add to these approximation, and such phenomena as years, months, days, hours and minutes and signs of the zodiac.

With these resources, Butler creates a utopian calendar, which he supposes to be a calendar for unsuspecting Minoans. He is sure that each block formed by the lines around the symbols represents one day, while the 30 blocks represent a month of 30 days and the 31 a month of 31 days. One might imagine that five more discs might have been added to make our year of five 31-day months and seven 30-day months, for our 365-day year. For Butler, one disc is quite enough. The pair of months is a template for the 12 months, six of 30, six of 31 days, making 366 days in the Minoan year.

The construction of his calendar appears in snail-like diagrams, to be understood with the help of his account of the rules of use. I have understood quite enough to suggest that in this day of computers the diagrams should be refashioned. Then a grid of 119 days (squares) across the top, and 123 down the left side will do. All told, there are 14,637 days, which happens to be the product of multiplying 119 by 123. This just happens to be three days short of multiplying 40 years by 366 days to equal 14,640. Butler was amazed at this coincidence; this book is the result.

The book suffers from careless editing; not only from the ordinary typographical errors, but from such remarkable words as "Ptolomy III", "Tigres and Euphrates" and the "Cyclopedian" fortifications of Mycenae. But an editor should bear no responsibility for the author's attempt to show that 123 symbols on the face of the disc could be

illustrated by an English sentence of 122 letters, while maintaining that 123 (or 122?) is "the correct number of symbols". There is no difficulty in finding the source of his confusion.

At a critical point Butler wants to demonstrate, first, that there are 123 signs on side A. He shows a figure with 123 signs properly arranged on a sketch. Second, that the same 123 impressions could be represented by 123 English letters making some sort of sense. The sentence is written out plainly. But there are only 122 letters! The discrepancy is the result of using a careful publication, which shows after the last sign at that point the erasure of something, perhaps even symbol 46. But instead of following this publication, Butler imitates another decipherer, V. J. Kean, who added into the space in his copy of the drawing a real sign, but one that would not fit into the erasure. Butler, too, has drawn in that space a real, but unfitting, 123rd sign.

I first saw the Phaistos disc in the museum in Iraklion in 1950. Many tourists and ordinary people have been admitted to the museum since then. Most of them no doubt walked right by the small case where the disc has been on display. Maybe a few stopped for a moment, or even looked at the other side of the disc, before going on to more interesting things: gold ornaments, sarcophagi or fresco paintings. But some stood there longer, maybe looking at one side and then the other, and listening to the guides explaining in many languages that it has not yet been deciphered.

But you do not have to go into the museum. The windows of every tourist shop have large and small reflections of the disc, in silver, gold, clay or cloth, as mementos of the tour and the disc. If you have not yet been to Crete, you could easily find photographs, drawings or descriptions in books or on the internet. Should you, in the presence of the disc itself, or at your desk, wonder whether you might find a clue, or think of trying a novel approach? No, you should pay attention to the guide and his "It is not deciphered". For who would want to look at an ex -enigma, or buy a Phaistos disc postcard, or any souvenir, if the Disc had already been deciphered?

Emmett Bennett is emeritus professor of classics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, United States.

The Bronze Age Computer Disc

Author - Alan Butler
ISBN - 0 572 02217 4
Publisher - Quantum
Price - £16.99
Pages - 190

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