In 1908, Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier was working in southern Crete at an ancient Minoan palace located in the town of Phaistos. Digging amid the ruins he found a clay circular tablet that has eponymously become known as the Phaistos Disc. Dating to the Bronze Age, circa 1800-1600 BC, the Phaistos Disc contains an enigmatic script using pictograms unlike any seen before. Despite numerous attempts to decipher the script, this ancient disc has continued to keep its secrets for more than a century.
The Phaistos Disc: New Interpretations of the Pictograms
Revealed here is a new interpretation that attempts to demystify this ancient artifact. But my interpretations come with a warning: the ideas presented are based on nothing more than guesswork and speculation. I have no evidence to either support or refute these explanatory ideas. Nevertheless, by logically piecing together harmonious ideas, we can build a compelling picture of what might lie behind the pictograms in the Phaistos Disc .
Figure 2: Phaistos Disc Side B. (C Messier/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Figure 3: The 45 pictogram images on the Phaistos Disc. (Author Provided)
The script is beautifully arranged into a spiral on both sides of the disc with the pictograms neatly sectioned into groups. Concurring with those that believe the script to be phonetic, let’s refer to these groups as individual words. Figure 3 summarizes the 45 different pictograms, using a naming convention that’s been adjusted to avoid cumbersome two-word names used elsewhere.
Figure 4: The Phaistos Disc split into spiral sections. (Author Provided)
How does one start to break an impenetrable code ? Like any difficult problem, by splitting it into smaller tasks. Let’s try this by arbitrarily dividing each side of the disc into an inner spiral and outer ring as shown in Figure 4. Counting, we find Side A totals 31 words, side B has 30, and the outer rings contains twelve words each.
Do these numbers not resonate with twelve months consisting of either 30 or 31 days? It’s speculation for sure, but the similarity to a calendar is just too strong to ignore. Maybe, this disc, which has been a mystery for over a century, is nothing more than a practical calendar? A calendar that was nonetheless used during the Bronze Age . This revelation warrants further investigation, but first let’s briefly review what constitutes a year.
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Based on the earth’s orbit of the sun, a year is divided into twelve months. We use that number, because twelve lunar cycles amount to one solar year. The similarity of words month and moon is no coincidence: they share a common etymology.
It takes 27 days and seven hours for the moon to orbit the earth, and technically this is termed the sidereal (pronounced sigh-dee-re-all) period. However, due to the simultaneous earth’s movement around the sun, the appearance to an observer from one full moon to the next takes a little longer at 29.53 days. This longer period is termed the synodic period and it’s this more observable interval that is of consequence to calendar construction.
And now we come to the big problem. We cannot divide the solar year of 365.25 days exactly by lunations. In fact, we are left with the rather unwieldly remainder of 10.89 days. It’s a major inconvenience if your hobby is calendar design.
Figure 5: The additional thirteenth “remainder” word on Side A of the Phaistos Disc. (Author Provided)
Back to the Phaistos Disc. We see twelve words on both of the disc’s outer rings but notice the complication of the extra word “bow-lily” on side A, as shown in Figure 5. Could this thirteenth word represent the 10.89 days’ remainder? It allows us the assumption that side B, concerns the sun, and side A the moon.
Potentially, the Phaistos Disc is a dual calendar, both solar and lunar, cleverly accounting for the inconvenient misfit between the two time-keeping approaches.
Figure 6: Phaistos Disc Side B: unraveled words and split into two sections. (Author Provided)
The Phaistos Disc: Solar Side B and Lunar Side A
To begin deciphering the disc, we need to unravel the spiral to make it easier to read, as is shown in Figure 6 above.
The spiral is thought to be read from the outside in, aligning with the way Egyptian hieroglyphs face the beginning of the sentence. But it feels unnatural; physically coiling something would rationally start from the center and work outwards. Since the pictograms are “likely” not of Egyptian origin, let’s ignore the precedence and indulge with the center first orientation.
Solar Side B
Figure 11: Twelve months of the year arranged by season, as found on Solar Side B. (Author Provided)
Choosing to start the year at the summer solstice and ignoring the number of days in each modern month, Figure 11 lists the twelve months of the year arranged so each row corresponds to a season. Now, let’s turn the disc over.
Lunar Side A
Figure 12: Phaistos Disc Side A words unraveled and split into sections. (Author Provided)
Figure 12 shows the lunar side similarly split into inner spiral and outer ring. Clues on Lunar Side A may provide some kind of handle that may deconstruct the text, only this side is harder.
Lunar inner spiral
Figure 13: Lunar inner spiral words with adjusted positioning. (Author Provided)
The first observation is the relatively large occurrence of the “shield-punk” combinations at the end of many words. Perhaps, rather than being phonetic, this two-character combo marks an end analogous to punctuation. Conversely, we see the rosette pictogram at the beginning. This configuration of rosette beginning, and “shield-punk” ending is also evident in the bookending of the solar months in Figure 11.
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Second, notice the repetition of the first three words, with the caveat that the second word repetition includes the “shield-punk” ending.
Using these two observations, adjusting the spacing and rows results in Figure 13 above. The arrows highlight some of the repeated words. Could this arrangement offer some insight?
Figure 14: Two similar words that may represent moon phase. (Author Provided)
Grouped together are four words containing “horn-eagle.” If we’re talking lunar, then assume these to represent the four phases of the moon, as shown in Figure 14. Furthermore, the shield pictogram may even represent the moon.
Figure 15: Part of the lunar inner spiral with the moon phases labelled. (Author Provided)
Now, we can associate the pictogram phrases with all four moon phases, as shown in Figure 15. The two phrases representing half-moon have identical words for identical meaning. This fortuitous match lends support to a correct decipherment, although of course it is far from actually proving it.
We can now cautiously translate some of the words, as shown in Figure 16 and Figure 17.
Figure 16: Two Minoan words with their tentative translation. (Author Provided)
Figure 17: A potential translation of the first three words. (Author Provided)
Phaistos Disc: Lunar Phase Timing
A quarter moon phase takes approximately seven days and may even be the inspiration for a seven-day week. But it’s not exact. With a synodic period of 29.53 days, an observer will count the time from one full moon to the next as 29 days or 30 days.
What remains for the calendar, is the complex notion of intercalation; that is the addition of those one or two days into the lunar cycle to keep alignment with astronomical observation.
Lunar Outer Ring
Figure 18: Lunations arranged into five groups. (Author Provided)
Using the shield-punk combination as punctuation, we can arrange the lunations into five rows as shown in Figure 18. The uneven groupings may suggest we’ve taken a wrong turn, but let’s take a step back and consider the original motive to invent a calendar.
Some say a calendar was born out of the need to regulate agriculture and was first developed some ten thousand years ago (or thereabouts). But that’s not how farming works since seeds are sown when the weather is amiable and harvesting occurs when the crop is ready. Both of these primary agricultural events are determined by current conditions and timing varies. A calendar is not that helpful here.
A more probable explanation is religion. The Gregorian calendar , the most used calendar worldwide, is based on Christianity. But other calendars are very much alive, including but not limited to Jewish and Islamic calendars. One common theme across religions is the regular occurrence of distinct festivals.
Ensuring devotees of the same religion but living in diverse regions attend festivals at the correct time requires a device like a calendar.
Returning to the Phaistos Disc, we can apply the idea of religious festivals to the uneven lunar cycle groupings. There are five groupings in Figure 18 so in the world of the Phaistos Disc could we not speculate there were five religious festivals ?
If five festivals seem to assume too much, consider the solar side grouping in Figure 10. Serendipitously we have another group of five pictograms yet to be determined that include the “word” harvest. Could these be the names of the five festivals?
The Ignored Oblique Strokes on the Phaistos Disc
There are a number of oblique strokes marked on both sides of the disc which have so far been ignored. These are thought to have been hand cut due to their irregular shapes, unlike the pictograms which appear to have been created by pressing a mold into the wet clay.
Solar stroke marks
Figure 19: Solar calendar with translation and oblique marks. (Author Provided)
In Figure 19 just one festival has been marked, just one season and just one day. The implication is that a particular date has been scratched into the calendar!
Figure 20: Months with oblique strokes included. (Author Provided)
What’s missing is the day of the month. There are 31 words on this side, perfect for counting said days. Figure 20 shows two of the months have been marked, namely December and March. Could the extraneous mark be the day in the month?
Since the harvest season has already been established, the valid month must logically be March. The other marked word is the 25th counting from the center, so we presume the Phaistos Disc has expressed the particular date: Tuesday, the 25th of March!
This system, if correctly understood, imbues some ambiguity. There’s a duality of function with every word having both a particular function and potentially used to mark the day of the month.
Lunar stroke marks
Figure 21: Lunar inner spiral words with added stroke marks. (Author Provided)
The oblique strokes in Figure 21 are even less straightforward. Nonetheless, we have been left with the concept there must be some instruction regarding intercalation of either one or two days.
Figure 22: Phrase explaining the intercalation of a day? (Author Provided)
Let’s assume it was normal to always intercalate a day on the new moon, indicated by the tick mark on the 5th word, namely “vine-slingshot-column.” Indeed, we could even read the phrase in Figure 22 as: “between the new moon and before the reappearance, intercalate one day.”
Figure 23: Intercalation periods? (Author Provided)
If a second intercalated day is needed, then this can be described by any of the short words (in Figure 23) immediately after the phase word “horn-eagle.” Marking the seventeenth word, “pedestrian-torch” indicates adding a day in the fourth quarter, making a 30-day cycle.
Figure 24: Lunations with stroke marks included. (Author Provided)
On the outer ring of the lunar side, we may expect just one lunation to be selected; instead, we find three, as shown in Figure 24. Using what can be gained from the solar side, we know we are in the tenth solar month of the year. Thus, it seems reasonable to say the tenth lunar cycle, “helmet-water-cat” is correct, whilst it’s the thirtieth day in the cycle as indicated by “Boomerang-pedestrian-club.”
Again, there is duality of purpose, with words assigned a particular purpose, whilst also potentially showing the day within the lunation. The remaining marks on both sides that are not discussed here could arguably be a mechanism for removing that ambiguity.
What Would an Ancient Phaistos Resident Do with this Disc?
What would a Bronze Age resident of Phaistos physically do with this disc? It was certainly made with a purpose in mind. And using typesetting, it was possibly mass produced .
For everyday accounting it seems a bit too cumbersome to have such a disk. For practical accounting or even commemorative dates, what is lacking is anything referring to a year.
Conceivably these were used solely for the purpose of dating religious festivals. Coinciding with the new moon causes the date to change from year to year, as Easter does today. No menial task, annual recalculation must have been overseen by the highest of high priestesses and high priests .
Subsequently the date must be communicated. And that is where the famed Phaistos Disc and its equivalents come in. Manufacturing the discs at a central location, then dispatching them to all regions, ensured every palace has its own copy.
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As religious items, they would have been handled only by the priesthood. Received five at a time in a type of Bronze Age box set, the priest would be careful to destroy the old ones.
Conclusion: The Phaistos Disc Combines Lunar and Solar Time
Some of this explanation may seem convoluted or overly complicated. But consolidating lunar with solar years is tricky and difficult, necessitating a tortuous solution. Undeniably, throughout history calendars have been adjusted numerous times attempting to satisfy this troublesome conundrum.
This proposal is conjecture. However, I am confident of the calendrical basis even if some details are amiss, and hopeful an archaeologist’s find will one day support or refute this calendric hypothesis.
Finally, we lay all the tentative translations and speculative suggestions onto the disc. Here, in all its glory, with its misplaced phonetics and borrowed labels, is the theoretical mystery of the Bronze Age Phaistos Disc revealed in Figure 25.
Figure 25: A Bronze Age lunisolar calendar. (Author Provided)
Top image: Phaistos Disc Side A. Source: C Messier/ CC BY-SA 4.0
By Robin Ashdown