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In July 1908, archaelogists uncovered a small, hard-baked clay disk beneath the palace at Phaistos, on the Greek island of Crete. On both sides of the disk (6½ inches in diameter), symbols in an unknown and undeciphered language have been printed, in a spiral shape running in five circles from the edge to the centre. The disk has been dated to around 1700 B.C., thousands of years before paper printing was developed in Asia and then Europe.

Attempts have been made at translation, but by and large, the disk remains an archaelogical mystery. What language do the symbols represent, and what do they actually mean? There is a total of 241 signs, of 45 different types, divided by vertical lines into 61 "words". Given the amount of different signs, and their complexity (many of them are drawings, such as people or objects), the written language is probably not an alphabet, like our own, but a syllabary or logogram. Links have been made with the Hellenic languages, and with the Linear A and B scripts, but no one knows for sure. Part of the problem is that it is impossible to establish whether the disk was made locally in Crete or imported from elsewhere.

Apart from its meaning, a further mystery is why the technology used to make the disk never caught on. We know from the consistency of the repeats that each symbol was created with a separate press, rather than being drawn from scratch each time. Moreover, it must have taken a lot of planning and precision to imprint 241 letters on a disk in such a way that they run exactly to the center of each face without either running out of space or leaving anything blank. If someone had the dedication to produce a set of 45 prints, and execute a printed disk so skilfully, why didn't the practice spread? No other printed document from before the Christian era has ever been found, nor any other writing in the language of the Phaistos disk.

In Guns, Germs and Steel, his history of civilization, Jared Diamond suggests that the disk remained a one-off because the people of the time (c.1700 B.C.) had not developed to a point where they could usefully exploit the disk's printing technology. Alternatively, perhaps there were further documents created by this method, but they have not been found yet - certainly it seems unlikely that the author himself created a set of 45 stamps with the intention to create just one disk.

The artefact remains, in any case, a mystery.

A good photo of the disk can be found at http://www.dilos.com/region/crete/disk.html. An enlarged, black and white graphic, showing the printed symbols clearly, can be seen at http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/phaistos/Disk.htm. (If the sites should ever go down, you can find other images and information by searching on Google; try using "Festos", "Phaestos" and "disc" as alternative spellings.)

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997

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