The Phaistos Disc/Arkalokhori Ax/CMS II 5 no. 246

inaugeral date: 4 December 2005; last update: 19 May 2019


Comments, corrections, questions: John Younger (jyounger@ku.edu)


The Phaistos Disc is unique for the Aegean Bronze Age (= it is one of a kind with no parallels). Remarkably similar, however, is the Etruscan Magliano Disk made of lead and known from the late 19th c. (Hnila 2009, 60, citing Milani 1893).

The Phaistos Disc is made of clay (D. 15.8-16.5, Th 1.6-2.1 cm), and like a large cookie in shape and color. On both sides there is a spiral band containing impressions made by metal stamps, each quite small and each giving the profile of what it depicts (head, bird, boat) with an occasional internal detail (e.g., an eye, an earring) much like a modern cookie-cutter.

The Disc was found on July 3, 1908, Friday evening. The excavator, Luigi Pernier, was not present. "According to Pernier's field notebook, the disk was not found during the regular excavation in Room 8 of Building XL/101, but it was rather 'identified' by Zakarias Iliakis, foreman of the workmen, during his evening inspection of the site" (Hnila 2009, 60-61).

Reportedly found along with the Disc was a Linear A tablet (PH 1), Kamares ware pottery (MM II), and later material.

The Disc's spiral band was first outlined with a stylus from the circumference to the middle; first tracing the outermost spiral as a circle, then stopping to shift direction and completing the rest of the spiral to the center, with the central loop being shaped with the inscription there in mind. Then the signs were stamped, again from the periphery in to the center (as overlaps indicate [Bradshaw 1977]: sign on sign [e.g., A XIV 3 over 2, XVII 4 over 3, XXIX 4 over 3; cf. A V 1 over 2 in an erasure], and sign on the upper spiral line [e.g., A XX 1, III 2, XIV 3, XX 3, XXVI 3, 4; B XII 2, XXII 4]). As each group of signs was stamped, a vertical line was drawn to the left to mark that sign-group off from the one to follow; here again, some signs that begin a sign-group overlap the vertical line separating it from the preceding sign-group (A XXI 1, XXIX 1; B XXVIII 2).

That the sign-groups are arranged in phrases may be indicated by small oblique strokes below final signs (e.g., A I, A III, etc.).

The Phaistos Disc carries 45 different signs. And a total text of 241 signs altogether.

A bronze ax from the Arkalochori cave carries an inscription of 15 signs in three columns; four of these signs are new and the rest may duplicate signs on the Disc. And a clay sealing from the Phaistos sealing deposit archive (CMS II 5.246, below) also duplicates one of the signs on the Disc (sign 21); the sealing was excavated in 1955.

The Phaistos Disc syllabary (if that is the nature of the script) should have some 75-100 signs, of which some 55-59 are now known.

Although the Disc is unique as a stamped inscription (often likened to a movable font inscription, like that produced by a printing press), there are more clay objects impressed with similar cookie-cutter stamps, including the Comb sign (no. 21) as a pot-mark (the Comb sign also appeared on a stamp seal that impressed a sealing from Phaistos, CMS II 5, no. 246, see below)):