Phaistos Disc: History & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some archeological discoveries have the power to challenge everything we think we know and fascinate us for generations. In this lesson, we'll look at the Phaistos Disc and discuss its significance and meaning.

The Phaistos Disc

In 1908, archeologists on the Greek island of Crete made a fascinating discovery. This discovery was a clay disc, roughly 16 cm in diameter and 2 cm thick. What made this disc remarkable was that it was covered in 242 symbols in a spiral pattern, and that nobody knew what these symbols meant. As a matter of fact, we still don't know for certain. Named the Phaistos Disc after the city where it was discovered, this artifact is amongst the most mysterious objects of the ancient Mediterranean. It's a fascinating key to the past, but one that remains shrouded in mystery.


The Phaistos Disc is an incredible object, and to have any chance of understanding it we need to know where it came from. By contextual evidence we believe the disk dates to around 1700 BCE. Crete, at that time, was the home of a Bronze Age civilization called the Minoans.

The Minoans were one of the earliest urban societies in what is now Greece, ruling the island from roughly 2,000-1,500 BCE. They built their cities around large temple complexes filled with colorful art. The city of Phaistos was one of their most important. Many Cretan cities and figures would later influence mainstream Greek culture and mythology. While archaeologists originally thought that the disc might have been a foreign object imported into Crete, most now believe that it is Minoan.

Minoan fresco showing a bustling harbor
Minoan fresco


We know very little about the Minoans, so any major discovery is exciting. The Phaistos Disc, however, is especially important because as of right now, we have practically no knowledge about the Minoan written language. We know that the Minoans had a written language, and many believe that it influenced the Modern Greek alphabet, but we can't read it. The Phaistos Disc predates even the evidence of a Minoan language that we do have, and those 242 symbols could possibly represent one of the oldest writing systems in Europe (and therefore all of Western civilization).

So, let's talk about those symbols. Each symbol is complex, precisely carved into the clay disc before the clay was fired and hardened. While the disc itself appears to be handmade, archeologists believe that the symbols themselves may have been stamped into the clay, not individually carved. This is very significant, because the existence of stamps implies that the Minoans made more than one disc. In fact, it implies that they intended to write things down fairly frequently. This is an exciting idea, but also puzzling since we've never found any stamps in Minoan archeological sites or any other examples of these symbols.

Interpreting the Disc

While most archeologists agree that the symbols on the Phaistos Disc represent some form of early writing system, nobody can agree on how to read it. In fact, we can't even agree on which direction to read it. Some argue that the spiraling symbols should be read from the outside towards the inside, while others claim that the symbols should be read from the inside first.

One side of the Phaistos Disc
Phaistos Disc

So, what do the symbols themselves represent? Some archeologists believe that they are pictographs, images which represent an entire word. This would make the Minoan language similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Others think that they are the letters of an alphabet, similar to the language of the Phoenicians. The most commonly held belief, however, is that each symbol represents a syllable or sound, which form words when grouped together. Unfortunately, Minoan is a dead language, so we can't listen to people speak it in order to identify these symbols.

Reverse side of the Phaistos Disc
Phaistos Disc alt

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