The First Movable Type
Phaestos was an ancient city on the island of Crete. It was inhabited from about 4000 BC. The area upon which Phaestos stood was the site where a curious clay disk, containing a sophisticated pictographic writing, was discovered. It was the Phaestos Disk, an archaeological finding, dating back to about 1700 BC. The first moveable type! Its purpose and meaning, and even its original geographical place of manufacture, remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of archaeology. An Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier discovered this remarkably intact “dish” (about 15 cm in diameter and uniformly just over 1 cm thick) in the basement of the Minoan palace site of Phaestos during an excavation on July 3, 1908.
The inscription was made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic “seals” into the soft clay, in a clockwise sequence spiralling towards the disk’s center. It was then baked at high temperature. There are a total of 241 figures on the disc.
Many of the 48 different glyphs represent easily identifiable every-day things, including human figures, fish, birds, insects, plants, a boat, a shield, a staff, etc. In addition to these, there is a small diagonal line that occurs underneath the final sign in a group a total of 18 times. The disk shows traces of corrections made by the scribe in several places.
Although there is no official Unicode encoding for the symbols on the disk, the ConScript Unicode Registry has assigned a block of the Unicode Private Use Area to be used for the script. Two fonts include support for this area; Code2000 and Everson Mono Phaestos. The text on the disk is given on the second of these links; you can read that text if you have either of them installed.
Strokes and Direction of Reading
There is a number of glyphs marked with an oblique stroke, the strokes are not imprinted but carved by hand and are attached to the first or last sign of a “word”, depending on the direction of reading. Their meaning is a matter of discussion. One hypothesis, supported by Evans, Duhoux, Ohlenroth and others, is that they were used to subdivide the text into paragraphs, but alternate meanings have been offered by other scholars.
The diverse epigraphical facts (overcuts, angulous points of the spirals, corrections, etc.) reveal that the text was written from the perimeter to the center. The scribe was “composing” his text as he was printing it. There is therefore no way to disassociate the direction of printing from the direction of reading.
The Phaestos Disk captured the imagination of many amateur archeologists. Many attempts have been made to decipher the code behind the disc’s glyphs. Historically, almost anything has been proposed, including prayers, a narrative or an adventure story, a “psalterion”, a call to arms, a board game, and a geometric theorem. Many enthusiasts still believe the mystery can be solved, as it is generally thought that there isn’t enough context available for meaningful analysis.