Phaistos phakery redux

(Originally published at The Growlery, 2008/08/21)

Prior to writing my previous post about Jerome Eisenberg’s conclusion that the Phaistos Disk is a recent forgery perpetrated by its excavator, Luigi Pernier, I unfortunately did not have access to the original article in Minerva magazine in which Dr. Eisenberg announced his findings (Eisenberg, Jerome M., ‘The Phaistos Disk: one hundred year old hoax?’, Minerva, July/August 2008, 9-24). Happily, once he found my post, Dr. Eisenberg commented on it and later sent me an electronic copy for my consideration. I can now report that while I previously thought I knew a lot about the disk, I now have a much better knowledge of the disk and the nature of the hoax claim. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced, even though I admit that I do want to believe the hoax claim, but I think that the evidence from the sign-forms just isn’t strong enough, that it relies on unproven visual similarities to too great a degree. Let me explain what I mean.

In the previous post, I focused on Eisenberg’s evidence from a) the uniqueness of the artifact’s manufacture, which is unlike the Linear A tablets; b) it uses ‘movable type’ of which no other example has ever been found; c) the idea that Luigi Pernier’s rivalry with Arthur Evans would lead him to do this. In dealing with the first two, I pointed out that comparisons with the Linear A tablets aren’t necessarily that useful if in fact the PD was part of a highly specialized text genre – i.e. it would be like using a monumental inscription to proclaim a handwritten note to be a forgery. Of course we don’t know that it’s part of such a genre, or indeed what genre it could have represented at all – hence the mystery.

The one thing I didn’t focus on is the sign-forms or graphemes on the Disk. In fact, Eisenberg spends a good deal of his paper looking at resemblances between Phaistos signs and signs on other inscriptions from the ancient world in order to assert that the latter formed the models on which Pernier based his forgery. In particular, he aims to show that there are similarities between the Phaistos graphemes and authentic artifacts made much later, but that were known to 19th century archaeologists / epigraphers and thus could have been known to Pernier.

This is an unusual line of argument; it is in fact a sort of cousin to the standard techniques by which experts on scripts postulate cultural borrowings from one society to another. If we have a 10th century BC Phoenician inscription and a very early, 8th century BC Greek inscription that use many similar letter-forms, we make the reasonable inference (all right, it is more complex than this, but you get the idea) that the Phoenician script is ancestral to Greek. In particular this is the case because there is known cultural contact (e.g. trade) between the two societies, and more importantly, because there is not just a graphemic similarity but also a phonetic similarity – the signs don’t just look the same but they have the same / similar sound-values. What Eisenberg is doing, effectively, is turning these resemblances on their heads. If there are similarities between the PD signs and known inscriptions from elsewhere, then those inscriptions may have acted as a model for the forger. If the inscriptions are later in date than the PD, Eisenberg argues, it is far likelier that these artifacts served as a model for the disk’s forger than that the Disk script served as a model for the later artifacts. Similarly, if the PD shows influences from several different regional styles, this suggests that a forger just cobbled together signs from different inscriptions to make something really unique.

Now, the reason I’m unconvinced is that I just don’t think the similarities bear up, and that even where they do they don’t point unequivocally to a hoax. For instance, let’s have a look at Phaistos sign 03:

Now, this is seen by Eisenberg as being modelled after an 18th Dynasty Egyptian wall painting (16th century BC) in which the figure, a Cretan captive is facing the other direction, has extensive facial features, has hair (long, flowing hair), and has a torso with arms. The only major similarity is the two circles on the face. But this seems to go directly against the notion of the Disk as a hoax; the time is right, the captive is Cretan, so the most parsimonious explanation is that they are both genuine representations of some sort of facial decoration (indeed, as Eisenberg suggests, it may be a Cretan ‘double earring’). But, writing, “It was certainly derived from the wall painting”, Eisenberg proceeds to write as if it is now a given that Pernier did, in fact, use this as a model for sign 03 (Eisenberg 2008: 17).

When we get to one of the more unusual characteristics of the Disk – the presence of five hand-incised dots on each side of the disk, and ‘word-separating’ vertical lines – I’m in my element, because these, Eisenberg sees as being modelled after the Cretan five dots = the numeral 50 and vertical bar = the numeral 100. This is dangerous territory though – dots and lines are ubiquitous in scripts and numerical systems. And are we really to believe that Pernier needed a model to think of the idea of adding bars and dots to a forgery? These are stylistic elements found in virtually any script worldwide, and are not indicative of anything. One of the real problems with the study of writing systems is the assertion of cultural relationships based on passing visual similarities, and one of the things that we do not yet know how to do well is to know how similar two graphemes must be before a claim of diffusion can be sustained. This is the same sort of reasoning used to argue for a hoax in this case, and ultimately its inclusion greatly weakens Eisenberg’s argument, and made me look much more critically at the remainder of his claim.

But the heart of the issue is that Eisenberg is working at cross-purposes here. On the one hand, he wants us to believe that the Disk is so unique, so different from other inscriptions that it cannot possibly be genuine. On the other, he wants us to use evidence of similarities with known scripts as proof of ‘forger’s models’. While a hoax can, of course, be both unique and based on models, we’re left with the impression that virtually any similarity or difference can be evidence of forgery, and that just isn’t sound argumentation. So I’m not convinced. I do still think the idea is worthy of consideration, and I do think that it is worth trying a thermoluminescence test, not only because it can settle the hoax issue but also because it can resolve the question of the artifact’s age even if it turns out to be genuine. In this respect, I believe that Eisenberg and I are in full agreement.

In conclusion I want to thank Dr. Eisenberg for sending me this paper, and also for inviting me to the upcoming International Conference on the Phaistos Disk, which unfortunately I am unable to attend due to my new work commitments. It does highlight however the real value of blogging as a means of social interaction and information exchange.

But of course the real question remains unanswered: should it be disk or disc?

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog: Tweet @schrisomalis.

One thought on “Phaistos phakery redux”

  1. Nice job. It is nice to see a direct assessment that does not entail a personal attack or feigned injury.
    Is there some reason given by Eisenberg that Pernier was such a needy man?

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