The Technium

Is the “First Movable Type” a Hoax?

200Px-Diskos.Von.Phaistos Seite.A 11-Aug-2004 Asb Pict3371

The Phaistos Disc is an archeological object that some have considered the oldest example of moveable type in history. The characters on the clay disc were stamped from a set of “seals” creating a text written in a spiral, although neither the text nor the language of the text has been deciphered. It is presumed to be from the Minoan culture of around 1800 BC, which would put it 2,000 years or more earlier than moveable type in China, and 3,000 years before movable type in Europe. The Phaistos Disc has been held up as a case of how easily information can be lost in the long term (an entire written language gone!), or how easily a technology (“printing”) can be forgotten for millennia, only to be re-invented later. (Jared Diamond used the Phaistos Disc as an example of this argument.)

On my shelf I have a small bronze replica of this object simply because it is a beautiful mandala. The fired-clay Disc which it replicates was discovered in 1908. However this week a specialist in faked ancient art claims that the original object is …well… faked ancient art. In other words that the Phaistos Disc is a hoax. In addition to this expert’s technical reasons you can add two others: no other example of the writing has been found, and even the shape and format of the object is unique.

I suspect it is a fake.

If that were true, it diminishes the argument that advance technologies can be forgotten. It instead bolsters the argument that implemented technologies very rarely (if ever) go extinct, and at worst will be shunted to a marginal alternative role, until a new niche is found for them later. We find no other moveable type before 1 AD because there was never any.

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  • Taloy

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  • merry

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  • Wow. At first glance I thought you were talking about blogging software.

  • lordchickenhawk

    I read Jared Dimond’s “Collapse” and while I’m not sure ecological problems are as much to blame for the destruction of civilisations as he proposes, I’m not sure that the Phaistos Disc being faked would have much bearing on any argument. Plenty of knowledge and technology was lost (at least to Europe) during the dark ages.

  • Neon

    Well I can only say: that illustrates your lack of general knowledge, beyond nerdy trivia. Ayrkain.

  • Nick

    If I remember right, Jared Diamond suggested the Greek discs were examples of the concept of moveable type, but were stamped with simple decorative symbols instead of writing. That would explain both the untranslateable “text” and the lack of any other evidence of printing in ancient Greece.

    He points out that many apparently straightforward inventions are really only useful in combinations–printing isn’t a major labor savings over writing until you combine the mechanical idea with ink and paper.

    Another classic example of this is the Aztecs’ lack of wheeled vehicles. They built wheeled childrens’ toys, proving that somebody grasped the concept. But with no big domesticable animals native to Mexico, wheels wouldn’t be useful for making wagons or chariots.

  • ericsobo

    You say: It instead bolsters the argument that implemented technologies very rarely (if ever) go extinct.

    I think that is an extrapolation one step too far. Lost technology is by definition, well, lost. If it is a technology that does not leave durable products to be remembered by, how would you know? That one artifact of a supposed lost technology is damned as invalid does not disprove that technologies are lost. Concrete is one counterexample, known and used by the Romans (The Caracalla baths and the Pantheon come to mind as examples), forgotten around 450 AD as Rome fell, rediscovered in 1756. The only reason we know about Roman concrete is because its durability allows it to be observed two millenia later.

  • I’ve got Diamond’s book, Guns Germs and Steel, with me. Page 239 discusses the disk and refers to the symbols as “syllabaries”, i.e. writing.

    He considers the Disk a mystery.

  • Tim


    So the Phaistos guy planted this to be found many years later? I don’t think so…and if it’s a fake it’s massive fluke to invent symbols that actually correlate with a later find. And if you were an archaelogist, and knew about the languages, don’t you think you might make it closer (yet different enough to not be read) to others? Doesn’t make sense, if you’re faking something you want to make it PLAUSIBLE. Totally different from anything found does not equal plausible.

  • Austin

    Faked or poorly identified artifacts are unfortunately rather common – take the Jesus Ossuary or the “pre-Columbian” crystal skulls for instance. This thing has not only at least ten symbols from Linear A, but also other languages from other times and places including Linear B, Proto-Ionian, Anatolian, and Indo-European among others.

  • If “movable type” means an object that can be used repeatedly to produce a durable symbol, wouldn’t that be the outlined-hand symbols found in cave paintings?

  • Bryan

    Has anyone considered that this is the creation of some clever art student from a few hundred/thousand years ago?

  • Tony

    Glyphbreaker by Steven Fischer desribes his deciphering of the Phaistos disk. Is the book fake too?

  • Austin

    Regarding Steven Fischer’s “success” you would do well to read the recent article which has stirred up the possibility of fakery, by Jerome M. Eisenberg in the July/August issue of Minerva, the International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology.

  • Does your conclusion apply to the Antikythera Mechanism and the Baghdad Battery as well?

  • There were draft animals like dogs, llamas, and people in the new world that could and do pull wheeled carts – It didn’t spring up spontaneously, but spread fairly slowly across Eurasia and Africa, probably from out of Asia minor, after being developed from the potter’s wheel – which did not exist in the Americas – even though toys have been found with wheels in pre-columbian sites, they could not be adapted from this to a practical vehicle – it seems to have needed a stage where wheels and axles were developed for another purpose before it could be applied to vehicles.

  • Olivier

    I can think of at least one (temporarily) “lost” technology that seems to be agreed upon by all historians and experts: concrete.

    The Romans invented it and had it well deployed, thanks to widespread availability of volcanic ash, but it got lost in the middle ages only to re-appear in the 18th century (patents, Portland cement, etc …)