The Phaistos Disk: A New Way of Investigating the Language Behind the Script

A paper by Brent Davis, University of Melbourne, for the Ancient World Seminar at 1:00 on Monday 27 May in Old Arts 107 (William Macmahon Ball Theatre).

In this seminar, I outline a new, linguistics-based method of analyzing the behavior of signs in the Aegean family of pre-alphabetic scripts (Linear A, Linear B, Cypro-Minoan, the Cypriot Syllabary, and the script on the Phaistos Disk).  Using this method on two scripts at once results in metrics expressing the likelihood that both scripts encode the same language.  As the method is based solely on the behavior of the signs (not their phonetic values), it can be applied to the undeciphered scripts as well as the deciphered ones.

When this method is applied to the two deciphered scripts (Linear B and the Cypriot Syllabary, which both encode Greek), the results indicate a 97% probability that the two scripts encode the same language, without the analyst needing to know the phonetic values of any of the signs.  When the Cypriot Syllabary and Linear A are analyzed together, this probability falls to 55%, indicating that Linear A does not encode Greek.  A similarly low result (45%) is obtained when Linear B and the Phaistos Disk are analyzed together.

When Linear A and the Disk are analyzed together, however, the probability that both encode the same language rises to over 98%.  This is new.  Though it has long been recognized that both scripts are Minoan inventions, no one has yet been able to demonstrate in a convincing way whether or not they encode the same language. This is an important step forward in the study of both scripts, with implications for eventual decipherment.

This is the research that led to the 2019 Michael Ventris Award for Mycenaean Studies.

Brent Davis received his undergraduate degree in Linguistics from Stanford University, and his doctorate in Archaeology from the University of Melbourne; his doctoral thesis on Minoan ritual vessels and Linear A, the undeciphered script of the Minoans, was published as a book in 2014.  With a background in both archaeology and linguistics, his interests include not only the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, but their scripts and languages as well. He has published numerous articles and chapters on ancient cultures and scripts, as well as on archaeological theory, and he has undertaken several years of archaeological fieldwork in Israel at Tell-es Safi/Gath, the site of a major Philistine city. He teaches archaeology, ancient history, and Egyptian hieroglyphs at the University of Melbourne.