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History's Mysteries -- Moveable Type and the Phaistos Disc

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Moveable Type

Throughout grade school, high school and on into college I learned that science and technology sprang into being in late medieval Europe and really took off during the Renaissance. You probably did too. Having been a Contrarian from early childhood though, I suspected this was not true. And sure enough, when I got around to checking I found out that science and technology had made significant strides in other parts of the world while Europeans still shivered in their daub and wattle huts.

For example, take printing presses and movable type. To this very day, Johannes Gutenberg is often credited with inventing the first printing press to use moveable type in about 1440 CE. He used it to print the first Bible around 1450 CE.

Gutenberg Press
Credit: By Ghw at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Gutengerg-era Press on display at the Printing History Museum in Lyon, France

In fact, the first printing press, using a woodblock system, was invented in China in 593 CE and the first newspaper appeared in Beijing in 700 CE. The Chinese had invented paper in 105 CE. It was far superior to the baked clay, papyrus and parchment used to write on in other parts of the world. The Diamond Sutra was the earliest known complete book, with illustrations, to be printed in China. Its sophistication, though, has led modern scholars to believe other printed books preceded it. Books became popular in Asia along with the spread of Buddhism.

Diamond Sutra
Credit: By Jingangjing.jpg: Wang Jie. Photographic facsimile by British Library derivative work: User:Earthsound (Jingangjing.jpg : 6th line, 2nd word) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frontispiece of the original Diamond Sutra

by the International Donhuang Project

But, you might say, woodblock printing was greatly inferior to Gutenberg’s system that used movable type. A whole page had to be laboriously carved into wood to prepare it for printing. Chinese goldsmith Bi Sheng must have thought so too. He invented moveable type in 1041 CE, 400 years before Gutenberg. And in 1155 CE Liu Ching produced the first printed map in China. Printing of the first paper money and formal official documents began in the Jin Dynasty in about 1115 CE.Incidentally, the first inflationary depression caused by fiat money soon followed.

Printing began in Japan in about 1000 CE. The western movement of printing started from eastern Turkestan in about 1300 in the Uyghur language and was spread farther west by the Mongols. They brought printing presses to Persia after they annexed it in the 13th century. Paper money was printed in Tabriz beginning in 1294. [1][2]

The Phaistos Disc

Yet even the Chinese were not the first to use moveable type. In 1908 an Italian archaeologist, Luigi Pernier, discovered an unusual clay disc in the ruins of the Minoan palace of Phaistos. It is about 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) in diameter and features 241 characters placed in a clockwise sequence spiraling inward toward the disk’s center. The characters are comprised of 45 unique designs. Transcription had apparently been made by pressing pre-formed hieroglyphic “seals” into the disk’s soft clay which was then fired at high temperature.

Phaistos Disc Side A
Credit: By Aserakov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Phaistos Disc Side A by C. Messier, displayed at the Archeological Museum of Heraklion

Phaistos Disc Side B by C. Messier
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Phaistos Disc Side B by C. Messier, displayed at the Archeological Museum of Heraklion

Dating the Phaistos Disc

And just how old is the disc? Based on the age of the undisturbed material in which it was found, it dates from between 1850 BCE and 1600 BCE! Vertical lines separate groups of the symbols into “words” of two to seven characters. Most linguists believe the disk is a syllabary, meaning each symbol stands for a syllable instead of a letter. The language has not been determined and probably won’t be unless more examples are found. Most linguists do not believe the symbols appear related to Minoan Linear A or Linear B scripts which leads them to believe they represent some foreign, perhaps extinct, Aegean or Anatolian language.[3][4]


Phaistos ruins
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"Phaistos 01" by Olaf Tausch. Ruins of the Phaistos palace

And Then What?

Why did this form of writing disappear? In his popular science book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond claims the disk is an example of a technological advancement that came along at the wrong time in history. It needed a printing press to be practical. [5]

As with so many discoveries from ancient times, this disk cannot have suddenly appeared in such a mature form. Its sophistication implies a long history of development. Archaeologists are intrigued at the possibility of finding the disk’s ancestors.

Yet, at this time, the Phaistos disk is still the first known use of text production by reusable type. (Sorry, Bi Sheng.)



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  1. "Great Chinese Inventions." Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. (2012): 2-12.
  2. Dick Teresi Lost Discoveries, the Ancient Roots of Modern Science. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
  3. C. Michael Hogan "Phaistos Field Notes." The Modern Antiquarian. (2007): 23-30.
  4. Winifred Achterberg The Phaistos Disc. Amsterdam: Dutch Archeological and Historical Society, 2000.
  5. Jared Diamond Guns, Germs and Steel. New York, London: W.W, Norton & Company, 1999,1997.

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