Saturday, December 15, 2007

Crete: Phaistos

Phaistos is underestimated in the guide books, and for that reason it was probably the most pleasant surprise on the whole trip, and one of the more interesting sites. For one thing (and this is a recurring theme with me) there was hardly anyone at the site, and atmosphere is an important element of all of life's explorations, especially when visiting ancient sites, where you must use your imagination to conjure up a once vibrant society from the distant past.

Entering the site from the north, you descend a narrow staircase, which leads to some kind of gathering area, which has three staircases surrounding it, and which is labeled as a "theatre" on the plan given here, although I'm very skeptical about that (see the western part, on the bottom of the plan). Perhaps it's because I've built many stone staircases, or because staircases are one of the few things that remain in tact at many sites, but they were a particular joy to me at many locations.

From there we explored some of the nearby storage rooms. At Phaistos, they are very well preserved in many cases, or reconstructed very well, meaning that the walls are often above your head, which allows you to get a feeling for the room's space, without having to imagine walls from a pattern of stones on the ground. On several stones were carved signs (such as a double axe) and I wondered for a long time what purpose these served, perhaps decorative or informative or religious. I recently was able to ask an archaeologist in my department, who is working on Minoan sites in Crete, and he informed me that they are mason's marks, and that these marks vary at different sites, and allow scholars to see what palaces were built by the same crews or designed by the same architects.

On the eastern side of the site is a large courtyard, which has the remains of footers for long stretches of pillars. There are remains of an olive press and several other stone carvings that look as though they were designed to catch or to hold liquid for something.

To the north and east of the courtyard are more rooms, and this is where the famous Phaistos disc was found in 1908. It has not been deciphered, and, in fact, there is little agreement about anything, even as to what the symbols represent, in what direction they are to be "read", and whether the disc even originated on Crete. My impression, which is worth absolutely nothing, of course, is that the symbols run from the center to the outer edge, simply because that seems, technically, easiest to me. There are groupings of symbols which are marked off by dividers, and could conceivably be either words or sentences; I imagine they are more likely to be words, and I think the safest guess is that the symbols represent syllables, but the length of the groupings could just as well indicate a consonantal or alphabetic script. But one thing seems clear, and is the most interesting aspect, in my opinion: that the symbols were pressed into the clay with molds, that is, in a manner of movable type.

It is a fascinating object, and captured my attention for some time, even though there is very little intelligent material to read about it at this point. I was terribly disappointed that I wasn't able to see the actual disc, which is in the closed museum in Iraklion. When I first saw the reproductions which are for sale all through Matala, I found it objectionable at best, but it struck me later as a very clever paperweight, and it sits as such on my desk as I type this. I almost wish I had gone in for the set of coasters too.


Blogger Μιχάλης Καρδαμάκης said...

fascinating as it might be, I'm afraid that the Phaistos Disk is probably nothing more than an ingenious hoax...

1:14 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

I've recently heard that from a friend who excavates Crete, but I haven't read anything first hand.

8:10 AM  

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