Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 2 The Phaistos Disk Re-visited

Hi again, everybody! Here’s the second in my new series on non-standard claims/theories. Some of these blogs, including this present one, will deal with professional linguists (‘mavericks’ & worse) who adopt minority non-mainstream stances on specific issues – often (though not always) without explicitly acknowledging this, still less defending their views against the relevant current mainstream positions. Skeptics and others, not themselves trained in linguistics, who look at this material, especially if they seek to apply linguistic knowledge in other domains, need to be aware of such cases.

Readers may remember my earlier comments on the Phaistos Disk (1) and/or may know independently about this fascinating artefact.

In her two books (2), Roberta Rio advances yet another novel interpretation of the Disk. Rio has a mainstream academic background; principally, she studied undergraduate History and postgraduate Archiving, Palaeography (highly relevant) and Diplomatics (to PhD level) at the University of Trieste. However, like the similarly educated Susan B. Martinez (see earlier blog), Rio has shifted away from mainstream thought. She reports that her subsequent life experiences have ‘made aspects of existence less rational and much deeper known’ to her, and have shown her that ‘man [sic] … can go much further than the limits of rational understanding’. This approach to learning is precisely exemplified in these two books. The details are given mainly in the larger, earlier book, although even here there is no LINGUISTIC as opposed to epigraphic detail (see below).

As might be expected given her announcements as quoted above, Rio’s approach to decipherment is essentially intuitive; she simply proclaims her ‘findings’ without presenting rational evidence or argumentation. This means, of course, that (unless decisive counter-evidence appears) there can be no reasoned debate as to the likelihood of her being correct; her thesis is not a legitimately empirical one. She berates the mainstream archaeological and historical world as cognitively stagnant but offers nothing in its place beyond reliance upon subjective intuitions about items from long-extinct cultures (citing in her support the historian Johan Huizinga, who would surely have regarded her as taking his ideas to an unjustifiable extreme).

At least Rio is ‘upfront’ about her methods, unlike Martinez and other qualified but ‘maverick’ authors such as György Busztin, who simply ignore the established principles of the discipline without any explicit comment.

Without giving any actual evidence, Rio proclaims that the Disk was created on the island of Anafi in the Cyclades, not in Crete, and was later used in rituals in Crete (which she describes in detail) along with the circular, decorated Kernos Stone, which is now within the archaeological site at Malia; her discourse is ‘New Age’ in character. She does not seem to regard the Disk text as genuinely linguistic and does not identify any particular language as represented, still less any specific phonological words. (In this respect Rio’s decipherment resembles that of Jean-Louis Pagé in his 2002 book Atlantis’ Messages, where no language is identified on the Disk and no phonological forms are proposed.) Indeed, Rio seems to regard the characters on the Disk as ideograms (not members of a true script) expressing concepts (most scholarly analysts instead hold that the system probably is a true script, more specifically a syllabary), classifies them into sets (as referring to ‘energies’, ‘body parts’, etc.) and ascribes specific (language-neutral) meanings to them. She also offers an interpretation of the text into sentences, but the grammar of these sentences has inevitably been added by her and is not itself directly represented – as occurs in some interpretations of linguistic material allegedly emanating from extraterrestrials,.

Rio’s approach is unscientific and her proposals cannot be taken seriously.

More next time!

Mark N


The Phaistos Disk is flat, made of baked clay, and sixteen centimetres in diameter; it was presented to the learned world in 1908 by French and Italian archaeologists excavating the Minoan palace complex at Phaistos in South-Central Crete (built about 1700 BCE). It is inscribed on each side with a text apparently running from right to left (anti-clockwise) and spiralling in from the rim to the centre (though some read it in other ways; Roberta Rio, as discussed here, reads it clockwise). There are some 240 character-tokens in all, representing 45 distinct types, some pictorial and some apparently abstract; they are divided into 61 groups by broken radial lines. Very remarkably given the early date, the signs were impressed into the clay when it was soft by means of a set of cut punches. Neither the Disk itself nor the characters resemble any other items yet discovered in the Aegean (including the undeciphered Linear A), and both the intended use of the artefact and the interpretation of the text remain mysterious. Many (mostly unqualified) authors have advanced and continue to advance ‘decipherments’ and ‘translations’ of the Disk, sometimes in non-linguistic terms (calendars etc.) but more usually finding novel writing systems – and often languages or locales favoured by themselves for extraneous reasons. None of these proposals presents an overall reading which has persuaded professional scholars; and naturally they all contradict each other. Others regard the Disk as a modern forgery.

New Light On Phaistos Disc
AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN, 2011
Mysterious Ritual Enclosed In The Phaistos Disc And The Kernos Stone
AuthorHouse, Bloomington, IN, 2012


19 Responses to Non-standard Linguistics (new series) 2 The Phaistos Disk Re-visited

  1. Ar Be El says:

    The Phaistos Disk is a royal genealogy on the recto side and a mythical flood narrative on the verso side. See for details.

  2. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks for this.

    As Ar Be El acknowledges, none of the many claims of decipherment of the Disk put forward over the years has earned the approval of the relevant scholarly communities. Given this, it would be better to preface any new claim with ‘I have come to the view that…’ or some such, and also to avoid words such as ‘tutorial’ in this context. At the very least, assertions expressed with no such modification are likely to antagonise scholars (as Fischer managed to antagonise even the mild-mannered Chadwick) and thus to discourage actual interaction as opposed to critiquing.

    Having said that, this proposal (of which I was previously unaware) certainly appears interesting. I do perceive a potentially damaging tension between non-linguistic (‘ideogrammatic’) and linguistic aspects of the interpretation offered here, but at present I do not have the leisure to go into the proposal in detail. I hope to return to it later, perhaps in consultation with others.

    In this context: I wonder if there has been any professional comment on or discussion of this proposal. I would appreciate being directed to same.


  3. Robert Lewis says:

    The Phaistos Disk is a royal genealogy on the recto side and a mythical flood narrative on the verso side, with a war story thrown in for good measure. For more on this, please see:

  4. marknewbrook says:

    I repeat my comments in response to a very similar earlier post; also my question about any professional comment there may have been on this proposal. Mark

    • Robert Lewis says:

      Hi Mark. Yes, scholars may balk, perhaps, at my use of such words as “proof” or or what have you, but what are we to do when the ideograms in question really do, in fact, add up to an actual comprehensible narrative, and said narrative really does give us an actual explicable word order? Just ignore it? Also, could you give an example of this tention you see between the non-linguistic and linguistic aspects? Also, not certain what the objection to “tutorial” is, but if I have my facts straight, then no one knows but the actual decipherist, what about the disk’s messege needs teaching. Hence the teaching, in tutorial form.

  5. Robert Lewis says:

    Wait…I think I understand what you mean by “tention between the non-linguistic and linguistic”, etc. If I understand you correctly Mark, you are asking about the assertion that the disk’s message is ideogrammatic (and hence essentially non-linguistic), and yet has an explicable word order? This will be because every speaker and writer’s language has an identifiable word order, even though, in the case of ideogrammatic systems, said word order will of necessity be unconscious, but discernible, nevertheless.

  6. Robert Lewis says:

    And no, thus far you are the only person outside my personal sphere of friends etc., to comment on this decipherment. Waiting eagerly for peer review.

  7. marknewbrook says:

    All points noted. I stand by my earlier comments about unqualified assertions and the use of the didactic term ‘tutorial’. Many other ‘decipherers’ of the Disk are just as confident that their readings of the text are correct as Robert is about his; and the scholarly consensus is that no ‘decipherment’ yet advanced is persuasive, if indeed any can be (and if indeed the Disk is not a forgery). I have come to the position that in such cases I will not engage in direct dialogue with people who present their claims in this sort of tone. But when I am free, and especially if I can find colleagues willing to work with me, I will try to assess and review Robert’s claims. (This would include comment on the conflict which I perceive between linguistic and non-linguistic aspects of Robert’s interpretation of the material; Robert has grasped the nature of my objection in respect of this specific point, and has offered a brief explanation of his ideas, but I do not understand this explanation.) Naturally, Robert would be free to publish a rejoinder to anything that I published on this matter. Mark

  8. Robert Lewis says:

    Thank you Mark. I have updated the page (under the heading:” A Word About The Ideogrammatic Solution”) and hope that my editing makes things a little clearer.

  9. marknewbrook says:

    I have re-read the section in question but I do not find that in its present form it resolves my ‘linguistic/non-linguistic’ issue, or even addresses it. It also raises further issues. Since I am not willing to engage in direct dialogue in this case, I suppose discussion (by way of published comment etc) may have to wait. But if I am shown new text I will see if I can make any comment. Mark

  10. Robert Lewis says:

    Another update, this one under he heading of:”The Language Of The Disk”, may be a step in a more explicable direction.

  11. marknewbrook says:

    Robert’s comments at the point in question suggest confusion between ‘ideograms’ on the one hand and ‘logograms’ (at one time often inaccurately called ‘ideograms’) on the other. If this is correct, the upshot is that Robert’s account of the text is as it seems misconceptualised and (at least in that respect) incoherent (not all of the claims could be correct). An alternative interpretation would be that Robert is (perhaps unwittingly) working with an idiosyncratic formulation of the notion of ‘ideogram’, which is at present left unexplicated in his discussion. But it is difficult to be sure in advance of a careful examination of the details of Robert’s claims -for which, as I have said, I do not at present have the time. (The mainstream view is that – if the Disk is genuine – the characters are syllabic [or just possibly abjadic/alphabetic], not logographic.)

  12. Robert Lewis says:

    Hi mark. As I understand it, an ideogram represents an idea rather than strictly speaking, a word or phrase. The logogram will represent a word or phrase. The fish sign on the disk as I interpret it, stands for the words “like” or “related”, this is to say, a catagory of meaning, rather than a language specific word (not “like” but “related”). Occasionally, as I understand it, the ideogram is nothing more than a pictogram (the house sign on the disk representing the word “house”) but if I am not mistaken, don’t logograms sometimes carry with them the presumtion of an actual specific sound value?

  13. marknewbrook says:

    Some of this is not wrong, but I also perceive ongoing confusion and indeed new points of confusion. I am now beginning to work towards an initial mini-review of the proposal, so I propose to refrain from making any further comments until that is ready (except in exceptional circumstances).

  14. marknewbrook says:

    My initial comments on Lewis’ proposed interpretation of the Phaistos Disk appear as ‘Robert Lewis And The Phaistos Disk’ in: The Skeptical Intelligencer (ASKE, UK) 18:3 (2015), pp 12-17. If you would like an electronic copy of my piece or of the entire publication, please ask the editor, Michael Heap, at, stating where you saw this post. Mark N

  15. John Cowan says:

    I continue to think the most likely answer is that it is a board game of some sort and not writing at all, and as such no more decipherable than the Game of Ur.

  16. marknewbrook says:

    I’d be very interested to see John’s argumentation on this front. Mark N

  17. rednaxela says:

    Mystery of the Phaistos Disk disclosed?
    Text contents of this Disk – the rulers dedication to the god of the moon, copied from a labels, made in the form of three bilateral pole-axes, or from inscriptions directly on pole-axes. One of these pole-axes, the largest, four-blade may be used as a lunar calendar. The Disk itself – the moon during a full moon – a sort of portable version of the dedications and calendar.
    For details, see my website:

  18. marknewbrook says:

    I do actually read Russian, albeit slowly, but this is basically an English-language web-site and I will comment on this proposal only if I am presented with a version in English. Mark Newbrook

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