Here in the capital of Crete, the Phaistos Disc is preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Today, it is one of the icons of Minoan civilization and so one of the main attractions of the Museum attracting visitors from all the corners of the modern world (Gregor 2016).
Just like Zbigniew Herbert once, during his visit to the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, I devoted some time to this Disc, standing long in front of its private glass case. I was wondering that if it stood just among other Minoan artifacts, it would attract so much attention of many visitors who would not know its history, or what mystery it is associated with. Or perhaps their trained eye would notice that it differs from typical Cretan finds, especially the Minoan writing from clay tablets or from images of miniature seals made of gold and carved stone.
 Zbigniew Herbert (1924 – 1998), a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist. His trilogy (three volumes of essays: Barbarian in the Garden, Still Life with a Bridle and Labyrinth on the Sea-Shore) is the result of his trips around Europe, during which he describes, with a passion typical of art connoisseurs, particular places and artifacts he has seen.
The pearl of Italian Archaeology
A famous discovery in Phaistos was made by members of the Italian Archaeological Society, who were working at the same time as Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941) in Knossos (Gregor 1997:24). ‘Glory to the Italian archaeologists to whom Phaistos has been entrusted,’ writes Zbigniew Herbert (2000:54). It includes sheer ruins, without pretentious reconstructions, a complete contradiction to Knossos (Herbert 2000:54).
Dr Alessandro Greco says that Italian archaeology on Crete began in very special historical circumstances, when Greece had achieved an independence from the Ottoman Empire, in the middle of the previous century (Gregor 2016). Consequently, Crete was divided into several protectorates: Italian, French and British (Ibid.). It was due to this situation that archaeologists from Italy were able to work without any obstacles (Ibid.). Nevertheless, when an Italian archaeologist and the protagonist of the story, Luigi Pernier (1874–1937), landed on Crete, the island was still officially ruled by Ottoman Turks (Ibid.). At that time, archaeologists working in the south of the Island of Crete had far greater difficulties to deal with than Evans’ group working parallelly in Knossos (Ibid.). The coast in the south is bleak and uninviting; archaeologists there had to be good climbers because many of the sites have been set in the remote valleys or in high mountains, where access is still extremely difficult (Ibid.). In such mountainous landscape, it was possible to explore the island only on donkeys and the researchers themselves were continuously exposed to malaria (Ibid.). Although challenging, the mountains also provided once Minoans with the protection against foreign invaders (Ibid.). Beyond the mountains lies the Libyan Sea, which once connected the Minoans with the developed cultures of the Near East and Egypt (Ibid.).
From the hills of Phaistos the valley leads to the sea, and behind it, Mount Ida rises with a white cap on the top; there was the grotto of Zeus (Herbert 2000:54-55). The so-called Phaistos Palace, where Luigi Pernier was excavating, was also the site where one of the greatest puzzles of the Minoan Empire was discovered – the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016).
Mystery of baked clay
“In July 1908, […] Luigi Pernier [had] discovered a small disc of baked clay in a basement cell […] at the site of the Palace of Phaistos, on the south coast of Crete.” (Ward 2020).
At first sight, the discovery must rather have seemed unexceptional; it was just a simple terracotta disc in the shape of a not quite regular circle, with a diameter of sixteen centimetres and about two centimetres thick (Gregor 1997:24; Herbert 2000:53). Nevertheless, soon it has turned out to be one of the most unique archaeological artifacts, which has ever been excavated on Earth (Georgievska 2016). Today it still “remains an enigma; its purpose and meaning and even its original geographical place of manufacture remain disputed, making it one of the most famous mysteries of [human history]” (Ibid.).
Invention of ancient Gutenberg
The Phaistos Disc’s mystery is inscribed on both of its sides, labelled as A and B, where its surface is covered with undecipherable pictographs (see: Ward 2020). Those are stamps pressed in wet clay yet before the Disc was fired (Ibid.). They are composed of various symbols, which involved making a movable type or rather sealstone for each pictograph (possibly for the very first time in the history of writing) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Ward 2020). As Zbigniew Herbert notices, creators of the Phaistos Disc must have been then Gutenberg’s precursors, because each character on the Disc was imprinted with a separate stamp, which could be satisfactorily called a prototype of a modern type used for printing (Herbert 2000:53).
As such, the so-called Phaistos Disc is the oldest embossed inscription, yet significantly different from the hieroglyphic writing of the Minoans (Linear A) (Gregor 1997:24-25; Herbert 2000:53).
Signet seal with a spiral
By this occasion, it is worth mentioning that Minoans astoundingly mastered the craftsmanship of miniature, though highly precise, gold or hardstone seal-stones with intricate carvings in their own peculiar style, showing various mythological, ritual and everyday scenes, typical of the Minoan culture (“Minoan Sealstones” 2018).
Even if the visual language of the scenes is still puzzling, the function sealstones is not such a mystery; they were possibly used by rulers, dignitaries and priests to place their official seals on documents and letters (Gregor 2016). But whereas on each of the Minoan sealstones, there is a ‘negative’ (embossed) image leaving a ‘positive’, three-dimensional impression on the soft surface, the pictographs from Phaistos were made in the other way round; the types with ‘positive’ images therefore have given ‘negative’ impressions in clay. The way the Minoan sealstones were used also suggests that such archaic types as those from Phaistos must have been used more than once, even if they had been intended uniquely for composing sacred texts (Ward 2020). Yet they had not been applied to any other known clay surface (Ibid.). At least, no other Minoan artefact bearing pictographs identical to those of the Phaistos Disc, has ever been found in Crete (Ibid.). There are, however, a few examples showing iconographical analogies present on the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). One of the Minoan gold seals, which is a signet with a ‘negative’ image, has got the spiral form and includes an undeciphered pictorial inscription; the both characteristics resemble the features of the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).
What is the Disc’s message?
The mysterious characters all flow around the Disc as spiral strings that may represent pictorial or hieroglyphic writing that archaeologists are still trying to decipher (Gregor 199724-25). However, so far they have not produced any decisive results (Ibid:25). What do the Disc’s symbols mean and what is their message? (Gregor 1997:25). The disk has already been ascribed many different functions; a calendar, “poem, hymn [or] a prayer [ to the goddess of fertility], sacred text, magic inscription, curse, […] funerary record, almanac, court list, political treaty, proof of a geometric theorem, list of soldiers, a board game and even musical notation for a stringed instrument” (Ward 2020). For some it can be even a message from aliens or the Atlanteans (Gregor 1997:25); “[some] believe that it was a Token used in healing rituals or other ceremonies in ancient times” (Georgievska 2016), whereas others have recognised in it a report of the journey of one of the Minoan missionaries who visited Numidia, located in the northern coast of Africa (the ancient kingdom of the Numidians, 202–40 BC., located in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021).
Zbigniew Herbert (2000:53) mentions a French researcher, Marcel F. Homet, who basing on a certain similarity of the hieroglyphs from Phaistos and Indian rock carvings of South America, concluded that this Minoan artifact is no less than a letter of the last inhabitants of Atlantis, containing a description of the catastrophe and the fate of those few who managed to escape it safe. Academic scholars, however, ignore Homet’s theory placing it between fairy tales (Ibid.:53).
In the 1980s, an ancient history and languages specialist, Christian O’Brien (1985), puts forward another hypothesis related to the Phaistos Disc, comparing its pictographs to Sumerian cuneiform (Ward 2020), “wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by use of a blunt reed as a stylus” (Ibid.). After the researcher, the inscription from Crete would have originated from the earliest systems of writing, which were invented in the fourth millennium BC., in Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Such an ancient writing is present in the world’s oldest religious text, known as the Kharsag Epics, which tells a story of the foundation of a settlement near Mount Hermon, in modern-day Lebanon (Ibid.). Accordingly, the Phaistos Disc would be a Cretan version of the story which had originated in the Middle-Eastern Kharsag, and had been written in the pictographs predating but linked to the proto-Sumerian language (Ibid.).
It is also worth mentioning another way of reading the inscription (Gregor 1997:25). It was proposed by a Norwegian linguist Kjell Aatrun in 1991 (Ibid.:25). He interpreted the signs as a Semitic writing (Ibid.:25). Semites represent the nations of the ancient Middle East, using the following languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Syrian, Arabic, and Akkadian (Ibid.:25). During the Bronze Age, Semitic influences reached Ethiopia and Upper Egypt, and from there over 4,500 years ago came to Crete (Ibid.:25). Aatrun believes that he can decipher the secrets of the disk by comparing its writing to other old Semitic written records (Ibid.:25). Aatrun interpreted the signs in the Phaistos disc as an invitation to intercourse addressed by a woman to a man (Gregor 1997:25). In his opinion, these forty-five characters are a written rite celebrating the deprivation of virginity (Ibid.:25). Every spring in Phaistos, girls who were mature enough to begin their sexual life may have gathered in large numbers to sacrifice their virginity to some deity by participating in the initiation ritual and becoming women (Ibid.:26). According to Aatrun’s interpretation, the disc would be a songbook and instructions for priests (Ibid.:26). Massive deflorations made by Minoan priests as a part of the fertility rite would also occurred in Babylonia, so Kjell Aatrun’s proposition to interpret the disc is not without sense (Ibid.:26).
In a pile of valuable deposition
Most researchers agree that the Phaistos Disc is Minoan in its origins and it possibly dates back to the Middle Minoan (2100-1600 BC.) or Late Minoan (1600-1100 BC.) Bronze Age. Although the information board in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion says that the Disc comes from the New Palace Period (1600-1450 BC.) (information from July, 2011, generally accepted period for the Disc is the end of the so-called First Palaces on Crete (1900-1700 BC.) (Georgievska 2016; Gregor 2016). Such a range of dating also shows how little is known about the artifact. Accepting the latter period, it was a very wealthy time in Minoan history but it was ended around 1700 BC by massive earthquakes (Gregor 2016).
The Phaistos Disc, which was found in the basement along with the remains of other clay tablets and Kamares pottery (Gregor 2016). For this reason it can be assumed that the Disc had been deposited in the part of the Palace, where other valuable objects were stored (Ibid.). After Luigi Pernier the Disc probably fell down together with other artifacts from the upper story during the earthquakes (Ibid.). But how did such a fragile object survive its fall from several meters down and the crash against the hardstone floor without any apparent damage? (Ibid.) An answer to this question is offered by another theory, according to which the Disc did not fall down but it had been originally deposited in the basement cell, where it was finally excavated.
Precursor of Minoan Linear A?
The date ascribed to the Disc is also the time of Linear A script development. “Comparisons of existing Linear A examples have led some scholars to believe the [Disc] actually is a version of Linear A” (Ward 2020); for example, Kjell Aatrun believes that the clay tablets with Linear A script found in the archives of the palace in Phaistos are a simplified working version of ritual-religious hieroglyphs from the Disc, collecting data from the field of administration or legal rulings (Gregor 1997:26). Perhaps the priests, using ‘holy’ archaic writing, recorded some spells or a mystery on the disc? (Ibid.:25). Some language experts studying the script argue that it may be a cult hymn because it is possible to find the rhythmic arrangement of symbols and the repetition of certain combinations of signs (Ibid.:25). Also Dr Alessandro Greco claims the Phaistos Disc originated in Crete; it is because its script features open syllables as much as all later Minoan scripts in Linear A and B, which are also an open syllable writing type (Gregor 2016).
From outside inwards
Even a layman, after examining the artifact more closely, will realize that he Phaistos Disc’s narrative should be read from the outside to the inside (Gregor 1997:25; Ward 2020), that is to say “clockwise from the outside of the spiral into the centre” (Ward 2020). It is also apparent that characters printed on the outer edge repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). As Geoff Ward (2020) indicates the spiral format of the Disc’s writing can be significant itself in understanding its meaning. After the author “[the] spiral [is] the age-old symbol, found in cultures [in the whole world], of creation, life-giving and aspiration, of birth and rebirth, and of spiritual development and our identity with the universe” (Ward 2020). The spiral is also a universal symbol of the Mother Goddess to whom the Phaistos inscription has been equally ascribed as a prayer or a hymn (Ibid.).
The spiralling string of symbols actually begin with a visible straight line marked with five or six dots at the edge of each side of the Disc, which is probably the point from where the reading of the text should also be started (Ward 2020). On side A, adjacent to the starting point there are two symbols; the first one looks like a plumed head, the second is a circle with seven dots inside it, possibly a warrior’s shield, a loaf or a sun symbol (Ibid.). This pair of signs keeps being repeated throughout the whole writing; they can be equally noticed on side B, also next to the straight line with points, matching exactly the position of the both pictographs on the opposite side (A) (Ibid.). Those symbols and others are grouped from three to five individual symbols, sectioned off by a dividing line (Ibid.). Yet on the outer edge, the number of pictographs included between the dividing lines is always limited to four. In turn, the vertical lines separating the signs are sometimes identified with punctuation marks (Herbert 2000:53).
“There are [two hundred and forty-two pictographs] on the disk, comprising [forty-five] distinct signs. […] The [forty-five] symbols were numbered by Arthur Evans from 01 to 45, and this numbering has become the conventional reference used by most researchers” (Georgievska 2016). Dr Gareth Alun Owens explains that there are “[too] many signs for an alphabet, too few signs for a system, like Chinese or Egyptian, so [it was decided] to progress with systematic, epigraphic work [in the case of the Disc; consequently, the linguistic studies have followed the rule according to which] if a sign is the same in different scripts, it has the same sound value. And all the forty-five signs, the sound values, can be found among the ninety sound values of Linear B, which is a script of roughly the same time, from the same place, which has [already] been deciphered” (Gregor 2016).
Researchers generally assume that each of the forty-five different characters on the Disc also stands for a syllable (Gregor 1997:25). The pictographs represent either easily identifiable things or abstract signs (Gregor 1997:25; Georgievska 2016). Among the stamps, which are all surprisingly clear, there are human heads, whole human figures, tools, vessels, birds, flowers, fish, weapons, and a series of difficult to define ideographs: dotted fields, rectangles, geometric figures, or wavy lines (Herbert 2000:53).
Philistines depicted in Minoan Disc?
More identifiable pictures show objects bringing to mind or even pinpointing various cultures developing in different periods in the area of the Mediterranean; for example, one “sign depicts a structure similar to a sarcophagus used by the Lycians of Asia Minor” (Georgievska 2016), whereas the mentioned above picture looking like a plumed head or ‘fluted crowns’ possibly portrays a helmet with crest (Ibid.). Strikingly similar headgears have been depicted in a famous scene from the north wall of the Temple of Medinet Habu in Egypt, illustrating the Egyptian campaign led by Ramses the Third (1198 – 1166 BC.) against the so-called Sea Peoples (“Sea Peoples” 2021). Such a helmet was also used later by Philistines, who settled down in Juda, in the twelfth century BC. (Georgievska 2016). They may once have been a part of the Sea Peoples who plundered the Eastern Mediterranean region in the late thirteenth century BC. (Aleff 1982-2015).
It is still difficult to precisely identify the Philistines’ origins, although it is certain they did not create homogeneous society in respect of their culture, apparently composed of elements typical of Asia Minor, Mycenae, the Aegean islands, and Cyprus (Aleff 1982-2015). According to the Bible, the Philistines had come from Caphtor, which is usually believed to stand for Crete (Ibid.). Taking into account the fact that the Phaistos Disk is impressed all over with the symbol of a plumed head, it can be assumed that the sea raiders sailed eastwards centuries after the Disk was buried in the south of Crete (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). The problem is, however, that the Disc dates back to at least the late sixteenth century BC. (most often 1700 BC), whereas the Philistines appeared as the invaders only in the late thirteenth century BC. and set up a historically recorded civilization in the twelve century BC (see Ward 2020). There is thus over three hundred years gap and lack of the continuous tradition; neither Minoan frescoes nor other artifacts show Minoans wearing such a headgear, especially if it is widely accepted the Minoan civilization was not based on warfare but mostly on trade.
H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015), however, suggests that “the Disk is more firmly connected with the Philistines as religious descendants of its maker than it is with Crete”. Although the artifact was found in Crete, it might not have been made there (Aleff 1982-2015). Even if the Disc’s clay was compared by Luigi Pernier to the fine clay of Kamares, it has never been analysed in this aspect and so could have come from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region (Ibid.). Moreover, the Phaistos Disc in completely unique in its appearance among other excavated Minoan objects; some scholars have consequently claimed the Disk can have been either a hoax or an import from beyond Crete, or even the Aegean region, taking into consideration the fact Cretans sailed far and wide (Aleff 1982-2015; Ward 2020). Therefore, as H. Peter Aleff (1982-2015) underlines “[the] place where the Disk turned up says […] nothing about where it was made”. Nevertheless, even if the Phaistos Disc is related to the Philistines, it predates the historical records of those ancient people for a few centuries, irrespective of the fact if they actually came from Crete or passed by the island on their way to the East.
Forged or genuine?
Due to the mentioned above anachronisms, discrepancies and questions, the Phaistos Disc is declared by some scholars as a modern forgery or a hoax made in the middle of the last century (Georgievska 2016; Ward 2020). “[Although the Phaistos Disc] is generally accepted as authentic by archaeologists” (Georgievska 2016), it has been long the subject of international debate regarding its authenticity and archaeological value (Ward 2020). As Geoff Ward speculates, “the suggestion it might be a forgery was probably generated by a hundred years of failure to decode it” (Ibid.). Moreover, an official request to conduct scientific tests of the Disc’s clay to resolve the question of its date and origins were definitely turned down by the Ministry of Culture in “Greece on grounds that the Disc [is] a national treasure and ‘untouchable’” (Ward 2020).
Similar accusations of forgery have also been made against such famous artifacts as the iconic bust of Nefertiti, preserved by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Nebra sky disk at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany or the Lady of Elche at the Archaeological Museum in Madrid (Gregor 2016; see: Mystery of the Lady). While, some of those artifacts were examined in this aspect and eventually turned out to be genuine, the Ministry of Culture of Greece still refuses such an analysis of the Phaistos Disc. The fact that “the Greek government [does not want it to be] tested [does not have to] mean its authenticity is problematic. Such a stance is not uncommon when such [examining of the fragile artefact] can cause damage to, or loss or theft” (Ward 2020).
Further doubts of experts
Although there are many voices of different specialists that the Disc is genuine, an art collector from New York, “Dr Jerome Eisenberg, an expert on ancient forgeries, [is] still convinced that Luigi Pernier […] forged [it]” (Ward 2020).After his opinion, the Italian archaeologist did ‘invent’ his famous discovery as “he was jealous of the successes of fellow archaeologists, Sir Arthur Evans and the Italian Federico Halbherr (1857–1930), at other excavations in Crete” (Ibid.). Moreover, there exists an artifact that may have served as a prototype of his potential forgery. In addition to archaeological excavations, Luigi Pernier was also employed in Florence as an Antiques Inspector (Gregor 2016). His jurisdiction included the city’s Archaeological Museum, where one of the most valuable artifacts in the Etruscan collection is the so-called Magliano Disc (Ibid.). The object is made of lead and “was found in Magliano in the Toscana near Grosseto (Italy) in 1883 and bears an Etruscan script dating to the [fifth or fourth century BC.]” (Luwian Studies 2019). It is half the size of the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). The words and sentences sections on it are separated by dots, whereas on Phaistos Disc vertical lines are used instead (Ibid.). Despite such striking similarities, the Etruscan Disc originated thousand years after the Palace collapsed in Phaistos; for this reason, cultural exchange between Etruscans and Minoans would appear extremely unlikely (Ibid.). For Dr Jerome Eisenberg such a phenomenon is inexplicable (Ibid.). After the art collector, Luigi Pernier could have studied the Magliano Disc while staying in Florence (Ibid.). At that time, the Etruscan script on the Disc had not been deciphered yet, and so Pernier could have used it as a model for his forgery, when he later excavated at the site in Phaistos (Ibid.).
Furthermore, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to some examples of suspicious discrepancies regarding the Phaistos Disc (Gregor 2016). First, the inscription goes from right to left as Egyptians hieroglyphs do, whereas Minoan scripts, both Linear A and B, are read from left to right (Ibid.). Secondly, the pictographs are too highly realistic to compose an ancient script; for instance, there is a symbol of a gloved hand or cestus or caestus (Latin), an ancient battle glove, which only occurs in Roman period, which is fifteenth hundred years later (Gregor 2016; “Cestus” 2020). Thirdly, Dr Jerome Eisenberg points to the fact that ancient tablets accompanying the artifact are unevenly fired, which happened during the fire of the First Palace in Phaistos (Gregor 2016). Such a damage to clay objects was typical if they were long exposed to the heath (Ibid.). On the other hand, the Phaistos Disc was fired too evenly and thoroughly (Ibid.). Dr Gareth Alun Owens, however, claims the Disc was baked deliberately in the process of being created and not accidentally like the destruction level that saved other clay tablets with Linear scripts during the First Palace’s fire (Ibid.). It would then suggest the Disc must have fallen down from the upper floor as Luigi Pernier assumed (Ibid.). But then, how did it avoid being crashed into pieces? (Ibid.) In addition to that, Dr Jerome Eisenberg claims that the edges of the Phaistos Disc are still quite sharp and hardly defaced, whereas in other ancient tablets and anything made of clay have especially had their edges damaged (Ibid.). Next, the circumstances of the famous discovery are suspicious; the excavations in Phaistos were directed by Luigi Pernier and so has been naturally ascribed to the find of the famous artifact. Nevertheless, no archaeologist was a direct witness of the discovery, (Ibid.). According to the records, at the very moment of uncovering the Phaistos Disc, Luigi Pernier was taking a nap (Ibid.). Finally, the Ministry of Culture in Greece does not allow to take any tests on the artifact or even to handle it, which according to the expert is already questionable (Ibid.). He thinks that the government, unsure of results of the tests, is afraid of losing one of the most iconic ancient objects attracting tourists to Crete (Ibid.).
Who then made the Phaistos Disc if it is a forgery? (Gregor 2016). After specialists, It must have been an expert very familiar with archaeological material, like Emile Gilliéron (1850-1924), who worked for Arthur Evans at restoration and reinterpretation of Minoan frescoes, and other artifacts, and made very successful replicas (Ibid.). Only such a person was well positioned to be able to make forgeries like the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).
Archaeology in favour of the authenticity
Despite all the claims against the Phaistos Disc, recent archaeological discoveries can indicate that it is actually genuine (Gregor 2016). Such evidence is provided, for example, by another artifact, also preserved in the Museum in Heraklion; it is a bronze double-axe, possibly a religious and ritual Minoan object (Ibid.). On the head of the axe, there are three lines with overlapping signs engraved upon them (Ibid.). Linguistic experts, like Dr Gareth Alun Owens, see in those signs parallels with stamped pictographs on the Phaistos Disc, and believe the script is a prayer to the Minoan Goddess from the top of the Mountains, where Minoans massively pilgrimaged with their offerings (Ibid.). A lately discovered sacrificial bowl from such a holy mountains’ peak also bear similar pictographs; they are almost identical to those on the Phaistos Disc (Ibid.).
Similar clues are highly valuable in the quest for true origins of the Phaistos Disc and evidence needed to confirm its authenticity, and to defend the good name of its founder (Gregor 2016).Professor of archaeology and the director of the Heraklion Museum, Dr Athanasia Kanta says that she has no doubt the artifact is authentic (Ward 2020). In her opinion, accusing an eminent scholar of fraud after a century of his discovery, without providing any strong evidence is highly unfair (Ibid.).
For many scholars, the Phaistos Disc in another Minoan mystery, for others, a tantalizing message from the ancient world and a link to a lost and legendary civilization. Although archaeologists mostly agree it is genuine, its content and origins are still under debate. Generally, it is thought to have been either an import from Asia Minor or a local product of Minoans (Herbert 2000:53). Granting the last option, the Phaistos Disc would be the oldest script in Europe, whose message yet will possibly remain lost forever.
Featured image: Detail of the Phaistos Disc, side A. Photo by Geoff Ward (2020). Photo source: Geoff Ward (2020). “The mysterious Phaistos Disc: a lost message from the ancient world”. In: geoffward.medium.com.
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