Numinous statuettes of Malta from the late Neolithic (3200-2500 B.C.) are one of the unique expressions of the mysterious culture of megalithic builders who abruptly appeared and lived on the Island between 3800 and 2500 BC., scattering around it over twenty constructions, today referred to as temples (Biaggi 1986:131; Magli 2009:49). For this reason the period between around 3500-2500 BC. in Malta is usually “referred to as the Temple Period, during which this small and arid archipelago, composed of Malta, the nearby Gozo, and tiny Comino, [yet by] 3400 BC. [had already witnessed] one of the greatest architectural marvels of all human history, the Ggantija Temple, [believed by academics to be the second oldest temple in the world (just after Göbekli Tepe)]” (Magli 2009:47).
What is surprising, the activity of those megalithic masters living in Malta can be archeologically observed merely for one millennium; after this period they disappeared as unexpectedly and mysteriously as they came into being (Ibid.:48). As it is not possible to surely identify a real purpose of the megalithic ‘temples’ erected in Malta, it is not either likely to fully understand the idea of carved figures left in various sacred areas between the megaliths.
Females of prehistory
After Cristina Biaggi (1986:131) prototypes of Maltese figures either belong to the Palaeolithic or the Mediterranean Early Neolithic. Consequently, most of these statuettes are believed to represent females, who are additionally called deities, goddesses or women ascribed of divine powers or a high importance and status (Ibid.:131-138).
“[Some] figures are nude, other clothed, some do not show primary sexual traits, and all are obese” (Ibid.:131). Although each group shares certain characteristics and there are differences between them, their peculiar style of the carving is distinctive of Malta, for no other statuette looking like them has ever been found elsewhere in the Mediterranean (Ibid.:131).
The earliest women in Malta
Female figures of the so-called Grey and Red Skorba Phases represent the earliest Maltese female statues made of clay; they are naked and feature strongly emphasised sexual characteristics (Biaggi 1986:137). They do not look obese as later representations and usually measure up to ten centimetres in height.
With time, Maltese “[depictions] of the numinous tend to increase in size and elaboration or stylisation when a religion becomes entrenched in a society” (Biaggi 1986:137).
Among them, opulent but rather sexless representations of the Maltese divine womanhood probably look like legendary Maltese giantesses, who may have once dragged megalithic stones on their backs (Ibid. 131-137). They were either naked or partially clothed, and carved in various positions: standing, squatting or seated with their legs folded (Ibid.:131-132). Although not numerous, some of those ladies could reach almost three metres in height (Ibid.:132). They all are carved from Globigerina limestone, the local stone commonly used also for constructing the megalithic temples in Malta (Ibid.:131). Yet some figurines were also manufactured of alabaster-like stone, which was definitively imported, possibly from the mainland of modern Italy (Pace 2004:22). Such materials from beyond the archipelago may have had a special significance and value, and so did the objects made of it (Ibid.:22).
Refined sculpture of terracotta
Another group of statues, different in style but contemporary to the ‘giantesses’, are much smaller in size and made of clay; moreover, their physical appearance and attire clearly define females (Biaggi 1986:137). Similarly to the larger statues, they are also either naked or dressed (Ibid.:137). Although the Maltese type of female figures phased various metamorphoses, most of their representations were covered in paint of red ochre (Ibid.:131). Red ochre, “which may have been menstrual blood in its earliest manifestation, is the [colour] of fertility, death and rebirth – the [colour] of the [goddess]” (Ibid.:136).
Lying on a coach in the underworld
“About thirty of [those various] figures, ranging in [style and] size from [ten centimetres] to about [three metres] have been found in the […] Maltese temples and in the Hypogeum” (Biaggi 1986:131; see Maltese History in the Negative).
Among other Maltese statuettes and carvings, three particular figures have been found in the Hypogeum of Ħal Saflieni (Pace 2004:22). The statues belong to the group of smaller representations and are made of pottery (Biaggi 1986:137; Pace 2004:22). All the three statues are depicted while lying on a couch, possibly covered with a rush grass mattress (Pace 2004:22; Haughton 2009:163). The presence of such a coach seems to be symbolic as it also appears among the other type of female representations (Pace 2004:22). Although it today escapes a clear understanding, in all three cases, the base of the coach is rendered in a refined manner as an arrangement of framework (Pace 2004:22; Information boards in the National Museum Of Archaeology of Malta (Valetta) 2017). One of the carvings depicts something that looks like a fish, whereas the two others show definitely female figures (Information boards in the National Museum Of Archaeology of Malta (Valetta) 2017).
The first one, partially damaged in her lower part, reveals traces of red ochre; the woman is headless or decapitated, and she is lying face down on a coach (Pace 2004:22). The whole carving measures four centimetres height, nine centimetres length and almost six centimetres width (Ibid.:22). In turn, the second female statue has been preserved nearly complete, except some damage made in the area of her breast (Pace 2004:22; Haughton 2009:163). Also the left corner of the couch she is lying on is slightly broken and its shape is more oval in comparison to the previous two, which are more squared. The whole sculpture is seven centimetres high, twelve centimetres long and almost seven centimetres wide (Pace 2004:22). Slight traces of red ochre are also visible on it (Haughton 2009:163). The female figure is depicted in a lying posture similar to the ‘counched’ burial position, typical of an arrangement of the body in prehistoric graves (Pace 2004:22). She looks as if she was peacefully asleep. Thus the sculpture is widely known as Sleeping Lady or Sleeping Beauty. Nowadays, this female statue is also the symbol of the Neolithic ideal of femininity in Malta.
Face to face with mystery
Currently all the three terracotta statues are part of the exhibition in the National Museum Of Archaeology in La Valetta, Malta, where I have had an opportunity to study them, among other Maltese artefacts from the Temple Period. Whereas the two former figures, including the fish-like creature and a woman, lying down on her face, are exposed together in one display glass case, the Sleeping Lady, as the most privileged of all, not only has been provided with her own display case but also with a special room filled only with dimmed light, as if in fear of disturbing her dreams.
Fat but graceful
The Sleeping Lady is a highly refine representation of the reclining, excessively opulent but graceful woman (Pace 2004:22); she is lying on her right side on top of a couch, resting her head probably on a pillow that is slightly sagging under the weight of her head. While her right hand is delicately gripping the pillow, her left hand is resting on the corpulent forearm of her right hand. Like many other female Maltese statues, she is dressed in a bell-shaped skirt with fringes or pleating at the bottom, reaching halfway down the legs (Biaggi 1986:132).
The Lady’s opulent legs seem to be slightly bent at the knees, so the skirt only reveals their small lower part that looks like two hewn pegs instead of the feet, visible at the edge of the couch. The upper part of the woman’s body is naked, with a rather opulent abdomen in the form of a single roll of fat with a noticeable navel. Her large and full breasts are partially covered with her left arm. In proportion to the Lady’s enormously obese body, especially her excessively modelled bulbous arms, thighs and huge buttocks, whose details are discretely hidden under the material of the skirt, the figure’s hands and head seem extremely minuscule, as if they did not belong to the same person (Ibid.:132). Her face is oval with delicate features: two small horizontal lines resemble closed eyes, “the nose wide with a definite ridge, the mouth [tiny and barely visible]” (Ibid.:132). Her hair is close to the head but long, reaching her arms (Ibid.:132).
Natural and artificial obesity
Obesity of the Maltese statues from the Temples Period, which is also evident in the case of the Sleeping Lady, seems to have been really important as it appears in all contemporary types of female figurines, either clothed or nude, including those with rather asexual characteristics (Biaggi 1986:137-138).
It possibly “implied power, sanctity, [and] strengthened their [aesthetic-symbolic] connection with the temples, which they resembled in shape”. (Ibid.:138). Following “the law of mimetic magic, [obesity may also] have had a magical function to [favour] fecundity, [for example], the growth of vegetation” (Ibid.:138). Nevertheless, Cristina Biaggi (1986:138) assumes that in contract to natural obesity, the artificial overweightness, possibly represented by a far-reaching stylisation of sculpted female representations was “a product of patriarchal culture because it presupposes the loss of woman’s control over her own body, which is not a characteristic of early Goddess worshipping cultures” (Ibid.: 138).
Lady of the Temple Period
Like other Maltese figures, the Sleeping Lady “dates back to the island’s [mysterious] prehistory, specifically to the thousand-year span, [between circa 3500 to 2500 BC.]” (Magli 2009:47). Due to the high quality of the sculpture, and the belief that its image expresses the numinous of an already well-established religion, it is believed to date back to a later period, that is, between 3000 and 2500 BC. (Biaggi 1986:137; Haughton 2009:163). The fact is, however, that the exact date of the figure is unknown and provided dating is merely modern guessing.
The final resting place of the ‘Sleeping Lady’
As mentioned above, “[this remarkable] gem [of Malta] was unearthed in one of the world’s most singular and enigmatic places, the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni” (Magli 2009:47). Precisely, the statuette was found either in one of the niches of the Hypogeum’s Main Chamber (Zone A) or, more likely, in a nearby deep pit or a cavity (Zone B), also referred to as the Snake Pit (Pace 2004:39,48; Haughton 2009:163) or “the final resting place of the ‘Sleeping Lady’” (Pace 2004:48). The pit is one of numerous examples of a high quality of craftsmanship applied in the Hypogeum (Ibid.:48). The discovery of the Sleeping Lady in that cavity would suggest it “may have once served as a repository of votive offerings” (Ibid.:48). Moreover, alongside the pit, between two decorated pillars, there is a shaft leading to the most mysterious place of the construction, the Third Level (possibly the deepest in the Hypogeum), where visitors are not allowed to descend (Ibid.:48). The ceiling of the elliptical chamber, where the pit is located, is additionally covered in abstract paintings, representing spirals, polygons and plant-like patterns, all made with red ochre (Ibid.:48). Such a decoration equally evokes a rather religious purpose of the site (Ibid.:48). In such circumstances, the terracotta statue may have been deposited in the pit as a burial offering possibly representing death seen as an eternal dream or the afterlife (Pace 2004: 22 Haughton 2009:164).
In the Hypogeum, which is usually interpreted as the subterranean temple of the dead and the necropolis, the deceased were buried accompanied by offerings of significant and religious funerary objects, which also included sophisticated artworks, such as the Sleeping Lady (Pace 2004:22). The meaning of the funerary custom of deposing valuable offerings alongside the dead is unknown but, likewise in other ancient cultures, as Egypt, they were definitely to accompany the deceased in their way to the afterlife and to reveal their high social status in front of their mysterious deities (Ibid.:22).
Is it the Mother Goddess or a priestess?
Along with other figurines from the Mediterranean region, the Sleeping Lady has sometimes been used as a testimony to support the theory of the universalism of the Mother Goddess or the Great Peacemaker Goddess who was worshiped in prehistory (Haughton 2009:163-164). It is a theory advocated by researchers such as Marija Gimbutas and Vicki Noble (Ibid.:164; see Noble 2000). It is the fact that “[the] worship of the Great Goddess was universal from the upper Paleolithic to the late Neolithic in Europe and the Near East, [and the] Maltese goddess figures represented the very stylised visual manifestation of that worship in Malta” (Biaggi 1986:137).
However, apart from female figurines, there is no other evidence of the universality of this peaceful matriarchy cult, and the finds of weapons and fortifications dating back to the same period weaken the argument reinforced by the contemporary female sculpture (Haughton 2009:164). Moreover, Cristina Biaggi (1986:137) claims that the Sleeping Lady, as much as the other female lying on her face, does not represent a goddess but a priestess “engaged in dream incubation [or] an adept in giving oracles, interpreting dreams, or suggesting cures for illness” (also see: Krzak 2007:85).
Entering an incubation dream
The whole religious rite of falling into an incubation dream may have consisted in the fact that priestesses or priests, or both, went to the tomb, or to a cave or temple, and during their sleep they would obtain divinations from deities or ancestors, or seize their vital forces (Krzak 2007:85). This was considered in classical times in Greece and Rome, where such practices were certified as early as in the second century AD. (Ibid.:85). Aristotle, Diodorus and Pausanias all testify in writing about such cult dreams (Ibid.:85). Apart from Malta, the incubation also played a special role in North Africa, Libya and Sardinia (Ibid.:85). To this day, similar beliefs are found among Berbers in Maghreb and among people in Ireland (Ibid.:85).
This interesting theory tells that the Sleeping Lady – a goddess or not, a sleeping woman or in a trance – possibly points to a place in the Hypogeum, where dreams or visions were interpreted by means of incubation rituals (Haughton 2009:164). Such a dark area underground would be ideal for stimulating similar states and for inducing dreams and visions (Ibid.:164).
But who modelled the figurine? “No one knows if the sculptor who carved [the Sleeping Lady] was inspired by his own beloved or was simply following an established model of an idealised female form” (Magli 2009:47). Giulio Magli (2009:47) “[leans] towards the first hypothesis, because, [as he claims] the sculpture is a masterpiece, the infusion of the creative soul into [hardly twelve] centimetres of [terracotta] statuette”.
Featured image: The clay figure of a reclining lady (Sleeping Lady) was found in one of the pits of the Hypogeum in Hal Saflieni in Malta. It has traces of red ochre paint. Temple Period, 4000 – 2500 BC. National Museum of Archaeology in Malta. Photo by Jvdc (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo by Jvdc (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “National Museum of Archaeology, Malta” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
“National Museum of Archaeology, Malta” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3uXG194>. [Accessed on 4th March, 2021].
Biaggi C. (1986). “The Significance of the Nudity, Obesity and Sexuality of the Maltese Goddess Figures”. In: Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean: Papers Presented at the First International Conference on Archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean, University of Malta, 2-5 September 1985. Bonanno A. ed., pp. 131-13. Amsterdam: Grüner Publishing Co.
Haughton B. (2009). Tajemne miejsca. [Haunted Spaces, Sacred Places], Ferek M. trans. Poznań: REBIS.
Krzak Z. (2007). Od matriarchatu do patriarchatu. Warszawa: Wudawnictwo TRIO.
Magli G. (2009). Mysteries and Discoveries of Archaeoastronomy: From Giza to Easter Island. Praxis Publishing. Ltd.
Pace A. (2004) Malta Insight Heritage Guides: the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Paola. Heritage Books & Heritage Malta.
Vicki N. (2003) The Double Goddess. Women Sharing Power. Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Compony.
Tin-glazed faience vessels, often decorated with colorful painting decorations, occurring in the greatest number in Moravia, Slovakia, but also in Switzerland, Tirol and Transylvania, roughly from the mid-sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The vessels and utensils were made by wandering craftsmen of the Anabaptist sect who were harshly persecuted and usually driven out of the countries because of their radical religious beliefs.
“Anabaptism […] is a Christian movement which traces its origins to the Radical Reformation. […] The movement is seen by outsiders as another offshoot of Protestantism, although this view is not shared by Anabaptists, who view themselves as a separate branch of Christianity. […] The name Anabaptist means ‘one who baptizes again’, [which refers to their beliefs] that baptism is valid only when candidates freely confess their faith in Christ and request to be baptized. This believer’s baptism is opposed to baptism of infants, who are not able to make a conscious decision to be baptized” (“Anababtism” 2021).
The Habanic pottery made by Anabaptists was usually spherical and melon-shaped but polygonal apothecary bottles, plates and platters were also manufactured. In the painting decoration, cobalt or colorful floral motifs were applied. Such an ornamentation seem to be a folk version of plant painting decorations used on Italian Majolica.
Featured image: Pottery from a small factory in Modra, Slovakia. In the seventeeth century, the first potters’ guilds began to appear in Modra (the first one was established in 1636). Among them, there were potters from the Anabaptist sects who came from Switzerland, and who made the so-called Habanic ceramics. Photo by Limojoe (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ceramika z Modrej” (2020) In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.
“Anababtism” (2021) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2N5baFX>. [Accessed on 9th February, 2021].
“Ceramika z Modrej” (2020) In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rCRvMs>. [Accessed on 9th February, 2021].
PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 145. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.
Once again I found myself among the finest artefacts gathered by the British Museum; I felt as if I had been in the middle of piled or scattered volumes, surrounding me and calling for being opened and read. Walking up and down between all the museal objects, without paying them enough attention, would be like skipping pages of those books and missing their stories. It is worth thus choosing one and read it from cover to cover.
Room 40 in the British Museum
At that time, the Room 40 of the Medieval Europe galleries was my destination for homework; I was studying one of the core modules of Medieval Cultures at Birkbeck College and was analysing medieval artefacts preserved by the Museum for the following class. There were just few people around so I decided to squat on the floor and making my notes in front of ‘my homework’. Those were eight red clay tiles resembling large domino blocks of 33 centimetres long and 16 centimetres wide, but without black dots (The British Museum I 2021).
Instead, there were intriguing medieval representations of apocrypha scenes related to the unknown events of Jesus Christ’s lifetime, which is not recorded in the canonical Bible (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1). Such artistic documents do not only seem uncommon in traditional representations of the Christ but may be also provocative in their interpretations (Casey 2007:1). First of all, the official image of Jesus known from the writings and art stand here in sharp contrast to the illustration of Christ provided by the tiles, especially because they depict and regard Him as a Child at the age between five and twelve (Ibid.:1). Such images, however, do not belong to a canonical tradition of the Gospels but are taken possibly from the anonymous second century’s Apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels, translated into art in the form of the earthenware rectangular tiles in the fourteenth century AD., precisely circa 1330 (Casey 2007:1; The British Museum I 2021).
Biblical story of the Child Jesus
The four Gospels written by tradition by the Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only recognized source of Christ’s life and ministry (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
According to the Evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, the Holy Family, after their stay in Egypt, returned to Nazareth in Galilee (Rops 1944:109). Little Christ’s homeland was just that little town, white and green, situated on the slope of the rolling hills that enclose the Jezreel Valley to the north (Ibid.:111). The streets and houses of Nazareth are like all the streets and houses of the East (Ibid.:111). The city is only distinguished by the number of its churches, monasteries and bell towers; it is surrounded by a semi-circle of gently rolling hills dotted with villages with houses made of white clay (Rops 1944:111). Among the olives, the vineyards and grain fields, bullets of black cypress trees shoot up into the sky (Ibid.:111). The gardens of Nazareth are full of lilies and verbenas, and on many walls of its houses, juicy flowers of bougainvillea spread their covers in the colour of episcopal purple (Ibid.:111). It was in this environment that Jesus the Child grew up (Ibid.:111). However, one should not imagine him under the very graceful figure represented by a late antique statue from the fourth century, known as Jesus the Teacher, preserved in the National Museum of Baths of Diocletian in Rome: he is represented there too calm, too well-mannered, and hieratic in his long pleated tunic (Ibid.:111). Rather, it should be assumed that little Jesus looked like one of those lively, nervous kids that one still meets on the roads of Palestine, lightly dressed, barefoot, with an expression of great intelligence on passionate and serious faces (Ibid.:111).
The House of the Holy Family
The life of the Holy Family, whose secrets so many painters wanted to represent, was passing in one of the modest houses of Nazareth, one of those that can still be seen today (Rops 1944:111). There is usually only one room inside them; there is a sweet smell of oil in the air; smoke from the fire often comes out only through the door; in the evening, a clay lamp placed on an iron candle, or on a stone protruding from the wall, casts a dim light (Ibid.:111).
In the modern town of Nazareth, there are plenty of monuments ascribed to the times of Christ Child: the Basilica of Annunciation with said remains of the house of the Virgin Mary, the Mary’s Well or Joseph’s workshop. Based on various archaeological excavations, it is assumed the Holy Family’s house looked like the one in which the Archangel Gabriel announced Mary she would conceive and bear the Son of God (today overbuilt with the walls of the Basilica of the Annunciation); it was probably largely underground, embedded in the soft local limestone; God’s Child was to walk up its rather primitive stairs, in the contemporary Basilica, they are today decorated with mosaics (Rops 1944:111-112).
Jesus received the education that all young Israelites received; it seems that at that time there were whole cycles of studies described by the Talmud (Rops 1944:112). They were dependent on the synagogue, and they were led by a hassan, someone like a sacristan, perhaps the administrator of a venerable place, where the faithful gathered (Ibid.:112). In the bejt-haseter, an elementary school, boys, sitting around the great scroll of the Law, repeated the verses of the Torah in chorus until they had memorized them perfectly (Ibid.:112).
Probably, the adolescent Jesus did not pursue further studies in one of the rabbinical schools that existed near Nazareth (Ibid.:112). This assumption is supported by an openly expressed amazement of Jesus’ family members and acquaintances who heard his wise preaching in God’s matters (Ibid.:112).
Finding in the Temple
Jesus, therefore, grew up in Nazareth living in a modest house with his mother and adoptive father, Joseph, and after his death, He lived in the company of numerous cousins (Rops 1944:113). The canonical messages regarding this period are limited (Ibid.:113): “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). And only one episode of this time is known from the Bible; namely, the one that happened in the twelfth year of Jesus’ life, when a young Jew was becoming a man and a “son” of the Law (Ibid.:113).
The event in question is the famous scene from the Temple; Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Rops 1944:113). Perhaps for the first time they took the Son with them (Ibid.:113). In the evening of the first day of their journey back, Joseph and Mary were looking for Jesus among their friends and relatives (Ibid.:114). They did not him all day, but assumed that he had joined some group of relatives or friends (Ibid.:114). Extremely worried, they returned to Jerusalem and it took them three days to finally find Him in the Temple (Ibid.:114). In its cloisters, surrounded by a circle of students, the wise men taught; the children squeezed into the crowd of listeners and were sometimes allowed to ask questions (Ibid.:114).
The twelve-year-old Jesus, however, was not among the listeners but sat among the wise men of Israel (Rops 1944:114), and “[everyone] who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you ‘.’ Why were you searching for me? ‘ [Jesus] asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “(Luke 2: 48-49). Jesus’ words show that He is fully aware of his mission. There is also the teaching of the Gospel that whoever wants to follow Christ must sever all human ties and bonds (Ibid.:114).
‘Unofficial’ God’s life
This one and only event in Jesus’ childhood, described in detail in the Bible, though so eloquent, has not satisfied yet the curiosity of the crowds since the first centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages to the present day (Rops 1944:114).
There are yet other ancient records of Christ’s life but apocryphal, that is to say officially rejected from the standard Bible, though not sanctioned by the Church (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “In everyday conversation ‘apocryphal’ refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). Especially in the Middle Ages, the apocrypha was used to elaborate on gaps in the Gospel stories, which were thought fairly sparse in details about the life of Christ (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007; Austin Date unknown). “Apocryphal stories, [such as the one] based on the dream of Pilate’s wife, […] or of the forging of the nails for Christ’s crucifixion were [therefore] incorporated into medieval mystery plays and were an integral part of the imaginative religious experience” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). The light and colour used in the art of churches and cathedrals additionally embellished the words heard from priests during their homilies; by various artistic expressions, people who everyday experienced poor and hard conditions, could admire the splendour and dignity of the image of the mighty and omnipresent God who yet became Man and suffered for the sins of mankind. At the time, when Biblical stories were accessed in paintings and sculpture for the illiterate populace, their main characters were treated similarly to modern celebrities, and like today, common people wished to know more details about their lives than the official version of the Church was able to offer.
Jesus between His years five and twelve
“One of the most frustrating absences in the Gospels is the early years of Christ’s life, [that id to say when He is between five and twelve. In the Bible, “Christ is encountered as an infant and then later as an adolescent disputing with the doctors of the law in the Temple but no mention is made of His upbringing or his relationship with his parents” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
In the eyes of contemporary people, this gap had successfully been complemented by the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, believed to have been written anonymously by early Christians from the second century AD., who imaginatively tried to create their own fictional version of what Jesus’ childhood might have been like (Casey 2007:3). Yet these imaginary pictures were quite successfully interwoven with the canonical portrayal of Jesus’ life (Ibid.:3-4). Simultaneously, the apocrypha author built up the stories around their own experiences in the process of the development of Christianity (Ibid.:3; see Elliott ed. 2005).
Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood
Surely, the Infancy Gospels had circulated in oral tradition before a series of their written compilations appeared (Casey 2007:4). From the very beginning, however, all of them shared several cohesive narrative elements (Ibid.:4). Central to this genre is the Gospel of Thomas dating back to the second century (Ibid.:4). It “describes the doings of Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical gospels. According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and friends by the miracles that he performed” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). The Infancy Gospels tell a lot of different anecdotes about this unknown period of Christ’ childhood (Rops 1944:114-115). Some of them are famous and charming; Jesus, playing with His companions, makes birds out of clay, and then gives them life, and when He claps his hands, the wonderful creatures start flying in the air (Ibid.:115). Jesus is also playing with the other children at the entrance to the grotto, and then suddenly two huge snakes come out of it; the joyful flock runs away screaming, only Jesus remains and calmly orders the dangerous beasts to place their heads under the feet of His Mother, Mary (Ibid.:115).
The Apocrypha also attributes many miracles to Christ Child (Rops 1944:115). Many of them are modelled on the miracles of the canonical Gospels; they tell that one seed Child Jesus planted is enough to feed an entire city in times of famine (Ibid.:115). Another time, the Apocrypha depict the young worker who is resurrected by Christ (Ibid.:115). Other miracles are rather magical; Jesus, riding the mule, turns the spell on him and the animal becomes a beautiful youth again (Ibid.:115). Another miracle tells that as the little Christ calls out, the salted fish begins to roll and flutter (Ibid.:115). Another time at school, when a teacher starts teaching Jesus the alphabet, the Child proves that he can do it, even though he has not learned it before (Ibid.:115).
Other apocryphal miracles can seem utterly repulsive while being attributed to the Son of God; when the same teacher wants to punish his rebellious Student, he sees at once that his hand is withered (Rops 1944:115). In turn, to show off His power to His playmates, Jesus turns one of them into a ram, another, who poked Him, becomes stroke dead (Ibid.:115).
Apocrypha in art
In the eighth or ninth centuries, the Gospel of Thomas was furthermore compiled with the Protevangelium of James, including the Apocrypha of the Virgin Mary (Casey 2007:4). As such, it formed the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.:4; see Elliott ed. 2005). And when the cult of the Virgin Mary had grown since the twelfth century, an interest in her Parents’ lives and the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the center also raised, and so did the interest in the Apocrypha, which was mainly reflected through art in the whole Christian world (Robinson et al. 2008:118). As such all these, more or less known apocryphal fairy tales served especially as a source of inspiration for the painters and sculptors of the Middle Ages; paintings and mosaics of small churches and images of Gothic cathedrals are full of memories of these Christian legends (Rops 1944:115).
It is enough to mention a set of wall paintings created inside the Nubian church of Faras, with the representations known ultimately from the Apocrypha. Among them, there is the eight century’s famous representation of the Virgin Mary’s Mother, Saint Anne with her mysterious gesture of pointing her index finger to the lips (see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.). “Scenes such as these are [also] depicted in the [fourteenth century’s] Tring Tiles” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).
Medieval apocryphal writings
With the late twelfth century, an increased fascinations with the humanity of the Christ, especially with His childhood, had further inspired the creation of a large number of manuscripts, which mainly originated from the writings of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, many of which were written in vernacular languages (Casey 2007:4). Such extensive compilation of the Infancy stories, along with the French manuscript Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 (circa 1325), combined of the Anglo-Norman manuscript, Les Enfaunces de Jesu Crist and an Apocalypse manuscript, were apparently the foundations of the now lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:4-5). Although the Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 is the most complete medieval illuminated manuscript with the Infancy Gospel stories, its illustrated simple and miniature figures significantly vary with the style of highly expressive and highly caricatured images on the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:5).
Red clay tiles
The Tring Tiles, ceramic pieces of 3,5 centimetres in thickness, were made in the technique known as sgraffito, an expensive hand-worked process popular especially in France (The British Museum I 2021; Austin Date unknown), which involves “decorating ceramics [where] a substrate, usually ‘slip’, is incised to reveal the contrasting ground underneath” (The British Museum I 2021). Obtained in this way slip-decorated designs on the tiles were additionally lead-glazed (Ibid.). The group of tiles was uncovered during the late Victorian (the mid-nineteenth century) restoration of Tring Parish Church in Hertfordshire, which has given the tiles its name (Casey 2007:7; Austin Date unknown).
“Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring” (Munday 2018), it is not sure if they had originally been laid down in the church or only preserved or applied there after being moved from elsewhere, even from abroad (Austin Date unknown; Munday 2018). “More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done, for the mystery is still far from solved” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, “the peculiar character of their sgraffito design, may suggest that they were produced in the east of England, where this technique was popular on pottery” (British Museum II 2021).
Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known, of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown).
Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021). What message were they to convey?
Featured image: The Wedding Feast at Cana (Fig.4), represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology; University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
“Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KS743c>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
“Christ Child” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3r0bDHZ>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
“Finding in the Temple” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3qWYyiN>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
“Infancy gospels” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iPe65r>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
“Nazareth” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3cf8mAx>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
Austin W. (Date unknown). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iEdbol>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].
Casey M. F. (2007). “The Fourteenth-Century Tring Tiles: A Fresh Look at Their Origin and the Hebraic Aspects of the Child Jesus’ Actions”. In: Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 1-53. Available at <https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol2/iss2/1>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].
Elliott J. K. ed. (2005). The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James, pp. 88-99. Oxford University Press.
Munday A. (2018). “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles”. In: A Writer’s Perspective. Available at <https://bit.ly/39VmJY9>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].
Priory Tiles (2021). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Priory Tiles. Available at <https://bit.ly/2NvIeaf>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
Robinson et al. (2008). “The Tring Tiles”. In: Masterpieces. Medieval Art. pp. 118-119. London: The British Museum Press.
Rops D. (1944). Dzieje Chrystusa [Histoire Sainte – Jesus et Son Temps]. Starowiejska-Morstinowa Z. trans. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy Pax.
The British Museum by means of Google Arts&Culture (2021). “Take a Virtual Tour in the Room 40; Medieval Europe AD 1050–1500; The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery”. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Mci0Jw>. [Accessed 23rd January, 2021].
The British Museum I (2021). “The Tring Tiles; museum number 1922,0412.1.CR.” In: The British Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/399gSiO>. [Accessed 22nd January, 2021].
Weitzmann K., ed. (1979). “Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century: Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, November 19, 1977 through February 12, 1978.”, p. 524; statue: 469. Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). In: MET Publications. Available at <https://bit.ly/2KTpjFB>. [Accessed 27th January, 2021].
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 Disc 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., situated in what is now Algeria and a smaller part of Tunisia and small part of Libya in the Maghreb) (Gregor 1997:25; “Numidia” 2021). On the other side, for a British researcher Alan Butler (TheHallOfRecords 2015), the Disc was a piece of a Bronze Age sophisticated calendar, and so it should rather be interpreted in terms of astronomy.
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).
How to read it?
Generally, it is believed that 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).
After a researcher, Dr. Minas Tsikritsis (Menzies 2011:306), however, the idea of spiral is actually the key to the way of reading the Disc. He claims that the Minoans continued to use spiral patterns, as in the Disc of Phaistos, and unlike other researchers, Dr. Tsikritsis believes that the spiraling symbols printed in the clay can be read back and forth, that is to say, from the outside to the center and backwards, from the inside out (Ibid.:306). Supporting the thesis is the fact that characters printed on the outer edge also repeat inwards (Gregor 1997:25). Also 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).
Unfortunately, in order to read some unknown language with absolute statistical certainty, it takes at least fifty-six symbols, yet, there are only forty-five different signs represented in the Disc of Phaistos (Menzies 2011:306). In his book, Gavin Menzies (2011:304-310) refers to the research done by Dr. Minas Tsikritsis on the Linear A. To proceed with his studies, the researcher first had searched for tablets and other artifacts, such as rings with spiral engravings, that could help him to translate the insufficient number of symbols on the Disc (Ibid.:306). In the course of his work, he has found that the artifact actually shows fifteen symbols identical to the characters of a script in Linear B (Ibid.:306). What is more, he claims that the meaning of individual symbols is likely to change depending on what word follows a given symbol (Ibid.:306). On the whole, the researcher’s systemic solution to the ancient puzzle of Linear Type A seems to be consistent and well-thought-out (Ibid.:307). So what is the thesis proposed by Dr. Tsikritsis? The results of his research reveals that the examples of ancient texts in Linear A mostly concern ways and the process of obtaining bronze, an alloy of special importance for the Minoans (Ibid.:307). Is it also the actual message of the the Disc of Phaistos?
Generally, researchers 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.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology; University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
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