You might think a historical object covered in textor symbolswould be an archaeologists dream. What better solution to learn about days gone by than from the direct words of the ancients? The groundbreaking discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 andits decoding in 1822, for instance, unlocked the intricate information on Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.
But sometimes, archaeologists run into ancient texts that, as exciting because they may be, won’t quit their secrets. Here are a few, including a symbol-stamped clay disk, the Easter Island tablets, and a 16th-century world map depicting landmasses allegedly unknown at that time it had been charted, that still grip onto their ancient mysteries. What secrets are they holding?
The Minoan kingdom flourished on the Greek island of Crete between 3000 B.C. and 1100 B.C. Among the earliest urban societies, they built elaborate palaces and used sophisticated plumbing, heating, and sewage systems. In addition they may have left out a mysterious six-inch, fired-clay disk, which Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier discovered in 1908 in the ruins of the ancient palace of Phaistos. Dating from perhaps 1700 B.C., this phenomenal find bears a spiral of 242 stamped symbols. Many have recognizable shapes, like a tattooed head, an arrow, a plane tree, a cat, and a beehive. They could represent phonetic groups or syllables, but you can find too few of these to be deciphered. No other artifact has ever been found with exactly the same symbols. Attempts to unravel its mysteryCretan? Foreign? Syllabic reading inward? Alphabetic reading outward?are as varied as its interpreters. The truth that symbols are stamped may suggest a convenience of mass production, although no other discovery supports that.