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Is the “First Movable Type” a Hoax?

by Kevin Kelly on July 13th, 02008

200Px-Diskos.Von.Phaistos Seite.A 11-Aug-2004 Asb Pict3371

The Phaistos Disc is an archeological object that some have considered the oldest example of moveable type in history. The characters on the clay disc were stamped from a set of “seals” creating a text written in a spiral, although neither the text nor the language of the text has been deciphered. It is presumed to be from the Minoan culture of around 1800 BC, which would put it 2,000 years or more earlier than moveable type in China, and 3,000 years before movable type in Europe. The Phaistos Disc has been held up as a case of how easily information can be lost in the long term (an entire written language gone!), or how easily a technology (“printing”) can be forgotten for millennia, only to be re-invented later. (Jared Diamond used the Phaistos Disc as an example of this argument.)

On my shelf I have a small bronze replica of this object simply because it is a beautiful mandala. The fired-clay Disc which it replicates was discovered in 1908. However this week a specialist in faked ancient art claims that the original object is …well… faked ancient art. In other words that the Phaistos Disc is a hoax. In addition to this expert’s technical reasons you can add two others: no other example of the writing has been found, and even the shape and format of the object is unique.

I suspect it is a fake.

If that were true, it diminishes the argument that advance technologies can be forgotten. It instead bolsters the argument that implemented technologies very rarely (if ever) go extinct, and at worst will be shunted to a marginal alternative role, until a new niche is found for them later. We find no other moveable type before 1 AD because there was never any.