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Guns, Germs and Steel by Diamond Jared

Guns, Germs and Steel by Diamond Jared

Author:Diamond, Jared [Jared, Diamond,]
Format: epub, mobi
ISBN: 0393061310
Published: 2010-06-03T04:00:00+00:00


Guns, Germs and Steel

CHAPTER 13

NECESSITY'S MOTHER O N JULY 3, 1 9 0 8 , ARCHAEOLOGISTS EXCAVATING THE ancient Minoan palace at Phaistos, on the island of Crete, chanced upon one of the most remarkable objects in the history of technol- ogy. At first glance it seemed unprepossessing: just a small, flat, unpainted, circular disk of hard-baked clay, 6V2 inches in diameter. Closer examina- tion showed each side to be covered with writing, resting on a curved line that spiraled clockwise in five coils from the disk's rim to its center. A total of 241 signs or letters was neatly divided by etched vertical lines into groups of several signs, possibly constituting words. The writer must have planned and executed the disk with care, so as to start writing at the rim and fill up all the available space along the spiraling line, yet not run out of space on reaching the center (page 240).

Ever since it was unearthed, the disk has posed a mystery for historians of writing. The number of distinct signs (45) suggests a syllabary rather than an alphabet, but it is still undeciphered, and the forms of the signs are unlike those of any other known writing system. Not another scrap of the strange script has turned up in the 89 years since its discovery. Thus, it remains unknown whether it represents an indigenous Cretan script or a foreign import to Crete.

For historians of technology, the Phaistos disk is even more baffling; its One side of the two-sided Phaistos Disk.

estimated date of 1700 B.C. makes it by far the earliest printed document in the world. Instead of being etched by hand, as were all texts of Crete's later Linear A and Linear B scripts, the disk's signs were punched into soft clay (subsequently baked hard) by stamps that bore a sign as raised type. The printer evidently had a set of at least 45 stamps, one for each sign appearing on the disk. Making these stamps must have entailed a great deal of work, and they surely weren't manufactured just to print this single document. Whoever used them was presumably doing a lot of writing.

With those stamps, their owner could make copies much more quickly and neatly than if he or she had written out each of the script's complicated signs at each appearance.

The Phaistos disk anticipates humanity's next efforts at printing, which similarly used cut type or blocks but applied them to paper with ink, not to clay without ink. However, those next efforts did not appear until 2,500 years later in China and 3,100 years later in medieval Europe. Why was the disk's precocious technology not widely adopted in Crete or elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean? Why was its printing method invented around 1700 B.C. in Crete and not at some other time in Mesopotamia, Mexico, or any other ancient center of writing? Why did it then take thou- sands of years to add the ideas of ink and a press and arrive at a printing press? The disk thus constitutes a threatening challenge to historians.



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