There are two similar signs in the Indus script that I will discuss together. The first of these is the CIRCLED SLASH, III27. It is not shown in the list prepared by Koskenniemi and Parpola as presumably they assumed it to be a variant of another, more common sign. It does not appear in Fairservis’ list either. Wells numbers it 378, stating that it occurs only once, on M-196. On this seal the outer “circle” is actually a pointed oval and the slash is very low, almost but not quite a horizontal belt. However, I also see a pointed oval with a backslash crossing it and even going beyond it on the pot shard from Rahman-Deri, Rhd-218 and Rhd-216, possibly also Rhd-214 although this last may be the CORD (or FINLESS FISH). There are, in addition, two nicely rounded examples with a completely horizontal or vertical crossing mark, C-18B from Chanhujo daro and L-187 from Lothal.
|The Celtic triskele, a Pictish coil|
The Egyptian hieroglyph that most closely resembles this is a circle with a horizontal belt (N9). It represents the moon. Another circular glyph has several horizontal stripes (Aa1). It may represent a placenta since seems to be a determinative in the word for that organ, but occurs mostly as a phonetic glyph for the guttural kh sound. Luwian hieroglyphs also include a circle with a crossing stroke, this one vertical. It represents the syllable ha. An oval with three verticals is the syllable ma.
In Old Chinese, as noted in the previous post, a circle with a horizontal line is ri4, “sun, day” (Wieger 1965: 311). This same character also appears as a circled dot (1965: 376). Proto-cuneiform has a sign that resembles the Indus symbol somewhat, a circle with a sideways “T” shape inside. This can be transcribed in various ways, including |LAGAB~a x ME~a|. The circle is LAGAB~a, which by itself came to mean “a slab (of stone), trunk (of a tree), block.” But early on, it often represented a head of livestock, especially a sheep, with the internal marking indicating something about the sheep, e.g., its sex or age. Here, ME~a came to mean “function, office, divine power,” which might possibly indicate a person with some authority over either the sheep (like a shepherd) or else over the shepherds. But I am guessing and it may be nothing of the sort.
A circle crossed by a line appears in the rock art of North America in Texas (Newcomb 1996: 53, Pl. 18, no. 5; 100, Pl. 56, no. 1, no. 2, and Pl. 57). In the last instance, there are also two dots, one on either side of the line inside the circle. In these cases, the internal line does not always go all the way across the circle, but sometimes stops just short of the other side. In the collection from Nevada and eastern California, the motif of the bisected circle also occurs, 98 times in fact (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 108, fig. 45b twice). The line extends beyond the perimeter of the circle in some of these. A circle divided by a slash occurs with a lizard superimposed on the left in Australia at Euriowie, western New South Wales (Flood 1997: 218). Another engraving of the divided circle that has not been superimposed appears at Salt Creek, Panaramitee Station, in South Australia (1997: 183).
|Spiral motifs from Malta (Bonanno 1991: 40)|
The next sign is a circled short post which I term PACMAN, III28. Like the previous sign, it appears only in Wells, where it is numbered 386. He gives its frequency as one occurrence, like the previous sign (M-306). This occurrence is again a pointed oval and the stroke inside rises from the bottom of the oval to about mid height. However, once again, I see more of these. Clear examples include M-1355, L-153 from Lothal, Grb-1 from Gharo Bhiro, and C-19 from Chanhujo daro. A bit less clear is H-776 from Harappa. The short post seems a bit frayed at the top, so it might conceivably be a tiny tri-fork in there rather than a post. In that case, this sign is a CIRCLED TRI-FORK, not PACMAN. Also a bit less than obvious is M-1651 which is an ivory stick. The sign on this object is more angular than normal due to the material, it seems to me, so that it almost appears to be a diamond. But I think it is another example. The two cases of very round circles each with horizontal or vertical crossing line, C-18B and L-187, must be mentioned again. I was originally inclined to place the first of these with the previous sign and the second with this sign. I am now somewhat inclined to group both signs together as variants of a single sign. It also occurs to me that perhaps both are variants of the CIRCLED DOT, which sometimes becomes rather long (cf. M-415).
Compare the PACMAN sign with Egyptian X6, the round bread loaf with what Gardiner calls a mark made by the baker’s finger. It is a determinative in p3t, “loaf.” But since the Egyptians didn’t always bother to put the internal markings in, it was often confused with N9, the moon. Then there is the Luwian ha, a circle with a vertical line across it. Proto-cuneiform has a sign with a horizontal line that does not quite cross it, DUR2. This came to mean about what it looks like, “buttocks, rear.” This is in contrast to a triangle containing a line that does not altogether bisect it, representing the female pudendum. One or the other of these two Near Eastern meanings suggest a possible significance for the Indus sign, but neither can be taken as proven.
Finally, rock art also demonstrates a fair number of circles either bisected by a straight line or nearly so. This is relatively infrequent in Texas (Newcomb 1996: 100, Pl. 56, no. 2, incomplete bisecting line; 201, Pl. 149, completely bisected). Neither line completely bisects the circle in the examples from further west (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 166, fig. 103a). The Australian example is a circle containing a line that contacts neither side, at Panaramitee North (Flood 1997: 122).
After these two uncommon circular signs, we come to a sign that is also rare among Indus signs but quite popular elsewhere in the world, the COIL or spiral, III29. This motif does appear to be made in three strokes in its Indus form. It is not particularly closely curled, and the outer leg may be either long (“a” variant) or short (“b” variant). It was formerly KP342, W73, Fs K-17. Fairservis calls it a spiral curl, giving its meaning as “assemble; curl; brave,” a rather astonishing group of unrelated meanings which, however, are semi-homophonous in Dravidian languages.
|Speech scrolls as people play a sacred board game for deity on left (Nuttall Codex)|
The COIL only appears 11 times in the Indus corpus, nine of those times at Mohenjo daro, the other two at Harappa. The “b” variant with the short leg usually occurs where it is positioned over the horn of a bovine icon and it must accommodate itself to a small space. If one considers the swastika or fylfot a square variant of the spiral, as it sometimes is in folklore circles, then there are many more examples. Many seals without inscriptions contain this ancient symbol, one which is found is many regions of the world, long before any National Socialist Party existed and decided to coopt it. But that is a matter for another day, as that is a quite different symbol.
In Egyptian hieroglyphs, there are at least three distinct coils. The first is a coil of rope, used as a determinative for words having to do with ropes and tying (V1). Either this glyph or one indistinguishable from it is used as the numeral 100. As a more cursive form of hieratic writing developed, the quail chick that was a phonetic glyph for the w sound turned into another coil. This first appeared in the 9th Dynasty but did not become really common until the time of Akhenaten. Then there is another coil in one of the pharaoh’s crowns (Gardiner 1976: 521). Context largely distinguishes all of these.
|Coiling water, detail from Hokusai's |
"In the Well of the Great Wave of Kanagawa"
Old Chinese includes a spiral, hui2, “image of an object (clouds, volutes of the smoke) that turns, that rolls, that revolves....Abstract notion of revolving, of return” (Wieger 1965: 198). He is talking about the character that now looks like a square in a square and primarily means “return.” While coiling and spiraling shapes essentially disappear in calligraphy, due to the square nature of the script, they are still visible in art. Dragons and snakes have coiling bodies, clouds and water are depicted with coiling lines, fire and smoke may also be shown with coiling lines.
Luwian has a variety of signs that are ram’s heads, each signifying the syllable ma, the most abstract of these being little more than a coil. This is based on the coiled shape of the ram’s horn. The choice of this pictorial sign for this syllable may be echoic in origin, based on the sound the ram makes (ma-a-a-a). In proto-cuneiform there are two coiled or spiraling signs, one curling upward, the other curling downward. Both begin with a small diamond shape at the base before the coil. These are ZATU697~a and ZATU697~b. Proto-Elamite has a more deeply coiled spiral which curls three times around (M349).
|Spiraling cloud, detail from Van Gogh's "Starry Night"|
In Mixtec proto-writing, the spiral appears as a motif representing speech. There may be a single coil, two or three stacked together, or a string of as many as five of them. They are shown proceeding from the mouths of persons depicted in codices. Sometimes they are actually touching the lips. But more often they are positioned slightly apart from the mouth. In the literature on Mixtec codices, they are referred to as “speech scrolls” (Smith 1973: 228).
The spiral also appears in rock art. In Texas, there is a simple upward curl and a row of connected doubled spirals (Newcomb 1996: 199, Pl. 148, no. 25-E). Further west, there are a total of 41 spirals (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 138, fig. 71a, one which goes around three times; 141, fig. 78c, a brief single curl). Down Under, the spiral is rare but does appear in a six-times-around version at Salt Creek, Panaramitee Station, South Australia (Flood 1997: 183).
While we are speaking of art that appears on rocks, I will also mention two later traditions, both European. On the island of Malta, prehistoric temples dating to various periods from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age contain spiral motifs. Further to the north in Scotland, Pictish symbols are adorned with a great many spirals and coils, of which the triskele or three-armed cross is one. These last two are illustrated here.
(Additions to those posted previously; see the fuller list for Wieger, Gardiner, Wells, Koskenniemi and Parpola, Fairservis, Newcomb, Heizer and Baumhoff, Flood, sources for proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite)
Bonanno, Anthony. 1991. Malta: An Archaeological Paradise. Valletta: M.J. Publications.
Fraser, Iain. 2008. The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland. Edinburgh: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Pulleyblank, Edwin G. 1991. Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Smith, Mary E. 1973. Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico: Mixtec Place Signs and Maps. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.As an ending note, most of my sources, if they are not old books, were obtained through Amazon.com, a source I recommend. Apologies, too, for bad photos and worse artwork (by yours truly), but I’m trying not to break copyright laws too egregiously, while still showing the symbols that I’m talking about. Some may be accessible on the web through Google, as well. This is certainly true of Pictish, Naxi, proto-cuneiform, and proto-Elamite, somewhat true for Indus script itself and Mixtec proto-writing. It is considerably more difficult to find accurate depictions of Old Chinese on the internet than modern Chinese, of course, easy to find Egyptian hieroglyphs although sometimes these are of poor quality.