Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cups and Roofs

One of the more common symbols in the Indus script is basically shaped like our capital letter "U," a sign I call the CUP.  It is designated II7 in my system.  The II means it takes two strokes to draw it, at least for the Harappans.  Originally I assumed it would be written with a single stroke because that's how I write the letter "U," but close examination of the seals, tablets, and especially the pot shards with this symbol changed my opinion.  The Harappans apparently started at the top and made one stroke down one side, ending at the bottom.  The second stroke also began at the top, on the other side, also ending at the bottom.  This method of drawing the CUP tended to leave the sign with a bit of a point at the bottom, a tendency that became quite pronounced in some cases.  In fact, sometimes it looks a lot more like "V" than "U."  Some of the CUPS are broad, some very thin, some tall and some short.  A few are lop-sided.  There are also two that are rather peculiar and seem to have taken four strokes to complete.  These begin with back to back parentheses or BACK CEE and CEE ) ( with a small V tacked on underneath.

Mixtec proto-writing including "AO" symbol

All these CUPS grouped together have the designations KP310, W289 and 293 (I'm uncertain why he separates them), and J-1 in Fairservis' list.  The latter author saw this symbol as a container, either a pot or a basket, which was used to measure quantity.  He gives its meaning as "container -- quantity pottery" (Fairservis 1992: 149-152).  No doubt he was influenced in his decision to assign it the meaning of a measure of quantity by the fact that so many of the tablets have brief inscriptions comprising this sign plus an apparent numeral between one and four.  In a later post I will explain why I think that probably is not what it means.

For now, we will examine similar signs in other scripts.  Egyptian has a fair number of glyphs containing "U" shapes, although none are that simple.  The horns of an ox are basically that shape (F13).  However, there is more detail to the horns, they curve somewhat differently, and they contain more lines.  A "U" shape with an additional horizontal line across the top is a well full of water (N42).  A similar sign that is wider, more like the letter "D" that has fallen over on its rounded belly, and which also has a little diamond shape inside, is an alabaster basin (W3).  If we're willing to turn the "U" with the line across the top on its side, making an elongated "D" shape, we have a sandy tongue of land from the Old Kingdom (N22).  And if we're willing to flip this completely upside-down it's a heap of grain (M35).  Then, if we add a little curved line inside the upside-down gadget, it becomes a domed building (O46).  Admittedly, these last few have gotten pretty far-fetched.  It would be much simpler to say that Egyptian provides no clearcut parallels.

Navaho sand painting

Old Chinese is much more helpful.  A very nice, simple "U" shape (minus the serifs in this font) is kan3, "a hole in the earth, a pit" (Wieger 1965: 105).  A very similar shape but with the upright lines pulled in just a bit yields chu1, "basin, porringer" (Wieger 1965: 106).  In case you're not familiar with porringers -- and I wasn't until I looked it up -- they're little bowls like the ones you probably eat your cornflakes out of in the morning.  Luwian hieroglyphs lacks a "U" shape, per se.  But flip it upside down, call it a roof, and there it is.  In this form it represents the vowel i.

Proto-cuneiform generally contains things that are turned sideways compared to the Indus signs.  This is the case with the CUP, more or less.  There is a sign designated SHU2 which has two forms, not distinguished by letter as they normally are in the CDLI list.  One is angular and resembles a "less than" sign in mathematics.  The other resembles our front parenthesis:

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The parenthesis-like variant is thus somewhat similar to the Indus CUP in a general way.  In later times, the proto-cuneiform sign came to mean "cover, covering; surface; a musical interval of lyre strings 6 and 3; to set, become dark, be overcast; to cover, envelop; overthrow, throw down."
Proto-Elamite also has similar signs, one resembling our "greater than" mathematical symbol (obviously pointing in the opposite direction of the proto-cuneiform sign).  This is M064.  Another has elongated sides formed by horizontal lines before attaching this same type of "greater than" sign at the bottom (M290).  This creates a sort of CUP lying on its side, albeit an angular version.  As with proto-cuneiform, most comparable symbols are oriented at a 90 degree angle to those in the Indus script because of the distinct way that the scribes held the tablet in Mesopotamia and presumably in Elam (as shown by this same orientation on monuments and statues).  This is thus the standard way in which the signs are printed nowadays as well.  But there is also a third "V" shaped sign which is oriented the way our letter is (M343~d).  This sign has, in addition to its shape, an indented circle attached to the left end.

"U"-shaped curves are relatively common in the rock of North America and the "V"-shape occurs as well (Newcomb 1996: 193, Pl. 143 no. 22 A; 194, Pl. 145 no. 24 E).  In the first illustration referenced here, a single small "U" shape is located beside twelve dots, six over six.  Several chevrons (or upside-down "V" shapes) are nearby.  In the second illustration, there are two small "V" shapes below many large tally marks.  The same kinds of markings appear further west as well (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 110 fig. 47 a; 125 fig. 62 a).  In the first illustration, both a large and a small "U" shape occur near a rayed circle.  In the second a "V" shape appears to the right of a long-stemmed figure.

As for Australia, the "U" shape can represent a person sitting or a windbreak in the art of people of the central desert (Flood 1997: 158).  There is a "U" engraved alongside that of some giant bird tracks at Eucolo Creek, South Australia (1997: 112).  There is a "V" shape in Mooraa Cave, Mount Gambier region, South Australia (1997: 89).  Curves also appear in a modern painting in the Papunya Tula style by Billy Stockman Tjapaltjari (Flood 1997: 157).  These curves are oriented in a variety of directions, so one might describe them as CEES, BACK CEES, CUPS and ROOFS.  In fact though, all represent the same thing in this painting.  All fifteen curves are witchetty grubs.  Thus, in this case at least, it would be a mistake to distinguish them based on orientation.

When it comes to the Indus script, we don't know at the outset whether orientation will prove to be significant or not.  In some scripts it is.  In the English alphabet, for example, the letters are often distinguished by orientation, as fact that is lost on small children trying to learn them for the first time.  Certain tots of my acquaintance confused quite a few of the letters of our alphabet, once upon a time.  "R" was one little girl's favorite letter, since it was in her name.  "P" was obviously a close relative, lacking only a leg.  Clearly the small (non-capital) letters identical to "P" included the following: p q d b.  She eventually added "a" to this list because the magnetic letters we had stuck to the refrigerator had a form of small "a" that looked like the top of the small "p" (or "q"), lacking only the tail.  It was, in this little girl's estimation, the baby "R."  This, of course, is a child's error.  She eventually grew out of it and learned to read quite well.  But the naive scholar -- which means all scholars at this point since we don't know how to "read" this script -- does not know which symbols to group together and which to separate.  We have nothing to go on but intuition.  If we lump together the signs which resemble one another, we may be committing the same error as the little girl who made "a" the baby of her favorite letter "R."

Let that be a lesson to us all!

And that brings us back to the CUP.  Most scholars consider the "U" shapes and "V" shapes to be the same symbol, especially since there seem to be quite a few examples in the corpus that are in between.  But then there are those two oddballs, L217 and M1425B.  They have curved sides and "V" bottoms.  Should they be classed up CUPS or as separate signs?  In inscription L217, this odd "CUP" occurs very close to a MAN sign, while a little further away there is another CUP, this time a more standard U (wider at the top than our letter).  If we follow standard practice, we will classify the oddball sign as a separate, independent symbol, giving it a number and name of its own, because of this fact -- it appears in an inscription alongside the regular CUP. 

The fact that there are only two instances of the new symbol might give us pause, except that there are a great many signs that occur only once, twice, or a similarly small number of times.  This is a characteristic feature of this type of script.  And what type is that?  The fact that the majority of signs appear fewer than 100 times is significant.  It means that statistics are useless as far as discovering anything about this class of signs.  This is not my opinion.  It is not a ruling made by some law court.  It is the way that statistics work, as anyone who has taken a single course in statistics must know.  Statistics only work when there is sufficient data.  It's as if you wanted to discover how often you get heads when you flip a coin and you only flip your coin once or twice.  If you only do it once, you may get heads, you may not.  That doesn't tell you anything about how often you are likely to get heads, does it?  Suppose you get heads on your one-time coin toss.  You can describe this as 100% heads, since of the times you flipped your coin, you got heads.  Does that mean you'll get heads 100% of the time you flip any coin?  Certainly not.  The odds haven't really changed from what they were all the time.  But somebody who knows nothing of coins, somebody reading about your 100% heads result may misinterpret this to mean just that. 

That long digression was only intended to point out the obvious to those who have never studied statistics.  The point is, although statistical studies have been published concerning the Indus script, these sorts of things cannot decipher the script on their own because of the nature of that script.  That nature is what I described earlier.  The majority of signs appear less than 100 times and thus are not amenable to statistical studies.

There are two proto-scripts that make especially good parallels to the Indus script.  These are proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  In both of these also, the majority of signs appear fewer than 100 times.  Proto-Elamite is not understood completely.  It died out without evolving into true writing.  Proto-cuneiform, on the other hand, eventually developed into a full writing system.  But as proto-cuneiform, it was NOT a fully developed writing system.  There is a distinction, an important one to a linguist.  It is not an insult, not a slander, to label a script a proto-writing system.  The symbol system of the Mixtecs was a proto-writing system and that of the Aztecs was as well.  In modern times, the Na Xi of China had a proto-writing system used alongside Chinese.  Most linguists consider Rongorongo from Easter Island to have been a proto-writing system.  The linguist I.J. Gelb coined the term semasiography for such systems.  It is not an elegant term and it does not come trippingly off the lips, but in a way it is an improvement over the clumsy expression "proto-writing" system.  The latter expression seems to imply that a given symbol system wants to become something else, that it is somehow lacking.  But people who use a "proto-writing" system don't necessarily want it to be something else.  And they don't necessarily consider it imperfect.  In fact, they may be perfectly happy with it.  The fact that the Indus script remained what it was for several hundred years suggests that the Harappans were indeed happy with it as it was.

That said, let us continue by discussing the upside-down "U" shape.  I will term it the ROOF, numbering it II8.  It is also KP131 and Fairservis designates it K-15, considering it a fingernail mark, "number unit for metal (found on metal objects in multiple groups)."  It does not appear in Wells' list.  As Fairservis observed, as an independent symbol, it does not show up in the inscriptions on seals or tablets, or in the graffiti on pots.  But I have observed it twice on copper objects, a single ROOF on K121B, and three stacked ROOFS on C40A.

In Egyptian hieroglyphs, this ROOF shape originally represented a hobble for cattle (V20).  It was used in the word "stables" which was pronounced mdwt.  Thus, it came to represent the first two consonants in that word, md.  In hieroglyphs its most common use is as the numeral 10 which was pronounced mdw.  Since I studied Egyptian hieroglyphs once upon a time, my first thought on seeing this sign was, "Aha! the medj!"  It may be that other scholars such as Fairservis, who propose that the Indus ROOF is a numeral or a measure, are also thinking of the Egyptian medj.  The Indus ROOF is not the only symbol which appears multiple times within a single inscription, after all, and not all of these repeating symbols are proposed as numerals by scholars.  That's one point to tuck away in memory.  The other is the fact that the independent ROOF appears only on metal objects.  There are other signs that only appear in the graffiti on pots.  Some signs, being singletons, only appear on seals.  Well, when there are a great many singletons and signs that appear only twice, etc., there are going to be signs with oddly restricted distribution, it seems to me.  I'm not sure what to make of this sort of thing.  But that may be worth filing away as possibly important.

The ROOF appears in Old Chinese as mi2, "to cover" (Wieger 1965: 95).  This is now the 16th radical.  If the ends of the ROOF are allowed to curve outward a bit, the character becomes ji1, "seat, stool," now the 14th radical (1965: 63).  Or, if we put a short vertical on top of the ROOF, we have mien1, which represents a hut or dwelling, the 40th radical, as in sung4 (which has the tree character underneath) "hut of wood" (1965: 101).

Luwian, as noted earlier, uses the ROOF to denote the vowel i.  Proto-cuneiform represented a type of garment or cloth with the ROOF symbol, according to Denise Schmandt-Besserat (1996: 75).  Proto-Elamite had M343~h, an angular version which resembles the chevron with a circular indentation on the left end.

This shape appears in North American rock art and in Australia (Newcomb 1996: 193 Pl. 144 No. 23-C; Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 160 fig. 97 b; Flood 1997: 256).  In the latter case, the "horseshoe" shapes appear in a rock shelter on Little Kennedy River near Laura, Cape York Peninsula, in Queensland.  There are also instances of the reversed "cupped cups" motif.  This would be described as "roofs under roof," I suppose (Pine Gap Reserve near Alice Springs, Northern Territory in Flood 1997: 204).

As a final note on CUPS and ROOFS, I will mention that these are among the entoptic forms that appear in Paleolithic cave art.  When in the first stage of trance, before true hallucinations begin, a shaman begins to "see" things which are actually generated from within the eye or the optic system generally (see e.g. Lewis-Williams 2002).  These include nested curves (CEES, BACK CEES, CUPS, ROOFS), rayed circles, zigzags, lines, dots, concentric rings, spirals, lattices, and some less well attested forms.  Theoretically there are 15 of these entoptic forms, a number I have some doubts about -- but we need get into that at this point.  The point now is that I have migraines regularly and see CUPS and ROOFS among what my doctors have blandly termed "visual disturbances" associated with the pain.  A migraine isn't quite the same thing as a shaman's trance, but I can attest to the fact that it can indeed become an "altered state."

The illustration this time comes from Mixtec proto-writing.  It shows the so-called "AO" sign, a complex symbol that includes elements that vaguely resembles the capital letter "A" with a smaller "O" woven through it.  What interests us here is the fact that the "A" element slightly resembles the ROOF sign in the Indus script.  However, the "A" or ROOF is not an independent element in the Mixtec system, only part of a much more complicated glyph. 

The second illustration is a commercial Navaho sand painting which lacks many of the features that characterize those used by the Navaho for healing.  It has no encircling guardian figure, for example, a figure which would ordinarily enclose the main painting on three sides in a roughly "U" shape, leaving the east open.  Neither the Mixtec nor the Navaho example represents a fully developed writing system.  Nevertheless, both are fascinating, worthy of study, and perhaps can be used to understand the Indus "script" a bit better.

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