Friday, September 17, 2010

The Table Sign

The next Indus sign has had a number of names before TABLE and it may need a different one yet.  It is numbered III6 in my list, previously KP283, W237 and W239, Fairservis I-3.  I originally thought it looked like a square off version of our numeral seven, though sometimes a backward version.  It was then “square seven” and “back square seven,” rather clumsy appellations.  However, there are apparent numerals that better deserve the name “seven,” each comprising seven strokes.  So, I decided instead to call this one "jay" after the letter “J” and it became an upside-down version of that.  Thus it was “square down jay” and “back square down jay.”  Well, that was really too much.  Since I thought there was no right-side up version, it seemed I could just call it JAY / BACK JAY.  This might be preferable since one “leg” is usually longer than the other.  It does occur over other signs in this lop-sided form as well.  However, it seems possible that the form in which both legs are short where it occurs over other signs, the TABLE proper, may simply be a variant form of the JAY.  If there is only one sign with these two variants, it is better to have a single name.
Indus signs of 1-3 strokes

Assuming that all three forms are related, then III6a is the form most like our numeral 7, III6b is the backward variant of this, and III6c is the variant in which both legs are short, a form which should only occur in ligatures over another sign, according to other authors.  In reality, though, there really need to be more distinctions than this, since the relative length of the long and short legs varies, the width of the top horizontal line varies, and sometimes one leg is slightly curved.  When I look at all of the occurrences of this sign, I see about six that are somewhere in between the JAY and the TABLE forms, where both legs are either the same length or almost the same (K-40, Dlp-2, Rhd-160 through Rhd-165).
Indus signs of 3-4 strokes

Fairservis sees the “seven”-like symbol (or "a" variant) as a sickle and suggests the meaning “to reap or reaping.”  The KP283 sign is likewise a “seven” type or "a" variant.  This includes  M-632, K-45, Ad-8.  Those that are reversed include M-627, H-90, L-45, C-22, possibly Dlp-2 and Rhd-162 although these are difficult to judge.  I see K-40 as very close to even on both sides, but perhaps the right leg is slightly longer.  I cannot see any difference between the two sides on Rhd-160, 161, 162, 163, and 165.  Hence my judgement that there are 6 of the III6c variants as independent symbols.  Since some of the pot shards are broken, this judgement has to be something less than conclusive, however.
Indus signs of 4-5 strokes

No Egyptian hieroglyph is quite like this sign.  The reed shelter used as a phonetic symbol for the h sound starts out as the TABLE does.  That is, one begins by drawing three sides of a box.  But for this Egyptian glyph, one does not leave it at that as one does for the Indus sign ("c" variant).  Nor does one lengthen the last side of the box ("a" variant).  Instead, one almost closes the bottom of the box, then turns the line upward, partway into the box.  This creates a boxy spiral (Gardiner’s O4).

There is also a glyph that represents an adze (U19).  It begins with the same two strokes, an upward vertical and a crossing horizontal.  For the descending stroke on the right, however, the line is not perfectly vertical but curves outward after a short while.  It is as if the bottom of the Indus sign had been grasped by an angry hand and bent out of shape.

Old Chinese contains a character that vaguely resembles the III6b variant.  It is like an upside-down “J,” nicely curved.  There is also a wide horizontal just below the midline, however, which spoils the resemblance.  This is xun1, “to hover” (Wieger 1965: 37).  More similar in modern Chinese is the hook-like ji4 “to catch” (Wieger 1965: 38).  This now looks much like our numeral “7” only the downward stroke is more vertical and tends to have a hook-like mark at the bottom as the pen is lifted.

I found one example of a motif that closely resembles the III6a variant of the Indus sign in the rock art of Texas (Newcomb 1996: 151, Pl. 103, no. 9).  Farther west, I espied one each of the “a” and “b” variants (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 135, fig. 72b; 141, fig. 78c).  I have not seen this motif in Australian rock art.

This sign does not appear in proto-cuneiform but a similar shape does occur in proto-Elamite, though this is somewhat more complex (M321~b and M321~ha).  As is typical, the ancient Iranian equivalents are oriented horizontally instead of vertically.  And in this case, the long side of the symbol in both variants is made with doubled lines, ending in a truncated triangle.  The “b” variant also includes striping of the thicker leg while the “ha” variant adds a small rounded protuberance at the end of the shorter leg.


Clearly, the “c” variant is the most common in ligatures while the “a” and “b” variants are the most common independent forms.  Should these be separate signs or not?  How does one decide?  If we look at all of the examples, we seem to have all different lengths of “leg,” making it difficult to set a clear cut-off between TABLE (with equal leg lengths) and JAY (with unequal legs).  Thus, my inclination is to lump them together.  Others may feel differently.  Anyone who reads this is welcome to weigh in with thoughts and opinions on the matter!

As illustrations this time, I include my early attempts to make charts of the Indus signs with their major variants.  Ideally, at the end of this phase of my project, I will produce a larger and more comprehensive chart, including all variants of the Indus signs, as well as parallels in other symbols systems around the world.  It should then be possible to see at a glance whether or not there is or is not variation within the Indus script, whether or not there are indeed universal symbols, and if there are universals what these are.  If there are indeed any universal symbols, it should then be possible to determine whether these symbols are ascribed universal meanings.
The purposes in doing all this are several.  It is tempting to think that one can look at a sign in the Indus script and identify it either on the basis of what it seems to depict or on the basis of resemblance to a symbol in some other known script.  In making such an identification, it is then tempting to say that one has then identified the meaning of that sign in the Indus script.  For example, I might look at the FLAIL and say that it resembles the Egyptian hieroglyph for a flail, call it that, and claim that I have deciphered that Indus symbol.  But another person could look at the same Indus symbol, look at the same Egyptian hieroglyphs for a clue, and with equal justification call it an adze, considering that the Indus symbol resembles that Egyptian glyph more closely.  The Indus symbol is not identical to either Egyptian symbol, after all.  It might represent a flail.  It might be an adze.  It also might be something completely different, unrelated to either one.  This is such a simple little drawing, two strokes, it could be almost anything.  It might designate a finger gesture, a plant, a broken stick, a constellation. 

We are on no firmer ground when it comes to a more common symbol, such as the quartered circle or CIRCLED CROSS.  This one is as close to universal as any I have found, aside from the simple circle and line.  But whereas the symbol itself is easily found, the meaning differs widely.  It is a cultivated field in China, a basket or fire in a hearth to the Navaho, a sheep in Elam and Sumer, a village or town in Egypt.  What does that tell us about the Indus Valley?  I’m afraid it tells us nothing except that we simply cannot assume it means the same thing as one of the neighbors’ signs.

The point is this.  There are very few truly universal signs.  There are even fewer universal meanings -- if any.  I aim to discover whether there are any at all and thus far I have not found any.  If I find that there is a significant pattern among the Indus signs, say a larger number of complex signs with close parallels between Indus and proto-cuneiform signs or between Indus and proto-Elamite signs, then this might suggest a possibility for decipherment.  But if there are only a few parallels here and there between each type of symbol system, then we cannot rely on one symbol system as a simple key to the Indus script.

1 comment:

  1. Oy vey! I must be losing more brain cells than I realized. I didn't mention why I call this the TABLE. Others have called it a sky symbol because it resembles an Egyptian glyph for the sky. Except it doesn't exactly. And it also resembles an Egyptian glyph that looks to me like a coffee table that really is a table. That match is closer.