The first Indus sign in this post is TRIPLE BELTED AITCH, V13, a clumsy name given due to its similarity to our letter “H.” Alternatively, it might be termed a three-rung LADDER. It has two vertical strokes, as does the letter aitch, with three crossing horizontals (whereas one instance has five, the one I originally considered a LADDER). It is also KP296, W176, and Fs G-6. Fairservis states that it represents a space between two poles, perhaps meaning “bazaar, courtyard.” Wells notes six occurrences, two at Mohenjo daro, two at Chanhujo daro, and one apiece at Harappa and Lothal.
Seal M-308, showing the TRIPLE BELTED AITCH, over an icon resembling the Near Eastern Master of Animals (Photoshop enhanced for clarity from Joshi and Parpola 1987: 76).
If we choose to be quite precise, the variant with straight vertical sides is designated “a” (M-308, L-218, and an additional instance from Harappa not noted by Wells, H-6). One Harappan instance and one at Chanhujo daro have curved uprights, designated “b” (H-682 and C-3). One occurrence at Mohenjo daro has a single straight side, with the other side curved, designated “c” (M-44). The second instance from Chanhujo-daro has five crossing strokes and should be included in the seven-stroke signs rather than in this set. One final occurrence from Lothal may be added (L-245). It appears on a pot shard where it is unusually wide. It might be better classified as a simple grid. But if we include it here, given its unusual shape, it can be designated “d.”
Egyptian hieroglyphs do not include an identical glyph, although one version of the coffin is similar to the wide “d” variant (Q6). This glyph is usually quite wide, and in the form that Gardiner illustrates, has only two straight horizontals plus an additional curved crossing line above them. The Indus sign, in contrast, is almost always tall and slender. In each version, the horizontals are all straight. Thus, if the Indus sign represents a piece of furniture, it more likely has shelves rather than a curved lid like the Egyptian coffin.
Seal M-162, showing FOOTED STOOL and REVERSED FOOTED STOOL (hand-drawn by author).
Proto-cuneiform includes a sign similar to Indus V13 in U2~b, which came to mean “plant; herbs, grass; firewood.” This has three vertical strokes instead of two, as well as three horizontals close to the top rather than centered as in the Indus sign. It is not a particularly close parallel, then. It does strongly resemble the Old Chinese character yong4, which “represented the bronze ex-voto offered to the Ancestors, placed in the temple as a memorial for their offspring....The offerings brought blessing, hence aptitude, efficacy, utility” (Wieger 1965: 260). This character, now the 101st radical, once had inwardly curving lines on the outsides, which recalls the “b” variant of the Indus sign.
Proto-Elamite has an exact duplicate of the straight-sided “a” variant of the Indus sign (M026~aa). It is horizontally oriented, however, as is typical of this type of proto-writing. Among the motifs of Old Europe, there is an almost exact duplicate of the Indus sign again (OE 201). In this case, the only difference is that the verticals only protrude slightly beyond the horizontals. In Linear B, one of the logographs is an asymmetrical “H”-like form with just two horizontals. This glyph has a long leg on the left and a short vertical on the right, representing bronze.
The rock art of Nevada and eastern California presents an instance of the same motif as well (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 175, fig. 112d). This time, it is tilted but not quite horizontal. The authors term the motif a two-pole ladder, noting 26 occurrences in this cultural area (1984: 83). The motif does not occur among those painted or engraved in Texas, although similar forms appear there, apparently representing horned anthropomorphic figures, perhaps kachinas (Newcomb 1996: 88, Pl. 49, no. 9 and no. 12). Finally, among the Adinkra symbols of West Africa, there is ladder with varying numbers of rungs, often four, representing the “ladder of death” or owuo atwede. This is said to indicate immortality.
The next sign is problematic, appearing only in Wells’ list: DOUBLE QUOTES ON SLASH BELTED AITCH, V14. It is also W182, where it is listed as a singleton (M-840). In this crowded inscription from Mohenjo daro, the sign boundaries are not entirely clear. Reading the seal from the left, we see over the horn of the unicorn bull a BUD and HAT, followed by SINGLE QUOTE. This much is classed as a prefix by Korvink. The next two signs are also reasonably clear, being a SLASH IN FISH and CUPPED POST. What follows is the tricky part.
There are three or four posts, an angled line with two short slashes attached, and three more posts. Since the angled line touches the posts on either side, Wells has apparently read this segment as three signs: THREE POSTS / DOUBLE QUOTES ON SLASH BELTED AITCH / TWO POSTS (without using my terms, of course). Koskenniemi and Parpola have apparently read this same portion as two signs: FOUR POSTS / THREE POSTS WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK. Who is right? Actually, the attachment does not have three prongs, but this may only be because there was insufficient room here, at the cramped end of the inscription. The last “post” is nearly falling off the edge of the seal as it is.
There are other signs with attached TRI-FORKS, adding to the likelihood that this is what the sign here represents (i.e., THREE POSTS WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK, as shown in the KP list). But then, there is also a similar sign to Wells’ interpretation, an AITCH with a slanting mid-section, on a broken bangle (H-994). In this instance, are two lines in the mid-section and between them not just two but three or four short uprights (making this TRIPLE QUOTES ON SLASH DOUBLE BELTED AITCH, truly dreadful descriptive term). But again, the seal carver may not have had sufficient room on the crowded seal to put in all that detail, even if that were the symbol he intended to carve.
Signs combining vertical and diagonal lines in a manner similar to the Indus sign are uncommon around the world. A remote parallel occurs in Luwian hieroglyphs with one variant of the syllable pi, representing a hand gesture. This has a vertical line on the left, a horizontal across the center, and an inwardly curving line on the right with a bit of a squiggle near the top, apparently representing the thumb. Other variants are more complex, delineating the thumb on the left and the knuckle before the index finger on the right. These also have two crossing horizontals at the wrist. Since the fingers are not delineated, it is unclear whether the hand is pointing with the index finger or making what we would consider the “okay” gesture.
Proto-cuneiform does not have a close match either, although ZATU754 is vaguely similar. It is comprised of three vertical lines in a row, a single central horizontal joining them, and a backslash attached on the upper right. The meaning is unknown. Old Chinese also has only the most distant of parallels, with a character adding details to a basic “H” shape. There are a slash and backslash inside this shape, both above and below the crossing horizontal, making yuan1, “a whirlpool, a gulf, an abyss....[It] represents the water bouncing between two banks” (Wieger 1965: 288).
In the repertoire of symbols found in Old Europe, there is one motif with two tall verticals and triple slanting lines between them, as well as a few additional serif-like additions (DS242). This recalls the Runic “h,” a symbol much like our letter “N” but with two slanting internal lines rather than just one (FUTHORC). None of these is a particularly close parallel.
The third Indus sign discussed today is very similar to one mentioned previously, the STOOL. The simpler sign is based on an “X” shape with an additional vertical line joining the arms on one side. In the sign I enumerate V15, the FOOTED STOOL, besides this additional line, there is a broken line not quite closing the other side. There are, in fact two of these. V15 has the closed side on the right and the “feet” or broken line on the left. V16 is the reverse, with the closed side on the left and the “feet” on the right.
These two signs previously appeared as KP230(a) and KP234; W447 and W462; and Fs I-11. Fairservis shows only one version, which he thinks represent tongs and defines as “shepherd, herder, sheep.” When it appears with his A-12 (MAN HOLDING QUOTE, which he says is an occupational suffix), he states that these two mean “to plow.” Then when it occurs after the ZEE PINWHEEL, these mean “better herd(s) and plowed (fields); gather, draw in.” An additional meaning, perhaps one of the compounds, perhaps separate, is given as “storm, black, rain; rainy season; social division, parish, Harappan clan.” What a breathtaking series of meanings to come out of tongs! The oddest thing about all this is that he never thinks tongs mean “tongs.”
Luwian hieroglyphs include the similar glyph THRONUS, “throne.” This, however, is sideways compared to the Indus sign. Unlike the disparate meanings Fairservis suggests for his supposed tongs, the Luwian glyph means precisely what it looks like, something to sit on. There is an Old Norse rune that somewhat resembles the simpler STOOL, even being turned on its side compared to a real stool. This symbol does not make a complete triangle, however, only containing a chevron at the bottom and the reverse on top, both attached to a vertical line on the left. This represents the “p” sound (FUTHARK).
Wells indicates that there are a total of 33 instances of V15 and only one occurrence of V16, as follows: 20 at Mohenjo daro, six at Harappa, five at Lothal, one at Kalibangan, one at Banawali, and the one V16 at Kalibangan. However, I find a few differences, as is common since he reverses the signs found on seals.
The single instance that Wells cites from Kalibangan is indeed a mirror image of that found on most seals (K-6). However, this mirror image also occurs on one seal from Harappa (H-603). It also appears on a Harappan tablet (H-715). We expect the images on tablets to be the reverse of those on seals, since we assume the seals were manufactured to make impressions. But when an image appears one way and its reverse on seals, we must presume these are its intended forms. In particular, there are a number of inscriptions where both forms appear right next to each, with the “feet” of the two signs facing each other. These occur on three seals from Mohenjo daro, one from Lothal, and on a bangle from Kot-Diji not cited by Wells (M-126, M-162, M-198, L-5, and Kd-8).
The FOOTED STOOL is thus an independent sign and so is REVERSED FOOT STOOL, V15 and V16, respectively. They do not occur only together, but often do. Proto-Elamite contains a sign that resembles the two together, although it is only two simple “stools” with the “feet” facing each other (M318~e). As usual, the meaning is unknown. As a final note on the Indus FOOTED STOOL and its reverse, note that these are not variants of the CRAB, which has similar “feet” attached to a pointed oval. Both the CRAB and the FOOTED STOOL appear side by side on seal M-108, clearly distinguished. Thus, they cannot be variants of a single sign.
The final sign for this post is the POT LID, V17, also KP199. It is not shown in Wells in the five-stroke form. It is a singleton occurring only M-812 from Mohenjo daro, where this is a single “post,” a post with a small rectangle attached on the left, another post, and a POT. In the KP list, the first post and the post with attached rectangle are grouped as a single sign. Apparently these researchers saw the second post as an instance of SINGLE POST. Wells, instead, grouped both posts together with the post-and-rectangle (W496), a six-stroke sign. Since other signs occur between posts, Wells has some justification for his grouping. But since the post-with-attached-rectangle does not occur as an independent sign, there is some reason for not considering the six-stroke grouping one sign, as well. It is partly this type of disagreement concerning what defines a sign that causes further disagreement about the total number of Indus signs among scholars.
There are similar symbols elsewhere, but no identical sign. Egyptian hieroglyphs include the bread load on a reed mat, a horizontal rectangle with a roughly conical element in the center (R4). This is a common triliteral phonetic, found in names with the element “hotep,” such as Imhotep and Amenhotep. There is also the rolled up papyrus, also a rectangle, this one with a semicircular bump, a slanting line coming from each side of the bump (Y1). This determinative first appears horizontally, but by the Twelfth Dynasty also occurs vertically, at the end of words for many abstract concepts. The Old Kingdom variant often lacked the slanting lines, making it more similar to the Indus sign (Y2).
In Luwian hieroglyphs, the sign for TERRA/Locus has a similar outline to the left side of the post-and-rectangle, although it is positioned horizontally. This means “earth/place.” Proto-cuneiform adds the sign URUDU~b, “copper; metal,” a thin vertical rectangle with another rectangle attached on the left side. This is closest parallel thus far. Proto-Elamite comes a little closer with another vertical rectangle with another, smaller quadrilateral attached on the right. It is similar to the Indus sign in reverse, if we ignore the fact that the post and the post-with-attached rectangle are not joined.
The Phaistos Disk, a clay disk found on Crete that probably dates to about 1700 BCE, has one glyph somewhat similar to a pot lid. However, rather than a rectangle with a bump, it is a pointed oval with a rounded bump. Thus, it is rather remote from the Indus sign. Linear B has a slightly less remote symbol in the syllabic sign da, a vertical with a simple horizontal stroke attached on the right. The Old Norse runes also contain a symbol with an angular bulge on the left, representing the “a” sound (FUTHARK). Here, as with the Luwian glyph, the long stroke is bent rather than continuous.
Even in the rock art of the Americas, there is no exact equivalent. In Texas there is a motif quite like the Luwian glyph, reminiscent of a single crenellation (Newcomb 1996: 177, Pl. 125, no. 1-F). Farther west, a line with a crook at the far left has a square attached at the bottom (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 165, fig. 102j). The POT LID, despite its simplicity, is a rare sign in all places.