The first sign discussed in this post is the BISECTED RECTANGLE, V5, so enumerated as it is the fifth in my list of five-stroke signs. It formerly appeared only in Wells’ list, as W527. Wells states that it is a singleton, only occurring at Mohenjo daro (M-1316). On this bar seal it is very small, appears initially, and is bisected by a central vertical line.
American rock art including SHISH KEBAB (in "b") and ZIGZAG (in "g") (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 144, fig. 81).
Similar signs often appear elsewhere. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, one variant of the garden pool is a long rectangle bisected horizontally, with “v” shapes at the ends (N38). This is a phonetic glyph for the “sh” sound (transcribed as an “s” with a small “v” on top). In Luwian hieroglyphs, a tall rectangle with two horizontally bisecting lines is PORTA, “gate.” Among the signs of the Luwian syllabary, a horizontal rectangle with a vertical line near the right end represents the syllable tu.
Proto-cuneiform includes four distinct signs that are rectangles containing a single internal line. All are normally horizontal. They are distinguished by the placement of the dividing line and in the relative thickness of the rectangle. GUR is a thin rectangle with its internal line toward the left end. It signifies a reed basket, a measure of dry capacity. GA2 is a shorter, thicker rectangle with an internal line closer to either the left end (“a1” variant) or the right end (“a2” variant). It came to mean “box, basket; house, stable; shrine.” KU is as long as the first sign and as thick as the second, with its internal line either in the center (KU~a@t) or positioned vertically (KU~a), meaning “to base, found, build.” A shorter and thicker rectangle, also bisected medially, is NIGIN, “enclosure; capacity; whole.”
Navaho sand painting with encircling guardian in zigzag form (Newcomb and Reichard 1975: Pl. XVI).
The proto-Elamite visual equivalent of NIGIN is M151 while the visual equivalent of GA2 is M151~f. Among the motifs of Old Europe, there is another rectangle, this one tall, with a horizontal line near the base (OE 72a). A second motif is similar but a bit wider and shorter. Its internal line does not touch the sides (OE 156).
In Old Chinese, rectangles are not the norm. But in modern Chinese, there are two rectangles among the radicals, both bisected by a medial horizontal line. The first of these is radical 72, ri4, “sun, day” (Fenn and Tseng 1940: 229). The second is hard to distinguish as an independent character, but context makes it clear that it is not the same word. It is radical 73, yue1 (or 4th tone), “to speak, call, say” (1940: 654).
The rock art of North America includes bisected rectangles in various fashions. In Texas, I find a small motif of a tall rectangle with a horizontal stripe (Newcomb 1996: 196, Pl. 147, no. 26-A). In addition, a somewhat skewed rectangle is bisected vertically (1996: 195, Pl. 146, no. 24-F). In the collection from Nevada and eastern California, one figure is almost square, bisected vertically (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 107, fig. 44k). This is the closest parallel to the Indus sign thus far. Another example is low and long, bisected horizontally (1984: 155, fig. 92k).
The next sign is more frequent in the Indus script and more difficult to describe. There is a horizontal line through the center, with four parallel vertical strokes rising from it. The two in the center also descend through the horizontal line and below it. Rather arbitrarily, I term this the PRICKLY CORN HOLDER, V6. It is also KP91(b) and W190, not appearing in Fairservis. Wells shows two variants, of which this is the “a” version. The “b” variant has only three strokes above the horizontal line. It has the same two strokes below, neither of which lines up with any of the strokes above the horizontal. Thus, “b” is a six-stroke sign. As Wells notes, the frequency is seven, with three occurrences at Mohenjo daro, two at Harappa, one at Lothal, and one at Kalibangan. All but the Lothal occurrence are of variant “a.” Only L-12 is “b.”
Proto-cuneiform comes closest to providing a parallel to this unusual sign with NA2~b2. This may be the sign that came to mean “a reed mat; resting place.” On the other hand, it may be a different sign with the same sound meaning “bed, couch.” The glyph itself looks a bit more like a bed or couch, since it seems to have two or four legs, so I incline to the latter. It resembles the letter “E” except that there are four prongs instead of three, another similar “letter” placed almost touching, a tall and thin rectangle almost touching, and then four more prongs.
There is a somewhat similar motif in Old Europe (OE 19). This has two posts below a rather wavy line that somewhat resembles a boat’s prow. On top of this line there are three more posts which mostly do not line up with the posts below. This is vaguely reminiscent of a depiction of a hand, with the squiggly line representing the thumb. This recalls the Linear B syllabic sign for no, a comb-like element with four vertical prongs above a prow-like element which rests on a chevron.
Indus sign V7 is another SHISH KEBAB, a vertical line with four short horizontals crossing it. It is also KP99, W268, and Fs K-4. Fairservis considers the four-pronged variant to be a measuring stick for depth capacity. He also lists K-5 with five prongs which he defines the same way. Wells includes fully seven variants: “a” with seven prongs, “b” with five prongs widely spread, “c” with six prongs widely spread, “d” with four prongs widely spread, “e” with three prongs, “f” with five prongs close together, and “g” with six prongs close together. The distinction between “b” and “d” is that in the latter, the top and bottom prongs come at the ends of the vertical, whereas in “b” the vertical protrudes beyond the last horizontals.
In my estimation, not all of the instances listed by Wells are occurrences of this sign (M-108, H-351 through H-357 are COMBS). Others I assign to his variants as follows: M-202 is “b” (4 prongs), M-920 is “c” (5 prongs), M-1632 is “e” (3 prongs) from Mohenjo daro; H-205 is “c” (5 prongs), H-890B is “b” (4 prongs) from Harappa; Blk-1 is “e” (3 prongs with a vertical leaning to the left) from Balakot; Krs-1 is “f” (4 prongs) from Khirsara. It is possible that we should add one more to this list, namely C-48, “e” (3 prongs) a round seal from Chanhujo daro. However, this might also be considered a very small grid.
As I noted previously in the post on the three-pronged SHISH KEBAB, IV24, this sign or motif is quite common worldwide. In Egyptian hieroglyph, there are two fairly close analogies. One is to the djed-column, most likely a bundle of reeds or stalks tied together (R11). Mythologically it was identified with the backbone of the god Osiris. As a glyph, it appears frequently in inscriptions as an abbreviation in the formulaic phrase ankh djed, “may he have enduring life,” or ankh djet, “may he live forever (Faulkner 1976: 43, 325). This glyph is not quite as simple as the Indus sign, having a thicker vertical portion, as well as a knob above the four crossing horizontals. A second glyph has a long horizontal with four crossing diagonal strokes (F37). At one end of the horizontal, there is also a teardrop-shaped element. All this is represents the backbone and ribs of an animal, and as an ideograph or determinative appears in the word i3t, “back.” An illustration of the djed-column appears in the previous post on the SHISH KEBAB (IV24).
Signs similar to the Indus SHISH KEBAB occur in proto-cuneiform both vertically (ASZ2, “emmer wheat”) and horizontally (NUN, “prince, noble”), as noted previously. A horizontal version appears in proto-Elamite with seven crossing diagonals (M486). In Old Europe, there are three vertical types, with two, three, and four crossing horizontal prongs (DS132, DS 133, and DS 134). Such motifs occur in the rock art of North America, three and four prongs appearing in Texas (Newcomb 1996: 137, Pl. 92, no. 2; 90, Pl. 50, no. 4). In the collection from Nevada and eastern California, I note a three-prong occurrence and one with seven prongs that end with rounded tips (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 163, fig. 100a and f). The authors of this collection suggest that these are ladders with a single pole. In Australia, an engraved motif with at least eight crossing horizontals appears at Eucolo Creek (Flood 1997: 112).
Among the West African Adinkra symbols, there is one that resembles a "shish kebab" with three crossing horizontals at irregular intervals. The top horizontal is farther from the lower two than is typical of most other examples. This is named okodee mmowere, meaning "talons of the eagle." It represents bravery and strength.
In my earlier post, I mentioned the Old Chinese jie4, “deed, document,” a vertical line with three crossing diagonal lines. There is an additional character that is not quite the same, yu4, “to write.” This is another vertical line, this time crossed by five horizontal lines of unequal length. However, the first and third, shorter than the second and fourth, are joined on the right side by a short vertical stroke. Thus, the short first and third stroke, joined together in this way, plus the longer second stroke between them, represent a hand holding the vertical stroke, a brush. The long vertical line below this hand is the paper on which the hand is writing. In the older writing, there is yet another short horizontal below the line of the paper, presumably the surface upon which the paper rests. This character is the 129th radical (Wieger 1965: 336).
The Indus sign that follows is another ZIGZAG in the form of an “M” with an additional “tick,” (V8). It is also KP191 and W432, not shown in Fairservis. Wells notes that this is a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-1424). There is one pot shard with a complex and obscure motif that might contain this element along with others. It is more likely that this element is the antler or horn of an antelope or goat on this shard (Rhd-221 from Rahman Deri).
In Egyptian hieroglyphs there is the previously cited ripple of water, a longer zigzag, the phonetic glyph n. Luwian hieroglyphs present another parallel that is not particularly close with FLUMEN (AQUA), “river (water).” This glyph more closely resembles stair steps in double lines, to my eyes, though it might be seen as a kind of zigzag. Among the motifs of Old Europe there is a six-stroke zigzag (OE 48). Another six-stroke zigzag appears as a variant of the s in the Old Norse runes, positioned vertically (FUTHARK).
Proto-cuneiform has the closest parallel with BAN~b, “bow (n.).” This is another five-stroke zigzag, although in the reverse configuration of the Indus sign. In fact, the “em with a tick” configuration seems to be duplicated precisely only in the rock art of North America (Newcomb 1996: 70, Pl. 32, no. 3; Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 147, fig. 84d). Along these precise duplicates, other types of zigzags also occur quite commonly, both with more and fewer humps, as well as vertical types. Hence, it cannot be said with any degree of certainty that a particular configuration of the zigzag has a specific significance as opposed to any other configuration, whether in the Indus sign system or elsewhere. It appears that only in later alphabets that specific numbers of humps become standardized (as in "N" vs. "M" vs. "W").
Today’s final sign is most peculiar, a skewered “M” shape, or FLYING BIRD, V9. It appears only as KP90, not in Wells or Fairservis. Nor does it occur in my own database. I thought it might be a variant of the SKEWERED CHEVRON, but after double-checking all of those, I do not see it. I remain puzzled as to its location in the Corpus. Nevertheless, it is an interesting motif as it has parallels in other sign systems.
Egyptian hieroglyphs include a detailed glyph of a pintail duck with its wings spread in flight (G40). This is what the Indus sign first made me think of, hence the term I have given it. However, the sign is graphically closer to the Egyptian glyph of the rush with shoots, phonetic nhb (with scoop below the “h”), M22.
In Old Chinese, the character for guai1 is a close parallel, meaning “horns of the ram....It figures in different compounds, as a symbol” (Wieger 1965: 254). In this character, the “M” shape rests on top of the vertical stroke instead of the stroke passing through it. The vertical does pass through the “M” shape in the more complex character di4, “emperor” in some examples of Old Seal writing, which later became a word for “deity” (1965: 382). There is a triangle with its apex resting on top of the vertical and a short horizontal above this, in addition, as well as a chevron below the “M,” also skewered by the vertical. (In other variants of this same character, all these lines are curved, in which cases all resemblance to the Indus sign is lost.)
Proto-Elamite presents a horizontal version of essentially the same sign as V9, with an added wedge-shaped mark at the “base.” The meaning of this sign is unknown, as usual. An Old European motif exactly matches the sign as it is shown in the KP sign list. The Anglo-Saxon runes include one that matches the Old Chinese version, with the “M” element resting atop the vertical, as the phonetic ea (FUTHORC).
Almost exactly the same motif as the proposed Indus sign appears in the rock art of Texas (Newcomb 1996: 128, Pl. 85, no. 2; less clearly , 159, Pl. 111, no. 2). I do not find precisely the same element in the collection from Nevada and eastern California. But there is a similar motif in which a central circular or oval element has four arms or prongs coming out (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 104, fig. 41p; 105, fig. 42j). Those coming from top and bottom are short and straight. Those from the sides are somewhat longer – quite a bit longer in one instance – and end by bending downward, similar to the “M” shape of the Indus sign.
There is some distant resemblance between the Indus sign and various Linear B syllabic signs, including ni. This is basically a "Y" shape with a short diagonal line across each arm of the "Y." A second sign is sa, much the same except that a shorter diagonal descends from each arm of the "Y" instead of crossing it. If turned sideways, the Indus sign might vaguely resemble the Linear B ku, which has been compared to the flying bird glyph on the Phaistos disk. It features a curved line resembling the Indus BACK CEE with a central loop on the left side. To this is attached a sideways "J" shape on the right side. As with the Indus sign, if this is a bird, it is highly schematized.
Least like any of these is the Luwian hieroglyph FULGUR, “lightning.” It somewhat resembles our letter”W” with an additional slash attached on the left and an additional backslash on the right. Because the slash and backslash attach below the top of the basic “W”-like element, it does not have the appearance of a zigzag. If it were set upon a post, it would resemble a more elaborate version of the Old Chinese type or Runic letter. Of course it is not upon a post, so it bears only a remote similarity to the Indus sign. As far as that goes, I have not demonstrated that the original sign actually is a true Indus sign. If any readers can shed light on this subject, they are welcome to do so.
Faulkner, Raymond O. 1976. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Oxford. Griffith Institute and Oxford University.
Fenn, Courtenay and Chin Hsien Tseng. 1940. The Five Thousand Dictionary. Peking: College of Chinese Studies.
Newcomb, Franc and Gladys Reichard. 1975. Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant. New York: Dover. (originally published 1937 by J.J. Augustin).
for Adinkra symbols:
for Linear B: