Friday, October 8, 2010

Two Variations on the Indus Cup and Two Circular Symbols

This post begins with a discussion of a rare Indus sign, the CUPPED TWO, one which I enumerate IV36, and which was formerly KP311, W295, and Fs Q-15.  Fairservis takes it to be a combination of his J-1 (my CUP, which he says is a container used to measure quantity) and P-2 (my BI-QUOTES, his marker of the locative case).  Together, Fairservis says, these mean “a quantity, i.e., how many,” a definition that ignores any locative significance.

Australian rock art motifs thought to be animal tracks (Flood 1997: 122).

Among the proto-cuneiform signs, there is a vaguely similar half circle containing two stripes, BUR~b.  That is to say, only the “b” variant contains the double stripes.  This sign came to mean “a meal” in addition to what it depicts.  A sign rather like a stout obelisk appears in proto-Elamite, also bearing two stripes (M293).  This obscure symbol is as close as anything gets to the Indus sign in proto-Elamite and it's not very close.  Likewise, Luwian hieroglyphs include a rather peculiar symbol somewhat resembling a little bag, on which there are two little marks (ideographic symbol 341, also serving as the phonetic symbol pa).
Egyptian hieroglyphs present no exact parallels to the Indus sign either.  There is only the oval or round glyph which contains two strokes, both short backslashes (O47 and O48).  Both variants were used to represent a prehistoric building at Hierakonpolis, functioning as the ideograph for the city where that building was located.  Neither is a particularly good parallel for the Indus sign except to show that a simple shape (circle or oval) can be modified by inserting two short strokes to create a non-numerical meaning.  
It also demonstrates that a simple ligature (or compound sign) of this sort can convey a meaning that is not obvious from its appearance.  That is, one cannot simply add together the meanings of the two independent elements from which it is made.  An unmodified circle can represent a grain of sand or the pupil of the eye, in Egyptian.  If it is a bit larger, it may be the sun, with its usual central dot or circle left out, which is fairly common even outside of hieratic writing (where it is always missing).  Two short vertical strokes can indicate dual number in nouns or the numeral two in economic records.  But here, where two strokes inside a circle occur, there is no addition of these independent meanings, no "two grains of sand" nor "two suns/days."
Old Chinese has an upside-down “U” shape (a ROOF in my terms) with two horizontal strokes inside, mao4, “a covering for the head” (Wieger 1965: 96).  Note that the same pronunciation, but third tone rather than fourth tone, a similar character is written the same way but with a single horizontal stroke inside.  Thus, a single additional stroke distinguishes these two characters.
Old European motifs include two “V”-shaped motifs that are somewhat similar to the Indus sign.  One Old European vee-shape includes two additional strokes, but these cross the left side of the vee rather than sitting inside it (OE 81).  In the second, the additional strokes are inside, as in the Indus sign, but there are four rather than two (OE 92a).  In none of these cases, then – Egyptian (two-in-a-circle, proto-cuneiform (two-in-a-half-circle), proto-Elamite (two-in-an-obelisk), Luwian (two-in-a-bag), Old Chinese (two-under-a-roof), or Old European (four-in-a-vee) – has there been an exact duplicate for Indus sign IV36.
It is in the rock art of North America that I find the closest parallel.  In Texas, there is a curved ROOF element with two and only two short strokes beneath it (Newcomb 1996: 207, Pl. 151, no. 3).  This upside-down version of the Indus sign appears once over some anthropoid figures and once again, smaller, between the same figures.  Here, it may represent a bear's footprint.  A similar form occurs in the corpus farther west, except that the two internal strokes are attached to the ROOF element, as if hanging from the "roof" (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 181, fig. 118a). 
This is an atypical form, both in the Southwest and the Far West.  More commonly, in addition to the basic "U" shape of the outer curve and the short internal strokes near the top, there is a horizontal stroke crossing the "U," which the short strokes rest upon.  In this way, it becomes clear that the motif represents a footprint or track, either of a human or of a bear.  There are 92 occurrences of these in the collection from Nevada and California (e.g., 1984: 108, fig. 45; 114, fig. 51a).  Clear examples of such tracks in Texas occur alongside human figures, as well (e.g., 1996: 63, Pl. 24, 13 of these tracks).

Seven dots and a "cup": a motif from Near Eastern cylinder seals representing Pleiades as Seven Sages (demigods who were half man, half fish) and the Moon god Suen.

Engravings of similar tracks also occur at Panaramitee North, in Australia (Flood 1997: 122).  These generally have five prongs at the top, which is the number one expects if the prongs represent toes.  Since the sides of the "U" itself create two of these toes, this makes a five-toed footprint equivalent to a CUPPED THREE.  Our Indus IV36, thus, appears to be missing a digit.  This might seem peculiar except that in the art of the native peoples of North America, including the Hopi and the Mixtec, where I can see photos of the actual artwork, I can count actual digits.  Some prints and tracks are accurately depicted with five digits, but sometimes there are six or seven, sometimes only four or occasionally as few as three. 
Less cup-like animal tracks appear in southern Africa, in Namibian rock art at Twyfelfontein (see Twyfelfontein site report at Bradshaw Foundation, fig. 89).  These more closely resemble a dog's footprint, in that the lower part is quite rounded and oval rather than "U" shaped.  Above this, there are five (or sometimes only four) round or oval dots.  These represent the claw marks.
Thus, the CUPPED TWO may represent a container with something in it.  Then again, it may represent a footprint.  In any case, Wells states that there are only five of these: one from Mohenjo daro (M-192), two from Harappa (H-408, H-450), one from Chanhujo daro (C-24, broken), and one of unknown origin (Q-6).  They vary slightly in how wide or narrow the "U" portion is.  The central strokes are usually parallel, but in H-408 the one on the right angles toward its partner.  The last, of questionable origin, has strokes higher than the CUP, whereas all the others position their strokes at the same height as the top of the CUP.

The CUPPED EX is our next sign, IV37.  Where the previous sign occurred at least five times, this one is a singleton (H-772).  It is a thin CUP with a somewhat pointed bottom, which may have an “X” shaped element in the base.  The element in the base is unclear, however.  It was formerly KP319 and W332, not shown in Fairservis.
Egyptian hieroglyphs include an alabaster basin, depicted with a broad half-circle, on which there is a diamond shape.  This looks nothing like the Indus sign.  I include it as an analogy, to suggests that Indus sign IV37 might also represent a container bearing a marking, in this case perhaps a pot or basket marked with an "X" shape. 
In contrast, Old Chinese has a close parallel to the Indus sign.  This is xiung1, a “U” shape with a relatively large “X” inside.  “This character represents the fall ‘X’ of a man into a ‘U’ accident, unfortunate, unlucky” (Wieger 1965: 105).  It is tempting to take the Indus sign as the equivalent of the Chinese character, given the close resemblance between the two.  But of course there can be no direct relationship between the two symbol systems.  The Indus script was dying out by 1600 BCE, while Chinese writing was only in its earliest stages 400 years later.
The rock art of Nevada and eastern California presents a good parallel to the Indus sign also.  In this case, though, the “U” is upside-down (a ROOF), again with the “X” inside (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 183, fig. 120h).  This may be no more than an abraded example of what was originally a circled cross, though.  I mention this possibility since this is the sole example I found of this motif combination.
The third sign under consideration is the circled circle or DONUT, IV38.  It is also KP368, W3576, and Fairservis’ L-13, identified by the latter as a bangle, and meaning “beauty, splendor.”  One often wonders how Fairservis arrived at some of the rather strained meanings he suggests, but we won’t trouble ourselves over that here.  We will only note that this is yet another rare sign in the Indus corpus, but quite popular elsewhere in the world.  Wells notes only five instances, four at Mohenjo daro, one at Harappa.  I find one additional instance at Rahman Deri, painted on a pot shard (Rhd-235).  Also, one might wish to include the occasions where very round circles are found with circles inside that are drilled holes, often in configurations that resemble our own dice (e.g., H-638).

African textile design from a bogolan cloth showing "donut"-like symbol, among others
(Bamana or Mande, Visona et al 2000: 120, fig. 4-19 detail).

As noted, the circled circle or DONUT is quite common outside the Indus Valley.  Egyptian hieroglyphs include two versions.  A circle with a very small central circle is the sun (N5).  A circle with a relatively large circle within is a ring such as might be worn on the finger (S21).  Luwian hieroglyphs include a single DONUT, the phonetic glyph sa4.  Proto-cuneiform contains |LAGAB~a x LAGAB~a|, which represents a male lamb (Schmandt-Besserat 1996: 72).  An oval, pointed at top and bottom, is SZA3~a2, which came to mean “gut; heart; stomach; womb” and a number of related notions.  Perhaps the Luwians borrowed their DONUT from this very sign.  Even proto-Elamite, though it prefers very angular forms, has a sign with a shape that is almost diamond-like but elongated in the middle.  This contains an internal square (M297~b).  This may be as close to a circle in a circle as this system ever gets.
In addition to the writing systems, Old European motifs include a "donut" (OE 186).  The same element also commonly appears in the rock art of North America (Newcomb 1996: 154, Pl. 106, no. 10; 100, Pl. 56, no. 1 and 2; Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 170, fig. 107d).  So, too, in Australia, the circled circle occurs frequently in engravings at Ewaninga (Ooraminna) south of Alice Springs, Northern Territory (Flood 1997: 147).  The same motif is found at Eucolo Creek in South Australia (1997: 112).  In the art of the central deserts, its meaning includes the following: campsite, breast, stone, well, rockhole, cloaca, fire, hole, fruit, and hill (1997: 158).  The "donut" can also be found at Sundown Point in Northwest Tasmania (1997: 233).
Among the West African Adinkra symbols, there is one that resembles the "donut," although it typically is a circle with two rings inside, not just one (see reference below).  This is adinkrahene, "chief of adinkra symbols."  It is said to signify greatness, charisma, and leadership.  Such symbols appear on cloth, woven or dyed, carved in wood and calabashes, and in other forms.
In its Indus incarnations, the DONUT occurs with a large central circle at times (M-757, M-833, Rhd-235).  At other times the central circle is quite small (M-1097, M-1191, H-456).  If we wish to be very precise, we can differentiate these two forms with letters “a” (for the large center) and “b” (for the small center).  On the other hand, since this is a relatively infrequent sign, we may not care to distinguish such minor differences at all.
Our final sign for this post is IV39, OVERLAPPIING CIRCLES.  It has been labeled by others KP349, W345, and Fs O-13.  Fairservis proposes interpreting this sign as a numerical symbol, i.e., as the number eight, also meaning "to count; number; pair, couple," words that are semi-homophonous in Dravidian languages.
Egyptian hieroglyphs include no signs that overlap in exactly this way, where one sign appears visibly through the other.  But at times one sign is placed in front of another, especially where both are phonetic, as a space-saver.  Proto-Elamite and Luwian, likewise, do not include overlapping signs, although alignment of signs in these symbol systems sometimes becomes most untidy.
Proto-cuneiform includes a sign comprising two triangles and a diamond that involves overlapping (DU7).  The diamond is in the center, with the triangles on either side, apexes facing outward.  The bases of the triangles overlap the sides of the very broad diamond.  Thus, visually the symbol does not resemble the Indus IV39, but overlapping is involved in a similar manner.  The sign DU7 came to mean "to be finished; to be suitable; to be necessary; to rotate, circle around," and a few other things as well.
Old Chinese contains another example involving overlapping elements with yu2, "to pass from hand to hand, to hand down, to give, communication, connection....The character represents the palm[s] of two hands, one of them giving and the other receiving" (Wieger 1965: 236).  In this case, there are two triangles, the bottom having its apex at the top, the top one with its apex at the bottom, overlapping the first triangle to form a small diamond in the middle.  In addition, there is a short, curving stroke descending from the base of the first triangle.
If, instead of descending from the base of the first triangle, the curving stroke rises from the top triangle, then the character is huan4, "fraud, deceiving, false," the inverted form of the previous character.  (In modern calligraphic script the two characters look nothing alike.)
Among the West African Adinkra symbols, there is one made by two diamonds overlapping, which creates a smaller diamond shape within the overlap.  This is called epa, "handcuffs," and it can symbolize law and justice, or, alternatively, slavery.
There is but one parallel symbol that includes two actual circles overlapping.  That is in the rock art of Australia, at Eucolo Creek (Flood 1997: 112).  In this instance, it is not exactly two circles, but two ovals.  One is wider horizontally and is slightly above the other, which is taller than it is wide.  Thus, even this parallel is not exactly like the Indus sign, where the overlapping elements are always side by side and the same dimensions.
There are three variants of Indus sign IV39.  The first, here designated the "a" variant, is really comprised of two overlapping ovals, each pointed at the top and bottom.  Most take this form, with only minor variation.  One instance is truly circular, G-8 from Gumla, painted on a pot, the "b" variant.  A final variant, "c," is quite angular and virtually diamond-shaped, incised on a bangle (M-1634).  In a previous post, I considered the possibility that circles and diamonds are always variants of one another.  In this single instance they seem to be so.  But it would appear that it is only the medium that makesit seem so, in this case.  The hard material of the bangle made scratching a curvilinear symbol more difficult with the result that it came out angular. 


Ouzman, Sven. 2010. Rock Art of Twyfelfontein, Namibia, Africa: A Survey into the Relationship between Animal-Engravings and Cupules Including the Site Report on Twyfelfontein at

Visona, Monica Blackmun, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris. 2000. A History of Art in Africa. New York: Prentice Hall and Harry H. Abrams, Publishers.

West African Wisdom: Adinkra Symbols & Meanings at

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