Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Bed, a Table, and a Square in a Square: Three Rare Indus Signs

Inscription K-122A from Kalibangan: CIRCLED VEE / TRIPLE ZIGZAGS & VEE IN SQUARE / DOUBLE LAMBDAS (?).

This post includes a discussion of three rare Indus signs of six strokes each.  The first is basically an “H” shape with two horizontal lines in the middle, beneath which two extra “legs” descend.  I term this the BED (VI10).  It is also known as KP303, W173, and Fs I-17.  Faiservis thinks it represents a harrow, meaning “many; the number 10.”  Wells notes 23 occurrences, 12 from Mohenjo daro, 10 from Harappa, and one from Desalpur.  He divides these among four variants, “a” being the most common.  The “b” variant extends the two central “legs” to the upper horizontal line (i.e., through the “mattress” of this “bed”).  The “c” variant adds an additional short “leg” below, making three (and changing this to a seven-stroke sign).  The “d” variant has four short “legs” (changing this to an eight-stroke sign).  There should be an additional “e” variant with three short “legs” and four diagonal stripes between the horizontals (making this an 11-stroke sign).  All variants occur at Mohenjo daro (a-e), just one at Harappa (a), and just one at Desalpur (b).  Seven of the Harappan occurrences are duplicates.

Bar seal Dlp-1 from Desalpur with inscription showing BED, variant "b," third from right end
 (smoothed and colored by author to enhance clarity).

There is an Egyptian hieroglyph that is only somewhat similar to the Indus BED (O33).  The glyph represents the facade of a palace or tomb, used as a determinative in a word meaning “banner.”  This glyph is made up of four tall verticals, two parallel horizontals both joining and separating these.  Between the verticals and beneath the lower horizontal, there is another shorter vertical in each segment.  This makes three short verticals in all.  Over the whole thing there are two parallel horizontals that do not touch the tall verticals below.  It is intended to represent an exterior once common in royal tombs that had pillar-like extensions on the outside with indentations between, i.e., cornices and niches. 
Detail of Egyptian pectoral showing goddess Nephthys, wearing hieroglyphs spelling her name on her head: nb (basket) on top of hwt (temple, with phonetic glyph "t" inside), i.e., Nb-hwt "Lady of the Temple."

It is possible that the Indus sign, too, represents an architectural motif.  One of the icons found alone on a seal is something like this, with two tall elements on either side and boxy elements in between (M-1187).  On top of the left vertical, there is a motif something like a small “m.”  It may originally have been duplicated on top of the right vertical, but this is broken off, so it is hard to tell for sure.  I think a hint of the right end of this element is still there.  The lower portion of the icon differs from the BED sign, though.  The icon seems to be two squares, side by side, rather than something thin that is held up by posts.  A rather different architectural element appears on a tablet (H-176).  It is considerably more complex, apparently with an anthropoid figure sitting inside on the left.
On the other hand, in proto-cuneiform there is the sign termed U2.  One of its “b” variants is made up of three verticals joined by three horizontals.  Another is 4 x 4, still another seven verticals with four horizontals.  All appear to have long “legs” beneath the horizontals, although these “legs” also cross the horizontals and match the outer verticals in height.  This sign came to mean “plant; vegetation; firewood.”
There is also a horizontally positioned variant of the previous sign (U2~c), which has a parallel in proto-Elamite (M026~d).  In this case, the proto-Elamite sign has a short central “leg” making it more like the Indus sign.  Another sign resembles this, with two short “legs” (M207~f).  This last is the closest analog of the Indus sign yet.  But the “mattress” portion of this “bed” is much thicker than in the Indus symbol.
In Old Chinese, three verticals joined by two central horizontals also occur as a character.  This is zhung1, “the centre...To hit the centre, to attain.  It represents a square target, pierced in its centre by an arrow.  Later on, the target was contracted” (Wieger 1965: 260).  This character is now a smaller rectangle pierced (or skewered, in my terms) by a tall vertical and appears in the name of China, zhung-guo.  Literally, this means “middle kingdom.”
In Old Europe, a similar design occurs with sides that are not vertical but bent.  The left side is “>” and the right side “<” with a horizontal joining them in the center.  Below this single horizontal there are three short verticals (DS192).  A possible variant is the same basic shape but with eight short legs very close together (DS193).  In Linear B, another European symbol set, there is a syllabic sign closely resembling the Indus BED, but with a single short “leg.”  It represents the wa sound.  Four “legs,” three short and only one end long, occur in the syllable ju.  In the latter sign, there is only one horizontal as well. 
I mention the latter Linear B sign mainly because it resembles some of the schematic quadrupeds found in the rock art of North America (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 188, fig. 125k).  In these, three of the four verticals do seem to represent legs, and the single long vertical is the fourth leg (below) and the head (above).  Other instances appear both in Nevada and Texas (1984: 195, fig. 132e with two long verticals; Newcomb 1996: 67, Pl. 27, no. 1; 69, Pl. 31, no. 2; 94, Pl. 53, no. 2). 
Schematic quadrupeds as depicted in rock art from Nevada.

The rock art of North America also contains less zoomorphic motifs that resemble the Indus BED.  One such motif appears in Texas near Glenn Spring, an occurrence similar to “H” with a smaller “H” below the horizontal (Newcomb 1996: 128, Pl. 85).  Another is much like the Indus BED but with two short verticals both above and below the two horizontals (1996: 151, Pl. 103, no. 1).  Three of these motifs appear inside one long rectangle in this case.
One final note concerning the Indus BED is its appearance in one ligature.  One of the eight-stroke signs is the BED with an attached POST.  It will be discussed later.
Our next sign is FAT TABLE (or SQUARE AY WITH DOUBLE LEGS), enumerated VI11.  It is much like the previous sign except that the second horizontal joins the tops of the two outer verticals.  It only appears elsewhere as KP295, not in Wells’ or Fairservis’ lists.  In my database, it appears only on one tablet from Harappa, although it is on both sides (H-180 A and B).  Whether it is truly an independent sign or a variant of the BED is difficult to determine from this single appearance.  It is the second sign of six signs in the inscription. 
Symbol from Arapaho design repertoire resembling Indus FAT TABLE and Hopi bear track.

Note that some of the supposed occurrences of the BED from Harappa, also appearing on tablets, could be interpreted as this sign (H-278 through H-284).  These are hard to discern, showing two long verticals on either side, a single horizontal near the center, and two short legs.  Since these are cylindrical, I cannot be certain that there is no horizontal at the tops of the verticals, though there is certainly no second horizontal close to the center as there should be in the BED.
This rare sign is reminiscent of quite a few symbols found outside the Indus Valley.  Among Egyptian hieroglyphs, the same tomb facade glyph mentioned in connection with the BED is one possibility (O33).  Another analog is the glyph of the sky with four verticals beneath it, representing moisture falling from the sky (N4).  This one is a determinative or ideograph in words for dew and rain.  Another rectangle with three descending verticals is an Old Kingdom form representing a pectoral (S17).  This chest ornament also has a small semi-circle on top that the Indus sign lacks, but jewelry of some sort might also be the intended object depicted by the Indus FAT TABLE.
Old Chinese returns to the theme of moisture from the sky with yu3, “rain” (Wieger 1965: 288 and 26).  One version of the character is a “roof” element with six short horizontals inside, three on the left and three on the right.  Beneath these are four short verticals.  Another version begins with a horizontal across the top and a single vertical attached below, making a “T” shape.  Overlapping the vertical stroke, said to represent the concept of falling from heaven, there is a “roof” element with four dots underneath, two stacked on either side of vertical.  The dots are the raindrops.  This second version has been squared off to form the modern character.
In proto-cuneiform, the FAT TABLE finds an almost identical analog, but one which is less “fat.”  This is E~e, positioned horizontally, which came to mean “speaking, prayer; to say, do.”  A closer analog appears in proto-Elamite but with only one short “leg” (M030~a).  Another has four short “legs” joined by a longer line perpendicular to them, but this “comb” element is slightly separated from the square “A” shape (M207~e).
The first of the proto-Elamite signs is identical in form to the Linear B ideograph for “cloth.”  But the Linear B sign is vertical like the Indus sign, rather than horizontal like the proto-Elamite symbol.  Presumably, the “legs” of the cloth represent fringe.
The rock art of North America presents another possible interpretation for such a sign.  In a way, the FAT TABLE is reminiscent of some of the schematic quadrupeds mentioned in the discussion of the previous sign (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 188, fig. 125k).  These may represent actual quadrupeds, such as mountain sheep or dogs.  But they may also be somewhat metaphorical, representing rain.  Another possibility is a schematized footprint, perhaps of a vear, perhaps of some other animal (1984: 160, fig. 97j).  The cited instance is identical to a Hopi representation of a bear’s track except there are three claws shown in Nevada.  A bear actually has five just as humans have five toes.  But the nine-banded armadillo has just three obvious toes in its track, with two smaller indentations toward the back.  The beaver also has three (webbed) toes that appear more prominently in its track than the outer two.  Thus, the Indus sign could be a schematic footprint.
The FAT TABLE also bears some resemblance to the body and legs of an elephant symbol on some punch-marked coins from India.  This symbol appears on Vidarbha coins.

Native American signs representing clouds (complete one on left resembles Indus TOP)
and moon (upside-down "L").

The third Indus sign discussed in this post is the TOP, a square with a short post attached on top and another on the bottom (VI12).  Elsewhere, it is known as KP275(a), W486, and Fs G-10.  Fairservis thinks it represents an enclosure with two pillars or poles on either side.  He says that it means “cowpen or fold.”  Wells finds just four instances, two from Mohenjo daro, one each from Harappa and Allahdino (M-281, M-723, H-162, and Ad-5).  He states that there are two variants but does not show more than a single form.  The relative prominence of the posts versus the square does vary a bit, but the distinctions among instances are not great.
Proto-cuneiform has more than one sign with this basic shape, but most are further elaborated.  The first of these is AK~a, AK~b.  The “a” variant is horizontal and there are six short marks inside the square, three stacked backslashes on the left and three stacked slashes on the right.  Variant “b” is vertical like the Indus sign and contains six “<” signs, three stacked on the left and three stacked on the right.  This sign came to mean “to do, act, make.”  A longer horizontal type has two crossing vertical stripes, one near each end, BANSZUR~b2.  This came to mean “table; container.”  A third is identical to the Indus sign.  Unfortunately, this is ZATU837~b, a sign whose meaning is unknown.
The same shape appears in the rock art of Texas, although the “square” is thinner and rectangular (Newcomb 1996: 136, Pl. 91, no. 1).  Such an element only occurs in Nevada as part of a larger grouping.  Circles connected by short lines, reminiscent of beads on a string, are a common motif in this area.  Squares connected in such a way are rare, but do occurs (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 146, fig. 83h).
The fourth and last symbol under consideration is VEE IN SQUARE, VI13.  It is a square with what appears to be a smaller square inside, in one corner.  This symbol does not occur in any of the three lists that I have full access to, so it has no enumeration other than mine.  However, I. Mahadevan mentions it in one of his articles, as a variant of the very common VEE IN DIAMOND (VI14).  It may be that Koskenniemi and Parpola, Wells, and Fairservis all saw the few occurrences of the VEE IN SQUARE as variants also and did not think it worth mentioning.

Cloud symbol as it appears in Navaho sand paintings, drawn from design on modern wallpaper.  Where this symbol is halved on the wallpaper, it resembles an "altar" symbol also found on an Indus seal.

It is an interesting sign, though, because it has good analogs outside of India, whereas the VEE IN DIAMOND form is extremely rare outside the Indus script.  In assigning a meaning to the VEE IN DIAMOND (and CIRCLED VEE and VEE IN SQUARE), Mahadevan cites an Egyptian glyph (O6).  This glyph represents a rectangular enclosure, supposedly seen from above.  It is ideographic in hwt, “castle, mansion, temple, tomb” (with a dot below the “h”).  Because this glyph means something like “citadel,” Mahadevan posits that the Indus sign in all its variants must mean “citadel” as well.  As noted, the glyph is not exactly a citadel, though.  Nor is the Egyptian glyph the only analog to the Indus sign.  Luwian hieroglyphs include a square with a central circle, its meaning as yet unknown. 
Proto-cuneiform includes a square with a central diamond, transcribed |LAGAB~b x HI|.  The first part, LAGAB, also appears as a circle in other combinations, where it may have its later meaning, “slab (of stone), block (of wood)” or it may refer to a type of livestock.  The internal element, HI, came to mean “mixed,” so the combination may actually indicate a flock of sheep and goats.  A rectangle with a stripe near the right side is GA2, a sign that also occurs with a small square inside (|GA2~a1 x LAGAB~b|) or with an internal diamond (|GA2~a1 x HI|).  In later cuneiform, GA2 means “box, basket; house; stable; shrine.”  The first combination may represent a shrine made of stone, the second a house made of mixed materials, say, wood and reeds.  These are only guesses of mine based on the meanings of the signs when not in combination.  But |GA2~a1 x GISZ@t|, which contains a small rectangle, might indicate a mixed pair for drawing a plow, i.e., a team of oxen consisting of two different types (different colors? belonging to different owners?).  In proto-Elamite, another example is a rectangle with a small central rectangle inside (M146~d).  As with Luwian, its meaning is unknown.

Broken seal B-18 from Banawali, showing VEE IN SQUARE below other signs.

There may be four occurrences of this sign, although one of these is certainly a more elaborate element.  The clearest instance is on a broken seal from Banawali, where it seems to appear beneath TWO POSTS / THREE QUOTES.  But this may be the VEE IN DIAMOND tilted severely.  There are other clearer cases where the VEE IN DIAMOND is indeed tilted off center (K-40, L-29, M-72, M-142, M-1152).  We will examine these and others in the next post.
A second possible occurrence of VEE IN SQUARE appears on a very obscure tablet from Mohenjo daro (M-1428).  None of the signs on this object are entirely clear, however.  In this case, if it is a VEE IN SQUARE, the “V” is in the upper right corner, whereas this element is in the upper left corner on B-18.  That is what we would expect, since tablets normally reverse the order and shape of the signs on the seals.  One instance occurs in an impression from Kalibangan (K-85).  This is damaged, the signs faint, and the photograph unclear.  But the VEE IN SQUARE appears to be first sign on the right, with the internal “V” in the upper right again.  The fourth occurrence is on a copper ingot from Kalibangan between CIRCLED VEE and possibly DOUBLED LAMBDAS.  It appears to have its “V” in the upper left, assuming that the CIRCLED VEE is positioned with the pointed ends at the top and bottom.  Inside the square are three parallel zigzags of five segments each.  The right side of the sign is obscured.
In Egypt, the glyph representing a rectangular enclosure has its “V” or the smaller rectangle in the lower right corner.  The internal element thus resembles a little door in a tall building.  In the Indus sign, it would have to be a window just under the roof-line.  The Egyptian glyph also appears in the headdress of the goddess Nephthys (more accurately Nebkhut), with a large semi-circular basket on top (see illustration above).

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