This first symbol discussed in this post appears only in the list published by Koskenniemi and Parpola, as KP369. In the form shown by this team of researchers, the sign is a circle within a circle – a DONUT in my terms. Inside the central circle there is a diagonal crossing stroke, a small backslash. The existence of such a sign in the Indus script is problematic since no other list I am aware of shows it and I did not record such a symbol in my own database. However, there is a “donut” with a simple dot in the center which appears both in inscriptions and on the “B” sides of various artifacts (where the “A” side typically bears the inscription). On the basis of this observation, I revise the form of KP369 in my own list and term it DOTTED DONUT, numbered V51 (the fifty-first of the five-stroke signs).
Usually, I report the frequency of each symbol as shown in Wells’ data. Since his list does not include this sign, I must make do with my own observations. The sign appears as an oval, pointed at top and bottom, with a smaller oval inside, and a dot inside the inner circle on the following: M-424 (seal impression on pot), M-1191, and K-52. It is doubled in the case of the last two. I give this variant the subclass “A.” A nearly perfect circle with smaller circle inside, the latter dotted in the center, appears on Rpr-1B, H-342B, M-1259 and M-1260, L-100B, K-57 and K-58. I term this one the “B” variant. The DOTTED DONUT appears twice, side by side, on Rpr-1B and L-100B; three times on K-57 (two over one); and four times (2 x 2) on M-1259, M-1260, and K-58. If one wishes to include all of these as occurrences of a single symbol, the sign-bearing artifacts occur a total of 10 times. Since the sign itself is repeated on some of these artifacts, the total number of times that the sign occurs is greater.
Proto-cuneiform includes a sign that is quite similar, namely, SZA3~a2. In form, it is an oval pointed at the top and bottom, inside of which there is another oval of the same shape. This came to mean “intestines, gut; heart; womb; interior, middle,” and various other things as well. Obviously, this symbol lacks the central dot (or backslash) of the Indus sign.
Luwian hieroglyphs provide a distant parallel with hara / hiri. This take the form of a very round “donut” or circle in circle, upon which an “X” is superimposed. From the lower right, a diagonal stroke descends. Thus, there is an additional feature in this symbol not found in the Indus sign (the “X”) and the other element, the backslash in this case, is outside the “donut” rather than inside.
Linear B includes an ideographic symbol that is much like the Luwian glyph. The Mycenaean Linear B sign is a “donut” upon which a cross is superimposed, meaning “wheel.” This sign appears on clay tablets that also detail parts of chariots, so the symbol itself probably depicts a cartwheel. It is highly simplified, most likely, since an actual chariot’s wheel that had only four spokes would be terribly fragile. Even so, this is the form shown on a chariot seen in a wall painting from Tiryns, as well.
Seal M-165 showing DUCK HEAD (first sign on left, second row)
(PhotoShop enhanced with color added by author, from Joshi and Parpola 1987: 49).
The second Indus sign discussed in this post is the DUCK HEAD, V52. It has no KP or Fs number, but resembles a sign that Fairservis enumerates B-6. In Wells, it is W90. The version that Fairservis depicts is a circle with a central dot and a slightly curving “<” sign attached on the right, with three prongs rising from the top of the circle and three descending from the base of the circle. Fairservis considers this the head of a shrieking or calling bird. Thus, I have termed the simple version (a dotted circle with attached “<” on the right) the DUCK HEAD. While I use this term, I do not mean to say that I consider the sign to actually depict a bird’s head. Wells notes that this symbol appears only once, at Mohenjo daro (M-165). It may be a variant of the type shown in Fairservis, which will be covered later in the list of eleven-stroke signs.
Among the Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting birds and parts thereof, one is the head of a crested bird with a dot for an eye, two plumes extending from the back of the head, and a long bill (H2). This is a phonetic determinative, a triliteral m3’ as in “temple (of the head)” and “real.” The two plumes somewhat resemble the Indus sign’s curving “less than” element, except that the Egyptian bird’s plumes nearly parallel each other and the open “beak” of the Indus sign is made of two lines curving away from each other. Another Egyptian glyph unrelated to birds somewhat resembles the Indus sign. This is an eye with three lines descending from the lower edge (D9). It is ideographic in the word “to weep.” The lines, then, are meant to indicate tears falling from the eye. A third glyph is a simple circle with three similar lines descending from it (N8). This represents sunshine, occurring as a determinative in “to shine” and “to rise.” Depictions of the sun, as shown on a chair and on the golden sarcophagus of King Tut, show such descending rays.
Sun as it appears on the back of a chair found in Tut's tomb; above, the same sun from a simplified version of the same scene, from a poster for the King Tut exhibition of 1979 (both somewhat PhotoShop enhanced by author). Scene shows Tut seated, with his wife Ankhesenamen standing before him. Sun is depicted as Aten was under Akhenaten, with uraeus and descending rays, resembling the glyph that means "sunshine."
In Old Chinese, one variant representing the human eye appears in the form of a dotted circle, with two curving marks similar to the Indus “duck bill,” but these are inside the circle rather than outside. These depict the lids of the eye, in the word for “eye,” mu4 (Wieger 1965: 322). The eye is now the 109th radical, in form a tall rectangle with two crossing horizontal lines.
Other early variants of the Chinese “eye” are ovals in form, either wide horizontally or tall vertically, with crossing lines as found in the modern character. This form is the basis for additional characters, including jien4, “to look” (1965: 323). This eye rests on a simple motif depicting two legs. In the modern character, these resemble the “bill” of the Indus sign. But in the ancient form, one of the legs is often shown with a curious bend. An almost identical character is an oval with two horizontal lines crossing it, resting on two short strokes. This represents a cowrie shell, in the word bei4, “A cowrie, a small shell used for money in China in early feudal times” (1965: 328). On the eye, again, yet another character has four strokes in a pattern resembling the letter “M.” This is mu4, “the eyes divergent...; squint, confused view” (1965: 324).
The Indus sign also resembles a proto-cuneiform sign, |U4.SZU2|. This takes the form of a thick, backward “C” shape, a small curve resting in its wider curve -- the sun rising in a valley between two hills, or some such notion – and a “less than” sign attached on the right. The U4 portion is the backward cee with its curve, indicating “sun, day” and the two additional strokes on the right are SZU2. In later cuneiform, u4-szu2-usz(-e) means “daily; day by day; sunset” while dutu-szu2-a “sunset; west.” The same or a similar U4 sign, a simple backward C with curve in it has two horizontal lines attached on the left: |U4 x 2 (N57)|. This indicates two days.
In Luwian hieroglyphs, a syllabic glyph bears a faint resemblance to the Indus sign, namely, ta. In form this is an animal’s head, round in general shape and with a small circle inside it. On the lower left a thin rectangle is attached at an angle, resembling a fat slash. This portion is bisected longitudinally by a central line, also containing a crossing stroke near the round portion of the head (a halter?). On the top of the animal’s head are two long, pointed ears, which recall the “bill” of the Indus DUCK HEAD.
Linear B also contains symbols with an added element reminiscent of the “bill.” This additional element is rotated 90 degrees compared to the Indus “bill,” forming a “roof”-like motif. It appears beneath schematic heads of various animals to indicate female sex. Thus, a backward, rotated “R” shape above this “roof” represents “ewe,” a female sheep. A “P”-like motif resting on its back and with additional strokes on the right rests on another “roof,” indicating “cow.” The corresponding male animals – ram and bull – are indicated by substituting a “shish kebab” with two crossing strokes for the “roof.”
Inscription from seal M-817: CAGED FAT EX IN DIAMOND / LEAF / SPEAR
(hand copy from Shah and Parpola 1991: 71; also shows horn and ear of unicorn bull).
Third is the LEAF, in shape resembling a Valentine’s heart turned upside down, resting on a short post. In my list, it is V53, also known as KP111, W255, and Fs E6b. Fairservis considers it a pipal leaf, presumably, as he calls the striped version of this same shape such a leaf. He supposes that it means “head or high superior as in Chief or God, royal in Harappan sense). Wells notes four occurrences of this sign, three of them at Mohenjo daro (M-33, M-772, M-817) and one at Dholavira (Dlv-1). In all of these, it occurs in a medial position, neither as part of the prefix nor as a terminal, to use Korvink’s terms.
There are few parallels to such a shape among the symbols I have observed elsewhere. There is a proto-cuneiform sign somewhat resembling the “heart” portion, DIN, which came to mean “life, health, vigor; wine.” Perhaps in Iraq it originally represented a wine vessel. In Luwian, REL, “relative” (i.e., member of the family), is quite similar in one variant. Here it is not a closed “heart” shape but much the same outline at the top (the pointed end of the “heart”) coming down to two curves on either side of the central post. Two other glyphs are based on a shape resembling a distorted “heart” on its side. The first of these, INFRA/SUB, “down/below” has a diagonal stroke attached to the lower left. The same glyph with an additional crook, similar to a shepherd’s crook, attached on the upper right is CUM, “with.”
Linear B has another Valentine’s “heart” shape, right side up this time, with a central bisecting vertical that has a bit of curve above the “heart.” This represents the syllable tu. Finally, on the Phaistos Disk, there is a symbol somewhat resembling a centrally bisected Valentine’s heart, but with a flat base. Its meaning is unknown.
Inscription L-88 from bar seal: BIRD / GRID / DOWN BI-FORK / SINGLE QUOTE / FIVE QUOTES / QUAD-FORK ("A" variant) (Joshi and Parpola 1987: 259; image given false color and smoothed in PhotoShop).
The fourth and last sign discussed here is what I term the QUAD-FORK, V54. It seems to me that that there are four variations on this one sign, but others divide them differently. My variants “A” and “B” are basically “Y” shapes, with two additional strokes inside the upper portion. In variant “A” the additional strokes rest against the left side of the “Y,” while my variant “B” has its additional strokes resting against the right side. In other words, in both cases, four prongs rise above the post portion, the two outer ones directly from this post, the two central ones from one side or the other. The possession of four prongs rather than fewer (as in the BI-FORK and TRI-FORK) or more prongs (as in the QUINT-FORK) is the crucial variable by which I assign both variants to a single sign number. Wells separates these, numbering the first W263, the second W269. Neither appears in Koskenniemi and Parpola’s list or in that of Fairservis, who do not distinguish among all versions of “forks.”
Inscription from seal H-50: MAN WITH DEE-SLASH / QUAD-FORK / POTTED ONE / MALLET / QUAD-FORK ("B" variant) / POT (Joshi and Parpola 1987: 181; detail, colored and smoothed in PhotoShop for clarity by author).
Note horn of unicorn bull on lower left.
Variant “C” is, in my estimation, a “U” curve resting on a post, with two short strokes rising from inside the “U.” Wells again enumerates this separately, as W271. Variant “D” may be another version of the QUAD-FORK, or may be considered a distinct sign. It occurs at Mohenjo daro on a single seal, as a “C” curve from which rise four prongs. This is KP162 and W582 but does not appear in Fairservis. The frequency of W263 (my variant “A”) is 71 total: Mohenjo daro 14, Harappa 56, Lothal one. The frequency of W269 (my variant “B”) appears only three times, twice at Mohenjo daro and once at Harappa. My variant “C” is Wells’ W271, which also occurs three times: once each at Mohenjo daro, Banawali, and Surkotada.
Inscription from seal Sktd-1: CARTWHEEL / MAN WITH DEE-SLASH / QUAD-FORK (variant "C") / BI-QUOTES / FOUR QUOTES / TRI-FORK (detail from Joshi and Parpola 1987: 362; image considerably smoothed and given color for clarity, whereas original is chipped and abraded).
The type of “forks” appearing as variants “A” and “B” are rarely found outside the Indus Valley. However, proto-Elamite contains a sign that bears some resemblance to these in M039 and its variants (especially “c” and “c1”). These appear as “L” shapes, lying horizontally, with prongs attached to the short side of the “L.” Such a distinctive “fork” occurs with three prongs (M039 and M039~c), with four prongs (M039~c1), and with five prongs (M039~a). In this, it resembles the various “forks” in the Indus script, the TRI-FORK or trident, the QUAD-FORK with four strokes above the post, and the QUINT-FORK with five upper strokes. Another sign resembles “Y” horizontally positioned, with two additional strokes inside the “V” portion (M075). Unlike the Indus signs based on “Y” shapes, the proto-Elamite sign’s additional prongs arise as straight horizontal lines, one from each side of the “V” portion.
Inscription from seal M-210: QUAD-FORK ("D" variant) / VEE IN DIAMOND / STRIPED FAT LEG LAMBDA
(Joshi and Parpola 1987: 55; image smoothed and color added in PhotoShop).
The rock art of Nevada also contains a four-pronged motif, this one similar to my variant “C” of the Indus sign (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 163, fig. 100h; 177: fig. 114j). The first is upside down compared to the Indus sign, the second occurrence being right side up. There does not seem to be a form based on a “Y” shape.
In proto-cuneiform the sign termed DA~b is only vaguely similar. In this case, instead of a “post” there is a rectangular element on the right. On the left, four diagonal lines extend upward, while a fifth line is curved downward. This is a representation of a hand with part of the forearm, a sign that came to mean “arm, side; hold, be near.” I include this not so much because it resembles the Indus sign (which it does only vaguely, as noted) but because it suggests a possible meaning for at least some of the “forks.” They may be schematic representations of the human hand.
In the discussion of the TRI-FORK, I noted Old Chinese using a trident shape to represent the human hand. Here I note zhi2, meant to depict the heel of the foot, or a footprint, with derived meanings “to march (the feet moving); to halt, stop (the feet being still)” (Wieger 1965: 263). This appears as a curving “L” shape from the base of which rises a vertical stroke. From the latter vertical, a backward “L” shape (again curved) springs, midway up. This character has become the 77th radical.
Detail from a Mixtec lienzo showing a person sitting on part of a place sign, with footprints
leading to the place on lower left (Smith 1973: 225; image smoothed and given false color in
PhotoShop). Place name is added in old-fashioned Spanish spelling for Tequiztepec.
In Mixtec proto-writing, a journey to one place or a visit between individuals is represented with footprints (Smith 1973: 223, fig. 8; 225, fig. 13). The first instance is a marriage scene, the second an escape scene. Sometimes footprints resemble real human footprints fairly closely, with the heel and the ball of the foot joined on one side or the other. Above the ball of the foot are dots denoting the toes. But some representations are less realistic, more like a numeral seven with dots above the short stroke. Most of the time there are fives dots, as one would expect. But close examination reveals some variation in the actual lienzos. There may be only four or, occasionally, three toe dots, and a few times there are six. It seems that the Mixtec artists were not counting the toes, only drawing what looked about right. The same kinds of variation seem to appear among the Indus TRI-FORK, QUAD-FORK, and QUINT-FORK.
The Linear B sign for the syllable se is also a “7” like symbol, with four prongs or short strokes above. Or it might be considered a post with a horizontal attached near the top, on the right, with three additional strokes above this horizontal. In contrast, re is represented by a trident based on a curve, recalling my variant “C” of V54.
The Phaistos Disk bears one final symbol that, again, only faintly resembles the Indus sign. The symbol on the disk is often described as a seashell, but it looks very much like a small baseball mitt or very fat mitten with the fingers and thumb separately depicted. It cannot really be a baseball mitt, obviously. But it might represent a hand.
Thus, if we include all of my proposed variants for the QUAD-FORK, “A” through “D,” this sign is the most common of those discussed in this post. It appears 78 times in all.
Smith, M.E. 1973. Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma.