Today’s first sign in the Indus script appears only in Fairservis’ work, STRIPED CORD ( or FINLESS FISH), V62. Fairservis considers it to represent a twist or loop of cord or thread that has infilling or stitching across, meaning “increase, abundance, crops” (Fs L-4). The basic looped CORD (or FINLESS FISH) is II10 in my list, previously discussed. It resembles the schematic fish shape used as a Christian logo by various businesses in Texas and elsewhere, but rotated 90 degrees, as if the fish were standing on its tail fins. V62 is the same shape with internal striping, here assumed to consist of three stripes.
As such, this sign does not actually occur in any inscription as far as I am aware. It does occur as part of what Fairservis considers a ligature, STRIPED CORD UNDER CHEVRON (or STRIPED FINLESS FISH UNDER CHEVRON). If the striping consists of three lines, then this ligature is a seven-stroke symbol, to be discussed later. But, to show what I am discussing here, I have created an imaginary example of V62 as the first illustration in this post.
This is how the STRIPED CORD would look if it were an independent symbol, although this does not actually occur.
Considering only this portion of the real ligature, there are two good parallels from neighboring scripts. The first of these appears in proto-cuneiform as ZATU784, its meaning unknown. This sign also resembles a fish without fins, although with six internal stripes and somewhat thicker back fins. In addition to these differences from the Indus sign, ZATU784 is positioned horizontally. A more angular type, found in proto-Elamite, faces the opposite direction, i.e., left (M241~b). It contains only two internal “stripes,” which do not touch the top or bottom of the sign. Thus, these internal marks might be better termed “quotes.”
An example of proto-cuneiform ZATU784, perhaps a fish, perhaps not.
In the rock art of Nevada, there is an instance of a motif that resembles a fish without fins positioned vertically (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 139, fig. 76c). In this case, the looped cord or fish element is filled in entirely with pecking of the same type that forms the outline. It therefore lacks an appearance of striping, instead appearing to be solidly “colored.”
An example of proto-Elamite M241~b, perhaps a fish, perhaps a container of beer, perhaps something else.
A STRIPED LOOP also occurs in a second ligature, in the Indus script. It is attached to what I term the BATTERY in one case (M-159, an eleven-stroke ligature). It occurs under the CHEVRON (STRIPED LOOP UNDER CHEVRON) in eight instances, by my count. Five of these come from Mohenjo daro and three from Harappa, all to be discussed later.
Our second symbol is the DOT IN FISH, V63. It has the form of a fish-like sign, recalling IV26, with two side fins, one on either side. In addition, it has a short vertical stroke inside – a “quote” in my terms. It occurs elsewhere as KP56, W116, and Fs Q-2. Fairservis does not believe this or other fish-like symbols to represent actual fishes, but sees them all as variations on a looped cord. This one is a loop with an affix of TWO POSTS (i.e., the “fins” on the sides) and an additional affix P-1 (the internal dot or quote). The meaning, he suggests, is “of the chief.”
Note DOT IN FISH in this inscription (M-661; hand drawn).
Wells notes 55 occurrences of this sign, 36 from Mohenjo daro, 14 from Harappa, three from Lothal, one from Kalibangan, and one from Chanhujo daro. He also observes that the shape of the internal mark varies, presenting one version with a quote inside, another with a rounded dot inside, also noting “with many variations.” In practice I find it difficult to distinguish one type of internal mark from another and see the external element – the “fish” outline – as the more significant variable. There are rounded variants, very thin variants, variants from longer and shorter “fins,” fishy symbols of the same height as other signs and others that are considerably smaller. Only one instance out of this variety is illustrated here.
Proto-cuneiform also contains symbols that resemble various types of fishes. One that probably represents a vertically positioned fish containing a single diagonal stroke is KU6~c, meaning “fish.” It is clearly made with more than five strokes: four make up a rhomboid or diamond-shaped exterior, with two more for tail fins and two beyond that for the side fins. In addition, this sign has the internal mark, one which is attached to one of the upper strokes of the “diamond,” probably representing the fish’s mouth.
In proto-Elamite, an angular, diamond-shaped sign also resembles a fish, though positioned horizontally (M-281). There are two elements on the sides that resemble the “ear” motif among Indus symbols. These give the proto-Elamite sign the appearance of a fish with fins on the sides. Inside the diamond, there is a wedge-shape impression. This completes the description of M281~e, but another variant joins the two “back fins” with a short stroke (M281~c). This small addition makes the symbol more like a container than a fish, perhaps a jug of beer with two handles. A third variant not only has the stroke joining the “back fins,” it substitutes two parallel diagonals for the “ear” elements (M281~a). This is fairly different from the Indus sign, but if all three are truly variants of one proto-Elamite sign, together they suggest a different interpretation for the Indus sign. Although I call the latter DOT IN FISH, it may signify a container.
Fairservis argues that the various FISH signs cannot represent actual fish, in part because they appear in a vertical position in inscriptions, a position that real fish almost never swim in. Against this argument I note the appearance of a more detailed image of a fish on the Phaistos Disk, also positioned vertically. Of course, if the Phaistos Disk should prove to be a modern fake, as some have argued, this datum loses all value.
Seal Blk-3 with inscription: BLANKET (reconstructed) / POTTED ONE / BELTED FISH / BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF / POT (reconstructed). The original is broken; I have reconstructed possible signs, added false color, and simplified the general appearance for the sake of clarity.
Indus sign V64 is the BELTED FISH. It also occurs as KP58, W115, and Fs Q-4. Because of his basic position that the “fish” represents a looped cord, Fairservis sees this symbol as an element in weaving, the woof in the warp. He suggests that it means “elders (chief)” and when covered by the ROOF, “breeder.” Wells notes 74 occurrences, 43 from Mohenjo daro, 16 from Harappa, nine from Lothal, two from Kalibangan, two from Chanhujo daro, one from Jhukar, and one from Balakot. In addition, Wells enumerates another symbol separately as W138 which I consider a variant of these, one from Mohenjo daro (M-118). The basic symbol, BELTED FISH, is another fish-like motif with a horizontal line crossing it. In Wells’ 138, there is a diagonal as well as a horizontal line. To my eyes, the diagonal line creating the right-side “fin” has been extended into the body of the “fish.” It appears to be unintentional, in other words.
Parallels include a different version of the proto-cuneiform KU6~a, meaning “fish” (and other things, eventually). In this variant of a fish-like symbol, the “fin” on the right side is a horizontal line which is regularly extended across the body of the “fish.” In proto-Elamite, there is another angular, diamond-shaped element, this one with a bisecting vertical line, and only one “ear” or “fin” which is on the bottom (M283). Another sign is much like this one, but with a short stroke joining the two back “fins” (M283~a). Again, these symbols may not represent fish but vessels containing some commodity such as beer.
The Linear B ideographic symbol for “woman” is not much different from the Indus BELTED FISH, at first glance. On closer inspection, quite a few details distinguish the two. The Mycenaean Greek sign is a circle on top of a horizontal line, with a triangle beneath this. On either side of the triangle is a dot (breasts?). In the BELTED FISH, there is sometimes a single line (not perfectly horizontal) for one side “fin,” the “belt” across the body, and the other “fin” on the opposite side. If this were always the case, we might view the top of the “body,” above the horizontal, to be a person’s head, the part beneath the ut, to support this possibility, I also note the existence of anthropoid figures in the rock art of Nevada (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 194, fig. 131h). The cited instance resembles the Indus STOOL, but set upright with the “legs” at the bottom. These represent the legs of a human, apparently. From the sides project two diagonals, representing arms. On top there is a semi-circle for the head. It is reasonably clear that this is anthropomorphic and not a representation of a fish.
The third Indus sign to receive mention herein is SLASH IN FISH, V65. It has two variants, the more common of which actually contains a backslash (“A” variant), the rare slash being possibly a singleton (“B”). It is not shown in the Koskenniemi and Parpola listing as these scholars consider it a variant of the BELTED FISH. It occurs in Fairservis as Q-3 with an internal slash, and in Wells as W117 (with slash) and W137 (with backslash). Wells has reversed the appearance of the sign on seals, as he usually does. Thus, the more common variant “A” appears 42 times, if Wells’ observations are correct: 27 at Mohenjo daro, 11 at Harappa, three at Lothal, one at Desalpur. The rare variant “B” appears once at Mohenjo daro (M-411) by Wells’ count.
Inscription M-183 with one of the less clear exaamples of BACKSLASH IN FISH.
I don’t see it quite that way. The cited instance of the “B” variant appears to be the same as the other common versions. To my eyes, there is still one “B,” but it is from Lothal (L-219) and occurs in an impression on a pot. In addition, M-183 which Wells classifies as a SLASH IN FISH I would call another BELTED FISH. It seems to me that there is a further instance where both diagonals representing side “fins” cross into the “body” of the “fish,” thereby forming a chevron-shaped belt (M-256; see also L-2, cited as a BELTED FISH in Wells). Perhaps we should consider a third variant or else a separate and independent fish-like sign. On the other hand, Parpola may ultimately be correct in describing the BELTED FISH and SLASH IN FISH (both variants) as variants of a single sign (2009).
As a parallel to V65, I note the proto-cuneiform variant “d” of KU6, “fish.” This variant has a diamond shaped body attached to which two diagonals form back fins and two others form side fins. In addition, the basic diamond is bisected by a vertical line. Thus, it is not identical to the Indus sign by any means, but similar in that a fish-like shape contains a line.
An image of the Sumerian god Enki (Akkadian Ea), god of the waters, showing water pouring from his shoulders, and fish swimming in the water. Derived from images on cylinder seals (handdrawn by author).
In addition, one anthropoid figure from Nevada’s rock art also contains a bisecting line (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 194, fig. 131h). In this case, the vertical line not only bisects the angular body but descends beyond it. This "third leg" element may indicate a male human (or supernatural being). The head in this case is a full circle placed on top of a roughly triangular body with the apex downward.
This concludes the discussion of the five-stroke signs as far as their resemblance to other symbols around the world. No doubt there are many more parallels than those that I have thus far detailed. As my own collection of references concerning symbols and artwork increases, to include areas of the world I had not studied previously, new instances of just this sort of thing appear. For example, I recently purchased a book on the rock art of Africa that includes areas I had known nothing about when I began this blog. This allows me to add additional instances of parallels to such previously covered Indus signs as CIRCLE, DIAMOND, SQUARE, DOTTED CIRCLE, DONUT, CIRCLED CROSS, MAN, BARBELL, and many others.
The point of such comparisons, as I noted at the beginning of this project, is to determine (1) whether any symbols found in the Indus script are universal; (2) which symbols are common around the world, even if not truly universal; (3) and where symbols are common to many geographical areas, whether meaning is equally common. We have not examined even half of the total repertoire of signs in the Indus script, but a few points seem clear already.
Some symbols are indeed either universal or very widespread. We do not know the meanings of all of these (e.g., the meaning of rock art images that date from prehistoric periods; likewise, the meaning of signs in various undeciphered or incompletely deciphered scripts). But where the meanings are known, sharing an outwardly similar form generally does not correlate with shared meanings. The CUP is one of the more frequent Indus symbols, for example (my II7). This shape or a similar one appears on every continent but Antarctica. It is thus as close to being universal as any I have thus far discussed.
But in the few cases where the meaning is known, this is clearly not universal. The CUP means “basin” or “pit,” a “well” or “to set, become dark,” depending on where one finds it. It can also represent a human or the horns of an animal such as an ox. Thus, it would be foolhardy to pick a single example from this array, connect it to the Indus sign, and declare on the basis of this single parallel that the meaning of the Indus symbol is thereby revealed. I cannot simply point to Old Chinese and say because one “U” shape in that writing system indicates a dish that the Indus CUP must also indicate a dish of some sort. This is one possibility. But the Indus CUP might just as easily be compared to a proto-cuneiform sign, demonstrating equally well (and equally poorly) that the Indus sign must share the meaning “cover.” This, too, is really only one possibility among many.
Many people who claim to have deciphered Indus script do just what I have described. Richard McDorman provides another way of looking at similar symbols in different scripts (2009: locations 115-117). He posits a series of principles of universal iconography operating on all early scripts. That is, because people are much alike in psychology and the way they perceive the world, there are certain predictable parallels between unrelated scripts. When people first begin writing, their first impulse is to draw pictures of objects, sometimes “abbreviating” such a drawing by depicting only a characteristic part. For example, proto-cuneiform contains a simple drawing of an ox’s head with its horns to represent a head of cattle. The Luwian symbol for the same idea is also an ox’s head, showing its horns, at times so abbreviated and schematized that it is difficult to see the ox in it. The Egyptian symbol is more often a complete ox, seen from the side (E1), but again the head may suffice, especially in lists of offerings (F1). In Old Chinese, though, the “ox” character is a variation on a trident shape, with an additional horizontal crossing the stem, said to depict the animal from the back (Wieger 1965: 301). Thus, McDorman observes, despite the operation of universal principles, the specific form of a symbol cannot necessarily be predicted, even when it seems a straightforward matter to depict the object represented.
In addition to representations of objects, McDorman notes, people predictably include certain basic geometric shapes in their repertoires of symbols. Circles, dots, and lines appear on every continent, with triangles and squares somewhat less widely spread, and diamonds still less commonly encountered, as we have seen. Even where a shape appears in one place after another, the meaning assigned to it will vary in an unpredictable manner.
Thus, we should not be surprised to find such common symbols as the circle and line as part of the repertoire of Indus signs, because these are well-nigh universal. Nor should we be surprised to find that Indus script shares a common pictorial sign – say a human figure – with some particular script. Such symbols are very widespread. But specific meanings often vary. The closest Old Chinese parallel to the Indus stick-figure MAN does not mean “man,” but “big.” The most similar Egyptian hieroglyph means "star." In North America, such figures may represent ordinary humans. Then again, they may be representations of supernatural beings.
One must beware, then, of proposed solutions to the decipherment dilemma that are simplistic. Indus Valley's signs may resemble some from the mysterious Easter Island tablets. Many of these are little anthropomorphic figures that seem to be holding one item or another. We will eventually see that this type of figure is quite common, among those symbols that is nearly universal. Thus, it is simplest to ascribe the parallels between Indus script and Easter Island script to the operation of McDorman’s universal principles of iconography. After all, the Indus script was primarily used during the Bronze Age, between about 2500 and 1500 BCE (and this is stretching it a bit). The script of Easter Island dates to the 19th century of our era (late 1800’s CE). This leaves a gap of well over a thousand years between the demise of the one script and the origin of the other, not to mention the thousands of miles of open ocean between the two locations.
McDorman, Richard E. 2009. Universal Iconography in Writing Systems: Evidence and Explanation in the Easter Island and Indus Valley Script. Electronically published for Amazon Kindle.
Parpola, Asko. 2009. The Decipherment of Indus Script. New York: Cambridge University Press.