One common method of combining two symbols in the proto-writing systems of early Iraq and early Iran was to place one sign inside another. This is seen in proto-cuneiform in the sign transcribed |LAGAB~a x SIG7|. The first sign in this “equation” is a circle which came to mean “block (of wood), slab (of stone), trunk (of tree).” The second or internal element resembles a garden rake. It came to mean “yellow, green.” Together, the early "rake" in "circle" symbols may have indicated a combined meaning, such as “green wood” or “yellow stone.” On the other hand, the circular variant of LAGAB often symbolizes a sheep, early on, so the combination may represent a light-colored animal.
Inscription M1350, showing CIRCLED TRI-FORK (inscription shown previously; hand drawn by author).
In a similar manner, the oval Indus sign that I term CIRCLE appears with an element inside that otherwise appears as an independent sign, the TRI-FORK. The combination is CIRCLED TRI-FORK, V41. Various configurations of a fork-like element appear in such a manner. In one case, the motif touches the limits of the circle, rather like an upside-down version of the modern “peace” symbol (Wells enumerates it W381). Another variant contains an internal element that resembles the classical trident (W344). A third sign for Wells includes all those variants in which the prongs of the internal fork arise from the side of the post or in which the top of the post tilts, forming an “E” shape (W343). Among this last group, his “e” variant has two horizontal prongs, “d” has three horizontal prongs, “a” is a tilted “E” with three prongs, “c” a tilted “E” with four prongs, and “b” a tilted and curved “E” with four prongs.
There is no KP number, since all variants are apparently grouped under KP364, CIRCLED QUINT-FORK, a five-pronged fork in a circle. Fairservis distinguishes F-4 (CIRCLED TRI-FORK in trident form) and F-5 (CIRCLED "E" TRI-FORK). He defines the first as the sun affixed by the abbreviated grain sign, E-2, “setting sun, west.” He makes the second the sun with the fire affix, F-13, “rising sun, dawn, east.” He comments that the latter differs from yet another version, F-5, a CIRCLED QUINT-FORK which has "short, even prongs."
What he shows, though, is that the prongs themselves differ in height in this last element, so that the lowest prong of the tilted “E” shape is the longest prong, the highest prong the shortest. This makes only the tops of prongs even. with their bases uneven. As far as his proposed definition, I must say it seems rather unlikely that people would use almost identical marks for such distinctive notions as sunrise and sunset, east and west.
Inscription M-45 (TWO POSTS / OVERLAPPING CIRCLES / PANTS / BI-QUOTES // (over) SINGLE QUOTE // CIRCLED TRIPLE SLASHES / DOUBLE GRIDS (Joshi and Parpola 1987: 22; detail, hand drawn with ear and horn of unicorn bull shown).
Since I divide variants by stroke numbers, I would place the “peace” sign with IV42, CIRCLED CROSS, and not with the CIRCLED TRI-FORK. In the latter category I include W344 (the internal trident), and perhaps W343 “e” with the last actually a circled “bi-fork” in my terms (so we will have more to say about it later). Wells notes his W381 – the “peace” variant – as a singleton (L-114). I do not see it as resembling the peace symbol on the actual seal. There, it is an oval variant of the CIRCLED CROSS, as noted. As for W344, the trident form, Wells notes 64 occurrences, with 49 at Mohenjo daro, 10 at Harappa, one at Lothal, one at Kalibangan, two at Chanhujo daro, and one at Jhukar. There are 67 occurrences of W343, with 33 at Mohenjo daro, 31 at Harappa, and three at Lothal. If one wishes to combine all three of these types into a single category, there are 132 in all.
When it comes to dividing up the occurrences of variants of W343, the issue is not always clearcut. I see at least two instances of the CIRCLED BI-FORK, which, thus far, I am including as my “B” variant of the CIRCLED TRI-FORK due to stroke count (H-78 and H-388). Stems of the “E” shapes are sometimes clearly angular (H-724, L-19), sometimes clearly curved (M-916), and sometimes in between (M-173, M-656, M-1334). Interestingly, one inscription has two instances of W343 which are not identical to each other (M-916).
In proto-Elamite there is a sign resembling an elongated diamond which contains a trident element (M302~ba). This inner element, like the trident shown in Wells’ version of W381 (“peace”), touches the edge of its container. However, the containing symbol is oriented horizontally in this case, as is typical for this proto-writing system.
Inscription H-331: CIRCLED DOUBLE SLASHES / DEE-SLASH / COMB
(Joshi and Parpola 1987: 227; abraded and broken tablet, hand copy by author).
Note that tablets read right to left. Seals read left to right, since they would have
been used to make impressions and the impressions would be read right to left.
Old Chinese contains examples of composite characters in which a circle contains another element. One such example is gu4, “hermetically closed on all sides” (Wieger 1965: 69). It is not a trident that this circle encloses, however, but the mouth character on which a cross rests. This character is thus a distant parallel to the Indus sign(s).
Similarly, in the rock art of North America, circular motifs appear enclosing other elements. In one instance, there is a circle that encloses a trident touching the upper rim (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 169, fig. 106a). However, at the base of this trident there is another smaller circle, still inside the larger enclosing circle. In addition, the whole motif is partly overlapped by a striped circle. In such a case, it is not clear how intentional the enclosure of the trident is and, indeed, the general notion of combining motifs. One element may predate another, perhaps by a substantial period of time, rather than both elements being parts of a true combination.
The next Indus sign is much less common: CIRCLED TRIPLE SLASHES (V42). It was formerly KP372 and W349 (not shown in Fairservis). Actually the “slashes” are precisely that only on tablets (e.g., H908, H688). Elsewhere, they are backslashes, with rare exceptions. In the latter cases, they appear to be hyphens (e.g., M-321, H-513). In at least one instance, there are only two marks inside the circle rather than three (H-331). This variant is, thus, a four-stroke sign. Wells notes 12 occurrences of CIRCLED TRIPLE SLASHES, six at Mohenjo daro, six at Harappa.
Inscription H-142: FAT EX / PINCH / CIRCLED DOT / CIRCLED SKEWERED CHEVRON / BIRD BETWEEN CEE & BACK CEE / POT (Joshi and Parpola 1987: 200; hand drawn by author).
In Egyptian there is a glyph in the shape of a circle – a true circle and not a pointed oval as the Indus sign is – with 2 vertical marks inside. This is one variant representing a prehistoric building at Hieraconpolis. It appears as an ideograph in the name of that city. Luwian hieroglyphs include an oval with 3 crossing lines for the syllable ma. Linear B (an early writing system used for Greek) has a circle with 4 internal dashes, two over two. It represents the syllable qe, pronounced something like kwe (as in the English word “quake” but without the final “k” sound). On the Phaistos Disk from Crete, from a few hundred years earlier, a circle appears with 7 dots inside (a shield? bread?). Its meaning is unknown.
Proto-cuneiform also provides an example of a circle containing 2 marks, this time angled as in the Indus sign, though not stacked one over the other. There are generally two such marks in TUG2~b, representing “cloth; garment.” In this proto-writing system there are also pointed ovals, often distinguished from the circles. Most clearly, it is the number of lines inside that distinguish meaning, at least in later stages. Two internal lines indicate TUG, meaning “cloth.” Four (4) lines inside an oval make HI, “to mix.” And 7 lines mean KI, “earth.” Such fine distinctions may not be as clear in the early stages.
In Old Chinese, there is a circular character with 2 curves inside resembling parentheses back to back. This is si4, “four[, a n]umerical sign. Even number, which is evenly divided into two halves” (Wieger 1965: 118). The same symbol with an additional, 3rd curve at the bottom is jiung3, “A window....By extension, light” (op. cit.). A third character is a circle with 2 strokes in a chevron-like arrangement, qiu2, “A prisoner, to emprison....A man in an enclosure” (1965: 73).
In the rock art of North America, circles also appear with strokes or dots inside. In Texas there is a circle bisected by a horizontal line. Both above and below this bisecting line there are two dots, making a total of 4 internal dots (Newcomb 1996: 176, Pl. 124). In Nevada, a circle contains 2 vertical lines that completely cross it (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 166, fig. 103g).
On the punch-marked coins of later India, there is often a similar symbol. On the Magadha type, there is a circular symbol in which 3 smaller circles appear in a stack, one over two. In the Indus sign, the slashes or backslashes are stacked differently, not one over two but one upon one upon one. However, on both the seals and the tablets where the Indus signs appear, the containing ovals tend to relatively tall and thin, leaving little room for any other arrangement of dots/lines.
The next sign is a “circled asterisk,” the CARTWHEEL V43. It is relatively common in the Indus corpus, appearing 125 times according to Wells. Not only that, it is close to universal among symbols found elsewhere in the world. So common is it that it requires its own post. Accordingly, we will skip over it for now, merely noting its existence.
Seal M-1153 with inscription TWO POSTS (?) / FISH (?) / CIRCLED BI-FORK / TWO POSTS /
FAT EX IN DIAMOND / DOUBLE CEES / POT
(Shah and Parpola 1991: 131; hand copy reconstructing probable form of elephant).
The following sign is CIRCLED SKEWERED CHEVRON, V44. It appears only in Wells as W380, another singleton (H-142). It is similar to the CIRCLED TRI-FORK, but the stem of the central, enclosed element is not attached to the “circle” at its base. In addition, while the “trident” form of the CIRCLED TRI-FORK, A variant has “arms” that bend upward, the “arms” of this element bend downward. It looks like an upside-down version of the CIRCLED TRI-FORK, "A" variant, but with an unattached stem. Should it be classified as a variant of that sign (V41)? Or should we go back to the CIRCLED CROSS for a parallel and classify it as a variant of that, again with unattached posts and “arms” (IV42)? Perhaps Wells is correct in simply leaving it as a separate sign, a singleton that doesn’t quite match anything else.
It does not quite match the proto-cuneiform circle with an internal element. This sign's internal piece resembles a sideways “T” with a “top” (now on the left side) like a backward “D,” very thin. The combined sign is transcribed |LAGAB~a x BA|. But BA is often short for BAD and putting these two together turns the sign into GIGIR. In other words, the circular LAGAB with BAD may be an early representation of a wheel. The BAD element may represent the mechanism used in ancient times to attach the heavy, solid wheel to the axle, as shown on the Standard of Ur.
Small carts made of clay have been found in archeological contexts from the Indus Valley, perhaps children’s toys, perhaps cult objects. They also suggest a solid, heavy wheel. It is possible – if unlikely – that this rare sign represents such a wheel and its fastening mechanism.
Toy cart made of baked clay with baked clay wheels, with added wooden posts and wooden axle, modeled by author after one found at Nausharo (Kenoyer 1998: 198, cat. no. 45).
In the rock art of North America, there is an instance of a circled element that resembles a skewered chevron (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 129, fig. 66e). In this case, the circle is quite round, not pointed and oval as is the Indus sign. And in the American symbol, the internal element touches the edge of the circle both at the top and the bottom, which the Indus sign does not do.
The CIRCLED BI-FORK is the next sign, V45, another symbol shown only in Wells (W363). It is rare, appearing three times at Mohenjo daro only (M-1138, M-959, M-1153). However, we should probably add to this the “e” variant of Wells’ W343 (my CIRCLED TRI-FORK, V41). That is, any “E” variants with only two prongs are by my definition “bi-forks.” The three instances cited by Wells resemble our letter “Y.” The W343 type has prongs arising only from one side of the central stem, in contrast.
In proto-cuneiform, there is a composite sign |LAGAB~a x PA~a|. As noted previously, the circular LAGAB may refer to wood, stone, or, in the early stages, to livestock. PA came to mean “leaf, bud; branch; wing, feather.” It is possible that together these elements refer to firewood. But it is also quite possible that the combination has a unique meaning unrelated to either. In form, PA is two parallel lines, each adorned with a short backslash near the right end. In a sense then, this sign is something like two bi-forks encircled.
This rare sign occurs twice according to Wells, once at Mohenjo daro (M-1082) and once at Nausharo (Ns-9). The first occurrence is fairly rounded, although it is also pointed at the top and bottom. It occurs initially, at the left end of the seal. The right end of the seal is highly abraded and illegible. In the second occurrence, V46 is this and more pointed at the top, as it is more crowded. Again it occurs initially and as part of the prefix, as defined by Korvink: DOTTED CIRCLE WITH EAR / STRIPED TRIANGLE / CORN HOLDER / PANTS / BUD / BI-QUOTES // (2nd row) POT LID (or is that the tail of the tiger below?) / POT / MAN WITH POST / and perhaps one more sign. The final sign may be an odd variant of the FLAIL or of the PINCH. I inadvertently removed part of it in PhotoShop in cleaning up the image below.
One of the few parallels to this sign appears in proto-cuneiform, where a circular element has an additional “ear”-like addition on the lower right: KAB. This came to mean “a wooden or metal crosspiece on a harness or bridle, a bit; lead rope or bridle itself; fetter, shackle; cage, trap; chamber, cell.” Thus, although KAB resembles the common LAGAB with an added “ear,” it is a completely independent sign.
The Indus sign only slightly resembles the head of an animal with an ear, such as that on the Phaistos Disk. On the Cretan disk, this may be a dog or cat. In either case, the little head has a definite muzzle and is not a simple circular element like the Indus sign. Likewise, there is an animal head among the Cretan hieroglyphic symbols. This animal not only has a pointed ear and a protruding muzzle, but also an open mouth with a slightly coiled tongue. It is even less like the simple Indus sign than any of the other heads.
Seal Ns-9 showing CIRCLED DOT WITH EAR in long inscription over theriomorph -- part tiger, part woman (Shah and Parpola 1991: 409; image PhotoShop enhanced and artificially colored).
In proto-Elamite, one sign is essentially a diamond bisected by a vertical line. It is enhanced by an “ear” to the lower right of the bisecting line (M283). Although the basic sign is not circular, this is the case with nearly all signs in this system. Apparently there was a general preference for angular forms, which are much easier to make in clay without leaving rough edge, they take fewer strokes, they can be made by impressing rather than by scraping or incising, and they can be formed quickly.
The last of the circular signs under discussion in this post appears only in Koskenniemi and Parpola’s list, as KP356. On the basis of this list, I have included it in mine as CIRCLE WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK, enumerating it V47. Wells notes, instead, a diamond with an attached trident (M-1154). I concur. The DIAMOND WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK is somewhat rounded, especially on the right side. But in the same inscription there is a CIRCLED TRI-FORK. The encircling element here is considerably more rounded than even the rounded side of the DIAMOND. It is actually a seven-stroke sign, then, and will be discussed among those.
Proto-cuneiform includes one that resembles an element struck by an arrow, TU. The “a” variant is an oval that is pointed at the top and bottom, and which contains a second, similar oval. The “arrow” which appears to pierce it is a long backslash arising from the center of the enclosed oval. Superimposed on this backslash are five small “v” shapes, which give me the impression of feathers on an arrowshaft. However, this “arrowshaft” is also quite similar to the actual sign for “barley” in this proto-script. The “c” variant is a half-circle with the flat side to the right, thus a backward “D” shape. On the left is attached another “arrowshaft,” this one horizontal. It has three superimposed “v” shapes (or rather >>>). TU came to mean “to interfere.” When written with the determinative that means “bird” (MUSZEN), TU~a came to mean “dove.”