The first Indus sign considered in this discussion is a set of three tall vertical strokes, with a trident angling off on one side. I call this THREE POSTS WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK (VI33). Elsewhere, this is cited as KP148 and W222, but not in Fairservis. Wells notes a single instance (M-898). A sign previously discussed, shown only in Wells’ list, may be a second occurrence, though. Sign W182 is what I term DOUBLE QUOTES ON SLASH-BELTED AITCH (V14). I appears at Mohenjo daro also (M-840). In the latter inscription, four “posts” occur to the left of an enigmatic element and three “posts” to the right of the same element. Wells apparently takes this sequence as THREE POSTS / DOUBLE QUOTES ON SLASH-BELTED AITCH / TWO POSTS. But we could interpret it just as reasonably as FOUR POSTS / THREE POSTS WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK.
Inscription detail from M-898: THREE POSTS WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK / TRIPLE BRICK
(smoothing of image and color added).
There are other Indus signs with an attached trident-like element (see TRI-FORK III13 for a full listing). But no other apparent numerals occur with it. Similarly, a trident-like element frequently appears in Old Chinese, usually representing either a schematic hand or a plant (Wieger 1965: 119-120 on the hand; 696 on the “sprout”). But it does not occur in compound characters with numerals, so far as I can determine.
Inscription from M-840: BUD / CEE BOAT / SINGLE QUOTE / BACKSLASH IN FISH / CUPPED POST /
THREE (FOUR?) POSTS / THREE POSTS WITH TRI-FORK ATTACHED (?) (hand drawn).
The closest parallel to this Indus sign (VI33) comes from Luwian hieroglyphs. Three posts with a backslash attached to the one on the far right form the glyph for tara/tari. It is possible that the sounds represented derive from an underlying Luwian word “three,” since most Indo-European cognates are phonetically similar (derived from Proto-Indo-European reconstructed form *trei-, Watkins 2000: 93). Thus, the three verticals may represent the numeral and the additional stroke may indicate the pronunciation of that number word without its accompanying meaning.
Proto-Elamite also includes a symbol comprising three parallel strokes, horizontal in this case, plus an additional element. The addition here is a half-circle attached beneath the central line, making it take on the appearance of the letter “P” lying on its face. The meaning of this sign is unknown (M009~e).
Today’s second sign is FAT CHEVRON (VI34). It is an upside-down “V” shape, i.e., a chevron. Unlike the simple, two-stroke version, this one is made up of two thin, overlapping rectangles. It also appears as KP197, W415, and Fs K-1. Fairservis thinks that it represents a carpenter’s square or rule meaning “(linear) measure; to unite, join.” Wells notes a total of 20 occurrences, eight from Mohenjo daro, 11 from Harappa, and one from Lothal. My count differs: 14 from Mohenjo daro, perhaps 19 from Harappa, two from Lothal, and perhaps two from Banawali).
Inscription on tablet H-808B (reading from right): SINGLE POST / VEE IN DIAMOND / BI-QUOTES /
WHISKERED FISH / FAT CHEVRON / POT (coloring added and image smoothed a bit).
There is a very similar glyph in Egyptian typically written at a different angle (O38). This glyph resembles an upside-down “L” due to its position. It apparently depicts the corner of a wall as it functions as a determinative in “corner, angle.” The Indus sign might also be compared with Egyptian glyph T14, a throw-stick or club, sometimes used in names of foreign peoples.
In Old Chinese, there is no thick-armed chevron, but the simple chevron occurs twice, more or less. The most basic of these, supposedly, represents a suspended object (Weiger 1965: 42). This does not seem to occur individually, but only in complex characters. The other version has an additional bit of vertical at the peak, ru4, “to enter, put in....The character represents the penetration of roots into the earth” (1965: 50). It is now the 11th radical.
In proto-cuneiform, a symbol much like the Egyptian glyph of the corner appears in the position of our “L.” This is UR~b, which came to mean “dog; young man; servant; warrior.” The same sign does not occur in proto-Elamite, but an angled type does, which is striped (M316~e, a “fat less than” form).
We now come to a rather peculiar sign that only Koskenniemi and Parpola observe, the HALF FAT KAY (VI35). This is similar to the letter “L,” with a thin rectangle rising from the corner of the angle like a thick slash. Another short line, angled like a backslash, descends from this thick element. This much resembles our letter “K,” with only one bit thickened. There is one more line though, a horizontal stroke at the bottom.
Inscription on poorly executed (?) seal M-291: FAT EX (?) / DEE (?) / POT (color and smoothing added).
I have not observed this sign in the Corpus and it does not appear in the lists by Wells or Fairservis. It might possibly be an interpretation of one of the many fragmentary signs found on broken seals, signs which I may have seen differently. For example, seal M-1340 appears – to my eyes – to have part of the PRAWN at the break on the left, followed by ZEE / CROSSROADS EX / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / PRICKLY CORN HOLDER. The right-hand portion of the PRAWN, all that is preserved, has some features in common with the HALF FAT KAY. It lacks the horizontal stroke at the bottom, though, and has a couple of extra lines that do not appear in the sign as depicted in the KP list. I think it more likely that sign VI35 is a different reading of the first symbol on the left on seal M-291. This sign to my eyes is a poorly executed FAT EX. To this peculiarly proportioned sign we may compare the equally odd quadruped beneath the inscription. This animal representation, assuming that's what it is, has been so simplified that I cannot tell what it is. Cat? Dog? Tiger? Cow?
As far as parallels go, I find only one and it is not particularly close. In proto-cuneiform, one thick “less than” sign variant has a “ladder” extending horizontally from the angle. This is |UR~a x KAR2|, a ligature of two signs, possibly a combination of their later meanings: “dog; warrior” + “encircle; illuminate.” Would that make it an illuminated warrior? Or is it an encircled dog? More than likely, it is neither.
We now turn to three signs that are similar in the Indus corpus and that may be related. First is FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES (VI36). This takes the form of the number “7” tilted far to the left, with a row of short strokes below it on the left. This version is not shown in the KP list or in Fairservis; it is W445. Wells notes it as a singleton (H-143).
Inscription from seal H-143: TWO POSTS / FAT EX IN DIAMOND / POT / SINGLE QUOTE /
FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / POT-HATTED BEARER (smoothed and colored).
The “flail” portion has been discussed before among the two-stroke signs (FLAIL, II13). It resembles the Egyptian hieroglyph representing the adze from the Old Kingdom (U20), its angle more similar to the flagellum (S45). The FOUR QUOTES sign has also been covered (IV1). The closest parallel to this as a non-numerical sign appears in Luwian, for the syllable mi, perhaps related to the word mawa, “four.” Luwian hieroglyphs do not include a ligature between a flail-like element and these four strokes, but there is a syllabic sign that is reminiscent of the Indus sign. The glyph comprises an upside-down “7” with three short slashes attached on the right, for ta5. Here, similar elements are arranged in a completely different manner.
Inscription H-146: SINGLE POST / AY OVER THREE QUOTES /
CIRCLED TRI-FORK / POT-HATTED BEARER (image smoothed and colored).
The next Indus sign is quite similar, AY OVER THREE QUOTES (VI37). The “7” element now has an additional stroke, not quite horizontal, joining the two angled lines. This forms an element resembling the letter “A” with one leg longer than the other. Below the short leg are three short verticals or “quotes.” Again, only Wells enumerates this (W437).There are five occurrences of this sign, two from Mohenjo daro and three from Harappa.
The most similar sign elsewhere is now from Egyptian, in the ‘low (U13). The glyph, unlike VI37, lies on its shorter leg, and the additional strokes – of which there are only two – rise at an angle from the longer leg. Thus, as with the Luwian glyph cited for the previous sign, these are similar elements but arranged rather differently. Even so, the Indus AY may represent a simple plow, as in Egyptian.
On the other hand, the sign that came to mean “plow” in proto-cuneiform is quite different in form. One variant of this is laid out horizontally, while two others are vertically oriented (APIN~b horizontal, with APIN~a and ~c vertical). This sign resembles the Indus PINWHEEL (ZEE) with an “A” attached at one end. In addition, while the Indus AY might represent a plow, that is by no means certain. Fairservis considers a more complex sign I term SQUIRREL to be a plow (my VIII46).
Regardless of what the Indus sign represents, it is interesting to note that the inscription containing VI36 almost duplicates one inscription containing VI37. Both are from Harappa and are shown in the accompanying illustrations (H-143: TWO POSTS / FAT EX IN DIAMOND / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / POT-HATTED BEARER; H-146: SINGLE POST / AY OVER THREE QUOTES / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / POT-HATTED BEARER). The last three signs in each case are very similar, the last two virtually identical. This could be interpreted as evidence that FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES means the same thing as AY OVER THREE QUOTES. It is not proof, however, as a single example is insufficient for that.
Another apparent variation on the same sign is our next consideration, AY ON TRI-FORK (VI38). Again, the main element resembles the letter “A” with uneven legs, but this time the three short strokes beneath the short leg are attached to one another and to the “ay.” Again, only Wells enumerates this separately and again it is a singleton (M-40). Besides comparing the Egyptian and proto-cuneiform plow signs, we might also glance at variants of a proto-Elamite sign that resembles APIN (M056, M056~e, ~f, and ~g). In these, the “A” element is upside-down and tilted.
The next sign is a very odd ligature, EX ON POST WITH ATTACHED LEG (OR ATTACHED EAR ON BACKSLASH). I enumerate it VI39, the thirty-ninth of the six-stroke signs. It is yet another of the many signs only found in Wells’ list, where it is W67. Wells finds it to be a singleton (M-800). There are other Indus signs with the small addition I term the “ear,” but none of these others places this element on a long post or slash. Other signs appear to be varied by the addition of a single stroke, either vertical or diagonal, which I usually term a “tick.” None of these others adds the “ear” to the “tick,” as in VI39. In addition, the basic element of this sign, the EX ON POST, is itself a singleton (see III14).
Inscription detail from seal M-800: CORN HOLDER / EX ON POST WITH ATTACHED LEG / POTTED ONE /
CIRCLED TRI-FORK / CAGED BELTED FISH (smoothing and coloring by author).
The next two signs are among those I term PANTS for want of a good name, distinguishing these six-stroke versions as SEAMLESS PANTS (VI40) and RUMPLED PANTS (VI41). Neither version appears outside of Wells’ list, where the first is W166 and the second W169. Wells also notes a five-stroke version (W168), two comprising seven strokes (W161 and W167), two of eight strokes (W160 and W163), as well as nine-stroke versions (W162, W170, W165, W172). Most are singletons, but four versions occur from three to seven times.
Even if we lump them all together as variants of a single sign, the 11 variations occur a total of only 24 times. Of these, 19 are from Mohenjo daro (divided among 9 variants), two from Harappa (two variants), one from Banawali, one from Chanhujo daro, one from Kalibangan, and one from Khirsara. The SEAMLESS PANTS (VI40) appear at Mohenjo daro on a bangle (M-1631); the RUMPLED PANTS (VI41) on a seal from the same place (M-1117).
Inscription detail from bangle M-1631: SINGLE QUOTE / CIRCLE / SEAMLESS PANTS /
POTTED ONE (coloring and smoothing by author)
Proto-Elamite provides a weak parallel, positioned horizontally (M059~d). This sign includes three bent lines that parallel each other and are of the same length, joined at one end and at their bend. The SEAMLESS PANTS among the Indus variants is the closest to this with two bent lines of the same length joined at the top. Between them is a single shorter vertical at the bottom. Other variations on the PANTS are less similar to the proto-Elamite example.
Seal M-1117 with inscription: VEST (?) / RUMPLED PANTS / DIAMOND BETWEEN DOUBLE POSTS (image smoothed and colored). Note the unusual pose of the iconic animal, looking backward over its shoulder.
Old Chinese contains a character composed of five wavy lines. It is yong3, “the unceasing flow of water veins in the earth....Abstracted meaning, duration, perpetuity, but not eternity” (Wieger 1965: 289). The same lines inverted form pai4, “the idea is analogous; ramification of a stream” (1965: 289). If the Indus sign is also intended to represent flowing water, it might actually indicate more than one thing with the different variations – rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, the ocean, irrigation channels?
The final sign to be considered here is another of the “forks,” the QUINT-FORK (VI42). It takes the form of a “Y” with one prong longer than the other. From the longer prong rise three diagonal strokes. Thus, counting the two prongs at the top of the “Y” plus the three additional strokes, there are five “tines” to this “fork.” Elsewhere, this is KP86 (“A” variant, with additional strokes on the right), W278, and the reverse is W265 (“B” variant, with additional strokes on the left).
Inscription from broken seal H-657: (?) / FISH UNDER CHEVRON / DOT IN FISH / LAMBDA / QUINT-FORK (left branching). I have completed the chevron but cannot guess the identity of the first sign.
Both Wells and Koskenniemi and Parpola’s list reverse the forms as they appear on the seals. The actual right-branching variant is a singleton (M-749), while the left-branching variant occurs four times in my database (H-657, H-659, H-689, H-719). Fairservis designates this sign (right-branching variant only) as E-2, seeing it as a stalk of grain. He proposes the meaning “lunar month; order, line, row.”
The Egyptian glyph of the lotus flower resembles the Indus sign only in that the “prongs” or petals are all on one side (M9). Plus there are five petals on this flower whose stem leans to the side. A much better parallel appears in proto-Elamite (M039~a, M-039~b). The “a” variant is a “comb” with “teeth” to the left, and a long horizontal stroke attached on the right, at the top. In the “b” variant, the long horizontal is attached at the bottom and the “comb” element is angled. In both variants, the “comb” has five “teeth.” Unfortunately, meaning is unknown.
In the Mixtec proto-writing of Central America, human footprints are often represented in a schematic fashion which somewhat resembles the Indus QUINT-FORK. The basic footprint is something like a “7” shape, though the angle is not as sharp and is usually curved. Above this, there are five dots or five short strokes, representing the print of the toes. Lines of footprints indicate a journey of an individual to another place and visits to other individuals.
While the human footprint appears elsewhere, as in the rock art of the Americas, of Africa, and of Australia, it does not take such a schematic form. However, the tracks of various animals also appear in such art and one of another of these might inspire a symbol such as the QUINT-FORK. The wolf, fox, and coyote have just four toes, typically, but the bear has five like the human. It is also possible that a schematic footprint or track might be made of an animal such as a wolf, but purposely given an additional toe in order to represent a supernatural Wolf deity or Wolf ancestor. Then again, it is just as likely that Fairservis is correct in seeing the QUINT-FORK as a type of plant.
Parker, Philip M. 2008. Webster’s Luwian-English Thesaurus Dictionary. San Diego: ICON Group International (see online www.websters-online-dictionary.org )Watkins, Calvert. 2000. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.