Monday, December 20, 2010

A Christmas Package: The Cross in the Indus Valley

Before I proceed with my discussion of six-stroke signs in the Indus script, I want to bring up a symbol commonly found on seals that is not a sign.  That is to say, it does not occur in the inscriptions but appears as a motif in various forms on seals that are mostly without inscriptions, or painted on the occasional pot shard.  This is the cross, a symbol best known to those in the West as a Christian emblem. 
P-16 and P-18: crosses or exes from
Pirak in the Indus Valley (color
and smoothing
by author).

As it happens, the cross appears widely around the world in contexts that are clearly pre-Christian or non-Christian.  These are the motifs that I will discuss in this post.  As an icon rather than a sign, the cross does not appear in any of the lists of Indus signs that I have cited (Koskenniemi and Parpola, Wells, Fairservis).  By my own count, then, there may be as many as 67 crosses in the corpus, the precise number depending on how one defines “cross.”  Distinguishing a cross from what I term an “X” is not a simple matter in this case, since the cross motif occurs alone.  One can view it from one angle or another and see either an “X” shape or a “cross,” as a result.  But, assuming that all of the possible crosses are that (and not “exes”), there are 11 from Mohenjo daro, 20 from Harappa, 30 from Pirak, three from Mehrgarh, two from Rahman-deri, and one from Nausharo.
Some of the seals from Pirak are themselves cross-shaped (Pk-3, -4, -5, and -8).  Others are round (Pk14, -15, -17, 22, -27, -29, and -33); still others are square (Pk-6, -19, and -10), and one rectangular (Pk-20).  In all of these cases, there are additional design elements: lines, dots (most often in the form of drilled holes), or both.  The occurrences from Mohenjo daro and Harappa are invariably quadrangular (M-349, -352, -464B through 466B, -1255, -1256, -1257, -1258, -1415B, -1416B; H-120, -121, -122, -171, 331E through -336E, -166B, -630, -634, -630 through -635, -637, and -638) .  Both of the examples from Rahman-deri are painted motifs on pot shards, one enclosed in a circle (Rhd-229, -233).  Of those cited previously, a series from Harappa may well have been intended as indicators that one side of a tablet was, in essence, blank, i.e., not inscribed (H331E through H336E). 
Cross (or ex) on square (or diamond-shaped) seal
from Altyn Depe (color added by author).

The archeological site of Altyn Depe in Turkmenistan has also produced a number of seals with crosses, dating to the Bronze Age (Masson 1988).  As in the Indus Valley, there are typically additional markings on these seals, including circles, lines, triangles, zigzags, and a few other elements.  There are examples of round, square, and rectangular seals (Pl. XVII nos. 6, 5, and 4, respectively).  But most are on seals that are themselves cross-shaped (Pl. XXI no. 7, Pl. XVI nos. 3, 5, 10, 14, and 15).  One seal is a crescent with a cross attached (Pl. XVII no. 15).  The presence of a seal here that bears two signs of the Indus script attests to contact with the contemporary civilization of the Indus Valley.  Further evidence of contact between Central Asia and South Asia during the Bronze Age is provided by seals described as having the shape of a “step-sided lozenge” appear in the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions, noted as being of “foreign” origin (Joshi and Parpola 1981: 365).  This "step-sided lozenge" shape (i.e., a cross-shaped seal elaborated by the superimposition of a central square) is quite common among the elaborated crosses of Altyn Depe.

Two elaborated cross shaped seals from Altyn Depe, the
"step-sided lozenge" and one with a central circle (color added by author).

Turning to other contemporary cultures, we note that Egyptian hieroglyphs include three symbols that are more or less cross shaped.  The simplest of these appears to be two planks, a tall vertical with a short horizontal attached below the central point.  This glyph may be ideographic in a word that translates as the English phrase, “who is in” (Z11).  The glyph also has a phonetic use based on the sound of the Egyptian word.  A second sign is less obvious, consisting of four simple loops arranged in a cross pattern (M42).  This may be a schematic representation of a flower, a glyph with the phonetic realization wn. 
Elaborated cross motifs on pottery from Altyn Depe (color and smoothing of image by author).  The "stepped" version at left appears on Hopi pottery in the American Southwest, where it is known as a squash blossom.

With the final Egyptian glyph, it is difficult to determine what object is represented (Aa27).  It comprises a vertical post topped by a small circle or oval.  On either side and on top of the circle there are small triangles, each attached by its apex.  For unknown reasons, this glyph has the phonetic form nd and is often combined with the small, round pot (W24, nw).  In hieratic writing, the distinction between this glyph and the previous flower is lost.  Both tend to become simple crosses.  In my earlier post on the Indus EX (II12) and that on the CIRCLED EX (IV42), we saw that there is also a CIRCLED FAT EX motif among Egyptian hieroglyphs (a circled containing four triangles that delineate an “X” shape in the center), an ideogrph in niwt, “village” and a determinative in town and village names and inhabited areas (O49).
In Chinese, both ancient and modern, a simple cross of two lines (of equal length) is shi2, “ten” (Wieger, 1967: 68).  Two verticals with a single long horizontal may be used for nien4 (or er4-shi2) “twenty” (1967: 70).  In the older script, one also finds three crosses in a horizontal row, the central one taller than the two on either side, as san1-shi2, “thirty” (1967: 71).  Today, “thirty” is normally written with two characters, as spoken, the three stacked horizontal strokes for san1, “three” preceding the cross shaped “ten.”  Note that a motif much like the Old Seal version of “thirty” sometimes appears in modern Christian art, where it represents Jesus on the cross at Golgotha, with the two thieves who were crucified at the same time on either side (reference below).

The American "stepped" version of a cross associated with Kokopelli, as photographed
from the wallpaper and bath curtain in a house in Texas (photo by author).

Turning to more distant cultural horizons, crosses appear in the art of the various native peoples of North America.  In the Southwest, two such instances occur in apparent composition with the motif of the flute player who is sometimes called Kokopelli (Malotki 2004: color plate 23 between pp. 48 and 49, near Holbrook Arizona; and Fig. 10e, p. 104).  In the first instance, the motif itself is a simple cross surrounded by a rounded outline of a cross (also found in South America at Hinkiori near Cuzco, Peru).  The second instance resembles the elaborated crosses on a square seal from the Indus Valley.  The cross shape itself is created by a motif of square coils with four-fold symmetry.
The specific type of elaboration of such crosses may be significant in distinguishing different meanings.  In modern Hopi culture, the sun appears as a circled cross, a circled “X,” and as a circle with four attached rays (the last of these three recalling the Celtic cross that is both Christian and pre-Christian).  On the other hand, a cross that is not encircled or one that has bent arms (i.e., a swastika) represents the earth to the Hopi (Waters 1963 and 1977: 93 and 114).  In contemporary sand paintings from the Navaho culture, in contrast, a circled cross may be either a basket with significant contents or a fire in a hearth, depending on context, as noted in a previous post.  More generally, elements of a great many Navaho sand paintings are laid out in the shape of a cross, with the arms oriented toward the cardinal points (Newcomb and Reichard 1975).

A swastika design on a seal from Altyn Depe, very similar to those found at
Mohenjo daro and Harappa (color and smoothing by author).

Before we move on to other examples of crosses, I return briefly to the subject of the swastika.  Although most people in the West now think of this as a Nazi symbol, it appears on many continents and in widely separated cultures, from a very period.  There are plenty of examples on Indus seals (e.g., just in the first volume of the Corpus: Mohenjo daro 332-347, 443, 435, and 448A; Harappa 104-118, possibly 119 depending on how one looks at it, 182B in a row of five, in the center of 242 with signs surrounding it; Lothal 29-72 and possibly 73).  The Chinese swastika is an early variant of fang1, about which Wieger states, “It is supposed to represent two boats lashed together..., a extension, square, regular, correct, a rule, etc.” (1967: 271).
A curved swastika appears in Africa on the so-called “fetish stone” on the Zaire River (Le Quellec 2004: 87, fig. 47, no. 30, on Pedro do Feiti├žo).  The African continent is home to an extraordinarily diverse group of peoples, many of whom incorporate a cross in their art.  In the north, at Tassili n’Ajjer in the Sahara, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic petroglyphs are sometimes accompanied by Tifinagh letters, including a cross (2004: 43, fig. 42).  In the intertropical zone south of the great desert, the boxed cross (cf. Indus WINDOW) occurs at Sanga, Mali (2004: 60-61, fig. 6).  A circled “X” occurs at the end of the arm of an anthropomorphic figure at Kourki, in Niger (2004: 58, fig. 3).  This figure may be interpretable as a feathered or horned warrior bearing a shield.  A simpler motif that closely resembles the Egyptian crossed planks appears on the great Sango overhang at Sanga (2004: 66, fig. 14).  This probably represents a spatula that local people use to churn milk.  Another boxed motif (WINDOW) appears at Ouoro-Kourou near Kita, Mali (2004: 71, fig. 22).  This is elaborated by the addition of two dots in each section, one red and one white.  A simple “X,” a “window,” and a Christian cross all appear at Rumfar Kurosha, Nigeria (2004: 77, fig. 30, nos. 2, 3, 4).
Still farther south, a doubled “window” and a cross made up two lines of dots occur in Kiantapo Cave in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2004: 84, fig. 44).  In neighboring Angola, there is a motif comprising a cross inside a doubled circle in Lunda country (2004: 89, fig. 50).  This occurs in rock engravings and in tattoos on the human body, where it represents the sun.  In the same area, another motif found in rock art and tattoos is almost identical to the Egyptian “flower” of four crossed loops. 
A golden circled cross from County Monaghan, Ireland (color and smoothing of image by author).

In Zambia, people trace elaborate looping motifs in sand (2004: 90, fig. 52 through 54).  The first of the cited motifs is not a cross, but is of interest because it is identical to an icon found on three Indus tablets (M-507B, M-508B, M-1457B).  In Zambia it is named liswa lyavandzili, “the nest of the ndzili birds.”  The second of the cited motifs is reminiscent of the interlacing cross ornamentation seen on some Pictish stones of Scotland (e.g., Fraser 2008: 32-33, fig. 35).  This type also resembles an interlaced star with five rounded “points” found on two Indus seals (C-49B and C-50B from Chanhujo daro).  The African symbol is found on the door of an enclosure used during circumcision rites, where it magically repels lion-men. 
The third Zambian design is an elaboration of this same motif.  In this example, there are two large loops, one crossing the other, with round indentations or dots arranged in and around various parts of the resulting cross.  This motif recalls the highly elaborated drawings termed rangoli or kolam in modern India (references below).  These are drawings on the floor or ground, made with powdered materials such as rice powder or crushed limestone, as part of the celebration of Diwali.  A new design is created each day of the festival to welcome Lakshmi.  Some websites explain these motifs as the footprint of the goddess or note that footprints are added near the drawing.  Many such elaborate designs showing four-fold symmetry are built on a cross-shaped central element.  Others are more like a star or daisy pattern, with many “arms” or “points.”  The center may also take the form of a swastika.  But in India, it is mostly women who make these designs, while in Zambia the artists are men.
East Africa also provides examples of a circled cross, especially in Kenya.  Two occurrences are found in Kakapeli shelter, Busia region, where rock paintings are used during initiation ceremonies (Le Quellec 2004: 130, fig. 42).  Cross motifs also occur among the list of signs engraved in cemeteries at Namoratunga in the northwest of Kenya (2004: 131, fig. 44).  In addition, such designs form cattle brands that are used by the Turkana people, representing various patrilineages.  The simple cross of two strokes is no. 57 in this list; the circled cross no. 7, and a circled cross of doubled lines no. 128. 

Proto-cuneiform token in form of circled cross of double lines (replica made by author).

The last of these recalls one of the circled crosses from Rahman deri in the Indus Valley (Rhd-233), as well as on very early protocuneiform seals from southern Iraq.  The latter symbol is known as SIG2~a3, which came to mean "hair, wool, fur."  This contrasts with the protocuneiform circled cross, UDU~a, "sheep; small cattle."
We can even find the circled cross in Australia (in a painting at Uluru/Ayers Rock, Northern Territory) and on the island of Tasmania at Greens Creek (Flood 1997: 156 and 232).  These must not be representations of spoked wheels, in most cases, since the native peoples of these areas did not use such a wheel before Europeans arrived.  But in modern times, at least one occurrence of the circled cross does represent a wheel.  It appears in a representation of an automobile (1997: 216, at the Granites, Northern Territory).
Thus, the cross appears on every continent, its first occurrences long before Christianity.  Such distribution is unlikely to be due to borrowing.  As it is either a very simple motif or an elaboration of one, I think it more likely that widely divergent social groups devised it independently and assigned it meaning.  Thus, it would be foolish to look at just one of the meanings associated with a cross and apply it uncritically to the cross shapes of the Indus Valley.

Le Quellec, Jean-Loic. 2004. Rock Art in Africa: Mythology and Legend.  Transl. Paul Bahn. Paris: Flammarion.

Malotki, Ekkehart. 2000. Kokopelli: The Making of an Icon. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.
Waters, Frank. 1963 and 1977. Book of the Hopi. Drawings by Oswald Bear Fredericks. New York: Penguin.

Indian rangoli and kolam:
Wieger, Dr. L. 1965. Chinese Characters, Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. Transl. by L. Davrout. New York: Paragon and Dover.  (Orig. pub. by the Catholic Mission in 1915).

Fraser, Iain, ed. 2008. The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland. Edinburgh: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
and Christian:
The Pious Child: Instructions and Prayers for Catholic Children. 1894. New York: Benziger Brothers, Printers to the Holy Apostolic See.

No comments:

Post a Comment