This post discusses four signs in the Indus script, each comprised of six strokes. The first of these contains two tall vertical lines in the center. On the right of these and on the left are two short vertical strokes, one over the other. Thus, the two posts in the center are surrounded by four short strokes, similar to the keyboard sequence : | | : although not identical. Wells does not list this particular sign, but he uses the term “caged” as a description of this type of modification of a basic symbol by surrounding it with four short strokes. Following his example, I call this sign CAGED DOUBLE POSTS and enumerate it V17. It appears elsewhere only in the list of Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP146).
Inscription M-880: STRIPE BELTED AITCH / CUPPED POST / POTTED ONE / FAT EX IN DIAMOND / VEE IN DIAMOND / POT (detail, over head of unicorn bull; smoothing of image and false color added by author).
Sign V17 does not appear in my own database of inscriptions any more than in the sign lists of Wells and of Fairservis. The KP sign may have been derived by inference from M-1201F, an inscription on the short side (not the face) of a broken seal. To the right of the break in the upper part of the seal's face (looking at the side edge) there is an abraded post, then a clearly preserved post, hence DOUBLE POSTS. This is followed by the two short strokes stacked one over the other that is typical of caging. In my database, I coded this DOUBLE POSTS / STACKED TWO, because that was all that I saw. Apparently, Koskenniemi and Parpola proceeded from such an observation to the inference that originally there must have been another “stacked two” on the other side of the DOUBLE POSTS. This is quite possible. However, since the first “post” is marred by the break, we cannot tell whether there was also another post (or more, or even another symbol) before this hypothetical, reconstructed “stacked two.”
In addition, the STACKED TWO occurs at least once by itself, not part of a “caging” pair. Thus, it is also possible that there was no other symbol on the other side of the DOUBLE POSTS. In any case, this seems to be the only occurrence of this combination. On a different seal from the same city, M-137, there is a sequence "stacked two" plus CARTWHEEL / DOUBLE POSTS and another "stacked two." Thus, I term this whole sequence CAGED CARTWHEEL & DOUBLE POSTS. It is certainly possible that the unbroken inscription on M-1201F was originally a duplicate of that on M-137.
Although it is a very simple combination of elements, I have not observed this exact symbol (CAGED DOUBLE POSTS) elsewhere. Among Egyptian hieroglyphs, there are two that include four dots or short strokes, U9 and U10. In both of these, the main part of the sign resembles a barrel turned on its side. Extending from one end come four dots in a diagonal arrangement, seemingly pouring out of the overturned barrel. This is the form of U9, representing a grain measure with grain pouring out. This glyph occurs at the end of the word “grain” as a determinative. In U10, the same symbol also has three small diagonal strokes above the “barrel” section. This is a combination of glyph M33 (three grains above) plus U9, which together serve as an ideograph in “barley” and/or determinative “emmer (wheat).” Thus, four short strokes do appear in Egyptian as part of a glyph, but not “caging” another glyph.
In proto-cuneiform, one sign is made up of two long horizontal strokes above and below two shorter strokes (ZATU772). This is essentially the reverse of the Indus sign, using long strokes to bracket short ones. A similar situation occurs in proto-Elamite, where two long horizontal strokes form one sign (M009). A second sign, which may be a variant of the first, has these same long strokes above and below a set of short strokes (M009~h). In this case, there are five internal shorts, two in a stack on the left, three in a stack on the right. Once again, the double posts of the Indus sign are replicated. But these are not bracketed by the stacked short strokes. Instead, the long strokes bracket the short ones.
The second sign considered here is the STRIPE BELTED AITCH (VI18, the eighteenth of the six-stroke signs). It resembles our capital letter “H” but with two horizontals instead of one, and there are additional short strokes between the two horizontals, joining them. This sign does not appear in Fairservis but is KP298(b) and W185. Wells shows it with three short strokes between the horizontals while the KP form has just two. Wells notes VI18 to be a singleton, appearing only on M-880. The Corpus indeed shows three short strokes between the two “belts,” revealing VI18 to be a seven-stroke sign in reality.
There are two hieroglyphs in the Egyptian list with some resemblance to the Indus sign. The first of these represents a coffin (Q6). It is wide and low, with no lines joining the two central horizontals. In addition, over the top horizontal is a curved line, indicating the curved top of the coffin. Since this glyph is a representation of a coffin, the horizontal elements are wide apart, a feature not seen in the Indus sign. The second Egyptian glyph represents the mast of a ship (P6). This is a tall and thin “H” shape (more or less) with four crossing horizontals, perched on top of a “Y” shape. Again, the similarity to the Indus sign is remote.
Old Chinese provides a better parallel with dan1, “cinnabar....The crucible or stove of the alchimists [sic], with cinnabar in it” (Wieger 1965: 270). The basic shape is again much like an “H,” and there are two horizontal strokes. However, instead of two or three short verticals joining the two horizontals, there is a single dot between them (the cinnabar in the crucible).
In proto-cuneiform, two signs somewhat resemble Indus VI18, but rotated 90 degrees. There is ISZ~a, two horizontals joined by two verticals, with a shorter horizontal to the right of the right-most vertical and another to the left of the left-most vertical. It seems to be the letter "H" fallen on its side, with an additional post down the middle, the center of which is hidden by the belt formed by the crossing strokes. The second sign, U2~c, is identical except that the shorter horizontals in the center join, making a single long horizontal. The first symbol came to mean “mountain,” and the second, “plant.”
Proto-Elamite contains three signs with some resemblance to this. There is an “H” shape on its side with two “belts” (M026). A possible variant of this adds an “X” between the two “belts” (M026~h). A third moves the two “belts” to the left end, adding three short strokes to join them (M032~b).
Inscription M-1295: (POTTED ?) / CRAB / RAKE ("a") / SLASHES IN OVERLAPPING CIRCLES / QUINT-FORK (bar seal, with smoothing and false color added by author).
Our third Indus sign, VI19, has been called a “rake” elsewhere and I repeat this term. The RAKE appears elsewhere as KP92, W264, and Fs Q-11. Fairservis relates it to the COMB, which it resembles, turned horizontally and given the affix P-1 (i.e., the SINGLE QUOTE, which he previously defined as the genitive/possessive). The COMB, according to this author, means “write, scratch; dative of person, belongs to; women’s cloth.” Nevertheless, when put together, a horizontal COMB on top of a SINGLE QUOTE (which looks more like a SINGLE POST to me), the meaning becomes “of below, downriver, south.”
Wells notes 70 occurrences of VI19 in three variants. There are 54 occurrences from Mohenjo daro, 10 from Harappa, three from Lothal, and one apiece from Kalibangan, Pabumath, and Rupar. Wells distinguishes the versions based on the number of prongs on top, his "a" having five of these, "b" four, and "c" six. I find more than three variants, five based on the number of prongs (4-8), and possibly an additional variant to account for those of a smaller size. If we ignore the size distinction for the moment, we can still call the most common variant with five prongs “a,” the second most common variant with four prongs “b,” a relatively rare variant with six prongs “c,” a very rare variant with seven prongs “d,” and a singleton variant with eight prongs “e.”
Mohenjo daro provides examples of all five variants (rare variants: M-163 the “c” type, M-279 the “d” type, and M-406 the “e” type). The last two are smaller than the other signs in the inscription, fitting partially or completely underneath BI-QUOTES, a sign I type to be intended as preceding. Harappa yields “a” variants mostly on seals, “b” variants mostly on tablets, and one instance of a “c” variant (H-103). All three instances from Lothal are of the “a” variant while the single occurrence from Kalibangan is “b” (L-18, L-98, L-145; K-54). Those from Pabumath and Rupar are the “b” as well, and I add to these an instance from Banawali, also “b” (Pbm-1, Rpr-1, B-11).
Proto-cuneiform provides two partial parallels to the RAKE. GAL is a horizontally positioned “rake” with six long prongs and GAL~b a three-pronged variant. This sign came to have various meanings including “big, great.” The six-pronged variety appears as part of the word SZANDANA, which came to mean “gardener.” Proto-Elamite has three rake-like symbols with four, five, and seven prongs (M038~a, M0138~b, M038~d). All are horizontal like the proto-cuneiform type, a feature unlike the Indus sign.
Inscription M-1390A on round tablet, reading from right to left: STOOL / PINWHEEL / COMB (false color and smoothing added by author).
The COMB with five “teeth” is sign VI20 in my list (twentieth of the six-stroke signs). Printed with six “teeth,” it appears as KP98. Shown with five “teeth,” it is W287 (prongs on the left side of the vertical stroke) and W282 (prongs on the right side of the vertical). It is also Fs L-9, where it is said to represent a comb (hence my term for it). Fairservis gives his suggestion for the meaning as “write ‘this mark’; scratch; dative of person, as terminal in texts ‘belongs to’; women’s cloth.” These disparate definitions are lumped together as being semi-homophonous in Dravidian languages.
Wells divides the COMB into two different signs based on the direction of the “teeth.” In his listing, W287 has the prongs on the left side of the vertical, in a singleton from Kalibangan (K-77). The other sign, W282, is quite common, occurring 143 times in all. Mohenjo daro provides 40 of these, Harappa 97, Kalibangan three, and one apiece from Chanhujo daro and Nindowari damb. Wells divides these among six four-, five-, and six-pronged variants of two prong types, horizontal and diagonal.
Unusual bird motif on M-1390B, the back of the round tablet. This resembles bird motifs found in the art of Central Asia, e.g., Altyn Depe in Turkmenistan).
In my own database, I did not distinguish by prong type originally. I had the impression that the diagonal forms occur only on tablets while the horizontal forms occur on both seals and tablets. Thus, I considered the distinction to be based more on the style of signs on the whole artifact. I did distinguish among the numbers of “teeth.” In going back over these, I find my general “rule” to be wrong. At Mohenjo daro, both seals and tablets show diagonal and horizontal prongs, numbering four, five, six, seven, and eight. Those at Harappa also show a highly mixed pattern of diagonal- and straight-pronged variants, numbering three, four, five, six, seven, and eight.
But there are also more variants just counting the number of "teeth" in the comb. From Kalibangan come both diagonal and straight types again, the prongs numbering five, six, seven, and thirteen. Lothal provides only two instances, one with four long horizontal prongs (L-96) and a more enigmatic version with two or three (L-97), both rather crudely executed. Chanhujo daro yields three instances by my count rather than just one (Wells' count). One has five diagonal prongs (C-14) and two have horizontal, numbering five and six (C-15, C-32). There may be one from Rahman dheri with seven prongs (Rhd-267), a very faint sign on a pot shard (which Wells did not mention). One is on a seal from Nindowari damb with six horizontal prongs (Nd-2), another on a seal from Rupar with five (Rpr-1).
Besides seeing more variety in prong number than Wells, I note the presence of instances with longer prongs than typical (M-874, M-1305, M-1311, H-226, H-227, H-228, and L-96). The greatest difference between our observations is in the distinction between the COMB with prongs on the right side of the vertical and the REVERSED COMB with prongs on the left. It seems to me that generally prongs point toward the beginning of the inscription. Since many tablets show a sign order that is the reverse of that on most seals, a great many instances of the COMB (in my database) are in the reversed position and this is particularly common on tablets. If all instances can be explained in this way, then it would be best to consider the COMB and REVERSED COMB as variants of a single sign rather than two different signs.
Korvink includes the COMB among the signs he calls "terminals" (2007: 28-34). In discussing the "harrow," as he terms it, he notes that VI20 occurs both before and after two other terminal signs in some inscriptions (before or after the SPEAR and the POT). The COMB follows one of these other terminals 232 times, preceding one of them only 19 times. He does not attempt to explain the significant minority of occurrences preceding other terminals, only stating that this cannot be explained by “scribal error.”
It is not clear to me whether or not his analysis accounts for the reversal of inscriptions on tablets, i.e., the fact that sign order is from right to left on typical tablets but from left to right on most seals. Despite this generally tendency, I note that a few seals appear to reverse the usual sequence and read from right to left like tablets. At the same time, some tablets appear to reverse their usual sequence and read from left to right. If one assumes that the appearance of a common prefix (such as CIRCLED VEE / BI-QUOTES) indicates the beginning and the common terminal indicates the end of an inscription, many such apparent anomalies can be accounted for. That is, one can simply choose to read a given inscription by starting with the prefix -- whichever side it occurs on -- and procede toward the terminal.
However, this is circular reasoning, interpreting certain signs as prefixes and others as terminals and, in effect, insisting on a consistency in the corpus which will suit the hypothesis. We need some other evidence one way or the other, before confidently assigning reading direction.
As far as parallels to the COMB go, Egyptian hieroglyphs do not provide much to choose from. There is only a rough similarity between the Indus COMB and the harpoon-head (T19). The glyph is comprised of a tall vertical from which two short horizontals extend near the top and two diagonals near the bottom. The higher of the diagonals ends in a coil. The Old Kingdom form of the same glyph has a single upper horizontal and neither of the two lower diagonals is coiled (T20).
Luwian hieroglyphs include a slightly curved, comb-like sign for the syllable mu. This may be a schematic bovine horn since another symbol for the same syllable represents a bovine head. Then again, these could simply be two unrelated ways of writing a single syllable. It is interesting that mu is what English speakers tell their toddlers the cow says, spelling it "moo." In linguistics, this "word" is termed echoic because it echoes a sound in the environment.
Proto-cuneiform has a much better parallel, a comb sign with nine long “teeth” (ZATU753). In addition to this difference in the number of prongs, it has a horizontal line extending from between the 4th and 5th “teeth” on the left out beyond the rest of the sign on the right. This additional line has no counterpart in the Indus sign. Proto-Elamite also contains a few comb-like elements, all of which have their prongs descending from a horizontal line. One has three prongs, another four, and a third variety five (M041, M041~c, M041~d respectively). The meanings of these and of the previous proto-cuneiform sign are unknown.
Old Chinese does not have a precise parallel, at least not among the forms discussed by Wieger. But among the inscriptions shown in his appendix, one variant of a character does appear, resembling a horizontal comb with prongs upward (Wieger 1965: 374). This is a representation of mountains, a variant of shan1. The character is now considerably more comb-like, written with a horizontal stroke and three verticals. The ancient variant shown in this particular inscription has a the slightly curved base typical of the ancient form and five “teeth” (an atypical number of mountain peaks).
Motifs resembling the COMB commonly occur in the rock art of North America while the RAKE typically does not. There are 306 occurrences of a “comb” in Nevada spread fairly evenly across all regions of the state where petroglyphs occur (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 83-84). These are most often horizontally positioned, with prongs hanging down. A few, though, have upward-pointing prongs. Others have a diagonal base.
There is also an element similar to the “comb” but with an additional line attached to the horizontal at one end and curving back over it. This may be rain symbol; it occurs just twice and only in southeastern Nevada. Instead of symbolizing rain, it may be a schematic representation of a mountain sheep, an animal otherwise commonly depicted in a less angular manner. A third motif is something the authors term a “convoluted rake.” This has the same appearance as the basic “comb” but one (or more) of the descending “teeth” curves back on itself. Such an element appears 11 times, mostly in western Nevada and in one location in the east.
Examples of “combs” with both upward and downward prongs are easily observed in this collection (1984: 126, fig. 63e and f). The motif with upward prongs has seven of these while there are six downward prongs in the second example. A third example on the same page has nine “teeth” protruding from a diagonal long line (1984: 126, fig. 63d). The possible “rain” motif appears nearby (1984: 128, fig. 65h). It has five downward “teeth” and an upper curve that is indeed quite like representations of the horn on a sheep. The fifth “leg” may indicate the animal’s tail or the male sexual organ. A possible “convoluted rake” occurs at the Mouse’s Tank site (1984: 136, fig. 73e). Five “teeth” descend from a horizontal in this case, with two prongs joining a circle below on the left and three joining a circle on the right.
Similar motifs appear in the rock art of Texas. One panel alone contains four different “combs,” two with five “teeth,” one with six, and one with perhaps ten (Newcomb 1996: 74, Pl. 37, no. 1). Historical tribes in this area participated in a mescal bean cult that may be referred to for explanations of many elements in rock art. For example, Wichita and Pawnee peoples held initiation ceremonies for medicine societies during which new members were tested by scraping toothed jaws of garfish over their bodies (1996: 75). It may follow from this that the "combs" here are representations of the ritually significant garfish jaw.
However, as the author notes, there is a huge gap in time between the date of the petroglyphs and that of the modern tribes. Connecting the two is a hypothesis, not a proven fact. In addition, other “combs” may not fit this hypothesis. One instance, for example, has over 50 “teeth” (1996: 85, Pl. 46, no. 4). A single panel at Bee Cave has a horizontal, curved version with four upward prongs, two straight vertical versions with five “teeth” each, and a diagonal version with six “teeth” (1996: 97, Pl. 55, no. 1). In another instance, a possible “rain” element occurs with four upward prongs, a short curve at the left end of the long stroke, plus two prongs extend beyond the others and then join. Hence, this may be a “rain” motif plus a “convoluted rake” combined. This much variation (especially in one relatively small area) would be rather astonishing for a single symbol.
Before leaving the COMB, I will note in passing the ligatures in which it appears in the Indus script. There is a COMB ON BATTERY, discussed previously in connection with the TRI-FORK TOPPED BATTERY (M-649), as well as a MAN HOLDING COMB symbol which appears at the same city (M-16, M-494, M-704). The CIRCLED DIAMOND AND COMB occurs at Mohenjo daro, while a similar CIRCLED BISECTED RECTANGLE AND COMB occurs at Harappa (M-481, H-558). The rather odd AY ON COMB seems to have a horizontal comb under one “leg” (M-357, M-470, H-158, H-189, H-190, H-208). Possibly related, the BI-FORK ON COMB also has a horizontal comb as its base element in a seal impression from Desalpur (Dlp-3). Kalibangan yields an example of CIRCLE WITH ATTACHED COMB (K-104) and CIRCLE-HEADED BEARER WITH ATTACHED COMB (K-79). Another ligature with a horizontal comb, this time across the middle, is from Mohenjo daro: COMB BELTED ASTERISK (M-391). The same is true of COMB BELTED MAN (M-142, M-488, M-831, M-1160, M-1162, M-1611, M-1612).Inscription on tablet H-897A, from left to right: STRIPED DOOR WITH KNOB / BI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT / COMB ("a2") (smoothed and false color added by author).
*Note: two bird-shaped "seals" were found at Altyn Depe, one in excavation 7, priest's tomb, room 10, burial 235 (Plate XVII, no. 9) and another in excavation 9 from 1981, locality 254 (Plate XXXVII, no. 4). Both are made of metal, the second more specifically bronze (Masson, V.M. 1988. Altyn-Depe. Transl. Henry N. Michael. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania).