Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vee in Diamond and Vest: Two Common Indus Signs

The VEE IN DIAMOND (VI14) is one of the core signs of the Indus script.  As such, it occurs more than a hundred times, a frequency that is not matched by the great majority of signs.  This sign (VI14) appears elsewhere as KP385(a), W370, and in Fairservis as both N-7 and N-5.  In addition, Mahadevan numbers it Mh267 in his concordance.  Faiservis is alone in thinking that there are three different signs with a small “V” shape just inside the top.  He considers the true diamond with that extra piece to represent a settlement (village or town).  The little “V” shape itself, he suggests, may be an unpronounced classifier or an indicator of the locative case.  By this criterion, VEE IN DIAMOND should mean, not just town but “in town.”  He sees the CIRCLED VEE (my IV40 and his N-11) as a seal imprint or sealing; or as a variant of the ordinary CIRCLE, meaning “sun.”  Finally, he finds a third variant which is essentially diamond-shaped but more rounded on the sides (N-7).  He defines this last symbol as meaning “open area (assembly area).” 
(false color and smoothing of image by author).

Wells usually finds more variants than the other scholars, but here he notes only a single form, one which is distinct from the CIRCLED VEE.  As for the VEE IN DIAMOND, he sees a total of 105 occurrences, 65 of them from Mohenjo daro, 21 from Harappa, 12 from Lothal, five from Kalibangan, and one apiece from Dholavira and Allahdino.  Koskenniemi and Parpola see the VEE IN DIAMOND and CIRCLED VEE as variants of a single sign, as does Mahadevan.  I am generally skeptical of conflating rounded and angular signs, as I noted in the earlier post on the CIRCLE.  Some signs have only a rounded form (e.g., the CIRCLED TRI-FORK), others have only an angular form (e.g., DOTTED WINDOW and DOTTED VEE IN DIAMOND), and only a subset seem to have both forms (e.g., VEE IN DIAMOND / CIRCLED VEE).  In addition to this evidence, there is the fact that both rounded and angular signs occur in the same inscription.  Thus, I think we should be wary of ignoring this distinction at this point.
I find other types of variation among the many occurrences of the VEE IN DIAMOND, however.  There are small (M-91 and M-100) and large variants (Ad-8 and L60), wide (M-1 and H-135) and narrow variants (M-240 and L-46), some that lean to the right or left (L-29, M-72, M-1658) while others are bilaterally symmetrical (M-880 and H-129).  In some cases, the internal “V” is a bit curved, hence better described as a “U” (M-79, H-55).

Inscription M-72: VEE IN DIAMOND / BI-QUOTES // BELTED FISH / WHISKERED FISH / HORNED MAN / POT // ASTERISK BETWEEN BACK PARENTHESES (false color and smoothing added by author; note presence of VEE IN DIAMOND in prefix, initially, as opposed to the medial position of the previous illustration).

It is interesting to note that this sign has relatively few parallels outside the Indus Valley.  The closest Egyptian analog is a rectangular enclosure with a smaller rectangle in the lower right corner (O6).  This is the same glyph I cited in connection with the Indus VEE IN SQUARE, which resembles it more closely.  Diamond shapes just do not appear in Egyptian, generally speaking.  There is a Luwian hieroglyph that is a diamond, the syllable ku.  It has two “V” shapes or curves, not just one, and these are at the sides rather than the top.  In addition to these differences from the Indus sign, the Luwian syllablic sign also has two verticals bisecting it.
A closer parallel appears among the early proto-cuneiform signs that may derive from still earlier tokens.  The symbol is a diamond with a smaller central diamond inside (Schmandt-Besserat 1996: 73).  It seems to indicate a commodity that is sweet tasting, perhaps honey.  But the closest analog occurs in proto-Elamite, in a sign identical to the Indus sign but rotated 90 degrees (M226~c).  Unfortunately, the meaning is not clear.  In later times, when the cuneiform script had long been in use in ancient Iraq, boundary stones sometimes show a diamond inside a larger diamond as well.  In this context this is a symbol of the goddess Ishtar, patroness of both love and war (Black and Green 1992: 152-153).
Diamonds shapes are relatively rare in the rock art of North America, at least in Texas and Nevada.  The most common occurrence is this shape is in a grid, where the whole thing appears tilted, thus creating multiple diamond shapes (e.g. Newcomb 1996: 201, Pl. 149).  In this case, there is a diamond within a diamond within each diamond in the grid.  In Nevada, there is an occurrence of two diamonds that are not in grids and which have inserts.  One sits over the over, touching it, with a single long vertical bisecting both diamonds (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 196, fig. 133d). 
The second sign I discuss here is the VEST, enumerated V15 in my list, also found as KP308, W497, and Fs L-2.  This symbol is a small square with two triangles on top configured so that the tops form a shape like the letter “M.”  Fairservis proposes to interpret this as cloth, meaning “heap, pile, large quantity.”  Wells finds 14 occurrences in three variants.  This symbol is not all that common in Indus inscriptions, then, but has surprisingly common parallels in other areas. 
VEST ("b" variant) / POT // GRAIN EAR / JAY (false color and smoothing of image by author).
Wells' “a” variant differs from “b” only in the shape of the “M” at the top.  In the former, the descending lines in the center do not touch the top of the square below.  In the latter, these descending lines do touch the square.  His “c” variant is more distinct.  In this one, the line descends from the upper right all the way across to the lower left of the upper triangular area.  The other descending line crosses this, making an “X” shape between the two sides of the upper triangles.  There are four occurrences from Mohenjo daro, one of these “a,” two of them “b,” and one a “c.”  There are six occurrences from Harappa, four of them “a,” and one apiece “b” and “c” according to Wells (I see this supposed “c” as a fourth variant which is striped).  There are also occurrences from other sites: one from Lothal (“b”); two from Kalibangan (both “b”); and one from Rakhigarhi (“a”).

Inscription M-1115: VEE IN DIAMOND / BI-QUOTES // FISH / VEST ("c" variant) / POT
(smoothing of image and false color added by author; note horns of zebu bull on left).

Although Fairservis thinks that this sign represents cloth, it closely resembles the shape of an Egyptian glyph representing a column with a tenon at the top (O28).  The Indus sign lacks the tenon, but the rest is much the same.  There is also a Luwian glyph, the syllable tu4, which is virtually identical to the Indus VEST.  In proto-cuneiform, a similar form without internal lines is GUM~b @n, which came to mean “mortar; to crush.”  Almost the same shape flipped horizontally is TUM~b, “work, action; quiver (for arrows).”  If the square element at the bottom of the Indus sign were a circle, still surmounted by the triangular elements, this would make a fair representation of the proto-cuneiform UD5~c, “nanny goat.”  Additing two bisecting lines to the circle portion makes ESZGAR, “goat doe, young nanny goat.”
Proto-Elamite also contains more than one apparent variant of the VEST.  Like the symbols in proto-cuneiform, these are oriented horizontally rather than vertically.  One proto-Elamite sign has a single stripe or line separating the square portion from the triangles (M288~f).  A second has two separating lines (M288).  A third has three such lines as well as a fourth, at a perpendicular angle to the first three, bisecting the whole thing (M206~g).  The first two variants appear in proto-cuneiform also, at an early period, where they represent a large container for grain (Damerow and Englund 1989: 43-46).  For this reason, and because the proto-Elamite sign occurs alongside numerical measures of grain, the sign in proto-Elamite is also most likely a grain measure.
There is also a syllabic sign in Linear B that resembles the VEST somewhat.  It stands for the syllable ma and may derive from a depiction of a cat’s face.  There is a “Y” shape in the center, with straight verticals descending from either end of this element.  At the bottom of each vertical, the line bends outward.  A more pictographic element resembles this sign, in turn, in the earlier hieroglyphic symbols of pre-Mycenaean Crete.  In the earlier glyph, there are also two dots on either side, thus making the symbol indeed resemble an animal’s face.

"Cat face" glyph as it appears on a Cretan gem, surmounted by plant-like motif (image colored and clarified by author from Scripta Minoa).
In the rock art of North America, an element similar to the VEST appears but upside-down (Newcomb 1996: 214, Pl. 159, No. 1).  This Texan motif also has a small circle above it in another location, near the first occurrence (1996: 214, Pl. 159, No. 13).  In the latter case, the grouped elements (upside-down “vest” plus circle above) probably represent an anthropomorphic figure.  The figure which may be incomplete.  The triangular peaks, being at the bottom, are probably the figure’s legs.  The square from which the triangles project is probably the figure’s body.  A third instance of the motif is upright, this one without a circle (1996: 105, Pl. 65, No. 1).
Finally, two schematized representations occur in Native American art outside those found on stone.  In the artwork of the Arapaho people, the lizard resembles the Indus VEST in having a rectangular bottom segment with two prongs above.  However, the lizard also has diagonals descending on either side and a circle beneath the rectangle.  This identification suggests one possible interpretation of the (possibly incomplete) figures from Nevada.  These, too, may be lizards rather than anthropomorphs.  The second motif is a squared version of the three-clawed bear's paw mentioned in previous posts.  This squarish Arapaho representation is similar to the Indus VEST in having a square base and prongs above, but of course the number of upper elements (and their shape) differs.  Thus, while the Indus sign might possibly represent an animal's foot (or print), it is most unlikely to be a bear's.

Images from Arapaho (Native American) beadwork and quillwork: lizard (at top) and bear paw (at bottom).


Appleton, Le Roy H. 1971. American Indian Design and Decoration. New York: Dover (originally published as Indian Art of the Americas, 1950, by Charles Scribner's Sons).

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. 1992. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Evans, Arthur. 1901 and 1909. Scripta Minoa: The Written Documents of Minoan Crete with Special Reference to the Archives of Knossos (Vol. I and II). Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.

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