Saturday, November 19, 2011

An Indus Manuscript in Afghanistan?

Tablet M-1405 A and B: POT-HATTED BEARER, side A, on right above,
followed by an unusual form of anthropomorph -- a sign or part of the icon?
An equally odd anthropomorph, with both arms raised, appears on a
purported manuscript from Kabul, Afghanistan.  Is MAN intended?

I have not posted recently as I have been working on my database on Indus inscriptions.  I have been going through the concordance of Koskenniemi and Parpola (1982), looking for each of their noted inscriptions in my database.  It is a slow and tedious process, because I look up many of their inscriptions in two or three different ways due to our often different “readings.”  It will be some time before I completely finish the process.

The purpose of doing this is, first, to correct errors that I have made (especially frequent on the difficult-to-“read” tablets) and, second, to establish whether similar symbols are indeed independent signs or variants of a single sign.  Since I began my classification by counting the strokes required to draw each sign, minor differences in the number of stripes (as in the STRIPED TRIANGLE, STRIPED VEST, etc.) or prongs (as in the TRI-FORK, QUAD-FORK, etc.) included in a symbol distinguished independent signs.  It is now clear that most of this type of variation is not meaningful.  For example, the STRIPED TRIANGLE appears in essentially the same contexts regardless of the number of internal stripes.
Seal M-58 with inscription: CIRCLED VEE / BI-QUOTES //

As a result, I no longer distinguish the CIRCLED BI-FORK from the CIRCLED TRI-FORK, and so on.  All are now encoded CIRCLED FORK.  In fact, a short post that is encircled (PACMAN) is merely another variant of the same sign.  A circle without any stripes at all remains distinct from the striped variety.  This is a general rule, as striped versions of a sign appear in a set of contexts that differ from those in which the unstriped versions appear.  Additionally, a striped symbol occasionally occurs in the same inscription as an unstriped symbol of similar shape.  This indicates two independent signs, one striped and one empty.  Generally, the seal carvers seem to have included more stripes/prongs on the larger seals containing few symbols.  On smaller items and where a relatively large number of signs are crowded together, there are fewer prongs and stripes.
Tablet H-187A with inscription (right to left): STRIPED TRIANGLE (4 stripes) /
TRIPLE TRIANGLES / POT / COMB (note the first sign differs in stroke count
from that in the previous inscription, but pairs with the same following sign, which
indicates that the number of stripes does not distinguish independent signs).

In a few cases I retained the distinct names where it is not entirely clear to me that Koskenniemi and Parpola’s groupings are correct.  For example, they consider two common motifs to be essentially one sign, CIRCLED VEE and VEE IN DIAMOND.  Both occur in the same positions, especially in the prefix.  This tends to show variants of one sign.  However, these two “versions” both appear together on rare occasions, an indication that they are independent signs (M-855 and M-196).  These scholars are undoubtedly aware of the general rule that two versions appearing together indicates independent signs, but the more common occurrences in the same contexts must have convinced them to ignore the anomalous inscriptions (1982: 196-200). 

In most cases, though, Koskenniemi and Parpola’s groupings of signs are clearly correct.  They do not distinguish the versions of PANTS, for example, since all variations appear in much the same contexts.  They do not distinguish BELTED FISH from SLASH IN FISH or BACKSLASH IN FISH.  I am changing my own database to reflect this, noting all as MARKED FISH.  Similarly, they do not usually find mirror images of a sign to be distinct, so the LOOP ARMED MAN HOLDING SLASH (or BACKSLASH) now has the slightly simpler name, LOOP MAN HOLDING SLASH.  The SKEWERED CHEVRON and ANKH signs should probably be merged, as these two are grouped together into one section of the KP concordance.  In fact, in several cases, I identified a particular sign as SKEWERED CHEVRON but it is shown as ANKH in KP, or vice versa.  This fact also suggests that these two are really just variants of a single sign. 
Detail from seal M-103 with inscription: CARTWHEEL / BI-QUOTES // FOUR QUOTES / TRI-FORK.
This and other common prefixes fail to appear in the manuscript from Kabul, just as apparent numerals
comprising short strokes (QUOTES) do not occur there -- two suspicious findings.

Working through the concordance in this painstaking manner assists in recognizing pairs of signs that often go together, as noted.  I only mentioned a few of these in earlier posts, based on the observations of M. Korvink.  The sign pairs that include apparent numerals are the ones I find most intriguing.  For example, several types of “numeral” commonly appear before FISH, and many of the same ones also frequently appear before one or another type of FORK.  This regularity is part of the evidence that various researchers use to conclude that numerals – and other modifiers – must precede substantives in the language underlying the Indus script.  But some of the “numerals” occur most often following another sign.  For example, STACKED SEVEN normally follows EF TOPPED EXIT or BATTERY.  And the CUPPED SPOON/CUPPED POST group frequently comes before THREE POSTS.  Thus, there is not a clear-cut preference for “numerals” as a group to either precede or to follow.  It depends on the particular sign pair.  Given such equivocal evidence, one cannot really declare the Harappan language to be “right-branching” or “left-branching.”  As is so often the case with this script, the overall impression is that the script is not closely coupled to any particular language.
Round seal from those in the British Museum, this one found in 1883.
DOUBLE POTS (the only instance of this doubled terminal).

This brings us to the matter of a supposed manuscript containing Indus symbols that is displayed in a museum in Kabul, Afghanistan.  This “manuscript” surfaced around the same time that Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel published their famous paper entitled “The Collapse of the Indus Script Thesis” (2004).  That timing arouses suspicion immediately.  Now a paper has become available online describing this manuscript and comparing the symbols found on it with those in the Indus script (Zuberbühler 2009).  Zuberbühler finds 230 signs, of which 58 are too damaged to be read.  These include between 62 and 76 independent signs depending on how they are analyzed.  Of the 62 most securely identified symbols, 26 are nearly identical to Indus signs listed in Parpola (2009: 70-78).  The author adds another sign to this group, the LOOP or finless fish, based on its appearance among graffiti on pot shards.  Nine of the manuscript signs are mirror images of symbols in Parpola’s list, while eight are simplified variations containing one or more stroke less than the forms shown in Parpola’s list. Four more are probable matches but, being partly obliterated by defects in the manuscript, cannot be seen clearly.  There are 11 more possible matches, generally similar in shape to Parpola’s signs but with more significant variations.  Finally, one sign resembles the SPEAR but contains an additional element not found among Parpola’s listed variants, perhaps to be added to the dubious category.  Thus, of the 62 securely identified symbols in the manuscript, just three are unlike Indus signs.

After comparing the individual signs, Zuberbühler counts the frequency of each.  Her conclusions are that frequencies are broadly similar: “23 of the top 30, 27 of the top 40, 30 of the top 50 and 35 of the top 60 Indus symbols are present on the Kabul birch bark” (2009: 26).  In comparison, the unrelated Easter Island script shares 10 of the top 30, 11 of the top 40, 14 of the top 50 and 16 of the top 60 Indus signs.  These figures suggest a relationship between the Kabul signs and the Indus script.  But what relationship?  Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel issued a challenge shortly after their paper was published, offering to pay $10,000 to the discoverer of an Indus manuscript containing 50 or more signs.  The purpose of their challenge was to underline their confidence that no such manuscript would ever be discovered, because the Indus “proto-writing” system just was not used to create such things.  Should they now prepare to pay up?

Before they consider such a payment, certain conditions must be met.  The first step, clearly, is to determine whether the “relationship” of the Kabul manuscript is simply that of a clever forgery. The bark manuscript could be carbon tested to determine its age, for example.  If it dates to the 20th or 21st century – as most experts would expect – then it is a forgery and no payment is due. 

But let us suppose that our clever forger had discovered, not an ancient manuscript, but an ancient piece of birch bark.  Using an appropriately aged surface, he might have created his fake manuscript by writing on the old bark with a modern felt-tipped pen, carefully counting the signs so as to make them appear in the proper frequencies.  Perhaps the ink, too, would have to be tested.

But even without such tests, which would have to be conducted by reputable labs at well-known institutions, one can test the validity of such a manuscript.  Having worked with the Koskenniemi and Parpola concordance, I would expect at least some of the familiar patterns of Indus signs to appear in any genuine manuscript.  But even a cursory glance at the supposed manuscript shows that they do not.  Korvink, for example, established three segments occurring in authentic Indus inscriptions: prefix, medial section, and terminal.  I looked for these three segments in the data shown in Zuberbühler’s paper, with disappointing results.

No prefixes at all appear in the Kabul manuscript.  There may be three occurrences of BI-QUOTES, but only once alongside one of its most common variables, the VEE IN DIAMOND.  And in this one instance, since the direction of the script is from right to left, the VEE IN DIAMOND is on the "wrong" side.  Likewise, there are two possible occurrences of the PINCH.  Of these, one occurs between two terminal signs, something it never does in authentic inscriptions.  In the other instance, it is so oddly written that its identity is not clear.  There remains the SINGLE QUOTE which seems to appear only once, alongside one of the symbols that has no clear match among the Indus signs.  There are odd inscriptions in the familiar Corpus (including a single instance of a doubled POT), but none contains as many different peculiarities as the Kabul manuscript.

There are a few terminal signs, as Zuberbühler identifies the POT and SPEAR on the Kabul artifact.  Among the Indus terminal signs, though, some of the more common ones are altogether missing from the Kabul manuscript.  Those that do appear are clearly not behaving as they do in known Indus inscriptions.  In one area, three different terminal signs are bunched together in an odd fashion (a single POT-HATTED BEARER is immediately followed by SPEAR in the second row, while a SPEAR / POT sequence occurs in the seventh).  Elsewhere, the POT simply seems to pop up now and then -- usually after two or three signs.  More peculiarly, the COMB seems to be confused with a multiply striped rectangle that does not occur in the Indus script.  Thus, although some of the Indus terminal signs are present, there is no clear terminal function in the Kabul manuscript.
Tablet H-216 A and B sides: STRIPED CHEVRON / STRIPED VEST / POT
(A side, reading from left to right, which is unusual); CUP / THREE POSTS
(B side, showing the most common grouping of one to four posts, with CUP).

The medial section remains to be discussed, an element more difficult to analyze because it is more variable.  Among the more numerous signs that occur in the medial section of known inscriptions, the various types of FISH are prominent on authentic artifacts.  Some fish-like symbols do occur in the Kabul manuscript, drawn a bit oddly, while others that we would expect to see are not present (no MARKED FISH, for example).  More damning, the ones that do appear do not follow the standardized sequences that Korvink outlined. 

Similarly, there are a few apparent numerals in the Kabul manuscript as well.  But again, not all of the more common types found in Indus inscriptions make an appearance here.  In particular, there is only one “stacked” form, the STACKED TWELVE.  There are no “shorts” aside from the possible SINGLE QUOTE and BI-QUOTES.  Of the few “longs” that occur, frequency statistics from Indus inscriptions lead us to expect SINGLE POST, TWO POSTS, THREE POSTS, and possibly FOUR POSTS (up to six occur on the rare tablet and seven are even more rare on pot shards).  However, the only reason these “numerals” appear among the 60 most common Indus signs is because of their frequent occurrence on tablets alongside CUP.  In spite of this close association, the CUP is missing from the Kabul manuscript.  A peculiar version of CUPPED POST occurs several times on the Kabul artifact, but it does not pair with THREE POSTS.  An oddly angular FISH appears on the Kabul artifact as well, but it does not pair with TWO POSTS.  Thus, expectations are not met even if we look only at expected pairs with the four apparent numerals that do occur in the Kabul manuscript.
As a result of the lack of expected patterning, most scholars who have weighed in on the matter consider the Kabul manuscript a forgery.  Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel are not going to pay for that.  Nor should they.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sentences in the Indus Script?

The city seal of Ur, bearing possible writing or proto-writing (after Collon 2005: 106, no. 455).

Dominique Collon describes the inscriptions found on Near Eastern cylinder seals (1987/2005: 105-7).  The earliest examples, dating to the third millennium BCE, seem to contain only names, whether names of cities, deities, or humans.  More information appears in later seals, with names and multiple attendant titles by the time of Ur III (2334-2000 BCE).  Old Babylonian seal inscriptions generally give the owner’s name, his or her filiation (son or daughter of named person number two), along with a third element indicating that the owner is the servant of a particular deity or, less often, a king.  Professions sometimes appear in early inscriptions, but disappear by this time.  Prayers begin to appear at the end of this period.  By the time of the Kassites, prayers and incantations are common and can be fairly long.  An example of this type reads, “Oh Marduk, sublime lord, prince in whose hands the power of decision in heaven and on earth has been vested: the servant who worships you, by your look may he be happy” (2005: 107, no. 460).  This dates from after 1500 BCE, a time when the Indus script had essentially disappeared from use.  But the presence of some full sentences on these Mesopotamian seals suggests to some researchers the possibility that their neighbors, the Harappans, might also have written complete sentences on their own seals.
Inscription from a cylinder seal that depicts heroes battling lions; it reads "Naram-Sin,
god of Akkad, Urag, scribe, is his servant" (after Aruz 2003: 208, no. 134).

In this post, I will examine some of the inscriptions whose structure might suggest sentences in the Indus script.  A number of scholars have examined the inscriptions in Indus script, looking for positional regularities (signs that typically begin or end an inscription) and for small groups of signs that generally appear together (usually pairs of signs, but sometimes groups of three).  Among these, the study by M. Korvink carefully distinguishes between structural regularities on the one hand, and possible meaning on the other.  He classifies the components of the inscriptions as (1) prefix, containing one or more variable signs plus a single constant; (2) the medial segment, which often contains one or more fish-like signs in a standardized order; and (3) the terminal, containing one or more signs in a standard order (2007).  I abbreviate these sections as P, M, and T, respectively in the following.

A minority of inscriptions include sequences other than PMT (in which each segment is optional).  These are the focus of this post.  The first inscription I will analyze is from seal M-670:


The first two signs form a common pair (CUPPED POST / THREE POSTS), together making up M.  They are followed by SPEAR, which is T.  The presence of the next sign, SINGLE QUOTE, is rather surprising, since it is normally the constant sign in P.  I will assume here that this sign retains this function despite its position after a terminal.  The fifth sign, SINGLE POST, must be another M, followed by another T, POT-HATTED BEARER.  Thus, the inscription as a whole seems to be analyzable as MTPMT.  In some inscriptions, such an analysis indicates simply two units of information, each of which could be an independent inscription: MT + PMT.  But there is an anomaly in the group of signs preceding SINGLE QUOTE.  Korvink notes that the constant causes other signs to move to initial position to become part of P (2007: 25-26).  The signs that usually appear as variables in P, though, are found in M when not followed by the constant.  What appears to be going on here, instead, is that a whole “phrase” (MT) is functioning as the variable.  We might express this as (MT)PMT.  In other words, the initial MT phrase + constant is P in this case.  Such an analysis removes the anomalous character of the inscription.
Seal M-782 with inscription: TRIPLE BRICK / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / CAGED TETRAPOD / POT.

Another example of a “phrase” as the variable in P is seal M-782:


The TRIPLE BRICK is M, followed by the most frequently occurring T, POT.  This MT “phrase” again appears to be the variable portion of P, as it is followed by a constant, SINGLE QUOTE.  There follows another MT sequence (CAGED TETRAPOD + POT).  Again, the overall analysis is (MT)PMT.

A third, similar example is found on seal M-1135:


Once more, the initial sign is M, with the second sign T.  This MT phrase precedes a constant, BI-QUOTES, thus forming P.  After this complex segment, the rest of the inscription includes a single sign for M and repeats the same T for an overall analysis of (MT)PMT.
Bar seal M-1267 with inscription: VEE IN DIAMOND (partially restored here) / BI-QUOTES / HUNCHBACK / FLANGE TOPPED POT / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / BI-RAKE (note the presence of two different prefix constants here).

A more complex type appears in M-1267:


In this example, the first five signs form a complete series, P (VEE IN DIAMOND + BI-QUOTES), M (HUNCHBACK), and T (FLANGE TOPPED POT + POT).  Since this precedes a prefix constant, SINGLE QUOTE, the whole initial PMT can be analyzed as the prefix variable.  The final sign, BI-RAKE, is a second M.  The overall analysis is (PMT)PM.  The same pattern appears in the inscription M-1284: SINGLE POST / STRIPED TRIANGLE / BI-QUOTES // CIRCLE TRI-FORK / WHISKERED FISH // SPEAR // SINGLE QUOTE // BI-RAKE, or (PMT)PM.
Bar seal H-143 with inscription: TWO POSTS / FAT EX IN DIAMOND / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / POT HATTED BEARER (identical to H-8 except the FLAIL in H-143 is AY in H-8).

All the examples quoted thus far have been from Mohenjo daro.  But this interesting phenomenon also occurs at Harappa.  Inscription H-8 has the same structure as the last two examples above: BOAT / CROSSROADS EX / BI-QUOTES // CUPPED SPOON / THREE POSTS / MALLET / QUAD-FORK // POT // SINGLE QUOTE // PRICKLY CORN HOLDER, or (PMT)PM.  The previous type above appears in the Harappan inscription H-27: TWO POSTS / FAT EX IN DIAMOND // POT // SINGLE QUOTE // AY ON FOUR QUOTES / CIRCLED TRI-FORK // POT HATTED BEARER, or (MT)PMT.  The inscription on H-143 is identical except that instead of AY ON FOUR QUOTES, there is a FLAIL OVER FOUR QUOTES.
Broken seal C-24 with inscription: DIAMOND / CHEVRON / SINGLE QUOTE / BI-QUOTES / TWO POSTS / CAGED FISH / BI-QUOTES / CUPPED TWO / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK (last 3 signs are broken).

A somewhat different complex example comes from Chanhujo daro, where C-24 reads: DIAMOND / CHEVRON / SINGLE QUOTE / BI-QUOTES // TWO POSTS / CAGED FISH // (2nd row) BI-QUOTES // CUPPED TWO / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK.  The signs in the second row are not complete because the seal is broken horizontally.  Before the BI-QUOTES in this row, there is a small loop that could be part of a broken sign.  I am assuming that it is not, instead forming the ear of an iconic animal (not the unicorn, since there is no horn, and not the elephant, which has no such ear).  But it might be the head of an anthropomorphic sign, since the MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH has a head of almost the same shape.  However, if I have transcribed the inscription correctly, its analysis differs from previous examples in that the first line forms PM.  The second line, beginning with BI-QUOTES, would seem to make of the first a prefix variable.  Then the last three signs form a second M.  The overall analysis is (PM)PM.

In the examples cited and in other, similar inscriptions, the structural complexity does not prove that these are actually sentences.  This complexity is similar to that of sentences with embedded clauses.  In English, subordinate clauses follow the noun or pronoun they describe (as in “That’s the man who bought the car,” where “who bought the car” describes “the man”).  In Chinese and in Turkish, such clauses precede the noun or pronoun they describe.  Languages such as English, with clauses that follow, are termed right-branching, while the Chinese or Turkish type is termed left-branching.  Some scholars have interpreted similar evidence as indicating that the language underlying the Indus script is left-branching (Koskenniemi and Parpola 1982: 12, citing their own conclusion and that of the Soviet scholars, Y.V. Knorozov, M.F. Albedil, B.Y. Volchok).  This is one reason that Parpola and others think that the Indus script represents a Dravidian language.

In some Bronze Age scripts, though, a single or double stroke functions as a punctuation mark of a sort, rather than a phonetic or ideographic symbol.  This is the case in Assyrian cuneiform and in the Linear B writing of Mycenaean Greece.  It is possible that this is what SINGLE QUOTE, DOUBLE QUOTE, and PINCH are in the Indus script.  That is, these may simply be marks separating units of information.  Each prefix would then represent one unit of information and the following M(T) a second such unit.  In the complex examples cited above, there would be more, namely three units of information. 

This may be the best analysis for now, rather than interpreting the apparent complexity as evidence of embedding.  Where I have analyzed an inscription above as (MT)PM(T), I now amend this to MT “ M(T), with the double quotation mark indicating the presence of a prefix constant which marks a boundary between the first and second units of information.  Presumably the three constants do not all indicate precisely the same thing, though, since occasionally there are two different ones in the same inscription (as in H-8 and M-1284).  This implies that they are not just separating two units, but also have some significance or meaning of their own. 
In conclusion, then, there is apparent complexity in some inscriptions.  Such complexity may be interpreted as evidence for sentences.  But given what is known about other scripts, it seems more likely that there is a simpler explanation.  There is stronger evidence that some inscriptions are compound, in that they contain more than one unit of information.  But what seems to be embedding (and thus complex sentences) on first examination is better analyzed simply as the separation of the multiple units.


Aruz, J., ed. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

Collon, D. 1987 & 2005. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. London: British Museum.

Joshi, J.P. and A. Parpola. 1987. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 1. Collections in India. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Korvink, M.P. 2008. The Indus Script: A Positional Statistical Approach. Gilund Press (Amazon).

Koskenniemi, K. and A. Parpola. 1982. A Concordance to the Texts in the Indus Script. Helsinki: Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki.

Shah, S.G.M. and A. Parpola. 1991. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 2. Collections in Pakistan. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Icons on Indus Seals and Tablets


Hare icon on reverse of tablets M-532 to -542.

Sign on the reverse of tablet M-593: CARTWHEEL IN STRIPED FLANGE TOPPED POT,
interpreted as the symbol of the hare (deity?) by Parpola and Wells.

In the previous post, I mentioned W. Fairservis’ suggestion that the icons on Indus seals represent ancient clans (or sodalities), which can be divided into two groups or moieties (1992: 6).  The moiety of the wild animals includes the tiger, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros, with the gavial (or gharial, related to the crocodile) ruling or controlling them.  The domestic moiety, on the other hand, includes the so-called unicorn bull, the zebu or humped bull, the goat, and the gaur.  In a few cases, the animal that appears on a seal or tablet is mythical, made up of features of two or more different animals.  These composite beasts, in Fairservis’ view, represent relationships between clans (or between the two moieties).  So, the goat with an elephant’s trunk indicates that the goat clan of the domestic moiety was allied in some fashion with the elephant clan of the wild moiety. 

This is an interesting proposal but there seems to be no way to confirm or disprove it.  Nevertheless, there is more that can be said concerning the iconic animals.  Based on data from I. Mahadevan’s concordance, archeologist G. Possehl notes the distribution and frequency of iconic animals on seals (2002: 128, from Mahadevan 1977: 793).

Frequency of iconic animals on Indus seals

Iconic Animal
No. of
Unicorn with standard
Short-horned bull
Zebu (humped bull)
Hare facing bush
Bull like unicorn with 2 horns
Horned tiger
Hare [no bush]
Short-horned bulls facing
Horned elephant
Two rhinos
Two goats flanking tree

(*Percentages are founded to the nearest decimal, so they no longer total precisely 100%).

When anthropologists describe moieties, they appear to speak of roughly two halves of a social group.  But here, even if the unicorn were a moiety in itself and all the other icons represented a second moiety, there would be considerably more of the unicorn moiety than of the everything-else-moiety.  This would suggest that Fairservis’ description is, at best, incomplete.  At worst, he would simply be wrong.  However, additional information might clarify which of these is the case.  For example, suppose we knew that people in the larger settlements – Mohenjo daro and Harappa, for example – were more likely to own seals, while a roughly equal number of people living in small towns and villages were less likely to own them.  We might then hypothesize that the unicorn represented a predominantly urban clan, while the less frequent icons represented rural clans.  This would explain the preponderance of unicorns on seals in urban areas and the relative rarity of other icons.
on the reverse (side B) may represent the "unicorn" bull found on the reverse of M-519 to -521 and on many seals.

Another issue pertaining to icons is their presence on copper tablets.  The table above is captioned “on seals” in Possehl (as well as here).  But the “hare facing bush” appears only on copper tablets, so far as I can tell.  This suggests that some of the above frequency data derives from tablets, alongside that from seals.  Now, I cannot make out many of the inscriptions and depictions on the copper tablets, as they are quite dark and do not photograph well.  But Parpola provides line drawings in his work (1994/2009: 111-112).  Most often, there is an inscription on the observe (side A) and an iconic animal on the reverse (side B), with notable exceptions.  A single inscription appears on the observe of the tablet designated B1, while a unicorn with trough fills the reverse (Parpola 1994/2009: 111).  There are eight duplicates, according to Parpola (M-519 to 521 and M-1470 to 1473, I think, though this only includes seven).  The same inscription appears on the obverse of tablet C1 (M-592, perhaps M-590 and -591 as well), while the FIGURE EIGHT SHIELD stands alone on the reverse (3 duplicates).  Parpola deduces from this that the FIGURE EIGHT SHIELD of C1 is probably the sign for the unicorn on B1.  (The inscription in both cases reads from right to left: POTTED TRIPLE SLASHES / FOOT / MAN HOLDING QUOTE / STRIPED MALLET / SINGLE QUOTE // MAN HOLDING POST / DOUBLE GRIDS.)
Quadruped on reverse of tablet M-516 and M-517, which may represent the rhino on M-1481 (?).

Similarly, the same inscription appears on the obverse of tablet B7 (M-534 to -542 and M-1491 to -1494?), and on C2 (M-593).  While B7 contains an iconic hare with plants, C2 bears a single sign on the reverse, CARTWHEEL IN STRIPED FLANGE TOPPED POT.  Thus, Parpola suggests, this rare sign represents the hare.  This type of reasoning leads to the interpretation of EF PRONGED CHEVRON UPON POTTED SIX as the sign for a composite animal with a bovine head and body, short horns, and a long, upright tail like that of the tiger.  One of the quadruped signs (QUADRUPED WITH E TAIL & TWO EARS) would then stand for the rhinoceros (pairing A11 as found on M-516-517 and B5 as found on M-1481 {?}).  The rare CRAB IN LEAF TOPPED POT appears on the reverse of C5a, C5b, and C6, tablets whose obverse inscriptions pair them with B9 (bearing a ram) and B19 (bearing an anthorpomorph with horns and a tail, carrying bow and arrows).  In each of these cases and in several others, Parpola states, “both [the lone sign and the icon] seem to symbolize particular Harappan divinities” (1994/2009: 112).
Shell inlay of a woman wearing a cylinder seal on a string, from Mari in Syria
(Aruz 2003: 161, Pl. 104a).  She may have been weaving in the original.

Parpola also refers to the explanation of archeologist Mackay, who thought the copper tablets were amulets.  They were intended to be “read” as is, not used as stamps.  The amuletic function also characterized cylinder seals in Mesopotamia (Collon 1987/2005: 113).  These seals were occasionally pierced like beads, more often given a loop or handle, so that they could be worn on a string.  The Indus seals, too, have a boss on the back with a hole drilled through it.  Perhaps they were worn as well.  It may be of interest to note that tamga signs, though not typically placed on seals or tablets, were inscribed or painted (or branded) on property in part for amuletic purposes.  The tamgas were often considered endowed with supernatural power or capable of invoking it, for protection and for healing (Yatsenko 2010: 115).
Detail from an Egyptian amuletic ring, showing magical symbols, some of which are also hieroglyphs
(after Pinch 1994/2006: 111, fig. 57).  Symbols include wedjat eye (or Eye of Horus), djed pillar (not
visible here), ankh ("life"), a mask of the goddess Bat, and animals (turtle, snake, baboon, falcon, hare).

If the main purpose of either tablets or seals was protective, as an amulet, then perhaps the Indus inscriptions contain the equivalent of prayers or curses rather than the names and titles so commonly supposed.  This is a possibility that might be entertained profitably, considering the importance of symbols in magic and religion.  I will discuss this further in my next post.


Aruz, J. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

Collon, D. 1987/2005. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. London: British Museum.

Fairservis, W.A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Parpola, A. 1994/2009. Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge: University Press.

Pinch, G. 1994/2006. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum.

Possehl, G.L. 2002. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Yatsenko, S.A. 2010. “Problems and Study Methods of the Ancient and Early Medieval Iranian-speaking Peoples’ Nishan-Signs,” in Traditional marking Systems: A Preliminary Survey, J.E. Pim, S.A. Yatsenko, and O.T. Perrin, eds. London: Dunkling Books, pp. 109-130.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Indus Script as Tamga Symbols

Seal M-1134 with inscription of four medial signs, plus rhino icon,
perhaps an emblem of a Wild Animal sodality.

I have indicated previously that I consider the Indus script as a proto-writing system.  The term “proto-writing” is unfortunate, since these kinds of symbol systems are certainly not failed writing.  Nor are they necessarily precursors to fully developed writing systems, although they can be.  The proto-writing of one people may also differ quite considerably from that of another, with these systems sharing only the fact that they are not true writing.  For these reasons, I.J. Gelb used the term semasiographic to describe such systems (1963: 11).  By his definition, these types of symbols express meaning that is only loosely connected to speech.  True writing must have a closer connection to language, with at least some systematic representation of sound (i.e., it must be phonetic to some degree).  It is not clear where the precise dividing line lies between these two – between a semasiographic script and the script of a writing system that includes phonetic information.  But the occasional use of one symbol to represent a word characterized by similar sounds (use of the rebus principle, in other words) is insufficient.  Thus, the Na Xi script is an example of proto-writing or a semasiographical script, even though it occasionally uses the rebus principle.

Seal M-1162 with single-sign inscription and elephant icon,
another possible emblem of a Wild Animal sodality.

In discussing the various signs of the Indus script, I frequently referred to two proto-writing systems of the Near East, proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  The known texts of these scripts are typically economic in nature.  But these are not the only types of semasiographical systems that are known.  The Mixtecs and Aztecs also had proto-writing, though of a very different type.  Texts in these script generally have to do with the calendar, geography, and a bit of history (Smith 1973).  I do not think it likely that any of these resembles the Indus script closely, mainly because of the differences in text length but also due to the context.  As noted previously, the apparent numerals in the Indus script generally follow a pattern found in folklore rather than in economic texts, so the seals and tablets are unlikely to bear economic accounts.  In this, they probably differ from the administrative tablets in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  The seals and tablets are also too brief to contain much – if any – calendrical information, a prominent feature of the Mesoamerican texts.
Seal M-310 with inscription containing prefix (FOOTED STOOL / SINGLE QUOTE), medial
segment (FAT CHEVRON), terminal (POT), and an additional medial sign (WINDOW), as well
as the tiger icon, perhaps a symbol of a third Wild Animal sodality.  A "stool" and a "window"
appear as tamgas in some Eurasian pastoral societies.

There is another set of symbols that is useful for comparison with the Indus script.  These other symbols do not comprise a writing system, thus qualifying as semasiographical motifs.  They appear primarily in Eurasia and are known by various names, including tamga or tamaga, nishan, and gakk.  In Central Asia, from Iran and Turkey in the West to Mongolia and southern Siberia in the east, many peoples have used these symbols, which I refer to collectively as tamga.  These are most simply described as ownership marks, but there is more to it than that.  In some cases, the symbols are marks of identity in the same way as European heraldic signs (Perrin 2010: 25).  People put such symbols on houses and other buildings, on objects that they own, and mark their animals with them.  The individual mark typically represents an extended family or clan, although some peoples allow modification of the family tamga to further indicate the individual.  This modification is usually the addition of a line, a dot, or other small mark to the basic sign.  Despite its connection with the extended family, the tamga is not the same as a symbol of a family name, though.  The connotations and associations of the tamga are multiple.  Each extended family might well have a tamga, a battle cry, and an associated epic (or dastan) that describes some of its history (2010: 39). 
A circled Lone Star on a house in Texas, similar to a tamga in function.

We do not have tamgas in Texas, but many people mark their homes with similar symbols, the most popular in my neighborhood being a star.  This is known as the Lone Star, the symbol of Texas as a state, a motif that also appears on the state flag.  The star that appears on people’s homes (and sometimes on businesses) is sometimes just the five-pointed star, sometimes this is enclosed in a circle, and occasionally it is enclosed in two circles, with smaller stars between the inner and outer rings.  A few instances have words between these two rings instead of small stars or in addition to them  -- “The Lone Star of Texas” being the commonest I have seen.  In addition, a fair number of houses have a cross adorning them, indicating the Christian religious affiliation of the resident(s).  The cross and star, then, mark membership in a larger group rather than functioning to mark ownership by the individual and the same is typically the case with tamgas.  Texans also brand livestock with symbols and, in this case, the symbols do represent individual owners.
A circled Lone Star on a bench in Texas.

Among many Eurasian pastoral peoples, the marks used as brands for livestock represent clans (Landais 2010: 85).  Since animals are traded or sold to others from time to time, a given animal may have several brands on it, one for each owner in turn.  While most animals bear the brand that represents the owner’s paternal clan (the father’s family), sometimes an owner will add the brand of his maternal clan (that of his mother’s family), the clan sign of an earlier ancestor, his wife’s clan sign, or a sign representing a clan with whom he lives.  Thus, even an animal that has never been sold may bear more than one brand.  Among some groups, an individual’s mark may be added beside that of the clan.  In other groups, the original tamga is slightly modified for each owner within the clan, either by adding a small mark or removing one.  Persons who are dependent on non-familial relationships, such as craftsmen serving a wealthy owner, may sometimes use the marks of the “master” with perhaps some minor modification (2010: 93).
A bovine head as painted on Indus pot shard Rhd-241, not a sign
in the script but perhaps something akin to a tamga.

In all these cases, the tamga communicates a message.  On one level, the tamga communicates to outsiders, the message being that this house, these cattle, these objects belong to such-and-such a clan.  To those within the clan, the tamga communicates solidarity and is associated with other things that characterize that clan (such as the dastan).  A third level of communication is also common, between the clans that mark things and the gods or spirits.  This arises from the belief that the tamga invokes supernatural protection of that which is marked.  Alternatively, evil spirits are warded off by the presence of the supernaturally potent tamga.
Broken seal L-50, the only one with an iconic bird, as well as
a single surviving sign, the BI-FORK, also found as a Central
Asian tamga sign.

Typically, each tamga has a name, some of these indicating the form of the symbol, others deriving from the history of associated clan.  The Tuareg of North Africa use marks that mimic animal tracks, simplified depictions of objects such as tools and weapons, representations of celestial objects such as the sun, moon, and stars, and individual letters from Arabic or Tifinagh writing (2010: 94).  Being schematic and simplified, even the representational marks are not necessarily recognizable to a naive observer:  “For instance, the Y mark represents the nasal cleft of the camel (bujila), which is small in size but great in power since it leads the camel...” (2010: 95).  In most Eurasian systems, the origin of the tamga is not clear.
Broken seal H-95, the only seal with an iconic rabbit, as well as
a FIGURE EIGHT sign, one which also appears as a tamga.

These remarks convey only part of the sophisticated symbol system of the tamga.  What is important is that some of the characteristics of tamgas recall the hypothesized function of the Indus script.  I suggested previously that the signs on seals may serve a nominative function, representing the names, titles, and relationships of individuals.  The analogous information conveyed by a tamga indicates that this function may be borne by semasiographic motifs and not only by writing.  Thus, an Indus seal inscription with a prefix, medial section, and terminal, might indicate an owner (medial section) with an occupational title (terminal) and a relationship to another owner (prefix).  The three sections of the inscription may then be similar to the multiple brands on a domestic animal, which as noted above may indicate paternal clan, individual identity, and perhaps a third relationship – maternal clan, wife’s clan, or patron’s clan.  If something like this underlies the Indus inscriptions, then it is worthwhile to examine each segment in greater depth to see how this might work.
Seal B-7 with an inscription containing only a prefix (CIRCLED VEE / BI-QUOTES),
as well as a buffalo icon, perhaps another Wild Animal sodality emblem.

By my count, there are 775 prefixes in the inscriptions published in the first two volumes of the Corpus.  Of these, the largest number contain a single variable sign followed by one of the three possible constants (SINGLE QUOTE, BI-QUOTES, or PINCH).  There may be more variable signs, up to seven.  As the number of variable signs increases, the frequency of inscriptions with that many decreases:

Sign No.
No. of
of Inscriptions

The medial segment is considerably more variable.  It may contain a single sign or a good many more.  In my analysis, I have generally assumed that each line of an inscription constitutes a single element.  That is, an inscription of two lines may contain prefix, medial segment, and terminal in the first line, making up one element or message.  The second line is then an additional element, message, or unit of information.  This may not be true in all cases and I have not thoroughly examined this assumption yet.  But for now it is a reasonable working hypothesis.
Seal B-1 with inscription containing a four-sign prefix (DOUBLE CARTWHEELS / FOOTED STOOL / STRIPED FAT LEG LAMBDA / BI-QUOTES), a single-sign medial segment (FISH), and a two-sign terminal (POT / MAN), over the
"unicorn" and cult stand that may represent a sodality or clan.

The terminal section of the inscription is somewhat shorter than the prefix.  Again, the most common terminals contain a single sign, with declining frequency of occurrence of longer terminals.  The possibilities for a single-sign terminals are more numerous than those for prefix constants.  Where only three of these prefix elements occur, terminals include POT (907 occurrences), SPEAR (203), POT-HATTED BEARER (80), COMB (69), PINWHEEL (68), BEARER (56), MAN (25), and CHEVRON-HATTED BEARER (10).  Occurrences of all of these as single terminals add up to 1,418.  Two-sign terminals are less common but still of some frequency: POT + COMB (118), POT + MAN (70), TRI-FORK TOPPED POT + POT (42), BI-FORK TOPPED POT + POT (38), FLANGE-TOPPED POT + POT (35), POT-HATTED BEARER + COMB (22), COMB + POT (11), DOUBLE COMBS (10), and others, each of which is rare (39 altogether).  This yields a total of 385 two-sign terminals.  None of the three-sign terminals is at all common, with only 12 total occurrences (the most frequent of which is POT + MAN + COMB, 3 occurrences).  Thus, terminals total 1,815.

Sign No.
No. of
of Inscriptions

There are, then, only three possible lengths for a terminal.  It may consist of one sign, two signs, or three.  This is considerably shorter than the prefix, which may contain up to eight signs (seven variables plus a constant).  And while the set of prefix constants is small, the set of possible signs for the variable portion is quite large.  The medial segment of an inscription may be even longer than the prefix. 
Tablet H-351 with an inscription perhaps containing a prefix (STACKED THREE? + PINCH),
a medial segment (TWO POSTS), and a two-sign terminal (POT / COMB).  Like many
tablets, this one does not bear an iconic animal or other pictorial element, perhaps indicating
a functional difference between seals and tablets.

There is, of course, no clear evidence of the existence of clans in the Indus Valley in the bronze age, certainly no indication of how many might have existed (three, as symbolized the terminals or up to eight as suggested by the prefixes?).  Since large-scale cemeteries have not been excavated (if they even exist), there would seem to be no method for discovering such data, either.  Thus, I am not prepared to claim that any particular segment of an inscription must contain clan designations.
An atypical seal, M-304, depicting an apparent "Master of Animals" in the center (also described as "proto-Shiva"),
with an inscription across the top and several animals: rhino and buffalo on the left, elephant and tiger on the right,
and two ungulates below, perhaps a goat and gazelle or two goats.  If the animals represent sodalities or clans,
this seal might have belonged to an individual with authority over all of these social groups, a type of king.

Even so, I am not the only one to suggest a possible link between social groupings and Indus symbols.  Fairservis suggested that the iconic animals that appear on the square seals and on some tablets represent something like clans (1992: 6).  He groups these iconic animals into two sets.  The domestic set includes the “unicorn” as well as the goat, zebu, and gaur, in other words, the various types of bull and goat.  The wild set includes the tiger, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros.  The occurrence of these various types in many Harappan settlements “strongly suggests that pan-settlement sodalities like clans or associations were present, and that these sodalities divided into a rough moiety of wild and domestic animal related groups” (1992: 6).  The appearance of composite animals on several seals and tablets indicates, in his view, relationships between clans or sodalities.  “Here then is a clue to the meaning of the writing as it appears on the seal tablets,” he continues.  “With high probability it describes the individual who bears the tablet by name, title, occupation, social status, family, etc., in the conventional manner of the time.  In toto the large seal tablet motifs represent the sodality to which the bearer of the seal tablet belongs.  The writing identifies the individual within the sodality” (loc. cit.).
Seal Ns-9 with an inscription containing long, six-sign prefix (CIRCLED DOT WITH EAR /
medial segment, and perhaps a two-sign terminal (POT / MAN), with an additional
medial sign (SINGLE POST).  The iconic animal is a composite, with the hind end of
a tiger, horns of a goat, and a human element, perhaps indicating an allied group of two
sodalities (domestic goat and wild tiger).

In sum then, the Indus inscriptions may parallel the proto-Elamite texts only slightly, in which many rare symbols serve to indicate “owners” (perhaps institutions such as temples to begin with rather than individuals).  The Indus inscriptions may, instead, follow the pattern of the more elaborated systems of tamgas that represent clans (or sodalities, as Fairservis suggests).  An individual might then use a seal to stamp a series of symbols on objects to mark the latter as (a) belonging to the seal bearer, (b) given by the seal bearer to another individual, (c) or donated by the seal bearer to an institution.  The inscriptions might then include information on the larger social groups to which the seal owner belongs, including paternal clan, perhaps maternal clan or wife’s clan as well, the larger sodality to which the clan belongs, perhaps another clan or sodality with which the owner’s clan is allied, and even some indication of the individual owner as well.  Instead of multiple clan symbols, some of the Indus signs might be occupational tamgas (similar to later masons’ marks), and symbols representing other social groupings such as religious affiliation. 
Button seal Dmd-1 with a single sign, POT.  This seal strongly suggests that
terminal signs are not suffixes, since a suffix must be attached to something.
If this indicates a clan or occupational group, like a guild, it is much less problematic.

The added prongs, stripes, and other marks seen on a number of signs – the “hairs” on the HAIRY HUNCHBACK as opposed to the “hairless” HUNCHBACK, the stripes in the STRIPED VEST as opposed to the unstriped VEST, the small TRI-FORK attached to a number of signs – may not be equivalent to “gunification” in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  Instead, these additional marks may serve to differentiate individual lines within a clan or sodality.
Tablet M-575A and B sides, with an inscription that includes only a medial segment
on side A, and a composite, two-headed animal on side B, perhaps a symbol of an
alliance between two social groups, both within the wild sodality (rhino clan + snake clan?).

Shapes of symbols common to both the Indus script and one or another Eurasian set of tamgas include the following (using my descriptors for the Indus signs):  EX, BACK CEE & CEE, RAYED CIRCLE, CIRCLE, DUCK HEAD, LOLLIPOP, BARBELL, SWASTIKA, LAMBDA, BI-FORK, TRI-FORK, FLAIL, CHEVRON , ZEE, SHISH KEBAB, CUP, ROOF, CIRCLED CROSS, COMB, CIRCLE, STACKED TRIPLE CIRCLES, SPEAR, BOWTIE, VEST, BOXED EX, TRIANGLE, SKEWERED EX, GRAIN EAR, TABLE, DIAMOND, BISECTED RECTANGLE, DOUBLED BELTED AITCH, SKEWERED CIRCLE, ZIGZAG, DOTTED CIRCLE, DEE, SINGLE POST, TWO POSTS, STOOL, LOOP, FISH.  Note that these are mostly the simplest geometric shapes, and, as we have seen, they have multiple parallels elsewhere as well.  So I do not propose a direct relationship between the signs of the Indus script on one hand and the tamga signs of any pastoral group on the other.  Instead, I only propose that there may be parallels in function and perhaps some parallels in the contexts of sign use.


Fairservis, W.A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gelb, I.J. 1963. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Landais, E. 2010. “The Marking of Livestock in Traditional Pastoral Societies,” in Traditional Marking Systems: A Preliminary Survey, J.E. Pim, S.A. Yatsenko, and OT. Perrin, eds. London: Dunkling Books.

Pim, J.E., S.A. Yatsenko, and O.T. Perrin, eds. 2010. Traditional Marking Systems: A Preliminary Survey. London: Dunkling Books.
Smith, M.E. 1973. Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico: Mixtec Place Signs and Maps. Norman: University of Oklahoma.