Monday, January 31, 2011

Dubious Circles and More Harappan Fish Signs

Among the rare Indus signs, there is a RAYED CIRCLE or, more accurately, a pointed oval with four diagonal rays protruding from it in a symmetrical pattern.  I enumerate this sign VI66 as the sixty-sixth of the six-stroke symbols.  Elsewhere it is known as KP358 and W356; Fairservis does not list it.  Wells finds five of these, three at Mohenjo daro, two at Harappa.  I think that there may be two more from Mohenjo daro, although the instance by itself on a pot is not quite identical (M-1627).

Indus seal H-131 with inscription: CUP ON FOUR PRONGS (?) / RAYED CIRCLE / BATTERY /
Note that at 13 signs, this is one of the longest inscriptions.
Note that the Harappan RAYED CIRCLE is not only identical side to side, but top to bottom.  Symbols comprising circles with various numbers of rays occur in many cultures, but one with quadrilateral symmetry such as this is certainly not universal.  Among Egyptian hieroglyphs, a circle typically adorned with three rays appears (N8).  Both as a glyph and as a pictorial element in artwork, this represents the sun and the rays extend from the lower half only, i.e., downward.  In contrast, the RAYED CIRCLE among Indus symbols has two rays extending upward and two downward.

Depiction of the sun from poster for 1979 King Tut exhibit.
It is based on the depiction on the back of one of the king's chairs.
Note rays extend downward only and this sun has a uraeus, sign of kingship
(the latter element not found in the simpler hieroglyph).
Old Chinese includes a character that is circular in some variants, with four “rays.”  This is dai3, “bones fallen to pieces; what remains definitively of a man’s skeleton....By extension, death, misfortune, evil, bad, to break to pieces, to shatter, to grind, fragments, dust” (Wieger 1967: 275).  The character, unlike the Indus sign, is only truly symmetrical from top to bottom, not side to side.  In another variant of the same character, the symmetry is from side to side but not top to bottom.  No variant seems to show all four sides symmetrically.
Proto-cuneiform does have such a sign in EZEN, which came to mean “festival, feast.”  In this sign, the “rays” are either small triangles or small rectangles, unlike the simple lines of the Indus RAYED CIRCLE.  In addition, in the proto-cuneiform variants the “rays” are positioned differently.  If this were a clock, the rectangles/triangles appear at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock, 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock.  In contrast, the Indus sign has “rays” midway between these points.
Proto-Elamite includes both types.  One sign closely resembles EZEN, except that the central circle is an impression, made by the end of a stylus (M327).  This sign has rectangles rather than linear rays.  Another proto-Elamite sign is characterized by triangles disposed in the same manner around the circular impression (M365).  Each triangular “ray” has its base against the central circle, while the proto-cuneiform EZEN variant displays each triangle with the apex against the central circle.  In an additional third proto-Elamite sign, triangular “rays” are again displayed around a circular impression, but this time in the four diagonal positions seen in the Indus sign (M365~a).  Also, there are two vertical lines passing through the center of the sign.
In Africa, the Adinkra symbols of Ghana include a motif that superficially resembles the Indus RAYED CIRCLE (Willis 1998: 154).  Here, the circle contains a diamond, and there are four oval rays.  The sign is called sunsum, “soul,” conveying concepts of spirituality and purity.  Elsewhere in Africa, rayed circles appear among the symbols engraved in cemeteries at Namoratunga, Kenya (Le Quellec 2004: 131).  Some of these continue in use among local people as cattle brands, indicating clan ownership.  I find three circles with rays in this group, one with two descending prongs, one with three (identical to the Egyptian glyph), and the last one with six all around.  None has just four.  The story is much the same across the continent.  Circular motifs adorned with varying types, numbers, and positions of rays are widespread, but it is most difficult to find one exactly like the Indus RAYED CIRCLE. 
Navaho sky motifs from center of sand painting: blue sun, white moon,
yellow and black winds.  Each is circular, with a feather above, horns on each
side, and "rainbows" beneath (Newcomb and Reichard 1975: Plate II).

In North America, parallels are more frequent.  In their corpus of engraved motifs, Heizer and Baumhoff note 100 occurrences of rayed circles (referred to as “sun discs”) from Nevada, 15 from eastern California (1984: 77, 304).  Examples with four diagonal rays such as the Indus sign possesses are relatively infrequent, but do occur (e.g., 1984: 167, fig. 104b; p. 192, fig. 129h; p. 355, fig. F-16e).  The sand paintings of the Navaho contain a number of motifs characterized by quadrilateral symmetry.  These typically show a central circle with some element attached at top, bottom, and right and left sides, the same arrangement as proto-cuneiform EZEN.  In one sand painting, for example, the sun is represented as such a circle with four rays above, four below, and four at each side (Newcomb and Reichard 1975: Pl. II).  Such a motif colored differently is the moon, and others the winds.  Instead of four straight lines, sometimes the “rays” are zigzags, which can represent rain.  Elsewhere, a central circle with four triangles attached, each apex toward the center, represents a water vessel from which four plants grow: corn, squash, bean, and tobacco.  Quadrilateral symmetry appears in all of these and is generally a feature of this genre.

Hohokam anthropomorphic figures, that above somewhat resembling the
"bedside rug" type with circular center and limbs plus head as rays.  This
scene may depict a birth (Wallace 1991: 65).
In Texas, some motifs closely resemble the Navaho astral bodies, sun and moon, as just described.  These Texan motifs often appear alongside anthropomorphic figures which are identified by various authors as shamans.  The “rayed circles” are then identified as shields held by the shamans.  Sometimes the “rays” extending from these “shields” are in the top-bottom and right-left positions, as in the Navaho sand paintings (e.g., Newcomb and Kirkland 1997: 39, Pl. 9, no. 1; p. 116, Pl. 74; p. 147, Pl. 98, no. 3).  At other times, the motif has diagonal “rays,” as does the Indus sign (e.g., 1997: 87, Pl. 48, no. 5).
Another type of motif, which may or may not be related, is essentially pictorial.  The central circle represents the body of a human or animal, with two legs descending and two arms plus the head protruding above.  Such a motif occurs in Africa, where it probably represents a lizard (Le Quellec 2004: 61, fig. 6, on the overhang of Sango at Sanga, Mali).  This author refers to the motif as the “bedside rug type” of zoomorph (in contrast to the silhouette form of figure, which typically depicts the animal from the side).  In the American Southwest, the Hohokam engraved a similar “bedside rug” figure that most likely represents a human (Wallace 1991: 65).  In Australia, such a motif may depict a turtle (Flood 1997: 107, at Yunta Springs).

Indus seal C-1 (detail) with inscription: FOUR POSTS / EGG ON NEST (?) / FAT LEG LAMBDA /
WITH SLASH / OVERLAPPING CIRCLES / POST (?).  Signs are difficult to make out on original.
I have cleaned up some of the details but interpretation of EGG ON NEST is open to question.
In contrast to the many analogs to VI66, Indus sign VI67 has almost none.  It is a loop resembling a finless fish, but with its tail fins upward.  Two prongs descend from the base of this loop and there is a short stroke attached to one of the “tail fins.”  There are actually several signs like this, each based on this type of loop, the different signs distinguished by the number of prongs below (0-4) plus the number of additional strokes added to one or another “tail fin” (1-3).  I have tentatively assigned them all the arbitrary name, EGG ON NEST, with the number of prongs beneath indicated in parentheses.  Hence, sign VI66 is EGG ON NEST (2).  This particular version occurs elsewhere only as W184.  Wells identifies it as a singleton from Chanhujo daro (C-1).
We can compare it to a different variant of the Old Chinese character cited previously, dai3.  This character resembles the letter “A” with a rounded top, above which rises an attached vertical and, to this, a still shorter horizontal stroke.  Some of the “shield” symbols of Nevada, in the American Southwest, are reminiscent of the Indus sign also.  But it require considerable imagination to see either of these parallels.  It may be justifiable to conclude, then, that the EGG ON NEST form is unique to the Indus script.
On the other hand, close examination of the single seal on which the Indus VI67 occurs gives reason to doubt the validity of this sign.  I tend to think that at least this version of this peculiar motif is actually a variant of the BIRD.  Some of the apparent birds depicted in the Indus script have legs toward the side, some have a stroke or two at the base to indicate a tail, and one has a stroke on the head, representing a feathery crest.  Such an analysis would explain the EGG ON NEST forms that stand on three prongs (two strokes for legs and one for a tail), as well as those with four prongs (two legs again, but with two strokes for a tail).  Sign VI67 lacks a tail, perhaps.  However, this analysis does not account for the elements at the top of the loop in most EGG ON NEST forms.  On this point, evidence from seal C-1 is equivocal about VI67, because the top is unclear.  But there are bits that suggest a bird’s head and not simply prongs.

Seal M-1228 with inscription: LOOP WITH EF PRONGS (?) / FAT LEG LAMBDA / SINGLE QUOTE.
Original is heavily scratched and interpretation is open to question.  I have highlighted the
elements I think comprise real signs, leaving others faint but still visible.
The next sign, LOOP WITH EF PRONGS, is enumerated VI68.  I do not think Wells correctly renders this and neither Fairservis nor Koskenniemi and Parpola include it.  It appears on a single seal which is quite scratched (M-1228).  It is my opinion that Wells has misread some of the scratches as part of the sign, which is simply the LOOP (my II10 and his W131), but upside-down (and note that there is an identical loop glyph in Egyptian, one variant with prongs above, another with prongs below).

Seal H-148 with inscription: FISH UNDER CHEVRON / WHISKERED FISH / SPEAR.
The following sign appears as KP62(a), W113, and Fs Q-5.  In my list it is VI69, the WHISKERED FISH.  This is one of the more common signs.  Wells notes it occurring 179 times, with 85 of these from Mohenjo daro, 78 from Harappa, six from Lothal, and two from Kalibangan (which seems to leave some unaccounted for).  This is one of the rare symbols that provides sufficient data for statistical analysis.
As such, Korvink so analyzes it as one of the five most frequent fish-like symbols (2007: 37).  They typically occur in the medial section rather than either the prefix or the terminal sections.  When there is more than type of “fish,” these generally occur in a standard sequence: (1) FISH UNDER CHEVRON, (2) FISH, (3) WHISKERED FISH, (4) DOT IN FISH, (5) SLASH IN FISH (the last combined in this analysis with BELTED FISH as variants of one sign).  No inscription has all of these, though up to three occur together.  In addition, the order violates this “rule” in more than a few cases (eight from Harappa; six from Mohenjo daro; one from Lothal).  Thus, the standard sequence posited by Korvink was apparently optional rather than required.
When it comes to meaning, Fairservis supposes the WHISKERED FISH to be a variant of the basic FISH.  He designates the latter as L-3, identifying it as a loop of thread, affixed by P-11, BI-QUOTES (a suffix).  He sees the FISH, in turn, as affixed by cattle horns, a feature also seen on the HORNED MAN (his A-4, which we have yet to discuss).  The definition Fairservis gives for this combination of three elements is “physician; madness, rage; be agitated; to tame,” and the sign represents either a religious functionary (a shaman or priest) or a tamer of cattle.  That is an astonishing collection of possibilities, to my way of thinking, and not convincing.
This proposal could not be any further from that put forth by Parpola (1994: 181-183 and 275-277).  He sees the various types of “fish” as depicting fishes.  Then, since the word for “fish” is homonymous with that for “star” in various Dravidian languages, he considers the FISH to mean “star” most of the time.  According to this interpretation, the fish-like signs demonstrate use of the rebus principle as a means for conveying phonetic information.  The principle of the rebus typically occurs when a pictorial symbol represents, not only what it depicts, but also a word or concept that is difficult to depict but sounds like it in the language of the symbol users.  For example, a rebus in English might use a drawing of an eye not only to mean “eye” but also “I,” a pronoun that sounds the same but whose meaning is hard to convey pictorially.
It seems to me that Parpola’s basic proposal requires us to assume that the Harappans never developed a symbol to actually represent a star.  However, the Harappans’ neighbors had no trouble doing so.  In what is now Iraq, the Sumerians and Babylonian had a star symbol, an “asterisk” with eight points.  The Egyptians had a glyph for a star as well, this one with five points. Neither writing system originally used the rebus for this concept.  There is an Old Chinese star too, although it is more complex.  Since each of these early writing systems came up with a way of writing “star” pictorially, it is difficult to believe that the Harappans should not have done the same, had they wished to symbolize a star.
Further, Parpola’s hypothesis requires that we not interpret any of the existing Indus symbols as a star.  But I can think of a  signs that might be such a symbol.  There is the five-pointed pentagram that looks like the modern Western star, my sign V20, STAR (a rare sign).  A second possibility is the six-pointed asterisk, my III19, ASTERISK (also rare).  A third possibility is the CARTWHEEL, my V43.  Unlike the first two signs, this one is frequent in inscriptions, occurring 125 times according to Wells.  This symbol’s use is widespread as well, with examples from Mohenjo daro, Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan, Rangpur, Surkotada, and Nausharo.  I do not believe that we can be sure this sign is not a star.  Hence, Parpola’s most basic proposal remains unconvincing.
Be that as it may, it is interesting to examine fish-like symbols elsewhere.  Both proto-cuneiform (|SUKUD + SUKUD|) and proto-Elamite include examples (M281 and M282).  However, while both of these have “fins” on the sides and at the “tail,” neither has “whiskers.”  Egyptian hieroglyphs present almost the same pattern.  There are several fish glyphs representing different species, but none has whiskers.  The scarab or dung beetle is depicted from above and, in this view, has a pair of legs bent around the front end (L1).  These might be considered roughly equivalent to “whiskers.”  But that is stretching things.  Altogether, the glyph and the sign are not much alike.
The rock art of the American Southwest generally lacks depictions of fish, hardly surprising for this arid region.  Still, one engraving resembles a crab, a wide oval with two thick lines curving upward and four bending downward (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 355, fig. F-28a).  All of these protrude from the sides of the oval.  Tall ovals with descending side prongs are certainly anthropomorphic, some apparently horned (1984: 132, fig. 69c; p. 138, fig. 75b and d).

Indus seal M-129 with inscription: SQUARE AY / POTTED ONE / FISH UNDER CHEVRON/
WHISKERED FISH / BELTED FISH / SPEAR.  Note three different "fishes" occur together,
an indication that each conveys a distinct concept.
The next sign is FISH UNDER CHEVRON, VI70, also known as KP60, W114, and Fs Q-6.  Fairservis sees this as a ligature of the LOOP + BI-QUOTES plus a CHEVRON affix, somehow adding them up to “head or high chief.”  Parpola sees this as representing “black star” in Proto-Dravidian.  This expression refers to the planet Saturn in the modern language of Tamil.  Parpola projects the same expression for the same referent back in time to the ancestral language, a somewhat risky maneuver linguistically (2004: 275).  Wells does not attempt to define the sign, but notes 127 occurrences.  Of these, 84 are from Mohenjo daro, 34 from Harappa, five from Lothal, two from Chanhujo daro, and one from Lohumjo daro.
I see nothing comparable to this sign elsewhere.  In proto-cuneiform, one loop-shaped sign appears alongside an element resembling the letter “A” with a curved top.  In the broadest sense, this is similar to FISH UNDER CHEVRON, in that two otherwise independent elements occur together, and one is fish-like.  This is GIR2~b, which eventually had a variety of meanings: “cow or mare of intermediate age; sow; a fish, possibly a carangid.”  However, even in proto-cuneiform, the fish-like portion appears in other variants of GIR2 without the accompanying element.  In other words, the fishy part seems to mean “fish; female domestic animal” with or without the “affix.”  This does not seem to be the case in the Indus script, since two or more FISH signs occur together in the same inscription (i.e., an indication of differing concepts being attached to their use).

The signs on this seal (M-315) are clear, unlike those in which the DOUBLY FINNED FISH
supposedly appear.
The following sign, VI71, is the DOUBLY FINNED FISH.  As this name implies, there are two strokes on each side of the “fish” rather than just one.  It also appears as KP64 and W127, a rare sign that occurs twice according to Wells.  Due to the poor condition of the seal from Mohenjo daro, it is difficult to be certain of the reading, but this one does not appear to have doubled side fins (M-1027).  What Wells takes to be the beginning of a second fin on the preserved right side is only part of a crack, while the left side is not preserved.  The second occurrence, on a pot shard from Kalibangan (K-95), is broken at crucial points.  I believe it is a caged item.  That is, a “stacked two” occurs on the left, followed by DOUBLY FINNED FISH plus three short verticals, with another “stacked two” on the right.  Other caged motifs – whether composed of one or two signs” – appear in other lists as signs in their right, not sequences.  Thus, I would characterize this as CAGED DOUBLY FINNED FISH & THREE QUOTES, a 13-stroke sign.
This time, proto-cuneiform provides a reasonably good parallel with SUKUD@g~a.  This is somewhat fish-like and has three “fins” on each side.  It came to mean “height, depth,” a meaning that suggests it had nothing to do with fishes.  Proto-Elamite also includes a fish-like sign with doubled “fins” on the sides (M281~a).  This bears a small circular impression in the center, reminiscent of an eye.  Ovals with three prongs protruding from each side are counted among the 15 “sun discs” in the American Southwest (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 376, fig. F-37e).  At least some of these may represent insects (e.g., 1984: 304, fig. St-1 from Lagomarsino).
Another fish-like Indus sign is FISH BETWEEN POSTS, VI72.  Only Wells lists this one (W129).  He indicates only two of these, one from Mohenjo daro, the other from Harappa.  I see another from Harappa and one from Kot Diji as well, bringing the total to four (M-877, H-442 plus H-443 and Kd-7).

Seal H-443 with inscription: FISH BETWEEN POSTS / (?).  Final sign may be
SQUIRREL or it may be nothing but scratches.
In proto-cuneiform, the fish, KU6, appears inside a circle, which is LAGAB, a composite sign noted as |LAGAB~a x KU6~a|.  The later meanings of these individual elements include “stone” and “fish.”  Perhaps together they indicate a fish carved of stone (or a cow carved from wood)?  The only other example of a possible “enclosed fish” symbol occurs in Nevada (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 147, fig. 84b).  In this case, one of the fish-like horned humans is enclosed in an irregular oval along with a zigzag and a diagonal stroke.  Admittedly, this is not much of a parallel.
The last of this type is FISH BETWEEN PARENTHESES, VI73.  Like the previous sign, it occurs elsewhere only in Wells, where it is W130.  Wells sees two, one from Mohenjo daro and one from Lothal.  In my own database, I find a “fish” bracketed by parentheses from the first city, but there is also an “ear” element attached.  As an eight-stroke sign, this should not be included here.  Wells cites L-82 for the second instance, on which only a FISH and BACK CEE are actually visible (i.e., no CEE at the beginning to create full parentheses).  Since the CEE occurs both alone and along with another (or a BACK CEE), I think we cannot assume there was originally another element, now missing.  A dim and heavily abraded sign on C-6 from Chanhujo daro may be the single actual occurrence VI73.  Alternatively, this may be another instance with an “ear.”

Seal L-82 with inscription: FISH / BACK CEE / BI-QUOTES // DOT IN FISH / CIRCLED TRI-FORK.
Wells sees CEE at far left; I do not.
In proto-cuneiform, one sign is sometimes bracketed by another, as in |NINDA2 x HI|.  Here, a diamond lies between two bent lines.  The bracketing element is NINDA2, whose later meanings include “bushel measuring vessel.”  The diamond is HI, which came to mean “to mix; mixed, averaged.”  Together, they may represent a vessel with mixed contents.

Wallace, Henry. 1991. “Pictures in the Desert” in The Hohokam: Ancient People of the Desert, David Grant Noble, ed. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research. Pp. 62-73.


  1. In proto-cuneiform, the fish, KU6, appears inside a circle, which is LAGAB, a composite sign noted as |LAGAB~a x KU6~a|. The later meanings of these individual elements include “stone” and “fish.”

    This means: fish 'aya' meaning 'metal' + stone (ore). that is, 'metal ore'. Maybe, unsmelted, meteorite stone.

  2. Hi

    the Indus script had certainly reached the syllabic stage and longer texts certainly agreed .read my paper Sujay