|Seal M-74 with inscription: LOOP ARMED MAN HOLDING SLASH / |
CUPPED TRIANGULAR SPOON /BATTERY / STRIPED MALLET.
In a previous post, I discussed an Indus sign I termed CUPPED SPOON, enumerated V36. A possible variant of it is the CUPPED TRIANGULAR SPOON (VI55). This is another “U” shape, modified this time by the insertion of a short post in its midst, to the end of which is appended a small triangle. This sign appears elsewhere only as W312, presumably because Fairservis and the team of Koskenniemi and Parpola considered it a variant of the CUPPED SPOON (in which the “spoon” has a rounded end).
|Seal detail from M-662 with inscription: CARTWHEEL / SINGLE QUOTE /|
CUPPED (BISECTED) TRIANGULAR SPOON / QUAD-FORK.
Wells cites three occurrences of VI55, all from Mohenjo daro (M-74, M-662, and M-1200). He gives the number of variants as only one but shows two, the CUP in “a” being wider, in “b” thinner. As is often the case, my findings differ a little. The triangular element differs in each occurrence of this sign, so, as there are three occurrences, there are also three variants. The first, M-74, is simply triangular. The second, M-662, is bisected vertically. Since one can consider the bisecting line to be an extension of the “handle” of the “spoon,” this graphical difference does not change the number of strokes. The triangle in the third, though, contains two horizontal stripes, making this an eight-stroke sign (M-662). There may even be a fourth instance on M-1203, where the SPOON appears to be a cross between the triangular type and the circular type. This one also bears two horizontal stripes. A fifth possibility is M-1359, in which the “bowl” of the SPOON is difficult to discern, but may be triangular again.
|Broken seal M-1200 with inscription: HAIRY HUNCHBACK / CUPPED (STRIPED) TRIANGULAR SPOON/|
PRAWN / POT.
Fairservis identifies the CUPPED SPOON (V36) with a round “bowl” as representing a mortar and pestle. Presumably he would see the triangular VI55 as representing the same objects. As I noted in an earlier post, he suggests his “mortar and pestle” symbol was used for the numeral “100,” since the words “to grind” and “hundred” are homonyms (sound the same) in some Dravidian languages. While he does not specifically mention this triangular “variant,” he does group the round version with the simpler CUPPED POST (III24).
There are a number of vaguely similar signs in other scripts, though none is identical. In Luwian hieroglyphs, two ideograms come to mind. The first is a “U” shape with something like a shepherd’s crook inside. Here, the internal element touches the base of the “container,” which is not the case with the Indus sign. The Luwian glyph means OCCIDENS or “west.” The other Luwian analog is less similar, a square-based “U” or incomplete rectangle, bisected by a vertical post. This glyph is DOMINUS, “lord.” Combining the square-based “U” of the second of these glyphs with the internal “shepherd’s crook” of the first yields the syllabic glyph ia.
Proto-cuneiform includes a number of signs that are more or less “U” shaped, but they all have another stroke joining the “tops” (rotated to a horizontal position). Thus, all are better described as half circles, among them DU6 (“mound”), GA (“milk”), GAR (“storeroom; to store”), NA (“human”), SUR (“chaff”), and SZA3~b (“heart, womb, midst”). Many of these have internal marks of one kind or another, but there are no elements quite like either the rounded or the triangular SPOON.
There are two signs in proto-Elamite that contain spoon-like elements, both of which more closely resemble the Indus signs V36 and VI55 than any of those cited above. In one Iranian sign, an angular fish-like motif contains a spoon-like element with the round portion toward the “tail” (M268~b). This sign might possibly represent a vessel with its contents, since some fish-like symbols derive from proto-cuneiform models signifying beer. The other proto-Elamite sign is an even better parallel to the Indus CUPPED SPOON (M248~a). This symbol begins with a “V” shape at the base, a shape somewhat indented near the top. The “spoon” motif inside is positioned toward the “V” end. Unfortunately, the meaning is unknown.
Old Chinese provides another distantly similar design in the character kuai4, “a clod, a shovelful of earth; there is a hole, where the earth was removed; a furrow, a trench...boundary, limit” (Wieger 1967: 105). This character is “U” shaped as is the Indus sign, this portion representing the hole in the earth. This contains another character inside, which conveys the meaning “earth” when by itself. However, the inner element is a cross on a horizontal base, quite unlike the Indus SPOON.
The rock art of Nevada provides a motif resembling an upside-down version of the Indus CUPPED SPOON. In one instance, this combination motif is quite similar to the “U” shaped V36, while a second instance has the “spoon” nearly enclosed in a circle (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 143, fig. 80b and 80d).
|Seal M-1267 with inscription: VEE IN DIAMOND (partially reconstructed) / BI-QUOTES //|
HUNCHBACK / VI56 / POT / SINGLE QUOTE / BI-RAKE (original is broken upper right).
The next Indus sign to consider is VI56, CHEVRON IN EL TOPPED POT, which appears elsewhere only as W317. Wells gives the frequency as two, one from Mohenjo daro and one from Lothal. In my estimation, Wells’ sign is actually two different ones. The first one he cites, M-1267, is a FLANGE TOPPED POT (VI54), with both “flanges” inside. The second, L-36, contains a chevron, as cited, but lacks any additional element at the top. At least, this is how I see them. The second of Wells’ examples appears in my database as a CUPPED CHEVRON that stands in initial position in the prefix, over the horn of the unicorn bull. It may be compared to another initial sign, this one on a bas-relief tablet (H-172). The latter is clearly a CUPPED CHEVRON. I have included Wells’ sign with a name and enumeration in order to make my listing complete, in case my judgment is faulty.
|Seal detail from M-852 with inscription: RAYED DIAMOND / THREE POSTS /|
CUP ON FOUR PRONGS / RAYED CIRCLE / MALLET / BACK DEE-SLASH.
The following sign is CUP ON FOUR PRONGS (or CUP ON PRONGS with the number indicated afterward in parentheses). As the fifty-seventh of the six-stroke signs, I assign it the numerical designation VI57. It is also known as KP313(a) and W331 but does not appear in Fairservis. Wells considers it a singleton, appearing only at Mohenjo daro (M-852). I see it once more (M-1091). In form, it is another “U” shape, this one resting on four strokes of varying angles, resembling a cooking vessel on sticks in a fireplace.
|Two variants of Old Chinese bu2, "not,"|
as found on oracle bones.
With this possible interpretation in mind, I point out the Old Chinese character min3, “a vessel, porringer, plate” (Wieger 1967: 322). This character, now the 108th radical, also has a “U” shaped element at the top, with four strokes beneath it. In addition, there is a horizontal stroke at the base, upon which the two central strokes rest. However, such an interpretation of the Indus sign is not the only possibility, as we can also compare the Old Chinese form of bu2, which now means “not” and supposedly began as a representation of a bird flying upward (1967: 302).
In addition, the Egyptian hieroglyph representing a collar of beads provides a possible analog (S12). The glyph is an ideograph or determinative in nbw, “gold.” However, while there is a “U” shaped element in this glyph, with multiple prongs protruding at the bottom – more than in the Indus sign – there is also a horizontal line across the top, as well as loops on either side. Thus, while the glyph may suggest yet another possible interpretation for the Indus sign, the latter is considerably less detailed (if it is also a collar or necklace). Also, the wide, pointed oval that represents the mouth appears in two glyphs used to indicate fractional amounts. The mouth with two vertical strokes below is the ideograph for “two thirds.” The same mouth with three strokes below means “three fourths.” Since the Indus “U” occurs on three prongs (V37), on four (VI57), and on five (VII43), one might postulate that these represent quantities or measures as well.
In proto-cuneiform, a sign with a “C” shape has three prongs arising from its left side (ZATU855). This might be viewed as a horizontally positioned variation on whatever theme the “C” alone represents (if anything). But its meaning is unknown.
In the rock art of North America, “U” shapes commonly appear. But they generally contain either other “U” shapes or a simple post. I see only one reasonably close parallel to the Indus VI57 in Texas (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 154, Pl. 106, no. 2).
|Seal detail from H-449 with inscription: CUPPED ONE ON THREE PRONGS / |
TRI-FORK / POTTED ONE / WHISKERED FISH / MALLET / TRI-FORK / POT.
The fourth sign discussed here is CUPPED ONE ON THREE PRONGS (VI58). As is often the case, it appears only in Wells’ list as W329, noted to be a singleton found only at Harappa (H-449). Its form is the same as the CUP ON TRIPLE PRONGS (V37) except that there is a “quote” mark inside. Both the simple “U” shape on three prongs and this one have a longer central “post” at the bottom, centered beneath the “U.” While V37 reminds me of a flower on a stem with two leaves, the addition of the “quote” in VI58 recalls a motif painted on pot shards from Rahman dheri (Rhd-240 through Rhd-247). In these examples, the central “post” is the head of a bovine, with the “cup” being the two curved horns. The shorter strokes descending from the CUP at angles are now the animal’s two ears. In some of these motifs, there is an additional element above the head and between the horns, paralleling the “quote” in the sign. Most of the black and white photos of these painted pots are difficult to make out, but two appear in color at the back of Volume 2 of the Corpus (Rhd-241 and Rhd-246).
Two Egyptian hieroglyphs present an excellent parallel for this bovine interpretation of the Indus sign (F14 and F15). The first hieroglyph represents the horns of an ox with another glyph between them (M4). The combination means wpt-rnpt, “New Year’s day.” In the second glyph, the same two elements occur, but the circular glyph representing the sun stands between the horns and the rnpt staff. This glyph has the same meaning as the first. In neither case is there anything comparable to the prongs upon which the Indus CUP rests.
Old Chinese contains a variation on the vessel character, cited above, providing a different possible interpretation of the Indus sign. The same vessel with a short horizontal stroke inside is xue3, “a vase full of blood,” now the 143rd radical (Wieger 1967: 322). There is another possibility in this script as well. A “U” shape with a horizontal line across the top represents the mouth in Old Chinese, as noted in connection with the Indus CUP. When there are with two strokes beneath the mouth, the character becomes zhi3, “but, however,” which Wieger imaginatively explains as a mouth with two puffs of breath issuing from it (1967: 80).
|Tablet H-798A with inscription: DOUBLE CIRCLED DOTS / POT HATTED LOOP ARMED MAN.|
The final Indus sign for this discussion appears only in Wells as W364. I call it DOUBLE CIRCLED DOTS (VI59). Koskenniemi and Parpola include the CIRCLED DOT in their list and, no doubt, considered occurrences of doubling as two instances of the one sign. Fairservis surely viewed it the same way. These scholars may be correct in their interpretation. However, it is worth noting that, while some signs are doubled relatively often, others never are. Even some of the very common signs, such as the POT, never occur in pairs. Thus, it is also possible that Wells is correct. Further study is needed on this point.
|Tablet H-854C with possible inscription: DOUBLE CIRCLED DOTS (variant "B").|
In any case, Wells cites only three occurrences of this doubled sign and one variant. He sees this as solely a phenomenon of Mohenjo daro (M-853, M-926, M-953). I see a good many more, 16 in all, with one additional instance from Mohenjo daro (M-1429) and 11 from Harappa. I find two variants, my “A” being the pointed oval type with a “quote” inside that Wells observes, my “B” being a very round motif with a circular mark or hole in the middle. Of these the four occurrences from Mohenjo daro are “A” variants, a form I also see on H-798A. The circular variant “B” occurs without any other signs accompanying it on 10 tablets from Harappa: H-295B, H-359C, H-360C, H-362C, H-364B, H-367C, H-854C, H-856A & B, H-981C, and H-988C. A single occurrence from Rupar may be an additional example (Rpr-1B), bringing the total to 17. It may be that Wells does not consider the round versions to be true signs since they appear unaccompanied by other clear signs. But even if these are deleted, there are five clear occurrences of the “A” variant.
As for the issue of whether doubling is significant, we may consider Old Chinese. A single “mouth” character, kou3, means just that, but doubling of this sign signifies a completely different character, xuan1, “clamor” (Wieger 1965: 180). A similar principle is at work with the dotted circle (or a circle with a line inside) meaning “sun.” Tripling this element creates the character jing1, “luster, brightness” (1965: 312). Two such dotted circles appear in another character, one placed over the other, joined by a short vertical stroke, and with a similar stroke above and below. This is xuan2, “to put...the thread in the dye; dyed thread; green color (later on, the black one...)” (1965: 228). This character is now the 96th radical.
Proto-cuneiform provides another example of significant doubling with NUNUZ~c, “egg; offspring; female; woman.” In form, this sign is comprised of two diamonds, each with an internal vertical stroke near the base, the one diamond stacked above the other. Variants include two similar diamonds without internal marks, two diamonds “skewered” by a long vertical, circles attached in the same manner as in the Old Chinese “dyed thread,” and, finally, two round impressions, each with a short stroke rising from it. The circular impressions may be positioned either vertically (i.e., one over the other) or horizontally (one beside the other). In proto-Elamite, too, there is a sign made up of two joined diamonds, each with an internal line (M309~b). In this case, the diamonds are aligned horizontally row and the internal strokes are also horizontal.
Among the African symbols used on Ghanaian Adinkra cloth, one is made up of two tall ovals, side by side, touching each other. This is given the epithet Nyame biribi wo soro (Willis 1998: 156). The literal translation of this is “God, there is something in the heavens!” It symbolizes hope and inspiration, which come from above. In this genre, the single element does not occur, only this doubled form.
Among the motifs found in rock art, a circled dot is quite frequent. When two or more such motifs appear, it is a matter of judgmental whether multiplication of the motif is itself meaningful. Indeed, all too often, it is not even clear whether both (or additional) repeated motifs were made at the same time by the same “artist.” Occurrences of the circled dot in Nevada total 60, only some of these including doubling (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: p. 104, fig. 41j; and p. 141, fig. 78c). Such a motif occurs in Texas as well (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 101, Pl. 57 and Pl. 58). Engravings of many circled dots appear in Australia at Wharton Hill, Olary region, at Frank Creek, Mount Isa, Queensland, and at Trial Harbour, Tasmania (Flood 1997: 185, 197, 238). In each of these instances there are many more than just two. Unfortunately, the meanings are unknown.
Fairservis, Walter. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and its Writing. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Flood, Josephine. 1997. Rock Art of the Dreamtime: Images of Ancient Australia. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
Gardiner, Sir Alan. 1976. Egyptian Grammar. Oxford: Griffith Institute and Ashmolean Museum.
Heizer, Robert and Martin Baumhoff. 1984/1962. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Koskenniemi, Kimmo and Asko Parpola. 1982. A Concordance to the Texts in the Indus Script. Department of Asian & African Studies, University of Helsinki.
Newcomb, Jr., W.W. and R. Kirkland. 1996/1967. The Rock Art of Texas Indians. Austin: University of Texas.
Wells, Bryan. 1998. An Introduction to Indus Writing: A Thesis. The University of Calgary. www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp03/MQ31309.pdf
Wieger, Dr. L. 1965. Chinese Characters. New York: Dover (originally published 1915).
Willis, W. Bruce. 1998. The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on The Language of Adinkra. Washington, D.C.: The Pyramid Complex.
Additional information and pictures of rock art available at: