Thursday, January 20, 2011

Symbols out of Circles

Today’s first Indus symbol is similar to two earlier ones, previously discussed.  Sign V50 which I term the BARBELL includes two circles joined by a horizontal line.  Sign V48 which I term POST BETWEEN CIRCLES includes the same two circles, this time with a vertical line between them.  Today, we come to BARBELL ON POST, VI60, which combines both of these five-stroke symbols.  Once again, there are two circles.  A short horizontal line joins them and, joined two the horizontal and descending from it, a vertical line stands between them.  Elsewhere, this is KP346, W352, and Fs K-10. 
Seal M-266 with inscription: LAMBDA / BARBELL ON POST /

Fairservis thinks the sign represents weighing scales, somehow deriving from this the meaning “worthy.”  The sign reminds me of a cartoon face, with eyeglasses (the BARBELL) over a nose (POST).  But it is hardly likely that the Harappans were predicting eyeglasses resting on long, skinny noses when they used this sign!  Nor is it any more likely that they had real barbells.  Reiterating a point I made initially, my use of the term BARBELL does not indicate my view of the sign’s meaning.  It is only a reference tool, to be used in conjunction with or in place of the numerical designation I assign.  It is my view that all other authors’ assigned meanings should be taken as equally valid references, but not as indicators of real meaning.  That is, I view all claims of decipherment with skepticism.
Wells cites eight occurrences, five from Mohenjo daro, three from Harappa.  I tend to think there are at least twice as many, perhaps eighteen altogether.  The larger number is based on the assumption that this sign is a variant of the five stroke POST BETWEEN CIRCLES (V48).  Wells divides the two, designating my V48 (his W359) the “b” variant of one form of my VI60 alongside an “a” variant that seems to be BARBELL SKEWERED BY POST.  That is, he shows “a” to have a central post passing through the horizontal.  Total occurrences of W359 are four, according to Wells, three from Mohenjo daro and one from Chanhujo-daro. 
As I see it, there is only one certain example of Wells’ “b” and that is C-20 from Chanhujo daro.  That is the singleton that I would designate POST BETWEEN CIRCLES.  All the other examples look like W352 to me, i.e., the BARBELL ON POST.  Nine are from Mohenjo daro (M-16, M-265, M-326B [twice], M-699, M-835, M-932, M-947, M-1180, and M-1202C).  Seven come from Harappa (H219, H-301, H-565, H-801, H-905, H-971, and H-988).  It is possible that my VI60 also occurs on a seal impression that is very hard to make out: M-1376.  There appear to be two circles to the right of a possible WINGED MAN.  These apparent circles are about half the height of the “man” and thus might be part of a BARBELL ON POST.  When all of these possibilities are added together, the total occurrences rise to 17.  If we add one more for the second appearance of the sign on M-326B, that brings the total to 18.  Wells’ total is a conservative count and mine extremely liberal, with the true count perhaps somewhere in between.
I find very few parallels for this sign outside the Indus Valley, despite its simplicity.  Two circles joined by a line – the “barbell” form – appears often enough.  Other groupings of circles and lines in similar arrangements are also reasonably frequent.  But the only example that is almost the same comes from the pre-columbian rock art of Nevada (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 177, fig. 114i).  Here, the symbol is made up of two circles joined together, that is, touching.  An angled line descends from the midpoint, resembling a backslash.  However, this may be more of an accident than a true symbol.  Strings of two or more circles connected by lines appear 135 times (1984: 77, with 130 “hollow” examples and 5 in which the circles are filled).  There are also 122 chains of circles, or series of two or more circles touching each other.  But the authors do not cite anything comparable to the BARBELL ON POST in their list of motifs.  Nor do I see any other possible examples.  Thus, the “backslash” may have been intended as a distinct symbol from the joined circles, perhaps even made at a different time. 
Seal M-324A with inscription: STACKED TRIPLE CIRCLES / POT.
(The same inscription appears on the reverse, over a different icon.)

The next symbol to consider is VI61, STACKED TRIPLE CIRCLES, also known as KP353(a), W353, and Fs L-10.  Fairservis sees these circles as beads, which for reasons best known to him yields the meanings “chief, important, great.”  Wells notes seven occurrences, five of them from Mohenjo daro, one from Harappa, and one from Khirsara.
In some hieroglyphic Egyptian texts, a small circle representing a grain of grain is repeated three times (N33).  This sequence appears in a horizontal row in some places, in a vertical column in others.  The triply repeated circles usually function as the determinative in words for metals, such as in nbw, “gold.”  Perhaps because the name of this metal ends with the same sound as that in the plural ending, the triple circles occasionally appear in other words to signal the plural itself. 
Based on this parallel, as a first guess for the meaning of the Indus STACKED TRIPLE CIRCLES, one might hypothesize a plural indicator.  Such an interpretation actually seems implausible for a rare symbol that can be found in the prefix (or header), the medial segment before a terminal, and in final position where no terminal is present (following Korvink’s structural analysis). 
Proto-cuneiform provides another analogy in the sign NUNUZ~a2.  This sign includes three round impressions made with the end of the stylus, each of these impressions bisected by a wedge-shaped impression.  The wedge shape was made either with the opposite end of the stylus or with a different stylus.  In any case, the later meaning of this sign is “eggs; offspring; female, woman.”  Assuming that the first of these is the original, one might then hypothesize that the Indus VI61 also means “eggs.”  However, most of the earliest texts in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite are economic in nature, as far as can be determined.  They contain various types of numerals, a relatively small core of signs indicating commodities, and many rare signs that probably indicate individuals and/or institutions.  The apparent numerals in the Indus script are not of the same nature, and the small core of frequent signs probably do not signify commodities.  So, one would not really expect to find references to eggs on Indus seals.
Old Chinese makes use of stacked circles, but typically two rather than three.  Two circles with a short vertical at the top of each are stacked vertically in mi4, “a strong thread” (Wieger 1967: 230).  A short trident element descends from the base of the lower circle in the old form of this character.  When two of these doubled circles-plus-trident characters occur side by side, they form another character, si1, “the silk-threads...thread, link, intricacy” (1984: 231).  The meaning of these two characters recalls Fairservis’ suggestion that three stacked circles in the Indus script represent beads.
In the rock art of North America, chains of circles appear frequently.  Such chains containing two, three, or more circles occur 122 times in the corpus of engravings from Nevada (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 77).  Examples appear in virtually every part of that state (e.g., 1984: 97, fig. 34b; p. 100, fig. 37c; and p. 115, fig. 52a).  In two of these instances, there are additional prongs attached to one or the other end of the chain, a feature that occurs in the next Indus sign.  While no specific meaning is known for this cultural area, the circles are clearly not part of a writing system, so they cannot be plural indicators as in Egyptian.  Nor is it likely that there is any one to one matching between symbol and referent, as in Chinese and perhaps also in proto-cuneiform.  If the Indus “script” is not really a writing system, as some scholars have suggested, then each sign may originally have borne a variety of meanings not closely related to individual words of any language.  We will discuss this possibility in a later post, after discussing each individual sign.

Tablet M-446 with inscription: BIRD (?) AND FISH BETWEEN PARENTHESES.
(Note the suggestion of legs, highlighted in pale color, on the left of "Footed Figure Eight")
Two stacked circles with two short prongs descending from the lower one comprise FOOTED FIGURE EIGHT (VI62).  This odd symbol occurs only as W370 elsewhere, where it is noted as a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-446).  On this broken tablet, the sign is to the left of the FISH and both are bracketed by a single pair of parentheses.  Usually, Wells classifies an item plus its bracketing elements together as a single sign, also typical of the KP list.  For example, Koskenniemi and Parpola list 10 signs involving bracketing that include parentheses of various types: HORNED MAN BETWEEN CEES (KP10b), FISH BETWEEN PARENTHESES WITH EAR (KP53), FISH AND BIRD BETWEEN PARENTHESES (KP54), BIRD AND FISH BETWEEN PARENTHESES (KP55), BIRD BETWEEN PARENTHESES (KP67), SKEWERED CHEVRON BETWEEN BACK CEES (KP115), SEVEN QUOTES BETWEEN PARENTHESES (KP136a), STACKED SEVEN BETWEEN PARENTHESES (KP136b), STACKED TWELVE BETWEEN CEES (KP143), and ASTERISK BETWEEN BACK CEES (KP247). 
In this case, Wells’ W370 (the FOOTED FIGURE EIGHT) is surely part of KP54 and KP55 (Koskenniemi and Parpola 1982: 203).  In every one of these cases except for the reversed BIRD AND FISH BETWEEN PARENTHESES, Wells shares this concept of the sign in question.  Thus, I agree with both of the KP54-KP55 groupings, despite differences of detail between instances.  In other words, I do not believe that FOOTED FIGURE EIGHT is actually a symbol in the Indus script.
Turning to the photographed artifact in the Corpus, one immediately sees that M-447 is an unbroken duplicate.  The obscure quadruped whose head is almost obliterated on M-446 clearly shows to be a rhino on M-447.  Unfortunately, the inscription on the latter tablet is illegible and sheds almost no light on the problem.  However, on both tablets, there are hints that Wells has left out something in his depiction of W370.  Both of the “figure eights” have two prongs at the base, but they also have one or two prongs on the lower left.  These are most likely what is left of two chevrons representing the bird’s legs, as depicted in sign KP55.  I will discuss this rare compound symbol in a later post, when I come to the eighteen-stroke signs.

Old Chinese writing with a cowrie beneath "roof" (center top) (Wieger 1967: 373).
For now, it is sufficient to note the few parallels I am aware of to the supposed FOOTED FIGURE EIGHT.  In Old Chinese, a tall oval with two internal stripes represents the eye, while the “eye” element with two prongs at the bottom is a different character, bei4, “a cowrie, a small shell used for money in China in early feudal times” (Wieger 1967: 328).  It is now the 154th radical in the form of a striped rectangle with “legs” (and a bit tricky for the beginning reader to distinguish from jian4, “to look,” the 147th radical).  In the Old Seal script, there is a similar character with the cowrie at the base and a small circle close above it.  This is yuan2, which now means “officer, round; round, circle, sphere, dollar” (cf. Wieger’s depiction, 1967: 328, with modern character, Fenn and Tseng 1940: 650).
In proto-Elamite, there are almost no circles aside from the numerical signs made as impressions with a stylus.  There is a sign, though, comprising two joined diamonds, one larger than the other (M310~1).  From the side near the end of the larger diamond protrude three short slashes.  No specific meaning is known for this sign, apparently.  Equally enigmatic are a few examples from the rock art of North America.  In Texas, two circles are joined by a backslash (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 101, Pl. 58).  The circle at the base of the backslash has a dot at the center, while the one at the top has the two prongs.  In Nevada, one example has three stacked circles with two prongs attached to the top (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 173, fig. 110h).  Another contains two stacked circles with the prongs at the bottom, as in the Indus sign (1984: 102, fig. 39d).

Seal H-144 with inscription: CRAB WITH LEGS / BACK DEE-SLASH /
The following sign is again based on a “figure eight.”  This sixty-third of the six-stroke signs is FIGURE EIGHT WITH ATTACHED POST (VI63).  It is found elsewhere as KP80 and W369 but not in Fairservis’ list.  Wells notes that it is a singleton from Harappa (H-144).  On this seal, it resembles our own numerical grouping “81,” with a short horizontal line joining the two symbols.  I have found no analogous symbols elsewhere with which to compare it.

The next symbol is VI64, CIRCLE WITH TWO EARS, also known as KP373.  In form, it follows the typical pattern of items I term “circle” in this script and is oval, pointed at top and bottom.  While the sign is not listed by Wells or Fairservis, I find it to be a singleton from Kalibangan (K-15).  It appears on this seal beside another peculiar sign that is listed only as KP373 and not by either Wells or Fairservis (KP374).  What is especially odd about this is that both of these, KP373 and KP374, occur only once and only together, between two long, wavy lines or “esses.”  Elsewhere, Koskenniemi and Parpola group a sign that appears bracketed by ESSES together, as a compound sign.  That is, there is a HORNED MAN BETWEEN DOUBLE ESSES which they enumerate KP10(a).  Following that compound ligature is KP10(b), HORNED MAN BETWEEN CEES.  As seen in the discussion above, two signs may also be bracketed in such compound ligatures (BIRD AND FISH BETWEEN PARENTHESES).  So, why did they depart from this practice when listing CIRCLE WITH TWO EARS as an individual sign? 
What the reason, the other odd thing about this symbol (VI64) is that the “ears” are asymmetrical.  The “ear” on the left of the oval is high, while that on the right is low.  In Luwian hieroglyphs, there is a tall oval with two low “ears,” representing the syllable lu.  This sign is characterized by bilateral symmetry.  The same is true of the proto-cuneiform EZEN.  The “b” variant of this sign has two small, square projections, one on each side of the central circle.  Another variant, termed EZEN~b@t has these square “ears” at the top and bottom.  In both cases, the symbol shows bilateral symmetry. 
Detail from a Navaho sand painting, showing horned (and feathered) heads,
representing Sun, Moon, Yellow Wind, and Black Wind
(Newcomb and Reichard 1975: Pl. XX center).
Even in the rock art of North America, there are depictions of symmetrical horned heads, apparently human, with a general similarity in form (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 379, fig. F-40d).  Bilateral symmetry is once more the norm.  Turning to Africa, we note the Ghanaian Adinkra symbol of a bisected circle that has two “horns” at the top and another two at the bottom.  Named wawa aba, “seeds of the wawa tree,” it symbolizes hardiness, toughness, and perseverance (Willis 1998: 196).  This, too, is bilaterally symmetrical.  One of the variants, though, is depicted on a slant, so that two “horns” appear on the upper right side and two on the lower left.  This single variant shows the type of asymmetry found in the Indus sign.
Indus sign VI65 appears as a thin, tilted diamond overlaid upon a circle in the Koskenniemi and Parpola list (KP374).  But the sign that appears on K-15 appears to be two ovals overlapping in this way.  I have tentatively given it the name CIRCLE UPON DIAMOND.  But I tend to think it is actually a peculiar variant of what I call the FAT EX elsewhere (a twelve-stroke sign).  For the sake of thoroughness, I include the sign in my list and now turn to parallels in other scripts.
I have not seen anything like this odd sign elsewhere, although the feature of overlapping occasionally appears.  For example, there is an Egyptian hieroglyph in which the long and narrow O29 overlies the tall O7.  In this compound glyph, the tall, rectangular portion represents a temple or castle, while the overlapping glyph indicates the word “great.”  The compound glyph is O8, with the literal meaning “great castle.”  Neither of the two glyphs compounded here resembles the Indus sign, but the use of overlapping symbols is notable.  Basically, the two glyphs are read the same way as if they appeared one following the other.
Proto-cuneiform includes a few signs that also employ overlapping, for example, GA’AR~a2.  This involves a vertically disposed “bowtie” element, with an impressed circle covering the place where the apex of one triangle meets the apex of the other.  In this type of symbol, the two parts do not necessarily continue the same function as they do individually.  In later Sumerian, this sign became the word for a type of cheese product.  In other words, when two signs are compounded, they form a third and distinct sign.  These two different ways of using compounds – or ligatures – should be kept in mind when attempting to make sense of ligatures/compounds in the Indus script.

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