Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Ladder, a Grid, and Some Enigmatic Indus Signs

Among the Indus signs, there is one that resembles a depiction of a LADDER.  I give it that name in my list of symbols and enumerate it VII 4 (the fourth of the seven-stroke signs).  Elsewhere, it appears only as KP297; Wells and Fairservis apparently are unaware of its existence.  It is not a common sign among the inscriptions.  I count seven certain occurrences as well as two uncertain examples.  Of these nine, two are from Mohenjo daro, two from from Harappa, one from Kalibangan (questionable), one from Chanhujo daro, and three from Lothal (one questionable).  Although KP297 is shown with five "rungs," all of the cited occurences have just three “rungs,” which actually makes them five-stroke symbols.

Seal M-308 with inscription: LADDER / CUP ON 3 PRONGS / BI-QUOTES //
BELTED FISH / SPEAR (note the unusual icon, which resembles the Near
Eastern "Master of Animals" or "Gilgamesh" motif).
Somewhat to my surprise for such a simple symbol, the Indus LADDER does not have that many analogs in other scripts.  Egyptian hieroglyphs contain no parallel, although the ship’s mast comprises a top portion resembling a ladder set above a “Y” shape (P6).  This glyph is an ideograph or determinative in the word “mast,” and a phonetic element in the homophonous word, “to stand.”  Among the hieroglyphs of Crete – the use of which preceded Linear B – there is one that somewhat resembles a ladder (O39).  Instead of horizontal rungs, though, it has diagonal elements which turn it into a narrow lattice.  It may be a phonetic symbol representing the syllable pa.

Three similar symbols from other areas (from left to right):
proto-cuneiform SHE3, proto-Elamite M506, and Cretan O39.
In proto-cuneiform, again, there is no “ladder” per se.  There is a similar element inside the sign termed SHEN~b, which seems to be a copper vessel.  The “ladder” appears as a decorative element on the container here.  The Indus sign also somewhat resembles SHE3, which came to mean portion.  This sign, however, is not so much a “ladder” as a striped rectangle.  Similarly, striped rectangles appear here and there among the rock art motifs of Texas (Newcomb and Kirkland 1967: 96, Pl. 54, no. 1; no. 2).  But I have seen nothing that I would characterize as clearly a “ladder.”  Although the description of motifs of Nevada notes 26 occurrences of the “two-pole ladder,” I have observed only striped rectangles (this descriptive phrase distinguishes the motif from the “one-pole ladder,” a motif I term a “shish kebab”).  Such rectangles occur in both horizontal and vertical positions, as in Texas (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 108, fig. 45b; p. 165, fig. 102b).
Proto-Elamite provides a better parallel with M026~aa, a horizontal “ladder” with three “rungs.”  A second sign possible analog is M506, another horizontal “ladder,” this one with six “rungs” and an additional short post at each end.  The African nation of Ghana gives us a final example of a true ladder with the Adinkra motif given the epithet owuo atwedee.  This means “ladder of death,” something that is climbed by all (Willis 1998: 182).

Indus SQUARE AY (upper left) and analogs: proto-cuneiform
E~a (upper right) and proto-Elamite M029 (lower right).
The second Indus sign discussed here is SQUARE AY UNDER TABLE (VII 5).  It is also known as KP294 and W492 but does not appear in Fairservis’ list.  Wells notes two occurrences, both from Mohenjo daro.  Both occur as the first sign in the inscription and both precede POTTED ONE, for what that is worth.

Egyptian depiction of a gazelle and lion playing the
board game Senet: note the "square ay" shape of
the lion's chair (versus the "stool" shape of the gazelle's).
Both proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite have signs much like the two elements of which the Indus sign is composed.  The top element or TABLE is paralleled by E~a in its general shape (later “to speak, say”).  The SQUARE AY portion resembles ZATU626~a, though the proto-cuneiform sign is horizontal.  The two are not combined in a single ligature, although ligatures of signs do exist in this proto-writing system.  In proto-Elamite, the parallels to the SQUARE AY include M029 and M032~a – the first with “legs” to the left, the second with “legs” to the right.  The TABLE is rather like a short-legged version of M032.

DOUBLE-BELTED TWIN AITCH as it might appear
over the horn and ear of the "unicorn" based on KP299.
The third Indus sign for today’s discussion is most peculiar.  It occurs only in the list by Koskenniemi and Parpola, as KP299.  Although I have not seen it in the Corpus, I include in the list here, giving it the clumsy descriptor DOUBLE BELTED TWIN AITCH.  It is made up of three vertical posts joined by two central horizontals.  Centered between the tall posts – and centered between the double horizontals – are two short verticals, one on each side of the central post.

Analogs to VII 6 (from left to right): Old Chinese "center," proto-
cuneiform ZATU 636, proto-Elamite M026~d.
Old Chinese contains a character also comprising three verticals joined by two horizontals, though it lacks the additional short verticals.  This is zhung1, “the center” (Wieger 1967: 260).  An almost identical character, but with three horizontals rather than just two, is yung4, “the bronze ex-voto offered to the Ancestors, placed in the temple as a memorial...hence...aptitude, efficacity [sic], utility” (op. sit.).
In proto-Elamite, too, there is a sign made up of three strokes joined by another at a perpendicular angle (M026~d).  In this case, the central stroke is shorter than the two on the outsides.  And of course there is the fact that the crossing line is not doubled.  The proto-cuneiform ZATU636 has three long strokes, in contrast, but also joined by a single crossing line.  Here the outer stroke are bent or flared outward.  The meanings in these cases are unknown.
There is nothing quite comparable to the Indus symbol in the rock art of North America, so far as I can tell.  The closest thing to it is a motif found on two painted pebbles in Texas (Newcomb and Kirkland 1967: 106, Pl. 66, nos. 8 and 12).  On these objects, the long strokes of the Indus sign are broken where they meet the short, crossing lines.  On the first pebble, there are three short crossing lines, while on the second there are just two.  In neither case are there the very short lines between these crossing “belts” as in the Indus sign.  But in the second example there are three short strokes attached at a 90 degree angle to one end of each of the long strokes.

Drawing of inscription from seal M-45: TWO POSTS / OVERLAPPING
Our next sign is a GRID (VII 7).  There are several different “grids” in the Indus script characterized by different numbers of squares.  The item discussed here has two across and three down, a characteristic which I encode in my database of inscriptions (2 x 3).  This particular form of GRID does not appear elsewhere except in Wells’ list (W503).  He finds only one of these, he states, although he actually lists two (one from Harappa, one from Lothal).  He regularly lists occurrences of two of the same sign, side by side, as a separate item, a fact which may explain why I find so many more of this particular GRID (8 from Mohenjo daro, 2 more from Harappa making 3 in all, and another from Lothal making 2 in all). 

GRID analogs: unbounded grid from Texas (left);
proto-cuneiform E2~a (right).
Initially, I thought the number of squares in these GRIDS might be significant, so I divided them into two main groups.  The ICE CUBE TRAYS have two squares across and three to seven down, whereas QUILTS have three squares across and again three to seven down..  Among them, I see no clearly distinguishing characteristics – either morphological or positional – that would indicate they are not variants of a single sign.  Nevertheless, since I list symbols by the number of strokes it takes to draw them, they are included here as separate elements with distinctive numbers.  I recognize their essential unity in the name for all of them, which is now simply GRID.  Adding the 30 occurrences of the various “ice cube trays” together with the 110 “quilt” occurrences, I find a total of 140 occurrences of a GRID of one form or another.  That should be sufficient to determine more precisely whether they do in fact form a single class of sign.

Detail from Adire cloth (Yoruba, Nigeria), with grid or
checkerboard design at bottom, similar to Adinkra symbol.
Proto-cuneiform has no exact duplicate of the GRID.  Variants of one sign do appear as rectangles with both horizontal and vertical stripes, a feature of the various GRIDS (E2 in variants a, b, c, and d).  The later meaning of this symbol was “house; temple.”  In each case, the shorter lines cluster toward one end of the enclosing rectangle, unlike the essentially even distribution of lines in the Indus sign.  Proto-Elamite, on the other hand, has a closer parallel in M145~f.  This sign resembles the “ice cube tray” variants of the Indus sign, with two squares down and five across.

Detail from modern Peruvian cloth, showing some elements
similar to a grid or checkerboard.
Among the Adinkra patterns of Ghana, there is another type of grid.  Here it is more of a checkerboard, with some of the squares filled with additional grid lines or darker color than adjacent square.  This motif receives the epithet kronti ne akwamu, meaning “elders of the state” (Willis 1998: 122).  It represents qualities of democracy, interdependence, and complementarity.
Grids occur in the rock art of North America with some frequency.  The total for Nevada is given as 106 (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 131, fig. 68e).  They occur generally along the eastern edge and the southwest, but less frequently in the central part of the state.  In Texas, they are less common and when they do appear, they may lack a clearly defined border (e.g., Newcomb and Kirkland 1967: 128, Pl. 85, no. 4).

Bar seal M-1266 with inscription: STACKED 12 / FISH UNDER CHEVRON /
SLASH IN FISH / FAT LAMBDA / POT (clumsily drawn by author).
Our final Indus sign here is FAT LAMBDA (VII 8), also known as W424.  Wells finds only three of these, all from Mohenjo daro.  One could also view this rare symbol is an outlined letter “T,” tipped over so that the lower stroke has become diagonal.  If one views it in that way, a possible parallel is the proto-cuneiform URUDU~a, in which case the “T” has fallen further and is standing on the side of its “head.”  This sign came to mean “copper, metal.”  Flipping this horizontally gives one the proto-Elamite sign M203~d, which, however, has a very long “head.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Seven, the Harappans' Favorite Number?

The signs discussed in this post appear to be numerals, various ways of writing “seven.”  I call the first one SEVEN QUOTES, as it is comprised of seven relatively short strokes lined up line so many quotation marks.  As the first of the seven-stroke signs in my list, it receives the numeric designation VII 1.  Elsewhere it is known as KP127(a) and W210.  Fairservis apparently did not see any occurrences of this sign.  Wells, however, gives the frequency of occurrence as four, with two from Mohenjo daro, one from Harappa, and one from Banawali.

Seal from Banawali (B-10) with SEVEN QUOTES and TRI-FORK.
Before discussing this sign further, I will mention the next, SEVEN POSTS (VII 2).  Fairservis apparently considers all the instances of seven strokes to be this sign and not the shorter type; he enumerates it O-10.  In his table listing frequencies for each form of each apparent numeral, he shows there to be six occurrences of VII 2.  The reason for the differences between Fairservis on the one hand, and Wells plus Koskenniemi and Parpola on the other, are only partly explicable.
The two instances of SEVEN QUOTES from Mohenjo daro appear after a STRIPED TRIANGLE and before a terminal sign, in these cases the POT.  On one seal (M-861), this is the whole of the inscription.  On the other (M-362), this sequence occurs after the common prefix CIRCLED VEE / BI-QUOTES.  The appearance of SEVEN QUOTES in the same sequence also occurs on a seal from Harappa (H-666), where it is preceded by STRIPED CHEVRON / DOTTED WINDOW.  With no more evidence than these three inscriptions, it is impossible to say whether the sequence itself is significant.  But it is interesting to note that the same sequence, preceding STRIPED TRIANGLE and following terminal, also occurs with STACKED SEVEN (H-174, H-453, H-523, H-707; M-30, M859). 
Seal B-12 with GRAIN EAR and unusual STACKED SEVEN.

Fairservis takes SEVEN POSTS to mean “seven,” functioning as an adjective, but is uncertain whether to consider it and the stacked form equivalent signs.  He gives VII 2 the additional meaning “to raise, build,” but reads STACKED SEVEN as “bright, light, day.”  If the examples cited thus far from Mohenjo daro and Harappa were the only occurrences of SEVEN QUOTES (or SEVEN POSTS), it would be difficult to suggest that there is any distinction between simple and stacked forms of this apparent numeral.  But both Wells and Fairservis observe more instances.  We will examine them in more detail next.
The “sevens” on the previous seals are invariably inscribed with strokes that are notably shorter than the other signs alongside.  It is for this reason that I classify them as SEVEN QUOTES and assume that this is what Wells would state.  It is difficult to see why Fairservis would consider them versions of the taller POSTS, but his table is clear on the matter.  Seven strokes also appear on a pot from Harappa (H-370) and these may be “quotes.”  But, this time there are no other signs to compare them to, so they could just as easily be considered SEVEN POSTS (VII 2).  There are also two obscure examples of strokes on pot shards that are impossible to classify clearly.  One set appears on a pot rim from Harappa  (H-989A&C).  The “A” side exhibits a clear CUP in vee form, while the equivocal strokes occur on the “C” side.  Some of the marks are deeper than others, some longer, some shorter.  It is not clear whether all are meaningful or even if there are seven.  The other pot shard is from Rahman-deri (Rhd-15), where the marks have no other signs with which to compare.  Since Fairservis gives the frequency of SEVEN POSTS as six occurrences while Wells gives that of SEVEN QUOTES as only four, I am assuming that these two difficult instances account for the discrepancy.

Unicorn seal showing STACKED SEVEN / FISH,
Parpola's "seven stars" (Ursa Major).
The final instance is on a seal from Banawali which is different from all of the previous ones (B-10).  Here, the “numeral” appears over a wild ram or markhor.  The inscription also include a TRI-FORK in front of the animal where the so-called “cult stand” appears on “unicorn” seals and where the “trough” appears with other animals.  To this can be compared seal B-12, in which a GRAIN EAR occurs as the only sign over a similar animal (with different horns and thus, probably a domestic goat) with an unusual STACKED SEVEN in front of the beast.  Between these two, B-11 shows another similar animal (another markhor with horns depicted differently) with only a TRI-FORK over it and no apparent numeral.  This extremely meager evidence raises the question anew of whether the apparent numerals should be viewed as groups of a given number of strokes in which the meaning is not changed by size/arrangement.
When it comes to parallels in other scripts and artwork, there are remarkably few.  Egyptian hieroglyphs contained numerical symbols, a simple vertical stroke for each unit and a a coil for “ten.”  Thus, the number “7” would be written with seven strokes.  But, I have not actually seen this particular number written out and do not know offhand whether the strokes appeared in a single horizontal row, a single vertical row, or in a standard “stacked” form.  Generally speaking, such things were not standardized and it may well be that there are several accepted forms.
In the rock art of the American Southwest, rows of vertical strokes are common, but groups of precisely seven are not that easy to find (“four” and “five” being more frequent, as well as much larger groups).  I did find at least one example (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 172, fig. 109b).  The same type of grouping, this time of longer strokes and thus a parallel to SEVEN POSTS (VII 2), also appears in this same culture area (1984: 172, fig. 109a).
Oddly enough, the online listing of proto-elamite signs shows a vertical column of eight horizontal strokes, but not of seven.  Stacked forms of numerals occur for three, four, five, six, and eight again – but not seven (numerical signs M010 through M018).  Even so, it has been demonstrated that this proto-writing system contained a numeral seven.  One of the tablets from Tepe Yahya (TY 11, line 11), provides an example of a stacked seven (Damerow and Englund 1989: 54).  Similarly, neither an equivalent to the SEVEN QUOTES nor SEVEN POSTS appears in proto-cuneiform, despite the fact that there is a seven in stacked form.  In addition, one form of the numeral “one” is written as a long vertical wedge crossed by seven incised lines, all running horizontally (N11).  In both proto-writing systems, the scribes may have been influenced by a desire to save space.
This same motivation may have influenced the craftsmen who created seals and tablets in the Indus Valley.  The third apparent numeral is the STACKED SEVEN (VII 3), elsewhere known as KP127(b), W199, and Fs O-11.  Wells sees a total of 38 occurrences: 20 from Mohenjo daro, 13 from Harappa, one from Lothal, two from Kalibangan, one from Khirsara, and one from Allahdino.  Fairservis finds 70 occurrences (1992: 62).  This is a rather astonishing discrepancy.  There are a few odd forms that Wells might not have included as examples of this sign – the form usually being four strokes over three – but not nearly enough to explain away this sizable difference.

Astral motifs from a Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal:
the moon (lazy crescent) and the Pleiades (the
seven dots or circles).
In my examination of placement – what signs are paired with others – I found a STACKED SEVEN before the BATTERY 11 times, before one or another type of sign I call an EXIT 24 times, and following the STRIPED TRIANGLE five times.  Just these add up to 40 occurrences, which outnumbers Wells’ total, and there are a good many other examples with lower frequency.  My own count comes to 76: 39 Mohenjo daro, 17 Harappa, 11 Lothal, 3 Kalibangan, 1 Khirsara, 1 Allahdino, 1 Banawali, and 3 Allamgirpur. 
So who is right?  Much depends upon how one counts and what one counts, with plenty of room for disagreement.  Wells shows a single variant of the sign, while I see at least four, maybe more depending on how much of a distinction is worth specifying.  Most instances take the “A” form of four strokes over three (which I encode 4 x 3 in my database).  Some show the reverse, my “B” form (3 x 4).  I have thus far only specified a third variant “C” for additional, more unusual forms, but these appear in three configurations (2 x 3 x 2; 2 x 2 x 3; and horizontally stacked 3 beside similarly stacked 4).  The “B” variant appears at Mohenjo daro (M-1369) and Kalibangan (K-49); the “C” types at Harappa (H-303 and H-304) and Banawali (B-12).  If we discount the “B” and “C” variants, the total comes down to 71, almost the same as Fairservis’ count.  Then there is the matter of duplicate inscriptions on tablets.  If each inscription is counted only once and all duplicates are ignored, the total is still smaller.  This may account for some of the discrepancy between the totals of Fairservis and Wells.
When the subject comes to analogous symbols, both of the Near Eastern proto-writing systems provide useful comparisons.  Proto-Elamite contains two apparently numerical signs with seven wedges stacked alongside short strokes.  In one case, there are two wedges side by side over three over two.  To the right of each row of wedges is a single, short, vertical stroke (M384~c).  In what may be a variant of the same sign, the wedges are arranged differently: one centered over two over one centered over two over one more centered.  To the right of each of the two side-by-side wedges there are two short strokes (M384~b).  At Tepe Yahya, tablet 11 shows a simpler form of what is clearly a numeral.  Here, four wedges are stacked vertically beside a column of three wedges (Damerow and Englund 1989: 54). 
This same numeral appears in proto-cuneiform (N08).  Impressed circles arranged in the same way form another type of “seven” (N14).  When these circles are larger, this is yet another type of “seven” (N45).  Similarly arranged impressed circled are marked with diagonal, incised lines (N18) or small, horizontal wedges (N19) for other types of “seven.”  Another arrangement of wedges has these turned horizontally in two columns of three over a single larger wedge (N01, small; N-34, large).  These, too, may be varied by the addition of small circular impressions inside each wedge (N48).  Nor does this exhaust the various ways in which “seven” is written.  The different types of symbols enumerated different classes of commodities.  The enumerators of beer, for example, were not the same as those for dairy products or workers.  Animals were enumerated differently from grain.
There were clearly contacts between the Indus Valley civilization and those in the Elamite area as well as Sumerians and Babylonians.  Thus, it is possible that the original impetus for inscribing objects with sets of symbols in the Indus Valley came from the Near East.  This may be the case even if the symbols themselves are not borrowings but indigenous developments.  Part of my purpose in going through the Harappan symbols systematically, comparing them with similar symbols elsewhere, is to discover just how similar the symbols are between these two proto-writing systems of the Near East, on the one hand, and the Indus Valley on the other.  Even though we are only about halfway through the list of Harappan signs, we can see that there are enough differences (along with similarities to symbols from other areas further away) that the people of the Indus Valley did not simply borrow another (proto-)writing system wholesale. 
That said, there are enough similarities among the three – proto-cuneiform, proto-Elamite, and the Indus script – that we should be cautious about interpreting apparent numerals are simply different ways of writing the same thing.  In a series of posts on the apparent numerals, I presented evidence that these signs do not function as numbers in the economic sense, in the Indus script.  But even if they did, it could have been that “quotes” enumerated one class of things or people, “posts” another class, and “stacked” forms still another.  The fact that certain “numbers” are represented in only one or two of these forms and not all three does not contradict this.  In both number systems of the Near East, only certain numbers are represented by each type of sign. 
If we had this type of system in the U.S., we would have one type of symbol for liquids, let’s say quotes.  Beginning with one cup, we might use a single quote for one cup, double quotations for two cups.  Since this equals one pint, we could instead use only the single quote for the cup and then switch to a post to represent a pint.  Two pints make a quart, so instead of two posts, we might use a third symbol, say an “X.”  Four quarts make a gallon, so we would use “X” for one quart, “XX” for two, “XXX” for three, and at four we would switch to yet a fourth symbol, say “Y.”  Obviously, there would be no 7 pints or 7 quarts in this system.
For kitchen measures, we would need an additional set of “numerals” for dry ingredients.  Let’s say we use a small dot the size of a period for 1 teaspoon (.), then 3 tsp. equals 1 tablespoon (say :), and 4 tablespoons equals one quarter cup (*), then four of these make one cup (#).  Again, until we reach the highest level noted here, there will be no form of “seven.”  But length measures would have such a number, since there are 12 inches in a foot.  There would also be a “seven” in weight measures since 16 ounces make a pound.  And so on.  If Indus tablets covered some sort economic transactions, then SEVEN QUOTES (VII 1), SEVEN POSTS (VII 2), and STACKED SEVEN (VII 3) might encode different commodities in just such a way.
However, I have noted on a number of occasions, I do not think that these three symbols enumerate commodities, nor are the seals and tablets likely to be economic texts.  My examination of the frequencies of various “numerals” in the Indus script instead resembles the pattern found in myths, folktales, and legends of various cultures.  In the traditional lore of a number of lands, seven is associated with the constellation of the Pleiades.  For example, on cylinder seals from ancient Iraq, seven dots or small circles sometimes appear, representing these stars (Black and Green 1992: 17 on Assyrian rock relief at Bavian; 55 and 67, on Neo-Assyrian cylinder seals; 108, as rayed circles on another cylinder seal).  The motif is identified in some inscriptions as the Seven, a group of gods whom people turned to for protection from evil demons (1992: 162).  When not shown as circles or stars, these deities appear in anthropomorphic form as bearded men with tall hats and long robes, carrying bows and arrows, axes and knives.  They may (or may not) be essentially the same as the Babylonian Seven Sages who appeared as fish-men.  Parpola suggests that the STACKED SEVEN in Indus symbols, coupled with the FISH represents “seven stars” which is the Tamil name for Ursa Major (the Big Bear) constellation (1994: 275).  Of course, this interpretation assumes that the modern Tamil expression derives from an ancient but identical expression in proto-Dravidian (up to three to four thousand years older).  The stars of Ursa Major are the Seven Sages in India, in contrast to the Mesopotamian identification.  But in any case, the Harappan “sevens” might represent a similar concept, a group of stars or deities (or something else) consisting of seven members.

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

Damerow, Peter and Robert Englund. 1989. The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University and Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Parpola, Asko. 1994. Deciphering the Indus Script. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Crab, Li'l Orphan Annie Eyes, and a Man with an Anklet

The Indus sign that is the main subject of this post is one I term the CRAB, enumerated VI74 (the seventy-fourth of the six-stroke signs).  Elsewhere, it appears as KP75(a), W84, and Fs Q-10.  Fairservis sees the sign as a ligature of two others, CIRCLE (his F-1, my II9) plus STOOL (his I-11, my III21) or else the FOOTED STOOL (my F15).  He considers the CIRCLE a representation of the sun and the STOOL to be tongs.  Joining these two somehow creates “monsoon, southwest.”  Parpola, on the other hand, identifies sign VI74 as a representation of a crab, proposing the meaning “grasper, grasping,” the action that a crab’s claws take.  I use Parpola’s designation as my term for the sign, but do not mean to imply by this that I accept his hypothesis of its meaning.  Perhaps I should add that I do not necessarily accept anyone else’s interpretation, either, so this is nothing against Parpola per se.

Seal Nd-2 with inscription: PRAWN / CRAB / COMB
(unusual case of variant "b" on a seal).
Wells gives the total occurrences of this sign as 64, with 40 from Mohenjo daro, 18 from Harappa, three from Lothal, and one apiece from Kalibangan, Chanhujo daro, and Nindowari-damb.  In addition, the CRAB occurs once in reversed configuration, according to Wells, this at Banawali.  On the seals, one would expect the claws to appear on one side of the circle, on tablets the reverse.  This is because sign sequences are typically reversed in this way, since the tablets were read as they appear, while seals were used as stamps.  Immediately, then, Wells’ citation of only a single REVERSED CRAB (W85, my VI75) seems puzzling.  This is worth examining more closely.

Tablet H-728 with inscription (reading right to left): PRICKLY CORN HOLDER /
 TRIPLE TRIANGLES / REVERSED CRAB / POT (unusual occurrence of variant "a" on tablet). 
My examination of the occurrences differs from that of Wells, which is not unusual.  I see a reversed crab on K-90 (pot shard); L-205 (seal impression), L-229 (?; pot shard); H-171 (tablet), H-191 through H-193 (tablets), H-296 (tablet), H-375 (?, pot shard), H-699 (tablet), H-728-731 (tablets), H-748 (tablet), H-762A (tablet), H-773-4 (tablets), H-875B (tablet); M-494-5 (tablets), M-468 (tablet), M-567 (tablet), M-606 (tablet), M-1391 (seal impression), M-1426 (tablet), M-1515A-1518 (tablets), M-1568 (tablet); Blk-6 (painted on a bangle from Balakot), and B-4 (seal).  This yields a total of 33 occurrences of the REVERSED CRAB.  From this, one may tentatively infer the following general rules.  (1) Inscriptions read from right to left on tablets, pots, and bangles, whereas they read from left to right on seals.  (2) When seals are used as stamps, the resulting impressions read from right to left, following the pattern observed on other artifacts (tablets, pot shards, bangles). 
The only occurrence that is anomalous in this respect – that is, violates the proposed rule – is B-4, containing the REVERSED CRAB.  An interesting observation concerning this seal from Banawali is that the icon of the urus faces the right side.  In general, iconic animals face left, e.g. on seals from Mohenjo daro, Harappa, and so on.  One may revise the general rule, then, to this: (1) inscriptions begin on the same side as the head of the iconic animal on seals.  It follows, then, that the “pincers” of the “crab” face the beginning of the inscription.  If this is correct, then the three-symbol inscription on B-4 reads TRI-FORK (below the breast of the urus) / POT / (REVERSED) CRAB and not the reverse. 
Following Korvink’s analysis, the POT is a terminal sign, despite the fact it appears in medial position here, as elsewhere (2008: 35-36).  In fact, the POT appears once initially, 420 times medially, and 971 times in final position, according to Korvink.  In the medial occurrences, Korvink argues, the inscription as a whole should be seen as containing more than one unit of information, with the POT signaling the end of the first unit.  There are other terminal signs, but Korvink considers the CRAB to be a medial element (with 32 initial occurrences, 96 medial occurrences, and 2 final occurrences).  Concerning the rare appearances in final position, he says, “It is most likely that the two terminal placements of this sign are due to the lack of a terminal” (2008: 36). 
Without further information, it is impossible to say how Korvink reads the inscription on B-4, whether right to left or left to right.  But either way, the CRAB is a medial rather than terminal sign.  The inscription here contains two units of information, short as it is.  The TRI-FORK is the main substance of the first unit, with the POT, as a terminal sign, indicating the end of that unit of information.  This makes the CRAB the second unit of information all by itself.
Now, let us examine the varying forms of the CRAB, ignoring for the moment the reversed position of some.  Wells presents three variants.  His “a” variant appears on most of the seals and includes a pointed oval “body” with “pincers” that rise to same height as the “body.”  The “b” variant appears mostly on tablets and has a relatively small “body,” with large “pincers.”  The “c” variant has the same proportions as “b,” with the “pincers” coming out of the very tips of the oval “body.”  This gives an impression of upper “pincer,” back of the “body,” and lower “pincer” all forming a single, unbroken curve (e.g., H-296).  This variant also appears mainly on tablets.  My own observations are that there are still more types of variation.  Whereas many occurrences are the same size as other signs in the inscriptions, in some cases there are small versions crammed into the spaces between larger signs (e.g., H-773).  If one thinks of the CRAB as depicting the head of some peculiar beast with the “pincers” forming a long snout, one notes the occasional CRAB with an overbite (M-379) and the odd one with an underbite (K-90). 
In addition, now and then it is hard to distinguish the CRAB from the FOOTED STOOL.  For example, on broken pot shards, the “pincers” of the CRAB may actually be the “legs” and “feet” of the latter sign (L-229 and H-375).  This originally made me wonder whether these two signs, CRAB and STOOL might be variants of one sign.  The first thing to look for when testing such a hypothesis is whether both occur in the same inscription.  On two tablets from Harappa, the CRAB and the basic STOOL do indeed occur (H-773 and H-774).  Although the STOOL here is not the FOOTED STOOL, it does have the flat side characteristic of the latter, in contrast to the notably rounded CRAB.  Thus, I consider the hypothesis disproved even though Fairservis’ analysis suggests he might disagree.  There is little data to go on here, so this is not a statistical analysis.  But it is one established methodology in the field of linguistics and ancient epigraphy.
When it comes to analogous symbols in other scripts or traditional art, I have little to offer.  This may be mainly because of the particular sources I rely on for most of these comparisons.  The early Chinese kingdoms were essentially landlocked.  So I am unaware of any oracle bone depictions of the crab.  The Egyptians had a few fish and even fewer invertebrates among their hieroglyphs, but again I am not aware of any crab.  The collections of North American rock art in my possession mostly cover desert peoples, who quite naturally failed to depict much aquatic life.  But even in the sources on other areas, where access to the sea was common, I have not as yet seen a symbol quite like this.
Copper "ingot" with transcribed inscription: TRI-FORK / MAN HOLDING QUOTE // 5 QUOTES / THREE ROOFS // STRIPED CIRCLE (?) / LOOP TOPPED DUBYA / WHISKERED FISH / STACKED SIX (original is rather obscure)
The next sign, THREE ROOFS, is my VI76, also known as KP133 and Fs O-18.  Wells does not include it in his list.  Fairservis considers it a fingernail marking, repeated three times, with each mark meaning “one.”  Because it differs from the vertical lines that he elsewhere defines as numerals, he suggests that the ROOF may be a special term used for metal and pottery.  I see two examples of THREE ROOFS in the Corpus, but on copper objects from Chanhujo daro (C-39A and C-40A).  In both cases, the ROOF elements are stacked, one over the other over the last.  On the first of the cited objects, there are two other signs in the inscription, both stacked over the stacked ROOF elements.  On the second object, in contrast, the inscription runs at a perpendicular angle, with the stacked THREE ROOFS cutting it down the middle.
This sign is somewhat reminiscent of the proto-cuneiform numeric sign transcribed 3 (N08).  This takes the form of three stacked wedge-shaped impressions.  Essentially the same sign appears in proto-Elamite as well.  In both cases, such numerals were used to count certain things, while other numeral forms counted other things.  Both cultural areas had at least half a dozen different types of numerals, used to enumerate different type of persons, animals, commodities, etc.  So it is indeed possible that the Indus ROOF functions as a specialized enumerator for only certain types of things, such as metal objects and pottery.  Fairservis could be right about that. 
Sign VI77 is quite uncertain, one which I tentatively call TRIPLE LASHES ON CEE.  It appears only in the list of Wells, as W388, where it is a singleton from Mohenjo daro.  It does not appear in the lists prepared by other researchers, or in the Corpus, and Wells' citation of it as MacKay XCIII 4 suggests it occurs in the literature only in an excavation report.  I have my doubts about its existence.  Wells shows it as an almost complete CIRCLE with “lashes.”  A complete CIRCLE WITH LASHES appears beneath the TABLE, a ligatured sign, on M-83.  Thus, although I cannot be sure without seeing MacKay XCIII 4, I tend to think this element from the ligature is what Wells takes as his W388.
Seal M-83 with inscription (image reversed): 
To the CIRCLE WITH LASHES element, I would compare the Egyptian hieroglyph of the sun, as circle with three rays (N8).  It is the ideograph or determinative in “sunshine.”  Proto-cuneiform has a circular sign with two rays that end in chevrons, all of this transcribed |TUG2~a.(BAD&BAD)|.  In this designation, the part between parentheses indicates what is inside the circle – two short lines.  The composite symbol came to mean “cloth, garment, robe.”  Finally, proto-Elamite generally lacks circular elements, but has a diamond with three “lashes” (M227).  In this case, two “lashes” are on one side and the third on the other side.  Thus, none of these proposed parallels is quite the same as the Indus sign.
The following sign is DEE WITH LASHES, found only in the list of Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP179).  I enumerate it VI78 but have not found it in the Corpus any more than the previous sign.  Perhaps it is their reading of the same obscure symbol that Wells saw as an incomplete circle?
There is no “D” shaped hieroglyph as far as I know.  But it is interesting that KP179 has four “lashes” while W388 has three.  This reminds me of the way the Egyptians wrote fractions.  A long, thin oval, pointed at both ends, represents a mouth (a glyph usually used for the r sound).  Add two short vertical lines descending from this mouth and the glyph becomes the ideograph for “two-thirds” (D22).  Add three such lines and it becomes “three-fourths” (D23).
The letter “D” is sometimes used nowadays to represent an open, smiling mouth as part of an emoticon in e-mails and other brief text messages.  In Old Chinese, as noted in previous posts, a “D” shaped character was a way of writing “mouth” also, although the curve was at the bottom rather than the side.  I do not know of a character with three or four additional strokes, similar to the Indus sign or the Egyptian glyph.  But the word yue1 has a single additional stroke: “to speak, to tell.  The mouth that exhales a breath, a word” (Wieger 1965: 184).  Here, the added stroke in “L” shaped, another difference from the Indus sign.
In proto-cuneiform, TU~c is a bit like VI78.  This symbol is a backward “D” with a single horizontal attached, which skewers three chevrons.  Thus, it looks rather like a little hill with an arrow stuck in it.  If I am interpreting it correctly, it came to mean “to interfere” (although there is also a Sumerian tumushen that means “dove”).  Another, longer “D” element has no less than six “lashes,” three above and three below, all crossing the edge of the central element.  This is NESAG2~b, which came to have an astonishing variety of meanings: “first fruits (offering); wine cellar (?); springtime (month); dough; governor.”
Proto-Elamite lacks a “D” shape but perhaps this is not too different from a triangle with one curved angle.  Viewed in this way, the DEE WITH LASHES is something like a sign that Damerow and Englund call the “hairy triangle” (M136).  It generally appears as a header in economic tablets, where it may represent an institutional owner of the commodities enumerated (1989: 39-40).  There are also wedge-shaped elements with incised lines crossing them or extending from one or another side, which might also be viewed as something reminiscent of the Indus sign.  The authors discuss two such symbols, demonstrating their use as numerical signs in the ŠE system, Š” (1989:76).

Pot shard K-104 with inscription (reading right to left):
Another peculiar Indus sign is VI79, EGG BY NEST or CIRCLE WITH COMB.  It is listed only as W80 elsewhere, where it appears as a singleton from Kalibangan (K-104).  I agree with this, adding the note that it shows up on a pot shard beside the POT sign.  The odd thing is that the “egg” part – in form a pointed oval like most Indus “circles” – seems to be lying on its side.  The points of this oval are not at the top and bottom, in other words, but on the sides.
Egyptian includes a hieroglyph that is an egg, also an oval in form (H8).  This oval is typically tilted, as if about to fall over.  Not surprisingly, it serves as a determinative in the word “egg.”  An extension of usage occurs in Dynasty XIX when it becomes an abbreviation for glyph G39, the duck.  More peculiar, perhaps, is its appearance as a determinative in names of goddesses.  This may derive from the fact that some of these goddesses were birds, for example the vulture, one of the two main patron goddesses of Egypt (the cobra being the other).  The oddest use to my mind is when the egg is a duplicate determinative in the word “humankind.”  Here, it may originally have been a clod of earth, not an egg, later simplified so as to be indistinguishable from the egg.  And why a clod of earth?  Because the god Khnum made the first humans from that material, as a potter makes his wares from clay.  As for the “comb” element of the Indus sign, Old Chinese places two side by side in one character: yu3, “a pair of wings with feathers” (Wieger 1965: 163).  This is now the 124th radical.
Proto-cuneiform has a sign that combines an oval with a number of prongs rather than a “comb” in KUSHU2~b.  This originally represents some sort of aquatic animal.  In later Sumerian, it is probably a crab, although apparently it might be a turtle or even a shark (!).  (It looks more like a water flea than any of these to me, but I can’t imagine the ancient residents of southern Iraq wanting to write about them!)
Among the Adinkra symbols of Ghana (West Africa), there is one that faintly resembles VI79.  Its name is bi-nka-bi, which means “no one should bite another.”  It symbolizes justice, fair play, freedom, peace, forgiveness, unity, and harmony (Willis 1998: 86).  Some forms of this symbol are fairly abstract, with rounded “prongs” protruding at varying angles around an open oval in the center.  But other forms are considerably more representational and then all resemblance to the Indus sign is lost.  Here, it is clear that the symbol is intended to show two animals such as crocodiles biting each other at the same time.  While one bites the other’s tail, the second also bites the tail of the first.
Seal H-584 with inscription: MAN WITH ANKLET / COMB
(dotted line in lower left shows break in original; trough reconstructed here).
Sign VI80 is MAN WITH ANKLET, which Fairservis does not include.  There is no six-stroke equivalent in the Koskenniemi and Parpola list either, although there is a nine-stroke variant (to be discussed later).  Wells shows both the six-stroke and nine-strokes types, as W24 b and a, respectively.  He finds only three of them, a single occurrence of “a” (9-stroke variant) from Mohenjo daro and two of “b” from Harappa.  I see three variants, not two, if we look only at variation is in the form of the “anklet.”  It seems that this element is a single stroke across one leg of the man on some tablets (e.g., H-702, H-706).  On another Harappan tablet it is either a pointed oval or a diamond (H-976).  On seals, though, the “anklet” is usually a thin rectangle (e.g., M-930, M-1281).  Besides these variations, the “anklet” is sometimes on the right (tablets), at other times on the left (seals).  The reversal or mirroring of sign variants and the distribution recall the CRAB vs. REVERSED CRAB.  While I listed the CRAB as two different signs, I have only listed to MAN WITH ANKLET as a single sign with two variants.  I realize this is inconsistent and one of these needs to be revised.

Bar seal M-1281 with inscription: SPOON IN BI-FORK TOPPED POT /
While analogs to the basic MAN appear on almost every continent, this is not the case with the MAN WITH ANKLET.  The best comparison is with the Old Chinese character ba2.  It looks much like the Indus MAN holding a stick in the right hand and with a wavy “anklet” on the right leg.  However, this is not a human, that’s not a stick, and the anklet is not an ornament.  It is a dog, viewed from the side.  The short stroke is not a stick, but the animal’s ear.  And the “anklet” is a leash, tied to its leg “the Chinese way” (Wieger 1965: 304).  There is another character which does represent a man “hindered while walking, by a kind of train....Hence, the notion of slowness, of duration” (1965: 88).  In this case, the man is represented only by his legs and the “kind of train” is a stroke attached above the these, not crossing one of them (jiu3).

Old Chinese characters for "dog" (above, from oracle bone)
and dog on a leash (below, from Old Seal script).
The last of the six-stroke signs is STRIPED TRIANGLE (3), which is to say a triangle containing three horizontal stripes.  It is my VI81, also known as KP210, W412a, Fs K-6a (actually an 8-stroke sign because his version has 5 stripes).  It may or may not be the same sign as W417c, a bent triangle or STRIPED HORN.  Fairservis considers the sign to represent a heap or pile of grain, meaning “fullness, abundance.”

There is an Egyptian glyph that comes to a peak like a tall triangle, but has a rounded base, a form that sits on a thin oval or rectangular base (Aa31).  This glyph contains two stripes which are diagonal rather than horizontal as in the Indus sign.  It is the Old Kingdom form of a chevaux de frise, a decorative element at the top of walls.  It functions as a determinative or ideograph in such words as “ornament” and “to be adorned.”

Seal Ns-9 with inscription: CIRCLED DOT WITH EAR / STRIPED TRIANGLE (3) /
Old Chinese does not have a striped triangle, so far as I can tell with my limited resources.  But the basic triangular elements appear over a collection of four vertical lines joined by two horizontals.  This is lun2, “to gather compare, to meditate, to develop them” (Wieger 1965: 47).  The triangular element conveys the gathering and the joined verticals, reminiscent of stripes, are a representation of the ancient form of Chinese documents.  These were written on long, narrow strips of bamboo (the verticals), joined by thread or cords (the horizontals).
In Luwian hieroglyphs, a single striped triangle is the ideograph URBS, “city.”  Here, the number of stripes is apparently immaterial, while the number of triangles is significant.  Two triangles make up a different ideograph (REGIO, “country”), while three make up yet another (“fortress”).  Cretan hieroglyphs include a symbol something like a triangle with two stripes – but without a closing line at the bottom.  It may represent the vowel e.
Proto-cuneiform includes a number of triangular signs with internal striping of one kind or another, including IR (especially the “a” and “d” variants), NI, and ZATU664.  The first came to mean “perfume,” while the second became “butter, cream.”  The meaning of the last is unknown.  Proto-Elamite similarly contains a number of striped triangles, one with apex to the right, others with apex to the left (M131 and M112, respectively, both with multiple variants distinguished by the number of stripes).

STEPPED TRIANGLE motif on object M-1427.
An element resembling what is sometimes called a “stepped triangle” could be considered a variation on striping in a triangle.  If this is a possibility, then such an element appears in proto-cuneiform as URU~c, perhaps originally a representation of a ziggurat, but later with the meaning “city, town, village, district.”  A shorter version of this appears as a decorative element on various objects at the Central Asian site of Altyn Depe (Masson 1988: pottery Pl. IV, XXV, XLII; terracotta boxes Pl. XVIII, XXXVI, stone weights [?] Pl. XLIII, and metal objects, possibly stamp seals Pl.XXIX).  It also occurs in the art of some Native Americans of the Southwest, such as the Navaho.  A variation of it appears in Navaho sand paintings, for example, where it can represent a cloud (Newcomb and Reichard 1975: 62 & Pl. XXXII).  It also seems to occur on at least one Indus object (M-1427), where its meaning is unknown.  It resembles an altar from historical India (Mookerjee 1998: 46, fig. 24).

Cloud symbol of Navaho sandpaintings as used in
modern wallpaper with Southwest theme (photo by author).
I originally considered the possibility that stepped triangles represented a building with multiple terraces or levels, such as an early pyramid or ziggurat.  Then it seemed only a small step to consider striped triangles as merely another type of representation of the same building(s).  But piling hypothesis upon hypothesis in this way is probably a fundamentally bad idea, especially at the beginning of our inquiry.  I tentatively conclude that the stepped triangles should not be lumped together with the striped variety.  At this point, looking only at those with stripes and only at those in the Indus script, I focused on the striping and the shape of the triangle, seeking evidence for or against grouping triangles and “horns” together.

No. of Stripes

Immediately it becomes apparent that there is little overlap between the number of stripes in the two types of “triangles.”  The bent type or “horn” contains one, two, or three stripes, but no more.  The more regular triangle – isosceles, with two sides equal, but a shorter base – can have anywhere from three to nine stripes, with most having four or five.  I see a total of 50 of these, including a couple of doubtful ones, which is quite close to Wells’ total of 48.  He shows four variants, “a” with 3 stripes, “b” with 4, “c” and “d” both having 5 but distinguished by the width of the base.  The first three have a relatively wide base, while “d” is quite narrow.  Wells finds 26 striped triangles from Mohenjo daro, 16 from Harappa, three from Lothal, one from Kalibangan, and two from Allahdino.  He sees six of the striped “horn”: three from Harappa, two from Kalibangan, and one from Chanhujo daro.  I count one more. 
This is not much to go on, and there are too few of these symbols for valid statistical analysis.  But a tentative conclusion might be that I should subdivide the triangle category, setting the “horn” off from the isosceles triangle.  Both the STRIPED TRIANGLE and STRIPED HORN occur mainly in medial position, each also appearing rarely in the prefix or header, but not finally.  The STRIPED TRIANGLE occurs most often before the GRID (8 times), next most often before STACKED SEVEN (5 times).  Other signs account for the rest.


Masson, V.M. 1981. Altyn-Depe. Leningrad: Leningradshoky Otdeleniye; 1988. Henry N. Michael, trans. Philadelpha: The University Museum.

Mookerjee, Ajit. 1998. Ritual Art of India. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.

Newcomb, Franc J. and Gladys A. Reichard. 1975. Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant. New York: Dover. (originally published 1937 in Canada by General Publishing Co.)