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): |
CIRCLE WITH LASHES UNDER TABLE / STACKED EIGHT / TRI-FORK.
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.
|Proposed VI78, DEE WITH LASHES.|
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):|
EGG BY NEST / POT.
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 / |
COIL / PINCH / MAN WITH ANKLET.
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.”
|Seal H-139 with inscription: STRIPED TRIANGLE (4) / VEE IN DIAMOND / STRIPED FAT LEG LAMBDA.|
|Seal Ns-9 with inscription: CIRCLED DOT WITH EAR / STRIPED TRIANGLE (3) / |
CORN HOLDER / PANTS / BUD / BI-QUOTES // POT / MAN HOLDING POST.
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 documents...to 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.)