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.

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