Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Modified Triangles and Diamonds in Harappan Script

Among the triangular Indus signs, two are most likely variants of a single sign.  The first is listed separately only by Wells (W413).  It is a bisected triangle (i.e., a triangle divided in half by an internal vertical stroke), with three short marks crossing the vertical line.  I tentatively enumerate it VII 15, calling it SHISH KEBAB IN TRIANGLE.  Wells observes 38 of these, all from Harappa.  All occurrences happen to be on tablets bearing multiple duplicates of only three different inscriptions.

Tablet H-252A with inscription (from right): SHISH KEBAB IN TRIANGLE /
QUAD-FORK / BI-QUOTES // WHISKERED FISH / SPEAR.
The following sign, VII 16 (for now), is BISECTED STRIPED TRIANGLE.  It is also known as KP209, W423, and Fs K-7.  Fairservis proposes that it means “ninth month,” noting that it regularly pairs with his E-2 (QUAD-FORK).  Both Fairservis and the Koskenniemi and Parpola team depict the sign as actually containing eight strokes, which is to say with four rather than three stripes crossing the vertical.  Wells notes a frequency of only three for the sign, all from Mohenjo daro, appearing in two different variants.  His “a” version is the seven-stroke item I include at this point (M-358, M-678).  The “b” version contains nine strokes, some of them bent, and will be mentioned again later (M-181).
Detail from seal M-678 with inscription: BISECTED STRIPED TRIANGLE / SINGLE POST /
BI-QUOTES / CIRCLED QUAD-FORK / CAGED FISH / STRIPED TRIANGLE /
SIX QUOTES / STRIPED FLANGE TOPPED POT / POT (some symbols may be misread).

As for my own observations, I note an “A” version with three internal stripes, a “B” with two, a “C” with only one (M-181), and a "D" with six.  I classify Wells’ “b” version as a different sign since two of its crossing marks are “V” shaped rather than straight horizontals.  Further, as noted at the start of this post, I tend to think that VII 15 and VII 16 are variants of a single symbol, one form appearing on tablets from Harappa, the other on seals from Mohenjo daro.
Detail from seal M-181 with inscription: BISECTED STRIPED TRIANGLE ("C") / PANTS /
BI-QUOTES / HUNCHBACK / SPEAR (the use of fewer internal stripes may not be
due to a difference in meaning, but due to lack of space over unicorn horn). 


The best parallel for either sign in another script comes from Luwian hieroglyphs.  A bisected triangle with a single horizontal crossing line is the ideograph REX, “king.”  Another striped triangle – without the central vertical bisecting it – represents URBS, “city.”
In proto-cuneiform a triangle containing an element much like a shish kebab is SU~b, later meaning “body, flesh, skin.”  A similar triangle appears in proto-Elamite (M107~a), with unknown significance.  The second example is almost identical to the Indus VII 16, while the first example more closely resembles VII 15.  Proto-Elamite almost includes a number of triangles adorned with multiple prongs on the outside (the “hairy triangle”).  One variant contains a “shish kebab” with two crossing lines (M136~i).  Another variant contains three and yet another variant contains four crossing lines (M136~j and ~k respectively).
Old Chinese essentially makes do without triangles, though there is a character topped by a “chevron” under which there are three horizontal lines joined by one central vertical.  This is quan2, “complete, entire, perfect” (Wieger 1965: 50).  The rock art of the American Southwest likewise is not characterized by many triangles.  I note a single occurrence of a motif in Texas that is something like a tall and thin triangle with slightly curving sides (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 53, Pl. 18, no. 8).  There are three of these unusual shapes grouped together in this instance, each adorned with various internal marks.  This might be a depiction of some type of pottery.
The next sign is a singleton, TRI-FORK ON DIAMOND (VII 17).  It appears elsewhere in Wells (W402) only.  This occurrence is on a heavily abraded seal from Mohenjo daro (M-1154).  The inscription may begin with the TABLE with one long leg or the first sign may be SINGLE POST followed by SINGLE QUOTE.  After this obscure beginning, the inscription reads: CIRCLED TRI-FORK / DOT IN FISH / SPEAR / TRI-FORK ON DIAMOND. 
Detail of M-1154 with inscription: TABLE (?) / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / DOT IN FISH/
SPEAR / TRI-FORK ON DIAMOND ("TABLE" may be SINGLE POST + SINGLE QUOTE).

I include this information to point out the occurrence of both a circular (more precisely, oval) sign as well as a diamond-shaped sign in the same inscription.  As previously noted, this is one piece of evidence suggesting that the Harappans distinguished diamonds and circles.  However, if one ignores this distinction for a moment, the final sign might be considered a trident upon a shape undifferentiated as to specific form.  That is, this may be the symbol found elsewhere as KP47 (CIRCLE WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK, V47).  If that is correct, then perhaps V47 should be deleted from the final list and the term for VII 17 amended to DIAMOND WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK.
In any case, there are few parallels in other scripts for this somewhat enigmatic symbol.  Diamonds generally do not occur in Egyptian hieroglyphs.  While there is a basic diamond in Luwian hieroglyphs, there are none with attachments.  Proto-cuneiform provides various diamonds with internal marks as well as one or two prongs attached, but none with trident shapes.  There is an oval, pointed at both ends, containing a small oval and partly pierced by a “grain ear” (four “V” shapes on a stem).  This is TU~a which may be the symbol that came to mean “interfere.”  But the best parallel comes from proto-Elamite, with M246~b.  This is a diamond to which an element is attached that resembles the letter “F.”  Unfortunately, the significance is unknown.
The final sign considered in this post is even more obscure than the previous one.  In form it is another diamond, this one containing an element resembling a “P” but with a pointed rather than curved bulge on the side.  It appears only as KP362 elsewhere.  I enumerate it VII 18, calling it PENNANT IN DIAMOND.  The obscurity of this sign is due to my inability to locate it.  There is something similar in appearance on the seal M-118.  But this is a “Y” shape (or BI-FORK) in a diamond, not a “pennant.”  That said, though, the sign may simply occur on an artifact not published in the first two volumes of the Corpus.

Illustration of how PENNANT IN DIAMOND (VII 18) might appear on a seal.
I find symbols resembling the “pennant” in many areas, including Egyptian hieroglyphs (R8, cloth on a pole representing divinity; T7, axe) and proto-cuneiform (especially SZESZ, “brother”).  Only proto-Elamite combines such an element with a diamond shape.  Even then, the “pennant” attaches to the outside of the diamond rather than being inside (M246~c).  Note that the identification number for this symbol indicates that it has been classified as a variant of M246~b, cited earlier as a parallel for the Indus TRI-FORK ON DIAMOND.  In both proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite, early scribes appear to have used a process termed “gunification” to modify the basic meaning of a sign.  That is, say the basic diamond indicated a goat in proto-Elamite.  A scribe might add one or more strokes to the basic form to denote female goats (i.e., nanny goats), a different type or number of strokes to denote immature goats (i.e., kids), and perhaps more distinctions such as male kids versus female kids.  The basic forms might be generally known and used by all scribes, but the specific modifications might have only a restricted usage and they might have been unsystematic. 
It is possible that the Indus “script” – which was most likely another early proto-writing system – functioned in a similar manner.  Thus, the addition of a  branching element, whether BI-FORK, TRI-FORK, or another, may have been a modification of the meaning of the basic sign.  It may also be that the basic forms were generally known and used, but particular modifications were less common, meant different things in different areas or at different times, and so on.

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