Monday, May 9, 2011

Seven Rare Indus Signs of Seven Strokes

The most common symbol in the Indus script is the POT, or "flying U."  But not every Indus “pot” has “F” shaped prongs protruding from the sides.  Those “U” (and “V”) shapes that have some other element adorning the tops are still “pots” in my terminology.  The first I will discuss in this post is ONE IN CHEVRON TOPPED POT (VII 47).  A small chevron sits atop each “arm” of the basic “U” shape, while a short vertical stands between them.  Only Wells lists this sign (W34), noting it to be a singleton (MacKay XCIII 3).  I have not seen it since it does not appear in the first two volumes of the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions, but I include in the list nonetheless.

A second, equally obscure symbol is TRI-FORK AND BUD TOPPED POT (VII 48).  In this case, the left “arm” of the basic “U” is topped with the three-part division I term a “tri-fork” (also known as a trident).  The right “arm takes the form of the BUD symbol.  This asymmetrical sign appears only in the list prepared by Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP106).
Detail from seal M-777 with inscription: FOOTED STOOL / PINCH /

The third sign is TABLE BETWEEN CIRCLES (VII 49).  The “table” element is the version with one short “leg” and a second “long” one discussed among the three-stroke signs (III 6).  Sign VII 49 appears only in Wells (W372), noted as another singleton, although it closely resembles other symbols.  The five-stroke POST BETWEEN CIRCLES (V 48) is essentially the same except that a single vertical separates the circles rather than a “table.”  Similarly, BARBELL ON POST (VI 60) also includes two circles, this time separated (or joined) by a vertical plus a very short horizontal.  If one prefers to group these three signs together, one could term them all DIVIDED CIRCLES, designating the type of central divider either by name or by letter.  Thus, one might consider a variant “A” to be DIVIDED CIRCLES WITH POST, variant “B” to be DIVIDED CIRCLES WITH POST AND BAR, and variant “C” to be DIVIDED CIRCLES WITH TABLE.  If this method of grouping is preferred, then VII 49 A is a singleton from Chanhujo daro, VII 49 B occurs three times at Mohenjo daro according to Wells (although I find six from Mohenjo daro and perhaps eight from Harappa), and VII 49 C is another singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-777).

Only Luwian hieroglyphs provide a close analogy to these variations on a theme.  The glyph includes two small circles divided by an upside-down “L” shape.  This is a phonetic symbol representing the syllable wa or wi.  It is considerably more common in Luwian than in the Indus script.

The only other parallel to this that I have observed occurs in the art of Texas.  Here, two circles appear on either side of a central vertical line (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 107, Pl. 68, no. 24).  However, these marks are only part of a far more complex motif on a painted pebble.  Each circle contains a dot and there are diagonal elements above (or are they below?) these dotted circles.  The whole thing gives an impression of a face or mask, though without an obvious mouth.
Seal Ad-t with inscription: STACKED THREE / OVERLAPPING CIRCLES / POT//

The next sign is VII 50, BARBELL BETWEEN SLASHES, also known as KP348 and W385, though not found in Fairservis.  The “barbell” element occurs independently in two published lists (KP347 and Fs K-11), but this existence is rather problematic.  Although both Fairservis and the Koskenniemi and Parpola team depict the BARBELL as two circles joined by a clear and obvious horizontal line of some length, I have only seen it in this form as part of a ligature.  Two circles are joined by a very short horizontal at their bases at Kalibangan (K-43).  A BARBELL may occur on the almost illegible M-1376, though this may be nothing but DOUBLE CIRCLES (or DOUBLE CIRCLED DOTS).  A caged BARBELL appears at Lothal (L-96).  But that ligature is a nine-stroke symbol.  Then there is the BARBELL BETWEEN SLASHES (more accurately, between a slash and a backslash).  This is a singleton from Allahdino (Ad-6).

The “barbell” motif is common in the rock art of North America, where it appears in various forms.  In Texas there are asymmetrical instances, where one circle is larger than the other, more symmetrical instances where the circles contain dots, fancier outlined versions, and even occurrences that are outlined and contain dots plus have assorted dots around them as if for added emphasis (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 100-104, Pl. 56-63, Pl. 56 nos. 1 and 2, Pl. 57, Pl. 60, Pl. 62, and Pl. 63).  In the Nevada collection there are 130 occurrences of connected circles (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 136, fig. 73 e).  Something like a “barbell” appears in proto-cuneiform as NUNUZ, “egg(s), offspring; female, woman”; it occurs again in proto-Elamite (M309~a and M371).  Barbell-like elements even appear among the enigmatic symbols carved on Pictish monuments.  But nowhere else does such a motif occur regularly between two leaning posts as in Indus sign VII 50.
Detail from seal M-115 with inscription (over unicorn): HAIRY DUCK HEAD / PANTS / BI-QUOTES //

The next sign is VII 51, QUOTES IN OVERLAPPING CIRCLES.  Wells alone lists this form (W355).  He finds five occurrences, four of them from Mohenjo daro and one from Lothal.  Symbols that include an overlap are not frequent around the world, but a few do occur.  I mentioned a few of these previously, in the post on the simpler sign OVERLAPPING CIRCLES.  These parallels include the Old Chinese yu2, “to pass from hand to hand, to hand down, to give, communication, connexion” (Wieger 1965: 236).  This is a quite distant parallel, however, since the basic elements are stacked triangles, the apex of the upper one overlapping the apex of the lower.  A curving stroke is added at the base of the lower triangle.  The placement of this last stroke is significant, too.  If it appears at the top instead of at the bottom of the character, the word is changed to huan4, “fraud, deceiving, false” (1965: 237).

Among the African Adinkra symbols, there are overlapping diamonds.  The name for this symbol is epa, meaning “handcuffs” (Willis 1998: 100).  This represents law and justice, not surprisingly.  There is also a symbol comprising two elements overlapping that are more difficult to describe – something like a circle with two posts protruding at the top and bottom.  The name for this unusual symbol is nyansapo, “wisdom knot,” and it symbolizes wisdom, ingenuity, intelligence, and patience (1998: 164).  And while there may be no overlapping circles in North American rock art, there is a motif of a circle divided by a horizontal line, with a dot in each segment (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 101, Pl. 57).
Bar seal M-354 with inscription: MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / BACK CEE & CEE / BI-QUOTES //

The following Indus sign may well be a variant of this last one: SLASHES IN OVERLAPPING CIRCLES (VII 52).  It appears elsewhere as KP352 and W347, though not in Fairservis.  Wells notes 17 occurrences, 13 of them from Mohenjo daro, three from Harappa, and one from Lothal (eight from outside the Corpus).

The same analogs might be cited for this sign as for the previous one.  In addition, we may note the use of two overlapping circles – with additional ornamentation – to represent bracelets in Tibetan Buddhist art (Bryant 1992: 163).  This symbol appears as part of a naming ceremony for young student monks in a monastery.

Our final sign is VII 53, OVERLAPPING CIRCLES WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK, also known as KP351 and W387.  This is another sign that I have not seen, since, as Wells indicates, it is a singleton not found in the Corpus (MacKay XCIII 2).  In this symbol, the overlapping elements have no inner markings, but on one side a trident protrudes.  Koskenniemi and Parpola’s list show the trident as a “Y” shape in which the central vertical continues up between the top “arms.”  Wells, on the other hand, shows the trident as a post to which three prongs are attached, rather like a long-stemmed letter “E.”  Since I cannot view the actual symbol, I do not know which is more correct.  And in any case, I see nothing comparable among the signs of other scripts, proto-scripts, and symbol systems.  However, this may be another instance of Indus-style gunification, the non-standardized modification of a standard sign in order to convey specific information, a process clearly used in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  The attached “tri-fork” appears relatively frequently in the Indus script even if this particular instance is rare.


(I include here only my basic sources and a few that I have acquired recently.)

Bryant, Barry. 1992. The Wheel of Time Sand Mandala: Visual Scripture of Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Çambel, Halet. 1999. Corpus of Hieroglyphic Inscriptions. Vol. II. Karatepe-Aslantaş. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Damerow, Peter and Robert Englund. 1989. The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Fairservis, Walter. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gardiner, Sir Alan. 1976. Egyptian Grammar. Oxford: Griffith Institute and Ashmolean Museum.

Heizer, Robert F. and Martin A. Baumhoff. 1984. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. Berkeley: University of California.

Joshi, Jagat Pati and Asko Parpola. 1987. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 1. Collections in India. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Koskenniemi, Kimmo and Asko Parpola. 1982. A Concordance to the Texts in the Indus Script. Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki.

LeQuellec, Jean-Loic. 2004. Rock Art in Africa: Mythology and Legend. Translator, Paul Bahn. Paris: Flammarion.

Masson, V.M. 1988. Altyn-Depe. Translator, Henry N. Michael. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Newcomb, Jr., W.W. and H. Kirkland. 1996. The Rock Art of Texas Indians. Austin: University of Texas.

Shah, Sayid Ghulam Mustafa and Asko Parpola. 1991. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 2. Collections in Pakistan. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Wells, Bryan. 1998. An Introduction to Indus Writing: A Thesis. University of Calgary.

Wieger, Dr. L. 1965. Chinese Characters. Dover: New York.

Willis, W. Bruce. 1998. The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on The Language of Adinkra. Washington, D.C.: The Pyramid Complex.


Old Europe

Cretan hieroglyphs:

South American rock art:

Alpine rock art:

African rock art:



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