Thursday, June 2, 2011

Birds, Fishes, and Possibly an Indus Squirrel

Seal M-222 with inscription: PRAWN / COW LEG / HEADLESS BIRD.

The thirty-eighth Indus sign among those drawn with eight strokes is another version of the COW LEG (VIII 37), also known as KP45, W155, and Fs D-4.  Fairservis identifies it as an animal haunch or leg representing a mountain tribe.  How he can be certain it does not mean “leg” or “hoof,” I cannot say.  In any case, while there are a number of these leg signs, VIII 37 is the only one comprising eight strokes.  Wells notes two of them total but only one of this particular form (M-222).

But it is a relatively common type of symbol in ancient scripts.  Egyptian makes use of a very similar glyph (F25).  This is ideographic in the word whmt, “hoof” and, oddly enough, in the homophonous word for donkeys.  (In a similar fashion, there is a glyph of a bird’s leg and claw, a phonetic biliteral found in the name of the land of Š3t).

There is also an ox or cow hoof in Luwian, a glyph representing the syllable (presumably a syllable found in the word for “leg” or “hoof”).  Another such symbol appears in Cretan hieroglyphs, perhaps representing the syllable ze (O45).  There is also a leg-like sign in proto-cuneiform, UMBIN~a, “nail, claw, hoof.”
Detail from heavily abraded seal M-929 with (partial?) inscription: CIRCLED VEE / BIRD (and SINGLE QUOTE?).

The next sign, VIII 38, is BIRD, found elsewhere as KP66 (which actually contains 11 strokes), W104, and Fs B-2.  Fairservis thinks it is a peacock, though apparently one without a tail (a peahen?).  He suggests it represents three similar-sounding words in Dravidian, pīli, “tail,” pilli, “sorcery,” and piļļe, “child.”  I have to say, while there is some logic to using a rebus to represent an abstract concept such as sorcery, I can see no reason why the Harappans would not simply draw a child to represent a child.  But even if they were inclined to avoid drawing people when possible (which does not seem to be the case), I find it hard to believe that a symbol that represents the phonemes /p/ and /l/ would be used to represent /p/ and /ļ/.  The two sounds represented with the letter “l” are as significantly different in Dravidian languages as the similarly related sounds /d/ and /t/ are in English.  Still, one cannot be too dogmatic about what ancient people would or would not have done, in the absence of evidence.

What type of bird is intended by this symbol is not entirely clear, as there are several bird-like signs in the Indus script.  This one is turned so that, while its head is at the top, the legs are both facing sideways.  This may be an orientation used to save space on small, often-crowded seals.  But, in addition, there seems to be an additional short stroke by the head of the bird, on the single seal where this particular variation occurs (M-929).  Wells leaves this stroke out in his listing, as do Koskenniemi and Parpola.  But Fairservis includes this tidbit, presumably representing a feather or crest on the bird’s head.  On the seal, there is certainly an indentation in this area, but its interpretation is up to the viewer.  It does not seem to be attached to the bird, so it may be the SINGLE QUOTE.  It could also be nothing more than a scratch and not a symbol (or part thereof).
Detail from Egyptian hieratic writing in the Book of the Dead, showing several birds (highlighted in blue). 
The two with prongs on their heads are owls (representing the consonant "m"),
those with loop heads are chicks (representing the semi-consonant "w"),
and the long-billed and long-legged one is an ibis.

Birds are fairly common in ancient scripts.  Proto-cuneiform includes several, NAM~a being the closest in form, a word that came to mean “barn swallow” or “sparrow.”  Other bird symbols lack the legs and feet found on this one and represent other types of birds.  Egyptian also uses a variety of bird symbols, each type of bird representing something distinct, whether an actual bird or a sound.  The quail chick (G43) is the most common, representing the semi-consonant w.  But there are also ducks, sparrows, owls, swallows, plovers, and falcons, among others.
Two variants of Luwian glyph zi4, representing a bird of prey (an eagle?).

Old Chinese has niao3, “a bird with a long tail” (Wieger 1965: 307).  It is now the 196th radical, used to mean simply “bird.”  Another character originally had a short tail, zhui1, now the 172nd radical.  It now means “short-tailed bird” even though it no longer resembles a bird in any way.  Luwian includes variants of a predatory bird, perhaps an eagle, representing the syllable zi4.
Old Chinese birds, niao3 (above) and zhui1 (below), representing long-tailed and short-tailed birds, respectively.

The next Indus sign is CAGED FISH (VIII 39), found elsewhere as KP51 and W118.  Fairservis lists the FISH as a symbol, suggesting that the addition of the four dots around a sign indicate the plural.  Wells notes 21 occurrences of this ligature, 15 from Mohenjo daro, one from Harappa, three from Lothal, one from Chanhujo daro, and one from Rupar.  I see all those that Wells mentions and more.  Thus, I conclude that there are 31 in all, the one from Rupar and the three from Lothal, all right, but also two from Chanhujo daro, two from Banawali, one from Balakot, two from Harappa, and as many as 21 from Mohenjo daro (two of which are questionable).
Tablet Rpr-1 with inscription (right to left): RAKE / CAGED FISH / COMB.

It is interesting to note how commonly “caging,” as Wells terms it, is found among Indus signs.  This term indicates the placement of four dots around another sign as if to place it in a box, but with only the corners represented.  It is one of the more frequent types of modifying another sign and it is conceivable that it represents a grammatical plural, as Fairservis states.  But it is notable that these four dots always surround the fifth symbol rather than lying in a row above or beneath it (as sometimes occurs in Chinese, as in the character ma3, “horse”) or in a column alongside (as sometimes occurs in Mixtec proto-script as part of a calendrical designation).  It is conceivable that this caging has some reference to the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west.  In many cultures, people associate a particular deity, animal, color, etc. with a particular cardinal direction.  However, I must admit that some people count more than four directions.  The Chinese have five (including the center) and the Mongols at times counted six (including up and down).  The four dots might also represent the four seasons, although again, some people count fewer than four or more than four.  My point is that we should not be too quick to assume we can fathom a specific reason for this type of caging.
Detail of seal M-928 with inscription: SINGLE POST / CUPPED POST / STRIPED LOOP UNDER CHEVRON.

Be that as it may, our next symbol is another fish-like element, this one without side “fins,” given horizontal stripes, and placed beneath a chevron.  Previously, I referred to this “finless fish” as LOOP, so this sign is STRIPED LOOP UNDER CHEVRON.  Koskenniemi and Parpola note a single sign of this type (KP48).  But Wells notes at least three variations on this theme.  His sign W121 has two variants, one with four internal strokes and one with five (thus, nine strokes total).  His W136 also has four stripes but is distinct in that the “chevron” rests directly on the “loop.”  He notes seven occurrences of the first sign, without distinguishing which variant occurs how often (four from Mohenjo daro and three from Harappa).  Where the chevron sits directly on the loop, he sees only one (M-25).  I see ten altogether, seven from Mohenjo daro (including W136) as well as the three from Harappa.

Proto-cuneiform includes an obscure sign that resembles a finless fish in outline and which contains internal stripes (ZATU 784).  There is nothing equivalent to the Indus “chevron” associated with this Near Eastern symbol, however.  And, unfortunately, the meaning is unknown.

The next Indus sign is a “fish” bracketed by parentheses, with the small triangle that I term an “ear” attached on one side.  I term this sign FISH BETWEEN PARENS WITH EAR (VIII 41).  It appears only in Wells’ list, as W125.  He notes four occurrences, all from Mohenjo daro.  I find nine of them, including several on tablets containing duplicate inscriptions (M-572 through 574 and M-1520 through 1522).
Broken seal H-442 with (partial?) inscription: FISH BETWEEN DOUBLED POSTS / FAT EX IN DIAMOND.

There is also a FISH BETWEEN DOUBLED POSTS (VIII 42), again appearing only in Wells’ list (W139).  This symbol – if it is a single symbol and not a series of three – is a singleton from Harappa according to Wells.  I find two from that city (H-442 and 443) as well as one from Kot Diji (Kd-7).
Detail from seal M-309 (square seal without an icon): POTTED ONE / TRIPLE FINNED FISH /

Next, another “fish” seems to have three fins on each side: TRIPLE FINNED FISH (VIII 43).  This version occurs elsewhere as KP64 and W142, a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-315).  While most of the fish-like symbols may represent real fishes, it is possible that this one originated as an insect with multiple legs.  Compare proto-cuneiform |SUKUD@g~d| which came to mean “height; high,” and Cretan hieroglyph 005 (a syllable beginning with “r”).  All three symbols are made up of an oval with various strokes added around the sides.
Seal M-309 with inscription: CIRCLED FAT EX / BI-QUOTES // LAMBDA / POT //
FISH BETWEEN POSTS WITH EAR (?) (final sign might also be seen as POT LID / FISH / SINGLE POST).

There is also a FISH BETWEEN POSTS WITH EAR (VIII 44), found only in Wells’ (W146).  It is yet another singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-309).  Bracketing is fairly common in the Indus script, there are various types of “brackets,” some resembling a single vertical line on either side of a third symbol, some resembling parentheses or reversed parentheses, elongated “S” shapes, and occasionally doubled verticals.  The addition of an “ear” is less frequent, but also found on various symbols.  The use of two such modifications at once is rare, so that appearances such as this one might be interpreted differently (as POT LID / FISH / SINGLE POST, in this instance).  If the various elements are correctly interpreted as a single symbol, this is reminiscent of the rather unsystematic modification of basic signs in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite, termed gunification.  In these proto-scripts, such modification usually indicates a narrowing of the meaning of the basic sign.  Thus, gunification of a symbol meaning “sheep” may indicate the sex of the animal(s), the age, or both at once.  It is quite possible that bracketing and other types of modification in the Indus script (adding an “ear” or a “tri-fork”) serve a similar function.

Along these lines, there is a single instance of a DOUBLY WHISKERED FISH (VIII45), also known as KP62(b) and W134.  It comes from Chanhujo daro (C-21).  Strictly speaking, the sign depicted in the list of the first authors has four “whiskers,” while it has five in the second list.  I cannot quite tell how many the actual symbol contains.  However that may be, the sign has no exact counterpart in the scripts I have compared it to.  The closest analog is proto-cuneiform |(SUKUD + SUKUD)~a|, “height.”  This resembles a finless fish with an open mouth, a mouth which is emphasized by additional strokes – though these additions are inside the “fish” rather than outside.
Seal M-1202 with inscription: OVERLAPPING CIRCLES / PALM SQUIRREL / POT //
RAKE / WINGED MAN / POT (in place of the first POT one might expect POTTED ONE,
but that does not appear to be the case; thus the inscription may contain two units of information).

The final sign discussed here is one which Parpola identifies as a palm squirrel (1998: ).  I do not know whether it is intended to depict this animal or not, but the term for it is useful.  Thus, I call it SQUIRREL (VIII 46), also known as KP300, W149, and Fs I-12.  Fairservis does not see it as an animal, despite the “legs.”  He states that it is a plow, meaning “to plough, ploughing, ploughed.”  His reproduction of the symbol gives it only three “legs,” while each of the four variants included in Wells’ list have four (two or three from Mohenjo daro, one or two from Harappa, and one from Nindowari damb).  The variations differ in the shape of the “head” (loop, line, or semi-circle), the shape of the “body” (semi-circle or oval), the shape of the “tail.”  But in all of these, the “head” is at the base, the “legs” on one side, and the “tail” curves or bends back over the “body.”  Parpola sees this orientation as significant, representing the characteristic posture of the palm squirrel on a tree trunk.
Bas-relief tablet H-771 with inscription: DOUBLE POSTS /
SQUIRREL (I've left out one of the three "legs") / OVERLAPPING CIRCLES.

Quadrupeds from other scripts: Egyptian Seth animal (above) and monkey
(lower right -- cf. tail), Old Chinese dragon (lower left).
However, rotating a symbol for writing purposes often occurs elsewhere without such real-world significance.  The Egyptian monkey typically has its four legs downward, as the real animal would stand, but this script often includes glyphs turned differently in order to squeeze more symbols in a smaller space or for esthetic reasons.  In proto-cuneiform, there is an apparent quadruped which typically has its legs all on one side (ZATU 703).  And in Old Chinese, while some characters that originally depict animals have legs underneath (e.g., ma3, “horse”), others have legs on one side (e.g., shu3, “rat, rodent”).  So, the Indus symbol might well represent a palm squirrel, but it is also possible that it depicts some other animal, one that normally runs on the ground but it “written” sideways to save space.

Seal Nd-1 with inscription: SQUIRREL / PINCH / STACKED 6 / TRI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT / FLAIL / BLANKET / FISH / CIRCLED VEE (note the non-linear arrangement of some symbols, probably due to crowding).

Quadrupeds found on punch-marked coins of later India: gharial with fish (upper left), frog (upper right),
cat (?) (left, second row), fish (right, second row), donkey (left, third row), zebu (lower left), prawn or insect (?) (lower right).

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