Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Leaf, an Egg, and a Bird in the Indus Script

Tablet H289A and B with inscriptions: STRIPED LEAF (B); FOUR QUOTES / LOOP TOPPED DUBYA / POT (A).

Today’s first sign for discussion is a ten-stroke version of the STRIPED LEAF (X 45), enumerated elsewhere as KP112, W254, and Fs E-6a.  Fairservis identifies it as a pipal leaf, with the definition “head/high superior as in Chief or God” (1992: 161).  As Wells notes, there are many variants, this one occurring twice at Harappa (H289B and H290B, which are duplicates).
Plant motif (right) from proto-Elamite pot shard, with gazelle or goat on left
(this fringed look is far more common than leaf-like elements in most early art)
(Potts 2001: 188, fig. 7.7).

Many plants appear in the scripts of other lands, including the M series in Egyptian hieroglyphs (e.g., M2 is the determinative for a plant or flower; M9 the determinative for a specific species, the lotus).  Plant-like signs also appear in proto-cuneiform: GI, “reed”; GI4, “to return”; GIBIL, “renewal”; GISZIMMAR, “date palm”; and NAGA, “saltwort,” are examples.  Although these all look like plants at the early proto-writing stage, they may not all signify such things.  And none of these examples bears much resemblance to the Indus LEAF sign.
Adinkra sign sankofa: doubled on right, variants of single form on left (Willis 1998: 188).

Plant-like motifs also occur in the artwork and/or symbol systems around the world (hardly surprising since plants themselves are widespread).  But a leaf resembling the Indus X 45 remains quite rare, regardless of where one looks.  Among the Adinkra symbols of West Africa, one includes an element shaped like a Valentine heart, as well as a “stem.”  This is sankofa, “go back to fetch it” (Willis 1998: 188-189).  This symbol actually represents two birds rather than a plant, conveying the message that one must learn from the past in order to build for the future.  It has many variants, many of which do not resemble the Indus LEAF in the least.
Seal K-28 with inscription: HORN / EGG ON NEST / BI-QUOTES // VEST / POT // GRAIN EAR /
TABLE (note that "trident" on the second sign angles toward the right and its oval sits on three prongs).

The second Indus sign for today’s post is EGG ON NEST (X 46), a symbol with a trident on top of an oval that sits on three or four prongs.  It appears in other published lists as KP84, as well as W179 and W180.  Wells distinguishes two versions, seen as independent signs, where W180 is the mirror image of W179 (and vice versa).  If we combine these as variants of a single sign, following Koskenniemi and Parpola, there are five occurrences in all, all but one from Mohenjo daro.
Broken seal M-976 with (complete) inscription: CIRCLED VEE /
(note angle of "trident" on last sign, which sits on four prongs). 

Again, there is nothing quite like this symbol elsewhere, so far as I can tell.  In proto-cuneiform, there is a sign based on a diamond shape, with a prong attached to each corner.  In this symbol, IM~b, which may be either the sign that came to mean “clay” or the one for “storm,” the angles of the attached prongs vary, so that the whole lacks symmetry.  It is really only this feature that is shared with the Indus sign.
Adinkra wawa aba symbol, which represents toughness and perseverance (Willis 1998: 196).

Among the Adinkra signs, asymmetry is quite rare.  There is one symbol containing a circle sitting on three prongs, namely wawa aba, “seeds of the wawa tree” (Willis 1998: 196).  It has the same three prongs on top, though, not a forked element.  This symbol symbolizes hardiness, toughness, and perseverance.
"Shield" motif from American Southwest (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 166, fig. 103a).

In the American Southwest, the occasional representation of a warrior’s shield bears some resemblance to the Indus sign.  In one case, a circle appears to sit on three prongs, with a “skewered chevron” on top (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 126, fig. 63a).  In another instance, there is a trident protruding from the circle at an angle, as well as a number of attached prongs (1984: 166, fig. 103a).  Once more, none is a close match for the Indus X 46.

Today’s third sign derives from the list of Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP81).  It appears nowhere else in the literature and I have not seen it in the Corpus.  Nevertheless, I include it here as BARBELL UNDER FOOTED TABLE (X 47).  As noted in a previous post, the “barbell” motif is widespread around the world, but a combination of these two elements, “barbell” and “table,” is vanishingly rare.
Bar seal L-88 with inscription: BIRD WITH BENT NECK / GRID / DOWN BI-FORK / SINGLE QUOTE //
FIVE QUOTES / QUAD-FORK (note the oval near the distal end of the bird's neck indicates it is the head, not a feather).

We come to today’s fourth sign now, also rare but occasionally paralleled outside the Indus Valley.  I term this one BIRD WITH BENT NECK (X 48), known elsewhere only as KP69.  Fairservis apparently took the curved line arising from the central element as a feather on the head (B-3, identified as a peacock).  Wells does note a bird with its head turned toward the tail, but he gives it stripes (W105).  This increases the stroke count, so I include it in a later section.  As far as I can tell, this sign appears once, at Lothal (L-88).  Other birds in the script have short necks and look straight ahead.
Ghanaian goldweights in the form of the Sankofa bird (Phillips 2010: 104, Pl. 158).

The West African Sankofa bird is a prime analog, as it characteristically turns its head toward its tail.  It appears among the Adinkra signs, as noted previously in this post.  Such a bird is also found in three-dimensional versions among the goldweights of this region (Phillips 2010: 104, Pl. 158).
Ornate bird (eagle or dove) at Christ's shoulder from the Irish Book of Kells (Mitchell 1978: 140, Pl. 37/38b).

In the West, the four evangelists credited with writing the Christian gospels are often represented in non-human form.  Matthew is an angel, Mark a lion, Luke a bull, and John an eagle.  In the medieval Irish Book of Kells, there are two birds, one at each shoulder of Christ, perhaps representing John’s eagle, perhaps the dove of the Holy Ghost (Mitchell 1978: 139-140, Pl. 37/38b).  In each case, the bird turns its head backward toward its wing, in this 8th century book.
The DUCK IN POND as depicted in seal Marshall No. 93.

Another rare Indus sign is a more straightforward bird surrounded by an oval that lacks points.  Following Fairservis, I term this DUCK IN POND (X 49), also known as KP68, W111, and Fs B-5.  While Fairservis identifies this as a depiction of a duck, he defines the sign as a “token of an unknown but certain value” (1992: 158).
Detail from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, with various birds highlighted, including three of the chick (G43), two of the owl (G17), and one instance of the sacred ibis on a standard (G26), none enclosed (Faulkner 1994).

Although birds of various types occur in other scripts as well as in the art of many places, I see no close parallels where a bird is enclosed by a round line.  Its occurrence in the Indus script is as a singleton, identified by Wells as Marshall No. 93.  It does not appear in the Corpus.


Fairservis, Walter A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Faulkner, Raymond O. 1994. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Koskenniemi, Kimmo and Asko Parpola. 1982. A Concordance to the Texts in the Indus Script. Helsinki: Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki.
Mitchell, G. Frank. 1978. Treasures of Early Irish Art 1500 BC to 1500 AD. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Phillips, Tom. 2010. African Goldweights: Miniature Sculptures from Ghana 1400-1900. London: Edition Hansjorg Mayer.
Potts, D.T. 2001. "Context BW.69.T5.5-7" in Excavations at Tepe Yahya, Iran 1967-1975: The Third Millennium, C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
Wells, Bryan. 1998. An Introduction to Indus Writing: A Thesis. University of Calgary (see previous post for online availability).
Willis, W. Bruce. 1998. The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra. Washington DC: The Pyramid Complex.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Fancy Circles in the Indus Script: When Is a Wheel Not a Wheel?

Tablet H-787B with inscription (reading right to left): SHISH KEBAB / DEE-SLASH / CIRCLED FAT EX.

I begin this post by considering an apparent variation on the simpler CIRCLED CROSS.  Since we are examining ten-stroke signs, today’s first symbol is CIRCLED FAT EX (X 42).  It does not appear either in Fairservis’ list of Indus signs or among those prepared by Koskenniemi and Parpola.  However, Wells notes eleven occurrences of his W350, five of them from Mohenjo daro and six from Harappa.  There may be an additional instance from each of those sites and another from Lothal, according to my own database.  In any case, this is not a common sign.

Replica of pre-cuneiform token which may have developed
into the sign SIG2,"hair; wool; fur, hide" (made by author).

Egyptian glyph O49 is another “fat ex” (or four “V” shapes) in a circle, a determinative for a place, typically a village or town.  It occurs quite frequently even in apparently non-geographic texts, such as the Book of the Dead (it appears seven times on one page of Chapter 17 in the Faulkner facsimile edition 1994: pl. 8).  As previously noted, there is also a five-pointed star in a circle among the glyphs (N15).  It is part of the word dw3t, “netherworld.”  Since many of the Egyptian texts concern the afterlife, this is not a rare glyph.
Egyptian O49, determinative for a town or village.

Proto-cuneiform includes an “X” shape of doubled lines inside a circle in the sign SIG2~a3, which came to mean “hair; wool; fur, hide.”  This sign may have originated as a copy of a round token with incised double “X” before the stage of proto-writing (Schmandt-Besserat 1992: 18 from Uruk, Iraq and 22-23 from Susa, Iran; see also artifact list p. 210, four perpendicular lines on a disk-shaped token 3:55 and 3:56).  Tokens are small objects of clay, made into various shapes – spheres, cones, disks, tetrahedrons, and iconic shapes – that were used in the earliest accounting system in the Near East.  Such a system preceded writing by thousands of years.  Although such tokens have been excavated from as far east as Shahr-i-Sokhta and Bampur, they do not seem to have been in general use in the Indus Valley civilization.
A bronze hairpin with "cartwheel" design as the head from Tepe Yahya, Iran
 (note the incised circled cross or "X" in the center) (Potts 2001: 64).

Among the Indus signs there is another oval with internal additions: BACKSLASH IN DONUT WITH COMB (X 43), a sign I base on the form published as KP370.  Wells provides a slightly different version of this symbol, in which the bisected circle inside the larger circle is a small bisected rectangle (W379).  I think that, in this instance, Wells is correct.  He also notes it to be a singleton from Harappa (H-558).  I find no parallels to this unusual symbol.
Bas-relief tablet H-176A with inscription on right (reading right to left): DOUBLE
CARTWHEELS / POT (bovine, standing man, plus man seated in building are the icon, not signs).

The next Indus sign in my list follows Wells: DOUBLE CARTWHEELS (X 44).  Koskenniemi and Parpola classify each occurrence as an instance of their KP378 (the individual CARTWHEEL), and Fairservis also views the sign this way (F-2 is the single CARTWHEEL).  Faiservis defines the single sign as “full moon.”  This suggests that he might consider the doubling of the symbol to mean “two moons” (or “two months”).  Not all signs appear in doubled form, so Wells takes this to indicate an independent symbol.  He finds six occurrences, three from Mohenjo daro, one apiece from Harappa, Lothal, and Banawali. 
Replica of a pre-cuneiform token, a disk with a five-pointed "star"
(essentially the same symbol as Egyptian N15, "star," though without that meaning).

In Egyptian hieroglyphs, the doubling of a sign can be significant in the sense that Wells suggests.  The single reed (Gardiner’s M17) typically indicates the phonetic element transcribed i (actually a type of glottal stop, not a vowel).  When doubled, the sound changes to y (Gardiner 1976: 27).  This apparently derives from the phonetic form of the dual case ending in ancient Egyptian.  I doubt that the Indus signs had phonetic values in the same way, for reasons that will become clear later on, in another post.
Symbols commonly found on kudurru, the star of Inanna/Ishtar (left) and the sun of Utu/Shamash (right).

At any rate, proto-cuneiform provides a number of possible parallels to the Indus CARTWHEEL, though these are usually not doubled.  Among the early tokens found in Iraq and Iran, one disk contains five “spokes” and another eight, reminiscent of a star-in-circle motif (Schmandt-Besserat 1992: 210, disks 3:53 and 3:60).  In the later proto-cuneiform, besides the “X” of double lines (or “tic tac toe” marking) in a circle cited earlier in this post, there is |LAGAB~a x UB|, wherein a circle contains an inverted five-point star.  This may represent a type of livestock, but the individual signs mean “slab (of stone), block (of wood” and “angle; one of the four directions.” 
Clay model of a cart from Altyn Depe, showing solid wheels (Masson 1988: Pl. XLIII).

Still later, during the period of the Kassite Dynasty in Babylonia, land deeds or grants were carved onto conical stone stelae called kudurru.  At the top the emblems of various Mesopotamian gods appear.  Among these emblems, two of the most common often appear as star-like elements enclosed in a circle.  The sun god, Sumerian Utu or Akkadian Shamash, is represented by a four-pointed star in a circle, with wavy lines interspersed between the points.  Sumerian Inanna, the goddess of love and of war, known as Ishtar to the Akkadians, is represented by an eight-pointed star which is also sometimes in a circle.
Detail of cart with wheel from the Standard of Ur -- not a spoked wheel, but solid (Aruz 2003: 98).

Before continuing with the enumeration of wheel-like symbols, I want to point out that these early signs cannot represent spoked wheels.  That is because the people of the Early Bronze Age did not yet have these.  They did have carts or wagons and these did have wheels.  But the wheels were solid, as shown on the famous Standard of Ur from Mesopotamia (Aruz 2003: 97-99).  That this was true in Eurasia generally is indicated by small models of carts with solid wheels (Indus Valley: Kenoyer 1998: 89-90; Altyn Depe in Turkmenistan: Masson 1981: Pl. XLIII, nos. 1-4; Budakalász in Hungary: Gimbutas 1991: 374-5).  Despite this fact, a cartwheel-like symbol is extremely common.  It is found adorning Elamite objects of the third millennium, including as the design of a stamp seal and on the head of a hairpin (Potts 2001: 53 and 64).
An elaborated decorated circled cross from Mycenae, Greece.

The Mycenaean Greeks of the Middle and Late Bronze Age often decorated pottery and other objects with an elaborate circled cross or rosettes.  In the earlier Cretan hieroglyphs, an “asterisk” in a circle appears on at least two seals (Evans 1901).  A figurine from Enkomi, Cyprus, dating to roughly the same period bears a simple circled cross with a dot between every two arms.  More ornate versions of the circled cross appear on much later Celtic artifacts (Mitchell 1978: 25 and text 49 on gold disk, dating to Early Bronze Age, 2000-1800 B.C.; Irish cross 1978: 103, fig. 27). 
Circled cross in gold from Bronze Age Ireland, County Monaghan (Mitchell 1978: 25).

A cross or asterisk in a circle also appears in Africa.  It is a Christian symbol in the area of Nubia, where it adorns ceramic window grills and door lintels of churches, as well as appearing on stone finger rings (Welsby 2002: 196, 219-220).  But it also occurs in rock art, where it has no such connotation.  The second variety appears alongside a depiction of an animal of the “bedside rug” type at Chaingo in Zambia (LeQuellec 2004: 103).  Both the simpler circled cross and the circle with eight internal “spokes” appear in engravings on stone and in tattoos on the people themselves in Lunda territory in Angola (2004: 88-89).
Pictograph from Chaingo in Zambia showing animal of "bedside rug" type
and circled "asterisk" (lower right) (LeQuellec 2004: 104).

The circled cross is just as frequent in America, where it becomes the shield of Quetzelcoatl as the Wind God of pre-Columbian Mexico (Van Dinter 2006: 171 and 213).  A number of variations on this theme serve to represent various Mayan month and day names (2006: 198 and 199).  A number of spindle whorls from Jalisco in ancient West Mexico also show such a motif (Butterwick 2004: 29).  Less elaborate versions appear carved into stone in the American Southwest (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 74-75)  The authors cite 11 instances of a “spoked circle” in Nevada, along with 17 instances of the more elaborate “spoked concentric circles.”  The latter also appear frequently in California in the territory of the now-extinct Chumash people (Grant 1993: Pl. 1-7, 9-12, 19, 22-25, 30-31).  These are particularly colorful and elaborate.
Spindle whorls from Jalisco in West Mexico, dating
to pre-Columbian period, some showing circled cross motif
(Butterwick 2004: 29).

In modern times, the Presbyterian Church sometimes uses a circled cross, and the Irish or Pictish cross is similar.  A circled asterisk forms a quilt pattern and variations occur in cross-stitched place mats and a crocheted wallet (personal items, all hand-made in the 20th century).
Mayan day signs: note eznab in the bottom row, center, essentially a circled cross
(Van Dinter 2006: 199).

As a final note on the Indus CARTWHEEL, a large “signboard” was discovered at the site of Dholavira with the remains of an inscription that contained no less than four CARTWHEELS (reading right to left): CARTWHEEL / HAMMER / BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF / CARTWHEEL / DIAMOND / CHEVRON / SINGLE QUOTE // DOUBLE CARTWHEELS / CRAB (Wells 2011: 152). 

Replica of the Dholavira inscriptions according to an online source (read left to right here):
DOUBLE CARTWHEELS / CRAB (note quite the same as Wells' version, but his is probably more accurate).
Wells suggests that some part of this inscription gives the name of the site.  He notes that five of the signs in the sequence occurring at Dholavira also appear in five inscriptions from Mohenjo daro (2011: 153).  From this, Wells concludes that the most likely “spelling” of the name of ancient Dholavira is that portion appearing elsewhere: DIAMOND / CHEVRON / SINGLE QUOTE / DOUBLE CARTWHEELS.
Anthropomorphic figure on a Neolithic Chinese vessel of the Majiayao culture (c. 3000 B.C.)
-- note the circled cross motif above the right arm and possibly (restored) at the right foot (Yang 1999: 77).

I wonder about such a quick and easy solution to the knotty problems of decipherment.  If Michael Korvink is correct about SINGLE QUOTE functioning as the (final) constant in the prefix, then the elements before this sign are probably not closely related to the elements that come after it.  That is, it would be unnatural to divided the Dholavira sequence into pre-prefix (CARTWHEEL / HAMMER / BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF), place name (CARTWHEEL / DIAMOND / CHEVRON / SINGLE QUOTE), constant ending the prefix (SINGLE QUOTE), more of the place name (DOUBLE CARTWHEELS), plus something else tagged on (CRAB).  I should point out that Korvink brings the preponderance of data from the Indus inscriptions to bear when he develops his hypothesis describing prefixes and terminals.  Wells, in contrast, has this one “locative” (really a place name) and very few partially parallel inscriptions from another city, with no evidence that the latter have anything to do with naming locations.  For all we know, the repeated segment may signify a person’s epithet or title, a relationship (such as “son of X”), or a group of good luck charms.
Nubian circled cross (left) and spiral (right) on a door lintel of an Ethiopian church
(Welsby 2002: 196).

Another researcher, Iravatham Mahadevan, notes the existence of the CIRCLED FAT EX and FAT EX IN DIAMOND (XII 7) and equates the two (2009: 5).  He then compares these “variants,” along with the CIRCLED VEE and VEE IN DIAMOND (also to be considered variants of one sign in his view), with the Egyptian glyph O49.  Since the Egyptian glyph represents a place, so must these Indus signs, Mahadevan reasons.  Just as Egyptian title of pharaoh derives from the words “great house,” so must the title of the Harappan ruler derive from the parallel expression, “high house,” he decides.  Thus, the Egyptian house glyph O1 (a wide rectangle open at the bottom), pr, explains the Indus SQUARE/RECTANGLE and DIAMOND (and CIRCLE, for that matter), as (Proto?) Dravidian akam, “house, place, inside” (2009: 6).  Then VEE IN DIAMOND (and VEE IN RECTANGLE and CIRCLED VEE) must be mēl-akam, “High House (citadel)” or “fortified house.”  Finally, FAT EX IN DIAMOND (and CIRCLED FAT EX and even the elaborated crosses on some of the square seals lacking inscriptions) can only be li “city, town.”
Crowned eagle atop a circled cross, as photographed on the cathedral in Barcelona, Spain.

Mahadevan admits that there is no evidence of contact between the Indus Valley civilization and the Nile Valley, to support these hypotheses (2009: 6).  Still, he thinks it “not unlikely that the two great contemporary civilisations had at least indirect contact through the intermediary Sumerian-Akkadian city states in West Asia” (ibid.).  I would be far more hesitant to draw parallels of meaning in this way, since the Harappans may have had only indirect contact with Mesopotamia itself – via the islands of Dilmun (modern Bahrain) and the land of Magan (east of Elam).  As we can readily see, the cross or ex appears inside a circle on most of the world’s continents.  In each place where its meaning is known, it differs in its significance from all other occurrences.  Thus, the Egyptian O49 is a town, the Old Chinese circled cross represents a cultivated field, the proto-cuneiform version is a sheep, and in Mexico it is Quetzalcoatl’s shield.  None of these meanings has anything to do with the modern Presbyterian circled cross or the Navaho equivalent which represents a basket with its contents or a fire in a hearth (as noted in the previous post on circled crosses).
Star in a circle (though a bit angular) as a decorative motif on a wallet handmade by the author's grandmother.


Aruz, Joan. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New Haven: Yale University Press and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Butterwick, Kristi. 2004. Heritage of Power: Ancient Sculpture from West Mexico; The Andrall E. Pearson Family Collection. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, New Haven.

Evans, Arthur J. 1901. Scripta Minoa: The Written Documents of Minoan Crete with Special Reference to the Archives of Knossos. London: University of Oxford. Available at the Internet Archive:

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

Faulkner, Raymond O. 1994. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Gardiner, Sir Alan. 1976 (orig. 1927). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (Third ed.). Oxford: Griffith Institute and Ashmolean Museum.

Grant, Campbell. 1993. The Rock Paintings of the Chumash: A Study of a California Indian Culture. Santa Barbara, California: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

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.

Kenoyer, Jonathan M. 1998 and 2008. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Oxford: University Press.

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

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

Mahadevan, Iravatham. 2009. “Meluhha and Agastya: Alpha and Omega of the Indus Script,” available at .

Masson, V.M. 1988. Altyn-Depe. Transl. Henry H. Michael. Philadelphia: University Museum of University of Pennsylvania.

Mitchell, G. Frank. 1978. Treasures of Early Irish Art 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Potts, D.T. 2001. “Phase IVC2” and “Phase IVC1,” in Excavations at Tepe Yahya, Iran 1967-1975: The Third Millennium. C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Pp. 1-78.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 1992. Before Writing. Vol. I. From Counting to Cuneiform. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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

Van Dinter, Maarten Hesselt. 2006. Tribal Tattoo Designs from the Americas. Amsterdam: Mundurucu.

Wells, Bryan. 1998. An Introduction to Indus Writing: A Thesis.  Available at:

_____. 2011. Epigraphic Approaches to Indus Writing. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Welsby, Derek A. 2002. The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia: Pagans, Christians and Muslims along the Middle Nile. London: British Museum Press.

Yang, Xiaoneng, ed. 1999. The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology: Celebrated Discoveries from the People's Republic of China. London and New Haven: Yale University Press.

Beasts in the Indus Script: Quadruped, Crustacean, and Fish Variations

Bar seal Krs-1 with inscription: CUPPED SPOON / QUADRUPED (X31) /
In the sign list of Koskenniemi and Parpola, there is a schematic quadruped of ten strokes (KP44) that also appears in Wells’ list (W174).  I term this particular symbol QUADRUPED WITH ROUND FACE AND STRAIGHT TAIL (X31) as I cannot identify the animal.  Wells notes five occurrences, three of them from Mohenjo daro and one apiece from Lothal and Khirsara.  There is actually some variation among these instances listed by Wells.  Sometimes there seem to be ears, sometimes not, and the “face” is more angular in certain variations.  It is difficult to determine which features are significant, since the animal is unidentified.
Two quadrupeds, one a camel, from Tassili n'Ajjer in North Africa,
alongside Tifinagh script (LeQuellec 2004: 43, fig. 42)

As noted with previous zoomorphic signs, other scripts include quadrupeds quite frequently.  There are quite a few in Old Chinese, many among the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and even one unidentified example in proto-cuneiform (although heads alone appear to have been preferred).  The rock art of most continents also contains schematic representations of quadrupeds of one kind or another.  In his review of African rock art, Le Quellec distinguishes the zoomorph in side view from that shown from above, the latter described as the “bedside rug” type.  The Indus script seems to include only side views, no flattened “bedside rugs.”
Detail from seal M-66 with inscription: CORN HOLDER / LONG-LEGGED CRAB / BUD
of the signs that causes a nonlinear arrangement on the right).

In the discussion of six-stroke Indus signs, I mentioned the CRAB, a pointed oval with attached “pincers.”  An apparent variation on this simple form is the LONG-LEGGED CRAB (X 32).  It appears elsewhere as KP206 and W171.  Wells notes it as a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-66).  It actually more resembles a modified STOOL, since the back end of the zoomorph is pretty flat.  This may indicate that the STOOL is also a simplified zoomorph.
Possible crustaceans and insects in proto-cuneiform:
ZATU 703 (upper left), KUSZU2~e (upper right),
and ZATU 699~a and ~b (bottom row).

There are relatively few insects and crustaceans in Egyptian hieroglyphs aside from the bee and scarab or dung beetle.  Three or four appear in proto-cuneiform, including what may be a lobster (ZATU 703), something like a ladybug (ZATU699~a and ~b), and some sort of aquatic animal.  The latter is KUSZU2~e, later symbolizing a crab, most likely, although a turtle or shark is possible.  However, the Indus sign does not particularly resemble any of these.
Broken seal L-47 with partial inscription: STACKED NINE (?) / CRAB / BI-QUOTES //
DUCK HEAD / PINWHEEL (over incomplete "unicorn" at the bottom).

There follows DUCK HEAD (EYELESS) (X 33), also known as KP76 and W86.  Fairservis only includes a variation with a dot in the center of the circle, hence his identification of it as the head of a bird with its beak wide open to make noise (B-6).  It is more likely another form of insect or crustacean, I think.  Wells notes four variants.  These differ in the number of “legs” and the shape of the “pincers” – if it is a crab (varying in the number of “feathers” and the shape of the “beak” if it really is a bird’s head).  Wells finds nine occurrences, with all four types appearing at Mohenjo daro.  There is also an instance of the “a” variant from Lothal (L-47).
Two variants of proto-cuneiform NE, "this, that."

A similar symbol appears in proto-cuneiform in the form of a circle to which several prongs are attached on the left and a “less than” sign on the right.  The sign occurs in two variants, NE~a showing a vertical line across the circle; NE~b including a “greater than” element instead.  The sign came to mean “this; that,” giving us no clue to what it may depict (if anything).
Broken and abraded seal M-39 (detail) with inscription:

The figure eight – a circle on top of another circle – occurs in the Indus script in various incarnations.  A ten-stroke variation is EYES WITH TRIPLE LASHES (X34).  In this, there are three diagonal strokes attached to each circle.  If rotated 90 degrees, the symbol would resemble Orphan Annie’s eyes with three eyelashes on each side.  Fairservis notes a version with four “lashes” (C-2), suggesting it may represent an insect, perhaps an ant (1992: 158).  The four-pronged version also shows up in the list of Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP83).  Only Wells includes this three-pronged version, as W87”a.”  The four-pronged type is his “b” variant.  He finds five occurrences altogether, three from Mohenjo daro and two from Harappa.  Both variants occur at both sites.  Although a "figure eight" appears on cultural artifacts elsewhere, one adorned with "lashes" does not seem to.
Bas-relief tablet H-206 with inscription (right to left): TRIPLE BRICK /

The next sign in my list is CAGED WHISKERED FISH (X 35), also seen as KP63 and W120.  According to Wells, it occurs eight times, mostly at Mohenjo daro.  There is also a CAGED FISH UNDER CHEVRON (X 36), listed elsewhere as KP61 and W119.  This is slightly more common, with 11 occurrences, eight from Mohenjo daro, one from Harappa, one from Lothal, and one from Banawali.

Seal M-1091 with inscription: CUP ON FOUR PRONGS / RAYED CIRCLE /

Seal B-17 with inscription: MAN ON BASE / PANTS / BI-QUOTES //
CAGED FISH UNDER CHEVRON (over composite animal, part tiger, part bovine).

We then come to POTTED FOUR (X 37), like the previous symbols a variation on a theme seen previously.  It has been published as KP328, but does not appear in the other lists.  I find one instance, from Harappa (H-1005), on a pot shard.
Proto-cuneiform |ZATU 831 @ g|, similar to Indus X 37 (POTTED FOUR).

This is a very rare sign in the Indus Valley, but it has a parallel in proto-cuneiform.  A symbol reminiscent of the “pot,” rotated 90 degrees, occurs with six rather than four internal hash marks, as |ZATU 831 @ g|.  Unfortunately the meaning is unknown.  But the addition of apparent numerals to both signs, proto-cuneiform and Indus, may be significant (though not necessarily numerical).
Seal H-47 with inscription: FAT CHEVRON / STRIPED FLANGE-TOPPED POT (X38b) / POT
(note that both "flanges" stand out on the left; in the "a" variant, they stand on in the inside of the "pot").
Another variation on a previous theme is STRIPED FLANGE TOPPED POT (X 38), also known as KP332(d), W306, and Fs J-7.  Fairservis thinks it may represent a quantity of metal, as most examples occur on copper tablets.  He suggests that these tablets functioned as tokens for storage records (1992: 173).

Proto-cuneiform ZATU 710, two variants of a striped pot.

Proto-cuneiform has nothing like a “pot” with “flanges” on top, but there is a depiction of a striped pot: ZATU 710.  It has two variants, “a” having two strokes added as something like “handles,” and “b” including both these “handles” and another stroke for a possible “spout.”  Meanings are unknown.
FAT CHEVRON IN TRI-FORK TOPPED POT (?) / PANTS (sequence is unclear, due to nonlinear arrangement;
identification of the element inside the TRI-FORK TOPPED POT is also uncertain and may be a CARTWHEEL).

Indus signs X 39 and X 40 may be two different interpretations of a single sign.  The first of these is FAT CHEVRON IN TRI-FORK TOPPED POT, also known as KP334 and W324.  It is a singleton from Kalibangan (K18).  The second is CARTWHEEL IN TRI-FORK TOPPED POT, also known as KP337.
Proto-cuneiform |SZITA~a1 x UDU~a|, a vessel containing a sheep??

These two bear only the faintest resemblance to a proto-cuneiform sign, |SZITA~a1 x UDU~a|.  It takes the form of a triangular “vessel” with a wedge at the apex.  Inside the triangle is the circled cross.  In this combination, the internal element represents a sheep, while the “container” came to mean “priest; prayer; a sacred vessel.”  But it hardly seems likely that the meaning of the ligature is “cup of sheep.”
Bas-relief tablet H-228A with inscription (right to left): CUPPED SPOON ON 5 PRONGS /

One last simple variation is X 41 which I term CUPPED SPOON ON FIVE PRONGS.  It is also enumerated KP317(b) (actually the four-pronged variation) and W310”a.”  Wells has two variations grouped together, the “spoon” in a “cup” that sits on five prongs as “a”; the simpler “post” in a “cup” that sits on four prongs as “b.”  The simpler variant only occurs once at Mohenjo daro, while the ten-stroke version with the "spoon" appears twice at Harappa.
Proto-cuneiform U4, "day," with five prongs added, "five" (N57), indicating "five days."

In proto-cuneiform, I find nothing comparable to the Indus CUPPED SPOON, but the very broadly similar U4, “day,” sometimes takes prongs.  The instance with five prongs apparently represents “five days” (|U4 x 5(N57)|.  One might assume that if the addition of "prongs" has an enumerative function in proto-cuneiform, those added to the Indus sign would also have that function.  But this is not very likely, in reality.  In proto-cuneiform, U4 occurs with varying numbers of prongs, while the Indus CUPPED SPOON does not appear sitting on a wide variety of "numerals."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Anthropomorphic Ten-Stroke Signs in the Indus Script

Triangular tablet H-239 with inscription (right to left): DOUBLE MEN /

There are eight different signs based on the MAN sign in the Indus script, each of which contains ten strokes.  One consists of a doubling of the basic element, DOUBLE MEN (X 23), found in the literature as KP16 and W10.  Wells notes that there are 11 occurrences, three of them from Mohenjo daro, one from Harappa, and as many as seven from Kalibangan (though I think there are five from the first of these cities). 
Egyptian word rhyt, "people" with two phonetic symbols on the left, r and t,
and determinatives on the right -- seated man and seated woman -- over plural sign.

Egyptian hieroglyphic writing of the Bronze Age includes both phonetic symbols and determinatives.  The latter are signs that indicate something about the meaning of the given word and (presumably) were not pronounced.  Usually, the determinative is a single sign, but on occasion an additional symbol is added.  One example is the use of both the seated man (A1) and the seated woman (B1) together in words such as rhyt, “people,” and mrt, “peasants.”  Another example is the combination of a seated man with a pot on his head (A9) and the standing man holding a stick with both hands (A24), as in f3i, “to lift.”  Although the human figures in these instances bear little or no resemblance to the stick figure of the Indus inscriptions, the use of two signs to form a determinative may provide a parallel for the doubling of the Indus MAN.
Detail of Chinese basin with internal painted anthropomorphs, Majiayao culture (Yang 1999: 69). 

Elsewhere, the repetition of anthropomorphic figures appears outside the realm of writing proper, on pottery or as painted or carved on stone.  For example, a painted pottery basin of the Majiayao culture of the Chinese Neolithic shows a whole row of schematic anthropomorphs on the inside, holding hands (Yang 1999: 69).  Repeated figures with bent legs may depict a dance in Hohokam rock art (Noble 1991: 64).

A more common type of anthropomorph in the Indus script appears to depict a person holding some object.  The second sign in this post is such a symbol, MAN HOLDING SHISH KEBAB (X 24), also known as KP28, W46, and Fs A-24.  (A version with three rather than four “kebabs” appears in an earlier post, as IX 28.)  As Wells notes, this sign is a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-991).  Fairservis suggests that it represents a man with a stick for recording numerical amounts, defined as “record keeper (one who records by length, depth, amount).”  He provides additional remarks:

The notched or marked stick is one of the most universal signs in the ancient world.  Since man first kept records of any kind it appears that notching a piece of wood, bone or other material in sequence was the method used.  The symbol for this tool consists of variations on the vertical with cross-lines and is found, for example, in proto-Elamite, Archaic Sumerian and among the Vinca Cultures of Southweastern Europe (Fairservis 1992: 40).

Such marked sticks were a useful method of record-keeping even in historical times (Menninger 1969: 228, fig. 52).  In his account of words and symbols for numbers, Menninger provides many examples, including tally sticks from Switzerland which herders used to keep track of the amount of milk produced by local cows.  As evidence for Fairservis’ hypothesis, he cites an object found at Mohenjo daro, not a stick but a shell on which incised marks had been cut at right angles to the main axis of the object (1992: 40).
Seal H-94 with inscription: MAN HOLDING DONUT.

There is a similar human-like figure holding the circle within a circle: MAN HOLDING DONUT (X 25).  It appears in the literature as KP39 and W32.  Only slightly more common than the previous sign, it occurs once at Mohenjo daro and once at Harappa, as Wells observes.
Detail from seal M-99 with inscription: MAN HOLDING DIAMOND /

A third figure holds a diamond shape as MAN HOLDING DIAMOND (X 26), also enumerated as KP38 and W53.  This variation on the common theme is another singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-99).
Bar seal M-354 with inscription: MAN HOLDING TRIANGULAR DEE-SLASH /

Following these rare signs is MAN HOLDING TRIANGULAR DEE-SLASH (X 27), apparently a variant of the more curvilinear IX 29.  Only Wells lists this variant independently (W26), which he finds three times at Mohenjo daro.
Bar seal M-383 with inscription: MAN HOLDING FOUR QUOTES / DOUBLE GRIDS (3 X 3).

The last of this type of combination sign is MAN HOLDING FOUR QUOTES (X 28), also known as KP30, W25, and Fs (A-1 + P-6).  In Fairservis’ interpretation, this ligature represents the MAN as “ruler, sovereign” pluralized by the four additional strokes, i.e., “rulers.”  Wells considers there to be three occurrences, two from Mohenjo daro and one from Harappa.  At the latter site, however, the instance he cites is one of two that show FOUR POSTS alongside MAN HOLDING POST, not quite the same thing. 
African rock art from southern Niger depicting a mounted warrior with lance and shield (LeQuellec 2004: 58, fig. 3).

None of these figures holding an object has a close parallel in contemporary scripts.  But in Egyptian hieroglyphs there are several broadly similar types that include a man holding or using an implement.  These include A10 (seated man holding an oar), A12 (seated man holding bow and quiver of arrows), A14 (man sometimes shown seated, gripping an ax embedded in his head), A19 (man bent over, holding onto a walking stick), A24 (standing man using both hands to grip a shorter stick than the previous), A34 (man using a tall pestle in a mortar), and A35 (man holding onto the glyph for a building).  Others also appear in this script, but again, none is a particularly close match for the specific signs found in the Indus script.
Hohokam petroglyph depicting a possible dance (Noble 1991: 64).

Occasionally, an author finds great significance in the apparent similarities between Indus signs showing such human-like figures holding one or another object, on the one hand, and roughly similar figures some other script found far away.  For example, the symbols on the rongorongo boards of Easter Island also take the form of human-like figures holding one or another object.  This Easter Island script dates to over two millennia after the end of Indus script and occurs thousands of miles away.  Thus, there can hardly be a direct link.  As Richard McDorman points out, the similarities between the two scripts are surely due to universal tendencies (2009).  That is, people everywhere have a strong tendency to depict people.  And people everywhere tend to have a head and four limbs, often using one of those limbs (typically a hand) to hold something.  The resulting similarity in symbols is due to the underlying similarity of people. It is not an indication that the Indus script gave rise directly to some other script or set of symbols.  This seems obvious to many people, but clearly it is not obvious enough to everybody.
A man as depicted in the Naxi script, a proto-writing system of a minority group of China.

The ancient Chinese also depicted people in a simplified, schematic form, often holding something intended as an offering.  Examples from bronze votive vessels are shown in Wieger’s book (1967: 361-385).  The filial son offers strings of cowrie shells, offerings of meat, and so on, in each case represented by a stick figure with one or more objects in hand. 
Detail from the great overhang of Songo in Mali, showing man with inverted "L" shape in hand,
center left (LeQuellec 2004: 60).

African rock art includes similar depictions of schematic men holding schematically depicted objects, e.g., a feathered horseman with a lance and shield from Niger (LeQuellec 2004: 58), a man holding a tall, inverted “L” shape on the great overhang of Songo in Mali (2004: 60-61), flat-headed stick figures holding a variety of shapes on the “stone of the fetish” on the banks of the Zaire River (2004: 86-87).
Panel of Texas rock art, with very small anthropomorph holding a stick near the center,
above the head of the odd quadruped (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 192, Pl. 142, no. 20-K).

Almost equally schematic anthropomorphs frequently appear in the rock art of North America and they, too, often hold one or more objects in one or both hands (e.g., Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 156, Pl. 109, no. 8 and p. 160, Pl. 112, no. 6).  In such cases, the objects are often not readily identifiable.
Seal C-20 with inscription: STRIPED HORN / CIRCLE / SINGLE POST / CIRCLE / BEARER (X29"j").

Returning to the Indus signs, the BEARER occurs in a ten-stroke form (X 29), with horizontal lines for arms, or with arms describing a “V” shape (Wells’ variants “j” and “e,” respectively).  This relatively common sign occurs 35 times, according to Wells at Mohenjo daro and Harappa.  Wells cites other variants also occurring at these sites, as well as at Lothal, Kalibangan, Dholavira, and Allahdino (though I see seven instances of the straight-armed “j” at Mohenjo daro, Harappa, Chanhujo daro, and Dholavira, along with two occurrences of “e” at Mohenjo daro and Harappa only).  This symbol appears in one form or another in other lists as KP1, W4, and Fs A-7. 
Detail from seal M-834 with inscription: VEE IN DIAMOND / BI-QUOTES //

Fairservis identifies it as a man with a carrying pole to which looped cords are attached, meaning “watchman.”  Others may see the ovals typically attached to the “carrying pole” as representing pots.  But Fairservis states:

It should be noted that the loops on the carrying pole have often been referred to as vessels or jars, or loads of some kind.  However, there are no vessels of the type depicted in the glyph known for the Harappan civilization.  As to the loops representing “loads’, since the kinds of loads is not depicted and carrying loops are necessary for suspending any load, we appear to be on safe ground in assuming that what is represented is the means of suspension, not what is suspended (1992: 43-44).

He sees the symbol as indicating “one who carries a club” (like one who carries a carrying yoke) as being akin to “Powerful Guardian” or “Watchman,” without distinguishing variations with arms of one type or another (or even without arms).

As one can readily see, all the signs in the Indus script are either abstract or highly schematized depictions, so it seems reasonable to assume the ovals in the “bearer” signs are also schematic depictions.  One need not find a round pot or a jar shaped like a pointed oval to see such vessels represented in these signs.  After all, humans are considerably more complex in reality than are the stick figures in the script.  Why should the loads carried on the yoke be depicted more realistically than the fellow carrying them?  Anyway, there are in fact roundish forms among the various types of pottery excavated at Harappan sites (Kenoyer 1998: 154-155 and Possehl 2002: 143).
Detail from seal H-57 with inscription: STACKED TWELVE BETWEEN CEES /
CHEVRON-HATTED BEARER (note the latter is armless and also without a body).

Whether or not one agrees with Fairservis, the last of the anthropomorphic signs of ten strokes is CHEVRON HATTED BEARER (X 30), an armless variety (and very few armless individuals can have made use of shoulder yokes).  This particular version appears only in Wells’ list (W28), where it shows up in three variations.  Two of these are from Mohenjo daro (Wells “a” being M-1305, though I must disagree; his “b” M-899).  The third is from Harappa (Wells’ variant “c” on H-57).  The last variant not only lacks arms, it also lacks a body.  The “legs” come down directly from the yoke.  So much for realism!
(In all cases, artwork is by the author of this post, with images considerably smoothed and differently colored than the originals.)


Fairservis, Walter A. 1992. The Harappan civilization and its writing: A model for the decipherment of the Indus script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Gardiner, Sir Alan. 1927 and 1976. Egyptian grammar: Being an introduction to the study of hieroglyphs (3rd ed.). Oxford: Griffith Institute and Ashmolean Museum.

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. Helsinki: Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki.

LeQuellec, Jean-Loic. 2004. Rock art in Africa: Mythology and legend. Paris: Flammarion.

McDorman, Richard E. 2009. Universal iconography in writing systems: Evidence and explanation in the Easter Island and Indus Valley script. Amazon Kindle edition.

Menninger, Karl. 1969. Number words and number symbols: A cultural history of numbers. Transl. Paul Broneer. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Orig. published 1958 as Zahlwort und Ziffer by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht).

Newcomb, W.W. Jr. and Forrest Kirkland. 1996. The rock art of Texas Indians. Austin: University of Texas.

Noble, David G. 1991. The Hohokam: Ancient people of the desert. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research.

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. Available at:

Yang, Xiaoneng, ed. 1999. The golden age of Chinese archaeology: Celebrated discoveries from the People’s Republic of China. London and New Haven: Yale University.

Proto-Elamite from