Saturday, July 16, 2011

Animals in the Indus Script?

Various birds as depicted on early Elamite pottery (Potts 1999: 53). 

Seal M-1278 with inscription: CUP (?) / IX 57 (BIRD BETWEEN PARENS?) / COMB
(note that the "legs" on the right do not actually touch the curved line and there is an opposite
curve on the other side of this schematic creature).

There is an enigmatic sign in the Indus script that appears just once, one I enumerate IX 57 as the fifty-seventh in my list of nine-stroke symbols.  It may represent a bird or it may be a bug.  For now I am calling it PERCHING BUG since Wells shows it attached to a curved line, as if it were standing on something.  Wells assigns it the number W109, noting it to be a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-1278).  In form it centers on a shape like our numeral “8.”  I see two small “v” shapes attached to one side, which I take to be the legs of a bird.  It also seems to have a tail that slants just slightly.  To my eyes, this odd little bird stands between parentheses.  Wells, though, sees it as standing on a “(“ and apparently makes the other side of my parentheses into part of the tail.
Egyptian bas-relief showing a man bringing a goose -- elsewhere a hieroglyph -- as an offering.

Assuming that it is supposed to be a bird, let us examine the birds that appear elsewhere.  Egyptian hieroglyphs include quite a few.  Those with prominent tails include G36, perhaps a swallow, pronounced wr.  As such, it appears in the word for “great,” also pronounced wr.  Another bird glyph that is almost identical is G37, a sparrow.  The only difference is at the end of the tail – rounded for the sparrow, angular for the swallow.  But the meaning of this bird is quite distinct.  The sparrow is the determinative in words with negative connotations, including nds, “small,” and bin, “bad.”  Of course, there are also ducks, geese, falcons, and, most common of all, the chick.  But we need not look at all of them just now. 
Egyptian goddess Maat with hieroglyphs above her spread arms; note the vulture inside
the cartouche on the left (G15), the swallow to the right of the cartouche (G36), the duck
next to Maat's head and again on the right behind glyph of seated Maat (G39) (from
Queen Nefertari's tomb).
Another possible analog for Indus sign IX 57 is L2, a bee.  It occasionally appears as an ideograph in bit, “bee; honey.”  But most often it occurs as a phonetic glyph, indicating the sound bit, in nsw-bit, “king of Lower Egypt.”  This bee has two wings and antenna, as well as four legs, unlike the Indus sign.  But the body of this insect is essentially a figure eight with a few internal marks.
Proto-cuneiform sign NAM~a, a small bird, either a swallow or a sparrow.

In proto-cuneiform, there are a great many birds also.  The only one with legs that I am aware of is NAM~a, which may represent either a swallow or a sparrow, once again.  This more schematic representation lacks a tail, though.  So it is not a particularly good analog for the Indus sign.
Birds from Old Chinese (citation in earlier post).

Texas rock art showing standing shaman (bottom center) and possible thunderbirds above
(Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 11, Pl. 2 detail, somewhat simplified for clarity here).
Birds also appear in Old Chinese, specifically a character for a large bird and another for a small bird.  In modern script, neither looks anything like a bird.  But in their ancient form, each sports an identifiable head, as well as feathery wings and perhaps a tail.  These do not especially resemble the Indus sign.  But it is worth noting their existence.
Thunderbirds of the North American Menomini (Appleton 1971: Pl. 8).

There are birds in the rock art of various places in addition.  A thunderbird is particularly common in North America, a bird of great significance in the religion of various native peoples.  Such is the interpretation sometimes given to depictions of birds in Texas (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 11, Pl. 2).  A hummingbird is more common among the Moche of South America, where such birds often appear on painted pottery to indicate intense activity (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 106-107).

Moche warriors with a hawk above and another between the men, common in scenes of combat, and a hummingbird to the left, indicator of intense action; sandhills beneath the warriors locate the action in or near desert (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 106-107).

Besides birds and insects, there are a few quadrupeds among the Indus signs.  Many of these are unidentifiable because they are so small, schematic, and lacking in obvious characteristics.  One of these is sign IX 58, which I describe as QUADRUPED WITH E FACE AND STRAIGHT TAIL.  It is shown in the list created by Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP44) but not elsewhere.  I see it once at Mohenjo daro (M-1319).
Seal M-1319 with inscription: QUADRUPED WITH E FACE & STRAIGHT TAIL (or vice versa) /

Animals depicted in later punch-marked coins of India, including a gharial biting a fish plus a frog (top row),
perhaps a cat, a donkey, and a zebu (left hand column beneath gharial), and another fish plus a bug (?) (right hand
column beneath frog) (Gupta 1960: from Pl. 1 and 2).
Egyptian hieroglyphs include as many quadrupeds as birds, but these are usually considerably easier to identify.  When carved on monuments, the animals are quite detailed, if not completely realistic.  In hieratic, written with brush and ink on papyrus, the same glyphs are not quite so easy to recognize.
Schematic lions and gazelles as seen in the impression from a Syrian cylinder seal (Collon 2005: 53, fig. 206).
In proto-cuneiform, whole animals almost never appear.  Typically, the head of a particular species is the earliest sign for the animal, though there are exceptions.  However, one of the enigmatic ZATU series seems to be an animal with four legs and a tail (ZATU 703).

Series of quadrupeds of various types as depicted in the rock art of Nevada
(Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 116 and others) (not a natural grouping).

Rather than enumerating the different Indus quadrupeds separately and comparing each to the same set of analogs, I present here a series of each.
Copper tablet M-516B with QUADRUPED (CHEVRON FACE, E TAIL).

North African Tifinagh script plus two quadrupeds, one with a hump and probably a camel (LeQuellec 2004: 43, fig. 42).
A quadruped in "skidding" posture on a pot from the Cucuteni culture of Old Europe (Gimbutas 1991: 109, Fig. 3-71).
Possible quadruped with straight tail from an Indus pot shard, L-223.
Bar seal M-1341 with inscription: BLANKET (6 TICKS) / QUADRUPED (R FACE, E TAIL) /
STRIPED MALLET / BI-QUOTES // STACKED FIVE (the same "quadruped" or different?).

Men and quadrupeds, probably elands, in South African rock art (LeQuellec 2004: 161, fig. 33).


Appleton, Le Roy H. 1971. American Indian Design and Decoration. New York: Dover (originally published 1950 by Charles Scribner's Sons, entitled Indian Art of the Americas).

Collon, Dominique. 2005 and 1987. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. London: The British Museum Press.

Gimbutas, Marija. 1991. The Civilization of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper.

Gupta, Parmeshwari Lal. 1960. Punch-Marked Coins in the Andhra Pradesh Government Museum. Hyderabad: Government of Andhra Pradesh.

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

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

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

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

Potts, D.T. 1999. The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State. Cambridge: University Press.

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

Pittman, Holly. 2001. "Glyptic Art of Period IV," in Excavations at Tepe Yahya, Iran 1967-1975: The Third Millennium, C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.


  1. Bar seal M-1341 with inscription: BLANKET (6 TICKS) / QUADRUPED (R FACE, E TAIL) /
    STRIPED MALLET / BI-QUOTES // STACKED FIVE (the same "quadruped" or different?).

    Last glyph: is it not stacked six?

    Diwiyana, I am enthralled by your exquisite artistic review of Indus glyphs. Congrats.


  2. You are quite correct: it should be STACKED SIX and not five. Thank you for the correction and the compliment.

  3. Visit and Indus Script Dictionary on Facebook to see more photos of Indus seals and inscriptions.