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

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