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.


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1 comment:

  1. Brilliant. I have cited this in