Friday, July 22, 2011

The Last of the Nine-Stroke Indus Signs

Tablet H-304B with inscription (right to left): ASTERISK UNDER TABLE / CROSSROADS EX.

The last three signs drawn with nine strokes are familiar, being variations on symbols previously discussed.  The first is what I term ASTERISK UNDER TABLE (IX 59), known elsewhere as KP248.  The portion I call the “asterisk” is an “X” with additional short vertical lines at the top and bottom.  Above this, the “table” resembles a square bracket that has fallen on its side.  This ligatured sign appears to be a singleton, occurring just once at Harappa (H-304B). 

Egyptian hieroglyph (N4) for "rain."

Sign IX 59 combines elements I have discussed before, the TABLE and the ASTERISK.  There are analogs to each of these elsewhere.  For example, among the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the symbol for rain contains a thicker “coffee table” shape that represents the Egyptian sky.  There are also four vertical strokes falling from the base of this “table,” representing precipitation.  The glyph as a whole does not especially resemble the Indus ASTERISK UNDER TABLE, but I present it as an Egyptian example of placing one element over another, in a meaningful combination.

Proto-cuneiform sign ZAG~b, "boundary; shrine; front, etc."

In proto-cuneiform also, there is nothing quite like the Indus set of signs with the “table” on top.  But there is an element something like the “asterisk” portion, ZAG~b, which eventually means “boundary, cusp; place; shrine; front.”  This sign begins with the same “X” with additional strokes.  But there is also a horizontal line at the top and another at the bottom, closing in these ends.  Rather than resembling an asterisk, then, ZAG looks like an hourglass (or a version of the Indus BOWTIE rotated 90 degrees).

Impression of seal M-219 with inscription (right to left):
The next Indus sign is constructed along the same lines, SPACESHIP UNDER TABLE (IX 60).  The “table” element is the same as in the previous sign.  Beneath this, there are three triangles, two stacked and the third attached by its apex to the first ones.  Elsewhere, this is KP222 and W422.  Wells observes three instances, all from Mohenjo daro.

Two versions of proto-cuneiform KUR, "mountain; (foreign) land" (top left, "c" variant;
bottom left "a" variant) and two similar "hills" motifs from later Indian punch-marked coins
(top right, Gupta 47; bottom right Gupta 48) (Gupta 1960: Pl. 1).

Again, I see nothing quite like this ligature among the signs and glyphs of other early writing systems.  But the SPACESHIP portion, as noted in an earlier post, has an analog in the similarly arranged triple triangles of one variant of proto-cuneiform KUR (“c” variant).  This symbol came to mean “mountain, highland; (foreign) land; the netherworld; the east.”  More commonly, though, the sign is written with three small wedges (variants “a” and “b”).


The final nine-stroke sign among the Indus symbols is PANTS (IX 61).  Here I group together four variations on a theme of not-quite-parallel bent strokes.  Koskenniemi and Parpola list only the version drawn with eight strokes (KP205), while Fairservis fails to mention any variations.  Wells enumerates the variants separately, the nine-stroke versions including W162, 165, 170, and 172.  Each occurs either just once or a mere handful of times.  In one of these variations (W170), the top of the sign takes an oval shape, where the others have an angled line.

Seal Krs-1 with inscription: CUPPED SPOON / QUADRUPED / SHISH KEBAB / PINCH //

To end this post, I will also mention the first of the ten-stroke signs, STACKED TEN (X 1).  Wells does not include this in his list of apparent numerals, but it does appear as KP130 and Fs O-16.  Fairservis sees it as a numeral, the number ten as an adjective, and notes a single occurrence (1992: 62).  I have not seen it myself in the Corpus.  Perhaps it shows up in the third volume, recently published.

Proto-cuneiform "ten" in four forms: circular impressions (2 x 5), wedge-shaped impressions (5 x 2),
horizontal strokes (5 x 2), and vertical strokes (5 x 2) -- the last identical to the Indus form.
In proto-cuneiform, there are true numerals of various different forms.  When “ten” is depicted, it is stacked, usually as two rows of five marks, as in the Indus sign.  But in proto-cuneiform, the marks are either wedges (N01), impressed circles (N14), or horizontal lines (N57).  In only one type is a row of five vertical strokes stacked over another row (N58), as in the Indus X 1.  There is also a non-numerical sign containing ten stacked wedges forming a triangular arrangement (|LAM~b@t|, “abundance”).

Proto-cuneiform sign |LAM~b @ t|, "abundance," a sign
resembling a "stacked ten," but with non-numerical meaning.

In other writing systems, “ten” is often written with a symbol different from that used to enumerate units.  The Egyptians used the medj, an inverted “U” shape, for “ten,” while the ancient Chinese drew a cross.  One might wonder why the people of the Near East did not follow suit and use a symbol different from what represented a single unit.  The reason has to do with their counting methods.  When they recorded numbers ofdiscrete items and measures of grain or liquids, they used repetitions of symbols that bore a relationship to the type of measurement.  It would be like us drawing, say, ten small circles to represent ten inches.  The next largest measure of length after the inch is the foot, so we would also draw eleven circles for “eleven inches,” but not twelve.  Instead of twelve small circles, we would use a different symbol for “one foot.”  We might draw a larger circle or change to a wedge, for example.  It is from regularities such as this that modern scholars have been able to deduce the types of measurement systems used by the ancient peoples of Iraq and Iran.

Proto-Elamite economic tablet: dark circular impression represents 10 in sexagesimal system S;
the two dark wedges represent 2 in the same system (other marks are from a cylinder seal) (Potts 1999: 61).
As noted in an earlier post, there is no “eleven” in the Indus script, and just the one instance of “ten.”  Fairservis suggested, on this basis, that the Harappans had a base eight counting system (1991: 61).  Collections of long strokes (which I term “posts”) occur in groups from one to seven only, as Fairservis notes.  Sometimes, he further notes, these supposed numerals appear “grouped as a series of short strokes” (ibid.).  So, this scholar sees STACKED FIVE, STACKED SIX, and STACKED SEVEN as alternative ways of writing the same numerals as FIVE POSTS, SIX POSTS, and SEVEN POSTS.  Unfortunately for his thesis, there are also instances of STACKED EIGHT, STACKED NINE, STACKED TEN, and STACKED TWELVE.  These definitely do not fit the notion of a base eight system.  Rather than abandon his hypothesis, Fairservis defines these problematic signs, for the most part, as depictions of rain or rivers (1991: 70-71).  Most scholars do not accept this base-eight hypothesis, however.

Fairservis thinks the apparent numerals are mostly calendrical symbols, representing the twelve months of the year.  Despite his characterization of the STACKED TWELVE, a calendrical system would seem to account for the occurrence of apparent numerals up to twelve and no further (there being no “13” or “14,” etc.).  Faiservis further proposes that the various “forks” are part of this calendar system, since certain “numerals” frequently appear alongside a TRI-FORK or QUAD-FORK.  He notes the frequency of these in a table taken from data in Mahadevan’s concordance (1992: 61):


One form of the EXIT sign (which he identifies as an irrigation sluice) often pairs with the STACKED SEVEN, so this too becomes part of his calendar:

“It is tempting to suggest that pairing with the number seven otherwise makes this combination [EF PRONGED EXIT / STACKED SEVEN] an alternative to the seventh month, a period of heat when the rains are expected but irrigation is the only source of water to the fields.  This may well be the fact” (1992: 59).

For the eighth month, he cannot very well appeal to the STACKED EIGHT, since he has done away with that as a proposed numeral.  Instead, he brings in OVERLAPPING CIRCLES, his definition of which is based on homophonous with words for pairing, doubling, and joining in Dravidian languages ("eight" being eTTu or eN in Dravidian languages and Tamil iNai, Kannada eNe, Tulu iNe signifying "pair, double, join") (1992: 62).  For the ninth month he proposes the MALLET, which depicts one of the square weights often found in excavation, in his view.  The tenth month is represented by the BED (seen as a harrow or rake), while the eleventh is SLASHES IN OVERLAPPING CIRCLES.  When one of these “month” signs is attached to SINGLE POST, he defines the “post” as a “determinative” (not in the sense of Egyptian or cuneiform “determinatives,” but used to indicate that the sign is not phonetic), and the connecting slash as an “arrow.”  Thus, there are several “arrow months” in his proposed system. 

For the twelfth month, Fairservis suggests the MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH, defined as a bowman, because it is another symbol containing a slash (his “arrow”).  He sees the slash/arrow as representing what he terms “arrow months,” the 8th through 12th months, which make up a traditional season in India.  Two crops are commonly sown in India and Pakistan, depending on the season: the summer or kharif crops are cotton, rice, and millet, while the winter or rabi crops are wheat, barley, and oil seeds such as sesame (1991: 65).  Fairservis' calendar is an interesting suggestion, but the two-crop system is not actually attested for the period of the Bronze Age when Indus script was used, as he admits.  Still, the Harappans probably recognized different seasons and had designations for them.
Mixtec depiction of a historical person named Six-Water, with his name -- also his birth date --
above (this use of a date for a name may be similar to the appearance of "numerals" in Indus script) (Smith 1973: 243).

The real question, to my mind, is whether calendrical information is likely to be conveyed in stamp seals and small tablets.  Nowadays, of course, incoming mail is stamped with the date in many an office.  The stamps are not carved in stone, though.  There is usually a synthetic rubber belt with all the months and numbers on it and these belts are moved as the days and months pass.  If the Harappans were stamping dates on commodities, it seems more likely that each stamp would have a single item of information (year, month, or day) and one of each would be used in sequence.  There would be little point in going to the trouble of carving a separate seal for every day of the year.  The seals and tablets that actually exist, as seen in multiple examples, typically have more than one symbol on them, anyway.  Thus, it seems unlikely that dating was their primary purpose.

Aruz, Joan, ed. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.
Damerow, Peter and Robert K. Englund. 1989. The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.
Fairservis, Walter A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Gupta, Parmeshwari Lal. 1960. Punch-Marked Coins in the Andhra Pradesh Government Museum. Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh: Government of Andhra Pradesh.

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

Smith, Mary Elizabeth. 1973. Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico: Mixtec Place Signs and Maps. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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