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.

1 comment: