Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The 16-Stroke Indus Signs

Detail of inscription from H-516: POST / POT-HATTED BEARER (CHEVRON ARMS).

I have listed 16 signs in the group of 16-stroke symbols, but I will discuss here only those that are not clearly variants of previously discussed signs.  The sign enumerated XVI 1 is another variant of the POT HATTED BEARER, this version having arms in that form a “V” shape or else a chevron.  I have no further comments on this sign.

The second in this set is MAN HOLDING POST BY WINDOW (XVI 2).  Elsewhere, it appears only in the list prepared by Wells (W69).  He notes it to be a singleton from Mohenjo daro, published as Marshall CXVII 10.  As such, I have not seen it and include an illustration based on Wells.
Tablet M-522A and B with inscription: STRIPED MALLET / XVI 4 / GRID (3 X 4).

The third symbol is BIRD WITH THREE FEATHERED TAIL (XVI 3).  Its inclusion is based on Wells (W102), a singleton from Harappa (H-452).  However, it is probably a variant of KP66 (with a two-pronged tail).  My fourth symbol is PRAWN (XVI 3), also known as KP73, W148, and Fs C-1.  As noted previously, Fairservis sees this as a prawn, while others tend to view it as a scorpion.  Likewise, I have no further comments on a QUADRUPED WITH R FACE, E TAIL, AND EAR (XVI 4).  Although Wells enumerates it separately (W183), it is probably the same as the sign without the “ear,” previously discussed.  I have no more to add to the discussion of BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF (XVI 5), either.  Although the precise shape of this element varies, as does the number and orientation of the stripes, I think it is the same sign as KP110 and W253.  It seems to be a type of “striped leaf” with an “ear” on one side and a bisected rectangle on the other.  These additions are not likely to represent “bugs,” but they must be meaningful, since the LEAF can appear in the same inscription as BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF.  This indicates that there are at least two independent signs involved.
Detail from seal H-478 with inscription: CIRCLED VEE / BI-QUOTES //

We now come to a few rare variations on the POT.  There is a BI-RAKE AND STRIPED FLANGE TOPPED POT (XVI 6), listed independently only by Wells (W313).  It occurs twice, once at Mohenjo daro and once at Harappa.  As an asymmetrical symbol, it is unique to the Indus Valley.  That is, I find no parallels anywhere.
Detail from seal H-598 with inscription: 6-LEGGED CRAB IN LEAF TOPPED POT /
2 DASHES, & CEE / POT (the first sign differs from XVI 7 in having legs, but
otherwise shows the "leaf" topped "pot").

Another ligature is LEGLESS CRAB IN LEAF TOPPED POT (XVI 7).  This singleton from Lothal is enumerated W336 in Wells’ list.  Perhaps Parpola considers it a variant of KP118, a “loop”-topped POT also enclosing a CRAB.
Closeup of reconstructed tablet M-1563B with sign XVI 8: CRAB IN DOUBLED CHEVRON TOPPED POT.

The same small element is enclosed in a slightly different container in CRAB IN DOUBLED CHEVRON TOPPED POT (XVI 8).  This one, too, is separately enumerated in Wells (W339).  He cites a single occurrence from Mohenjo daro (identified as MacKay XCIII 1).  It may be compared with both the previous sign and the CRAB IN CHEVRON TOPPED POT (L-11).
Illustration of XVI 9 as depicted in Koskenniemi and Parpola's list (KP118).

There follows CRAB IN LOOP TOPPED POT (XVI 9), based on KP118.  This is probably an interpretation of one of the previous signs since it does not appear in the first two volumes of the Corpus.  Farmer suggests that the basic “pot,” as well as the cult stand so often seen before the unicorn bull, symbolizes a tree, specifically the pipal or fig tree (2004).  Perhaps then all the “pots,” whether topped with loops, “buds,” chevrons, or “leaves,” symbolize one or another tree, perhaps each one sacred.  If this is true, then it may be that each variation at the top of the “pot” only signifies a particular tree.  It might then be more useful to subsume them all under a single identifying number, with letters used to specify the variants.
Bar seal M-373 with inscription: CEE WITH SLASH (?) / DOUBLE DOWN HEARTS / CIRCLED DIAMOND
WITH 10 RAYS / DOUBLE COMBS (the "diamond" looks more like an oval in the original, to me).

The next sign may be an unusual variation on the “cartwheel” symbol: CIRCLED DIAMOND WITH TEN RAYS (XVI 10).  Elsewhere, it is identified as KP375 and W375.  Wells notes it to be a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-373).  I think it may occur twice, the second time on a round tablet from Harappa (H-830).
Bas-relief tablet H-830, showing a single legible sign over a bovine:
CIRCLED DIAMOND WITH 10 RAYS (this "diamond" looks
even more round than the previous one, to my eyes).

There is a rather weak parallel in proto-cuneiform with U8, which means “mother ewe.”  This sign begins as the circled cross, with the meaning “sheep,” adding two diagonal strokes to vary the meaning.  The term for this type of minor change, gunification, refers to the non-standardized manner, where each scribe seemingly varies the same basic sign in a slightly different way.  A number of Indus signs seem to be varied in a similarly non-standardized, ad hoc manner.
Proto-cuneiform sign U8, "mother ewe."

One common type of variation is termed caging here, following Wells.  It occurs in CAGED FAT EX IN DIAMOND (XVI 11), listed elsewhere as KP383 and W409.  It is a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-817).  Kinnier Wilson takes the four marks of caging to represent a numeral (1974: 19).  But if this were the case, we would expect other numerals to surround a non-numerical symbol.  Only 4 and 8 seem to be represented, however (a sign with four surrounding marks is here termed “caged” while one with eight such marks is “doubly caged”).  To me, this suggests that “four” and its multiples had some significance to the Harappans beyond purely enumeration.  Elsewhere, there are four directions (north, south, east, west) or four seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter).  But these are not universals.  Accordingly, the Harappans may have numbered some other significant set as containing four (or eight when doubled) items.
Detail from seal M-817 with inscription: CAGED FAT EX IN DIAMOND / LEAF / SPEAR.

The following sign is difficult to describe, so I have given the simplistic name of QUILT (XVI 12).  It appears only in the list of Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP261).  It does not appear in the first two volumes of the Corpus, but Parpola identifies it in his later work (2009: 75, no. 265 on item 3713).  The outer portion resembles a motif found on pot shards (Rhd-15, Rhd-156-7, and Rhd-230). 
Indus sign XVI 12, QUILT, as KP261.

Pot shard Rhd-157 with a motif similar to the QUILT without central elements.

This part also appears in Old (i.e., Linear) Elamite (e.g., see the omniglot website, inscription in Old Elamite, second column from left, 15th symbol down).  Unfortunately, its significance remains unknown.
Motif identified as birds from southwestern U.S. (Appleton 1971: fig. 34).

Rather surprisingly, almost the same symbol appears in the Americas.  In southwest of North America, it is identified as representing four birds (Appleton 1971: fig. 34).  In the land of Colombia, South America, it appears on pottery (1971: fig. 77).
Adinkra symbol mpatapo, "knot of reconciliation," resembling a curvilinear version of Indus sign XVI 12.

In a curvilinear form, almost the same motif appears twice among the adinkra symbols of West Africa.  With each triangle converted to a circle, it becomes mpatapo, “knot of reconciliation” (Willis 1998: 134).  In a more looping form, it embodies the saying kramo bone amma yeanhu kramo pa, “the bad Muslim makes it difficult for a good one to be recognized” (1998: 120).
Detail from a mosaic floor excavated at Megiddo, Israel (from television documentary).

As we approach the end of the 16-stroke signs, I note DOUBLE STRIPED MALLETS (XVI 13).  It is included in my list on the basis of Wells’ list, where it is enumerated separately from the individual STRIPED MALLET (W472).  Counting in this way, Wells finds it to be a singleton from Harappa (H-10).  But this may not be the best way to designate independent signs.
Detail from seal H-10 with inscription: DOUBLE DOWN HEARTS / MAN WITH DEE-SLASH /

Similarly, Wells separates the instances of DOUBLE GRIDS from occurrences of the individual GRID.  When this item is divided into two columns of four squares each (2 x 4), the doubled occurrence becomes W509 (my XVI 14).  When the grid is divided into three columns of three squares each (3 x 3), it is W511 (XVI 15 in my list).  There are five of each type of doubled form, all from Mohenjo daro.  Grids, as previously noted, are quite common around the world and may even be universal.
Detail from seal M-321 with inscription: CIRCLED 3 / DOUBLE GRIDS (2 X 4).

The last sign in this group is another variation: TRIPLE STRIPED BI-FORK TOPPED HAIR PICK (XVI 16).  Again, I follow Wells in including it here (W541b).  However, the element at the top of each prong of the “hair pick” is not a neat “Y” shape, as shown in Wells’ thesis.  Instead, the vertical stroke itself forms one side of the “bi-fork,” with a short diagonal added to each to complete the element.  Most instances of this type of “hair pick” have two horizontal lines crossing the base.  This variant has four (H-48).


Appleton, L.H. 1971. American Indian Design and Decoration. New York: Dover (orig. 1950 by Charles Scribner's Sons).

Fairservis, W.A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Farmer, S. 2004. Mythological Functions of Indus Inscriptions, 6th Harvard Indology Roundtable, 8-10 May 2004. Available at: www.safarmer.com/downloads

Joshi, J.P. and A. Parpola. 1987. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 1. Collections in India. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Koskenniemi, K. and A. Parpola. 1982. A Concordance to the Texts in the Indus Script. Helsinki: Department of Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki.

Omniglot website: www.omniglot.com/writing/elamite.htm

Parpola, Asko. 1994 and 2009. Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge: University Press.

Shah, S.G.M. and A. Parpola. 1991. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 2. Collections in Pakistan. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Wells, B. 1998. An Introduction to Indus Writing: A Thesis (see also 2011. Epigraphic Approaches to Indus Writing. Oxford & Oakville: Oxbow Books).

Willis, W.B. 1998. The Adinkra Dictionary. Washington DC: The Pyramid Complex.

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