Friday, August 26, 2011

Birds, Bugs, Prawns, and Men in the Indus Script: 14-Stroke Signs

Detail from seal M-142 with inscription: VEE IN DIAMOND / BI-QUOTES // LOOP ARMED MAN
WITH SLASH / COMB BELTED MAN WITH FEET (this version lacks the "high heels" of XIV 4).

Today’s first Indus sign is COMB BELTED MAN WITH HEELS (XIV 4), a symbol based on the list presented by Koskenniemi and Parpola (1982: 20-21).  Its previous enumerations include KP22 and W20 (in variant form).  The sign appears seven times on seals and tablets from Mohenjo daro.  Presumably, Fairservis would see this as a ligature of his L-9 (COMB) and A-1 (MAN).  Since he defines COMB as “to write” and MAN as “ruler,” perhaps he would combine these two and define the COMB BELTED MAN as “ruler who writes” or something like “supervisor of scribes.”  On the other hand, he also sees the COMB as a suffix, indicating the dative of humans, with the meaning of the ligature becoming “belonging to the ruler.”  This is, of course, mere speculation on my part.
Seal C-23 with inscription: BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF / 3 QUOTES (?) / CIRCLED BISECTED RECTANGLE / MAN WITH DEE-SLASH / CORN HOLDER // SHIELD / PANTS (?) // MAN WITH DOUBLE DEE-SLASHES / CIRCLED VEE (note that the "man" appears twice here, once with a single "D" & /, once with two; this indicates these are 2 signs).

The fifth symbol in my list of signs comprising 14 strokes is MAN WITH DOUBLE DEE-SLASHES (XIV 5).  This refers to the somewhat more realistic version that appears only once, at Chanhujo daro (C-23; but compare M-1316).  This variant has a rounded head, as well as feet.  Without these features, the symbol is enumerated KP36 and Fs A-17.  Wells alone separates this version as W49.
Seal H-447 with single-sign inscription: COW LEG BETWEEN SLASHES.

After these anthropomorphic symbols, we turn to zoomorphic signs, including COW LEG BETWEEN SLASHES (XIV 6), elsewhere enumerated KP46, W156, and Fs D-4.  Fairservis suggests that the animal haunch represents a tribe, with the additional marks (SLASHES) serving as the Dravidian affix –ī/ĭr (“to syllabize or designate meaning”).  The only place this sign occurs is at Harappa, where it is a singleton (H-447).
Bar seal H-155 with inscription: PINCERED CRAB (6 legs) / PINCH // STACKED 7 / QUINT-FORK.

The following sign is a second version of PINCERED CRAB (XIV 7).  Where the variant previously discussed has three “legs” on either side, this one has four.  In one form or another, it appears in the literature as KP75 (6-legged) and W88 (6- and 8-legged).  It is Wells’ variant “b,” which occurs once at Harappa (the 6-legged version appearing there twice and once at Mohenjo daro with “fat pincers”). 
A rendition of the Moche crab-man (Van Dinter 2006: 192).

Crab-like elements do not appear to be particularly popular in scripts or in art and I have found few parallels.  The crab does appear in South America, on pottery of the Moche, where it is frequently anthropomorphized (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 66, fig. 3.44e).
Seal fragment M-780 with partial inscription: CIRCLED VEE (?) / BI-QUOTES // BEARER (?) / BI-RAKE & TRI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT (the penultimate sign has a vertical "handle" on the left, not the case in all variants).

Taking a break from zoomorphs, we next examine the unusual BI-RAKE AND TRI-FORK TOPPED POT (XIV 8), also known as KP96 and W307.  I assume that Fairservis would make this a ligature of his Q-12 (BI-RAKE) and J-5 (POT).  He considers the latter to serve as 3rd person singular honorific suffix, here appended to a stylistically doubled RAKE that symbolizes a proper name, Irukirā.  Wells observes twelve occurrences, 11 from Mohenjo daro and one from Harappa, also noting only a single variant.  I find two additional instances from Harappa and two more from Mohenjo daro, increasing the total to 15.  In addition, the form of the TRI-FORK portion varies, as does the “handle” of the BI-RAKE.  In fact, one instance actually has a BI-FORK and another two have a QUAD-FORK instead.  As far as I can tell, this is a symbol unique to the Indus Valley.
A dragonfly in Tsimshian style, from North America's northwest coast (Vin Dinter 2006: 94). 

Returning to the zoomorphic group, I now include DOTTED FLYING ANT (XIV 9), not shown as such in either Fairservis’ list or that of Koskenniemi and Parpola.  Wells does list this version of the ANT (W92), noting it to be a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-890). 
Two filler motifs found on Near Eastern cylinder seals: the fish and the fly (Black and Green 1992: 96).

Insects are not as popular in scripts and art as are mammals and birds.  But they do appear periodically.  The bee and scarab beetle are prominent in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing (L2 and L1 respectively).  Other bugs include a fly (L3), a grasshopper or locust (L4), a centipede (L5), and the scorpion (L7).  The fly also appears in Mesopotamia as one the filler elements in cylinder seal art (Black and Green 1992: 84-5).  It may represent the god Nergal in his role as bringer of disease and death. 
A dragonfly as depicted on Moche pottery (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 60, fig. 3.35).

Although it bears no resemblance to the Indus ANT, a dragonfly occurs from time to time on Moche pottery from South America (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 60, fig. 3.35).  It is also found, in a very different depiction, in the art of North America's northwest coast (Van Dinter 2006: 93, Haida; 94, Tsimshian).

The Indus ANT also resembles the eyes found on so-called “eye idols” including some found at Tell Brak, Syria (Black and Green 1992: 78-80).  These amulets tend to have a simple body in the form of a flattened cone, above which the eyes appear without a surrounding face.  Some have eyebrows similar to the “wings” of the Indus “ant.”  The pupils of the eyes are typically filled with black or green paint.  Black and Green note that “The eye is a recurrent motif in art from the Early Dynastic to the Neo-Assyrian Period” in the Near East.  It is probably connected to belief in the Evil Eye.  It seems possible that the Indus ANT is a similar type of symbol, though this is only a tentative hypothesis.
Bar seal with inscription: POTTED 3 / MAN BY CHEVRON /

The next Indus sign is STRIPED BIRD WITH SINGLE WING (XIV 10), perhaps to be identified with KP71 (which stands on its feet rather than on its tail) and both W99 and W100.  The bird may actually have an upright tail rather than one wing.  The version standing on its tail occurs twice at Mohenjo daro, as does the version standing on its feet, which indicates a total of four if we wish to group them together.
Proto-cuneiform NAM~b, "sparrow or swallow," a bird with a tail but lacking a wing.

Proto-cuneiform includes a number of bird signs, none striped.  Among others, these include GUN3, MUD, MUSZEN, RI, and NAM~b.  Of these, MUSZEN simply means “bird,” while the others represent specific species.
African Adinkra motif termed fafanto, "butterfly," symbol of tenderness, gentleness,
and fragility: life, too, is fragile, it suggests (Willis 1998: 104-5).

A bird in flight as seen in side view is relatively rare in script and art.  More often, both wings are visible, spread as if seen either from above or below.  But a few examples appear here and there in the Near East.  Such a bird occurs on cylinder seals from ancient Turkey and Iraq (Collon 2005: 53, fig. 210; p. 82, fig. 376; p. 191, fig. 925).
Various Moche seabirds, the one on the lower right showing a single upraised wing (Van Dinter 2006: 246).

Flying birds are typically seen from the side with a single wing visible in the South American pottery of the Moche (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 54, fig. 3.26a, a seabird; p. 58, fig. 3.31, a hummingbird).  One of the Old Chinese variants of niao3, "bird" with a long tail, is also a bird in side view, only one wing visible (Wieger 1965: 307-8). 

The next Indus sign is a ligature or composite: FISH AND BIRD BETWEEN PARENTHESES (XIV 11), also known as KP54 and W126.  Fairservis, as noted previously, considered the FISH to be a ligature itself, comprising the twist of thread L-3 with an affix P-11 (the “fins”), meaning “great lord, i.e., chief.”  The bird that apparently stands on its tail was to him a peacock (B-2).  Due to Dravidian near-homophones, he defines this symbol as “tail; sorcery, magic; child.”  The PARENTHESES receive the designation F-17, representing two crescent moons to indicate “day, light; summer, spring.”  He states that when signs are bracketed, each element is to be read separately (1992: 163).  So what does “chief” + “tail/magic/child” plus “day/light” mean?  “Day of the magic chief?”  “Chief of the day of the child?”
Old Chinese niao3, "bird," two variants.

Wells notes two occurrences of this complex symbol, one from Mohenjo daro and one from Harappa.  He notes only one variant, but the bird actually differs in these two.  The Harappan bird stands on its tail, while the one from Mohenjo daro stands on its feet with a drooping tail.
A fish depiction from proto-Elamite pottery from Tall-i Bakun (Potts 1999: 53, fig. 3.6).

Fish and birds both appear in cylinder seal art.  The former most often occur in connection with the Akkadian water god, Ea (Sumerian Enki), but also appear as designs or as filling motifs (Collon 2005: 187, e.g. figs. 761, 918, 930, and 931).  Birds are frequently found in such art, though they are less common than mammals (2005: 187, e.g. figs. 925 and 926). 
An elaborate fish motif from Mimbres pottery of the southwest of North America (Van Dinter 2006: 45).

Both birds and fish appear on Moche pottery of South America, also (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 54, fig. 3.26a, a seabird; p. 64, fig. 3.41, fishes).  They function to set the location of the main scene, the seacoast, or, in the case of the hummingbird, to indicate frenetic activity.
Seal Nd-2 with inscription: STRIPED PRAWN / CRAB / COMB.

We now come to another STRIPED PRAWN (XIV 12).  It appears in the literature as KP73, W148, and Fs C-1.  Fairservis identifies it as a prawn or shrimp, while others generally refer to it as a scorpion.  The “tail” always appears on one side of the “body,” while the “legs” appear on the other.  The elements at the top (pincers?) vary from one instance to another.  Sometimes they are symmetrical loops, at other times an “ear” shape on one side and a striped rectangle on the other.  Wells notes 44 total occurrences of all four variants.  Of these, 28 are from Mohenjo daro, 13 from Harappa, and one each from Lothal, Kalibangan, and Nindowari damb.
Motifs from proto-Elamite pottery of Tall-i Bakun, including lizards (left) and scorpion (right) (Potts 1999: 53, fig. 3.6).

The scorpion appears frequently in the Near East, as a motif on cylinder seals , on kudurru or boundary stones, and on pottery (Collon 2005: 146, fig. 617).  It is popular in most periods and appears in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey (2005: 187).  It is a symbol of the goddess Ishara in the Kassite Period (Black and Green 1992: 160-161).
Detail of an illustration of deities from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, showing the scorpion goddess Selket in the center (Faulkner 1994: Pl. 32).  Her name is written above her, the owl glyph G17 m, a preposition, is followed by the bolt O34 s, the mouth D21 r, the hill N29 q, and bread X1 t (reduced to a short dash).  

As noted in a previous post, the scorpion also features among the Egyptian hieroglyphs (L7).  For magical reasons, the tail is typically missing, though the creature is associated with a goddess, Selket. 
The Moche crab-man, identified as a lobster in Van Dinter (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 66, fig. 3.44e).

Another interpretation of the Indus sign is as a prawn.  A distant parallel for such a symbol appears on the pottery of the Moche, where it is frequently anthropomorphized (Donnan and McClelland 1999: 66, fig. 3.44b).
Round seal M-415 with inscription: CIRCLED DOT / PRAWN WITH ATTACHED POST.

The following symbol includes one version of the last: PRAWN WITH ATTACHED POST (XIV 13).  It is listed elsewhere as KP74 and W152, in the latter noted as a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-415).  Not only is this a rare sign, but it also appears on a rare form of seal, a circular one.
Detail of seal H-57 with inscription: STACKED 12 BETWEEN PARENS / CHEVRON-HATTED BEARER (ARMLESS).

The final Indus sign for this post is STACKED TWELVE BETWEEN CEES (XIV 14), also known as KP143 and W216.  Wells finds it to be a singleton from Harappa (H-57).
Proto-cuneiform sign |EZEN~b x 6(N57)|, a ligature of "festival" and "six."
In proto-cuneiform, signs not infrequently enclose a number of short strokes, the latter often representing numerals.  One example is DU8~c @ g, which encloses a STACKED EIGHT.  It came to mean “to open; yoke; to prepare the threshing floor,” as well as other things.  Here, the apparent numeral has no enumerative function.  This differs from |EZEN~b x 6(N57)|, which encloses a STACKED SIX.  The first-named element came to mean “festival,” while the six strokes indicate the number 6.


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Donnan, D.B. and D. and McClelland. 1999. Moche Fineline Painting: Its Evolution and Its Artists. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

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Wieger, L. 1965. (1927). Chinese Characters, Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. New York: Paragon and Dover.

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