Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Eleven-Stroke Indus Signs: The First Ten

(3rd row) THREE POSTS / CIRCLED TRI-FORK / PANTS / MAN WITH DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK / CIRCLED VEE / QUADRUPED (a mouse?) (this inscription may contain three units of information, the longest inscription in this script).

Of the thirty-eight Indus signs drawn with eleven strokes, DOUBLY CAGED AY is the first, thus enumerated XI 1 in my list.  This symbol appears in others lists as KP187 and W442.  Wells notes that it is a singleton, appearing just once at Mohenjo daro (M-314). 
Egyptian plowing scene showing implement vaguely resembling Indus AY (Faulkner 1994: Pl. 34, detail).

The AY element may represent a simple type of plow called an ard, based on a comparison with the Egyptian glyph U13, which is certainly a plow.  However, some other object may be intended, such as the tool depicted here in the form of a goldweight from Ghana (Phillips 2010: 33, fig. 32).  It may be an adze or a hoe, for example.  In addition, it is always possible, of course, that the Indus sign is an abstract symbol, not depicting any object in the real world.

The second sign in the eleven-stroke set is DOUBLY CAGED BACK DEE-SLASH (XI 2), found elsewhere as KP183 and W568.  Like the previous symbol, this one is a ligature, made up of eight dots in the upper and lower right and left corners, surrounding a larger central element.  That central symbol, the DEE-SLASH, may represent a bow and arrow.  I have chosen to give it a different term, though, since there is no proof that this is indeed what it depicts.
Openwork goldweights of Ghana, including one resembling the Indus
DEE-SLASH (center top) (Phillips 2010: 180, fig. 352).

A comparison may be made with an apparently abstract shape taken by one of the Ghanaian goldweights (Phillips 2010: 180, fig.352).  This one may be related to the more common semi-circular “cogwheel” weights, many of which have a decorative element perpendicular to the straight side.  It is also possible that both the “D” shaped openwork weight and the semi-circular “cogwheels” are schematic depiction of quivers for arrows, the rounded side indicating a strap for carrying (cf. 2010: 168, fig. 330).
Detail from Peruvian poncho showing Incan design similar to a "caged boxed cross" (Appleton 1971: Pl. 69).

It is interesting to note the “caging” element in these first two Indus signs.  Usually, caging includes just four marks in the corners, but here each corner bears two marks.  What is notable is that there are no other configurations.  There are never twelve or sixteen marks – three or four dots in each corner.  And there are never fewer than four – no instances of three or two, unless one counts a single sign found on a few copper tablets.  This possible exception is a STRIPED MALLET which has two dots accompanying it, one on either side of the “handle” of the “mallet.”  The very presence of “caging” as a modification of a sign suggests that four may be a number with special meaning.  The appearance of a few signs with double caging further suggests that eight is also meaningful, though perhaps less so than four.  Did the Harappans have four seasons?  Did they see four corners of the world, as did their contemporaries in the Near East?  At the moment, we have no way of knowing.
Ghanaian goldweight in the shape of a "caged boxed cross" (Phillips 2010: 176, fig. 348).
This same motif appears on many Indus seals lacking inscriptions.

On the topic of caging, many researchers ignore the presence of many Indus seals bearing a symbolic motif but no signs.  A good number of these are adorned with a cross (or “X” depending on how one positions the seal), with four smaller elements in the four corners.  This “caged cross” motif also appears outside the Indus Valley, interestingly enough.  It may have originated in some areas as an angular variation on the circled cross, a nearly universal motif.  This caged cross appears among the Ghanaian goldweights, for example (Phillips 2010: 176, fig. 348).  It also occurs in the art of some native peoples of the Americas (Appleton 1971: Pl. 69).
Detail from seal M-61 with inscription: DOUBLY CAGED ASTERISK (not a TRI-FORK) /
GRID (3 X 3) / SPACESHIP / FISH / DOT IN FISH (??) / LEAF (??) / POT.

To continue with the Indus signs, there is a DOUBLY CAGED TRI-FORK (XI 3), also known as KP87.  I have not seen this particular symbol in the Corpus, though there are two examples of a similar CAGED ASTERISK (M-61 and M-655).
Ghanaian goldweights in the form of back rests (Phillips 2010: 120, fig. 191).

The trident element in this proposed symbol appears among the goldweights of Ghana depicting a backrest (Phillips 2010: 120, fig. 191).  In an early post, I mentioned other “tridents,” including a Chinese version that depicts either a plant or a human hand depending on the character.
Detail of inscription from broken seal M-256: FOOTED STOOL / PINCH // FISH /
CAGED CIRCLED TRI-FORK // (2nd row) RAINY CARTWHEEL (? too abraded to be certain).

There is another symbol caged with the more usual four marks: CAGED CIRCLED TRI-FORK.  It is also enumerated KP365 and W374.  Wells sees only one example from Mohenjo daro (M-675).  I find four, two of which contain a trident, two others “E” shaped.  There is also one CAGED CIRCLED BI-FORK (M-794).  All derive from the same city.
Detail from seal M-675 with inscription: TWO POSTS / EARPHONES ON POST / BI-QUOTES //
CIRCLED E TRI-FORK / BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF / POT (despite the presence of 10 signs, this
inscription probably contains just one unit of information).

Fairservis does not list the ligatures with caging as independent signs.  But he does mention caging, enumerating this element as P-9.  They depict ornamental dots of milk, he believes, representing tribute in the form of milk cows, or the flow of a liquid (1992: 184).  He considers the TRI-FORK, whether “E” shaped or not, to depict a stalk of grain (E-3).  But the symbol stands for a lunar month, he thinks (1992: 160).  As I mentioned in a previous post, the notion of a Harappan calendar may not be too far-fetched.  But this hypothesis fails to make sense of the fact that there is no 11 among the apparent numerals.
Seal M-130 with inscription: CAGED MAN HOLDING POST / BI-QUOTES // TWO POSTS / FISH / TABLE BELTED MAN / POT (a six-symbol series containing the elements of prefix, medial section, and terminal; one unit of info).

Sometimes an anthropomorphic element is caged, as in CAGED MAN HOLDING POST (XI 5), elsewhere KP32 and W54.  As Wells notes, it is a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-130).  While representations of humans holding sticks or other implements are common around the world, the combination of this motif and the four dots of caging seems to be confined to the Indus Valley.

The following symbol is problematic: MAN ON BASE BETWEEN POSTS (XI 6), which appears only as KP18.  I do not see the precise sign included in Koskenniemi and Parpola’s list.  The closest thing to it appears to be a singleton from Kalibangan (K-60).  To my eyes, this is a MAN ON BASE HOLDING TWO POSTS.  I am inclined to change the designation on this basis.
Detail of broken seal M-863 with inscription: GRAIN EAR BETWEEN POSTS / POTTED ONE / CUPPED POST / PRAWN / POT (a single unit of information with the elements of medial section and terminal).

Another singleton is GRAIN EAR BETWEEN POSTS (XI 7), also known as KP102 (only nine strokes) and W273.  It occurs at Mohenjo daro, like so many other singletons (M-863).
Proto-cuneiform sign SZAM2, "to buy, sell, barter," analogous to Indus XI 7.

As a comparison, we may note the proto-cuneiform SZAM2.  This symbol includes a horizontal ear of grain between two bent lines that resemble a bottle.  It came to mean “purchase; sale price; to buy, sell, barter.”  Originally, it may have depicted grain in a standardized container, a commodity commonly used for barter in the ancient world.
Seal M-752 with partially legible inscription: QUINT-FORK ON DOWN COMB / POT (?) / FOOTED STOOL / PINWHEEL (the POT has a chip missing at the top, so it may actually be a POTTED ONE or another similar sign -- seal very abraded).

The eighth symbol for this post is QUINT-FORK ON DOWN COMB (XI 8), shown only in Wells’ list (W286).  It appears once at Mohenjo daro (M-752).  It may be a variant of a simpler sign, a trident on the same “comb” with tines turned downward (KP88 and W275).  Another variation on this theme places a “Y” shape (or “bi-fork” in my terminology) on the same “comb” (Dlp-3).
Proto-cuneiform sign NIN, "queen, mistress, lady."

Besides being rare, this symbol has almost no parallels, though the two elements of which it is composed are quite frequent.  The best analog I find is the proto-cuneiform sign NIN, “queen, mistress, lady.”  It, too, is a ligature of two elements.  But here, one part is a triangle that is not quite bisected (representing the female aspect of the meaning).  The other is not a “comb” but a thin rectangle crossed by two horizontal lines (indicating high rank).
Seal M-67 with inscription: BATTERY / MAN HOLDING CUP / PINCH // CEE / PACMAN / POT //
SPACESHIP WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK (probably two units of information: prefix, medial / terminal / 2nd medial).

As the largest Indus site, Mohenjo daro provides the greatest number of seals, tablets, and other artifacts bearing inscriptions.  Not surprisingly, there are more singletons from this site than any other also.  Yet another example is SPACESHIP WITH ATTACHED TRI-FORK (XI 9).  It appears in other lists as well: KP223 and W426.  Fairservis only notes the elements of which it is composed (N-1 SPACESHIP, “mountains” + F-13 trident affix, “fire”).  Perhaps he considers the ligature a volcano?
Seal M-842 with single-sign inscription: FOOTED STOOL WITH HAIRY LEGS
& ATTACHED TRI-FORK (12-stroke version).

The final sign for this post is FOOTED STOOL WITH HAIRY LEGS AND ATTACHED TRI-FORK (XI 10).  Since I include this in the eleven-stroke group, only those variations with two “hairs” per “leg” appear here.  More commonly, this type of symbol includes three such “hairs” per “leg” (W461).  Although Wells carefully distinguishes the two types, I am not convinced that there is a two-hair version.  If it does occur, it is probably a single instance from Mohenjo daro (M-127).
Ghanaian goldweight with repeated "bowtie" motif, the closest element to the Indus "stool" (Phillips 2010: 82, fig. 120).

If Wells is correct, there are six occurrences of the 11-stroke version, one of them from Harappa; plus a single instance of a 12- or 13-stroke version from Mohenjo daro (M-107).  He observes only instances with the “tri-fork” on the right, the “feet” of the “stool” on the left.  But I think one case is reversed (H-99, not included in his listing).  In any case, this uncommon Indus sign appears to have no parallels elsewhere.


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.
Phillips, Tom. 2010. African Goldweights: Miniature Sculptures from Ghana 1400-1900. London: Thames & Hudson.

No comments:

Post a Comment