Sunday, August 7, 2011

Men Holding Tools and Odd Animals in the Indus Script

Detail from broken seal M-1104 with inscription: CARTWHEEL / PINCH / FOOTED STOOL WITH HAIRY LEGS / POT.

Most of the signs I will be discussing in this post represent either humans (anthropomorphs) or animals (zoomorphs).  But the first one is neither.  For want of a better term, I call the twenty-first of the eleven-stroke signs FOOTED STOOL WITH HAIRY LEGS (XI 21).  It appears in other lists as KP237 and W455.  Fairservis considers the basic STOOL or FOOTED STOOL to be a pair of tongs, but I cannot tell what he makes of variations on that theme with multiple prongs attached.  In any case, Wells notes that there are only two occurrences of this sign, both from Mohenjo daro.

Three variants of proto-cuneiform SZA, "fraction of mina," vaguely reminiscent of Indus sign XI 21.

The "bowtie" shape appears frequently in other scripts and the artwork of other lands.  But the "stool," with an opening on one side, and especially a version with attached "hairs" or prongs is vanishingly rare.  Proto-cuneiform provides an example of an asymmetrical "bowtie" with prongs on one side, as the closest parallel that I have seen.  This sign is transcribed SZA, and it came to represent a fraction of a mina, a weight measure.

Copper tablet M-516B with inscription of one sign: QUADRUPED WITH E FACE, SKEWERED CHEVRON TAIL.

Next, I note a QUADRUPED WITH E FACE AND SKEWERED CHEVRON TAIL (XI 22).  Of course, I do not really know which end is the head and which the tail, so it could just as easily have a "skewered chevron" for a head and an "E" shaped tail.  Be that as it may, this rare sign appears only in the list of Koskenniemi and Parpola (KP43).  It occurs only on two copper tablets, as far as I can tell (M-516 and M-517B).  It is impossible to say what sort of quadruped it represents -- or even whether it actually represents an animal at all.  For all I know, it could depict a strange piece of furniture!

Schematic depiction of deer around an anthropomorph from rock art of the Columbian Plateau (Keyser 1992: 52, fig. 25b).
It may depict a shaman with power over the animals, artwork perhaps created by such a shaman as part of a ritual to obtain such power, or to commemorate success in a hunt. 

Schematic depictions of animals do appear in many places, including the rock art of the American Southwest, North Africa, and in the early Chinese oracle bone writing.  But none resemble this unusual Indus sign beyond having four stick-like limbs.  There are some depictions of deer that also have "E" shaped antlers in the Columbian Plateau of the northeastern United States (Keyser 1992: 52, fig. 25b).  Like the Indus sign, these quadrupeds have very reduced heads in these depictions.

Seal M-161 with inscription: THREE QUOTES / MAN HOLDING FOOTED STOOL / DOUBLE GRIDS (2 X 5).

We turn now from the zoomorph to the anthropomorphs, the first in this series being MAN HOLDING FOOTED STOOL (XI 23).  It is enumerated by others as KP37, W50 and W71, and Fs A-21.  Fairservis calls it a man with tongs or pincers, but defines it as "shepherd" because of near-homophony among Dravidian words having to do with the grazing of goats or sheep.  Wells, for his part, separates the two versions that occur at Mohenjo daro based on which side of the "man" the "stool" appears on.  I find this separation unnecessary, as did the other researchers.  Since some inscriptions read from right to left (especially on tablets) and others read left to right (mainly on seals), we would expect each sign to be capable of appearing in reverse as well.  For that reason, one would not expect to see signs distinguished solely by direction in this way.

The MAN HOLDING THREE-TOED FOOT may resemble this -- if it truly exists.

The following sign is MAN HOLDING THREE-TOED FOOT (XI 24), also known as KP42 and Fs A-20.  Fairservis suggests that this represents a man with a crucible, from which he derives the meaning "smith."  While I do not seriously think the FOOT represents a human foot, I am not convinced that it is a crucible either.  It must be a very rare sign as I have not actually seen it.  It might appear on the edge of a seal from Mohenjo daro that is severly marred (M-326).  There is certainly a "man" holding something here, but the traces suggest a CUP rather than the FOOT.

Bar seal M-1317 with inscription: STRIPED LEAF / POT-HATTED BEARER. 

There is also an eleven-stroke POT-HATTED BEARER (XI 25).  This one has neither arms nor a body.  The "legs" descend directly from the "shoulder yoke."  In fact, they seem to be continuations of the strokes forming the sides of the POT, in Wells' list anyway.  Fairservis does not include this variation of the sign and neither do Koskenniemi and Parpola.  But Wells includes two versions, W8d and e, of which there are two occurrences apiece (with variation in the shape of the ovals hanging from the "shoulder yoke").  I think there is even more variation than Wells cites.  Some of the variants only show two loops attached to the POT, leaving out even the "shoulder yoke."

Pot shard L-221 with (partial?) inscription: POT-HATTED BEARER (minus shoulder yoke) / MAN ON DOUBLE CARTWHEELS (compare the great differences in style of these two anthropomorphic signs).

There are also two variations on the basic BEARER that include eleven strokes (XI 26).  In one of these, the "arms" form a single horizontal line joining the tops of the ovals being borne (W4b).  In the other, the "arms" are two shallow "V" shapes and the "man" has a small, round "head."  But there are no ovals handing from his "shoulder yoke" (W4o).  If any of the BEARERS should be considered an independent sign, I imagine it would be this last, which does not seem to be bearing anything.  However that may be, Fairservis calls this a man with a carrying pole on his shoulders, with the definition "guard, guardian."  And Wells notes 35 of the BEARER, of which perhaps four contain eleven strokes.
Seal K-49 with inscription: THREE QUOTES / STACKED SEVEN / BEARER (minus ovals).

Seal C-20 with inscription: STRIPED HORN / CIRCLE / POST / CIRCLE / BEARER (horizontal arms).

Next comes a MAN HOLDING CUPPED SPOON (XI 27), also known as KP41, W31 and Fs A-19.  Now, I do not actually see such a symbol, only two occurrences of an anthropomorph with a "cupped post" (M-33 and M-239).  But perhaps my eyes are wrong.  At any rate, Fairservis thinks this is a man with a mortar and pestle, meaning "miller."

Detail from seal M-239 with inscription: MAN HOLDING CUPPED POST (or SPOON?) / BI-QUOTES //
FISH UNDER CHEVRON / BOAT / TRI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT (over bison and trough, not shown).

The last of these anthropomorphs is MAN ON BASE (ROUND HEAD) (XI 28), which appears only as W37a.  It appears at Mohenjo daro once and at Banawali once as well.  It is surprising that analogous symbols are not easily found.  But while stick figure anthropomorphs abound in many areas, placing one on a base is not typical.


Another possible zoomorph is next on the list: DUCK HEAD WITH EYE (XI 29).  I include this as a zoomorph based on Fairservis' identification of it as the head of a shrieking or calling bird (B-6).  I am not sure he is right about this as it might just as realistically be considered some sort of crab.  Wells enumerates it W89, noting two occurrences, one from Mohenjo daro and one from Harappa.


In proto-cuneiform there is a similar sign, NE~a, "this or that one."  It includes the central round portion, two converging lines that might be interpreted as a bird's open beak, and several prongs on the opposite side of the circle.  But this is an abstract symbol and not part of a bird.  It is quite possible that such is the case with the Indus sign as well despite what Fairservis sees in it.

Proto-cuneiform sign NE, variants "a" and "b," meaning "this/that one."  It resembles the Indus DUCK HEAD.

The last zoomorph for this post is STRIPED BIRD (XI 30), also known as KP66, W107, and Fs B-2.  The version that Fairservis shows appears to be standing on its tail like this eleven-stroke version, but lacks the stripes.  He thinks it represents a peacock, with various definitions based on Dravidian near-homophones: "peacock; tail; sorcery, magic; child."  Wells notes it to be a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-274).  I actually thought it must be a bug when I first saw it.  It is so schematic -- not to mention tiny -- that it is hard to tell.

Seal M-274 with inscription: TWO POSTS / AITCH / POTTED TWO / DOT IN FISH / STRIPED BIRD /
BI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT (could the "bird" actually represent an insect, say a bee with stinger?).

Proto-cuneiform includes several birds, including DAR, "black francolin (a type of pheasant)," MUSZEN, "bird," and NAM, "sparrow or swallow."  The basic shape of these is the same, with distinctions created by adding lines inside the body or protruding from it.  Only the last of these has two lines for a tail, which the Indus symbol has (in some variants).

Proto-cuneiform sign NAM, "sparrow or swallow."  Another variant has two vertical strokes at the bottom for a tail.

Birds appear in other scripts and in the art of other lands.  The standing bird is well represented, as is one with its wings spread as in flight.  This is not really surprising.  Birds fly on every continent but Antartica.

Basketry motif dede of the Yekuana tribe of Venezuela, South America, actually a
flying bat rather than a bird (Guss 1989: 202, Pl. 31).


Fairservis, Walter A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Guss, David M. 1989. To Weave and Sing: Art, Symbol, and Narrative in the South American Rain Forest. Berkeley: University of California.

Joshi, Jagat Pati and Asko Parpola. 1987. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 1. Collections in India. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Keyser, James D. 1992. Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau. Seattle: University of Washington.

Shah, Sayid Ghulam Mustafa and Asko Parpola. 1991. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 2. Collections in Pakistan. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Wells, Bryan. 1998. An Introduction to Indus Writing: A Thesis.  Available at:

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