Monday, August 22, 2011

Rare Indus Signs of 13 Strokes

Tablet M-951A & B with inscriptions: BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF / MAN WITH TWO SHISH KEBABS /

I begin this post with discussion of MAN WITH TWO SHISH KEBABS (XIII 5).  Previously published lists enumerate this symbol as KP29, W60, and Fs A-25.  Fairservis states that the “man” is holding two sticks marked with lines as recording devices.  He defines the similar sign A-24 with a single “recording stick” as “record keeper, one who records by length, depth, and amount.”  Doubling the sticks changes the symbol to an honorific suffix, in Fairservis’ view.  Wells notes that the sign is a singleton from Harappa (H-951A).  The SHISH KEBAB by itself is nearly universal, as is some type of anthropomorphic depiction.  But a combination of the two is not easy to discover.
Bar seal M-1316 with inscription: BISECTED RECTANGLE / CEE WITH BACKSLASH /

I might say almost the same things about the next sign, MAN HOLDING TWO DEE-SLASHES (XIII 6), enumerated elsewhere as KP36, W68, and Fs A-17.  Fairservis thinks the “man” here is holding bows with arrows to spell out an honorific title, iravilan.  This Dravidian word is interpreted, then, as a combination of ira-, “two,” and velan, “archer.”  Alternatively, Fairservis suggests, the symbol indicates a man from the Near Eastern city of Irbil.  In any case, Wells finds the sign to be a singleton from Mohenjo daro (M-1316).  Again, depictions of men with bows are quite common, if not quite universal.  Perhaps because it is impossible to shoot two arrows from two bows at once, a variation showing a man with two is not at all frequent.
Sign XIII 7, MAN WITH GRILL, as shown in Wells' list (W70).

Today’s third sign is MAN WITH GRILL (XIII 7), which appears only in Wells’ list (W70).  He notes its single appearance in an archeological report (Marshall CXVII 10).  As it does not appear in the first two volumes of the Corpus, I have not seen it.  I cannot even begin to guess what object is actually depicted beside the “man.”  It partly resembles the STRIPED MALLET, but lacks the upright vertical on top.  Again, I find no comparable symbol elsewhere.
Detail from seal M-843 with (partial) inscription: FAT ZEE / POTTED ONE /

The next sign is STRIPED BIRD WITH ROUND TAIL (XIII 8), perhaps a variation on KP66 and Fs B-2, but certainly W101.  Birds of one kind of another appear a fair number of times in the Corpus, but there is considerable variation among them.  This particular version of the “bird” that seems to stand on its tail appears once at Mohenjo daro (M-843).

A different species may be intended by STRIPED BIRD WITH UPRIGHT TAIL (XIII 9), also known as W103 and perhaps KP71.  Fairservis seems to group all the variations together, showing only B-2, which he considers a peacock.  But this BIRD stands on its feet and its tail has a definite upswing, in contrast to some other renditions.  As Wells states, it appears once at Mohenjo daro (M-107).  In this case, the inscription includes two different BIRDS, the second one with a tail that descends.  This suggests that there are at least two distinct BIRD signs in the Indus script.

Two variants of proto-cuneiform NAM, "swallow or sparrow."  In other variants, a wing appears.

Note, however, that in proto-cuneiform there can be substantial differences in the form of a bird.  The sign NAM, which is either a sparrow or swallow, sometimes has a tail, sometimes a wing, but not both.
Various Ghanaian goldweights in the form of birds (Phillips 2010: 19, Pl. 11).

In West Africa, the hornbill is especially significant and often appears as a goldweight in Ghana (Phillips 2010: 19, Pl. 11; pp. 152-153, Pl. 288-294).  Among the Asante people of this region, the hornbill is considered the prince of birds, their name being used as a title by chiefs.  The author states: “The town-crier announces the arrival of a paramount chief who visits lesser chiefs with the words: The Great Hornbill, I have lifted myself up, so the smaller ones shall bow down” (2010: 153).  It may be that a particular species of bird was such an emblem of chiefdom in the Indus Valley.
Bar seal L-88 with inscription: STRIPED BIRD WITH BENT NECK / GRID (2 X 3) /

A bird of particular interest is STRIPED BIRD WITH BENT NECK (XIII 10), also enumerated KP69, W105, and Fs B-3.  Fairservis may not have seen the same instance cited by Wells, from Lothal (L-88).  The former author considers the bird to be a peacock, the “bent neck” interpreted as a plume on the head.  But the photo reveals the Lothal example to be the neck and not a plume.
Ghanaian goldweights in the form of the Sankofa bird (Phillips 2010: 104, Pl. 158).

The Sankofa bird appears among Ghanaian goldweights (Phillips 2010: 104, Pl. 158 and p. 150, Pl. 282).  This mythical bird is always shown with its head turned back toward its tail.  It also occurs as a symbol among the Adinkra designs (Willis 1998: 188).  Its name may be translated “go back and fetch it,” meaning that one should learn from the past.
Detail of seal M-38 with inscription: TWO POSTS / BLANKET WITH 5 TICKS / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK / BI-QUOTES // FISH UNDER CHEVRON / WHISKERED FISH / TWO POSTS / FISH / PRAWN / ZEE / CROSSROADS EX / POT (note the pairing of PRAWN and ZEE, common to over half the PRAWN's occurrences).

After the birds, we find a crustacean, PRAWN (XIII 11), also known as KP73, W148, and Fs C-1.  Fairservis sees this as a prawn or shrimp, meaning “food” and “master,” due to homonymy in Dravidian.  Others have suggested that this is a scorpion.  The form of the tail more resembles that of the scorpion, but no pincers are shown at the front, so either identification could be correct.  Wells notes 44 occurrences in four variants, 28 from Mohenjo daro, 13 from Harappa, and one each from Lothal, Kalibangan, and Nindowari damb. 
Detail from seal M-91 with inscription: BI-RAKE / PRAWN / VEE IN DIAMOND / BI-QUOTES // TWO POSTS / FISH / CRAB / WINGED MAN / POT (note the appearance of the PRAWN in the prefix here, a rare position).

I count 85 possibilities, including incomplete ones due to breaking.  The sign most often occurs in the medial section of the inscription, often near one or more of the FISH.  Of the 85 identified in my own database, 50 pair with ZEE or BACK ZEE, a fair number of these also adding CROSSROADS EX.  Four inscriptions include the PRAWN in the prefix.
Replica of a gold figurine of Egyptian goddess SELKET, wearing a scorpion on her head.
The original guarded one of the four corners of King Tut's golden shrine.

If this is actually a scorpion, there are many parallels from the paleography and art of other places.  In ancient Egypt, there is a scorpion goddess, Selket.  While typically depicted in human form, she wears a scorpion on her head as identification.  When the scorpion occurs in writing, however, it is deliberately distorted, lacking its characteristic tail.  Evidently the fear of scorpion stings was great – something I understand from familiarity with Texan scorpions – and this was a form of magic, intended to render scorpions incapable of stinging.  A similar type of magic appears in the Book of the Dead and elsewhere, where a snake is depicted, as required by the text, but has several slash marks “wounding” it.
Egyptian hieroglyph L7, a scorpion without a tail, deleted for magical reasons.

The scorpion also appears on proto-Elamite pottery, as a decorative motif (Potts 1999: 53).  Here, its tail with the stinger is depicted, as in Indus sign XIII 11, as curving to the side, while the rest of the animal appears in bird’s eye view.
The scorpion man of the Ur lyre (left), followed by a goat bearing drinks (Aruz 2003: 106).

In the Sumerian city of Ur, archeologist Leonard Woolley excavated a lyre – a stringed musical instrument similar to a harp – decorated with several panels.  One of these panels depicts a scorpion man (Aruz 2003: 105-107).  The head, arms, and feet are human, while the body and tail are that of a scorpion.  Such a theriomorph (part-animal, part-human) is mentioned in the Babylonian Epic of Creation (Black and Green 1992: 161).  It is on the side of Tiamat, the female dragon killed by the hero, Marduk.  In another epic, that of Gilgamesh, two scorpion-people guard the gate through which the sun rises.
Replica of a Kassite kudurru with divine emblems, including star of Ishtar, crescent of Suen or Sin, crowned
caps of Anu and Enlil, and the scorpion, emblem of the goddess Ishara, sometimes equated with Ishtar.

The scorpion also makes an appearance in later Mesopotamia, on kudurru (boundary stones) of the Kassite era.  It is an emblem of the goddess Išhara, goddess of love and war, similar to Ištar, but also of extipspicy, a type of divination (Black and Green 1992: 160-1 and 110).  Originally, she was associated with a particular type of snake, but this was replaced by the scorpion in the Kassite period.  Astronomically, she and her emblematic animal were associated with the constellation Scorpius, which of course means “scorpion.”
A few Ghanaian goldweights in the form of scorpions (Phillips 2010: 143, Pl. 256).

Scorpions also appear as one of the forms of the Ghanaian goldweight (Phillips 2010: 143, Pl. 256).  There was evidently no standard shape that the scorpion had to take, in this art form.  All representations include the characteristic tail, though.
Broken and heavily abraded seal H-390 with inscription: STRIPED LOOP UNDER CHEVRON /

From the common PRAWN, we now turn to the rare once more, with FISH NET (XIII 12), also listed as W164 and Fs L-7.  Fairservis suggests that this represents a loom with twists of thread at the bottom, meaning “son, children.”  He does not explain why the Harappans would not simply depict a child for such a meaning.  Note that this sign contains three LOOPS at the bottom.  This is a significant part of the reason that Fairservis does not think the LOOP or FISH represents an aquatic animal.  Be that as it may, Wells notes two occurrences, one each at Mohenjo daro and Harappa. 
Proto-cuneiform signs NIMGIR, "night watchman" (above) and SIG4, "mud brick" (below).

There is nothing quite like this symbol elsewhere.  But in proto-cuneiform there are two similar signs that include a group of bent lines coming together at one end.  One of these is NIMGIR, which came to mean “night watchman.”  The other is SIG4, “mud brick.”  Both resemble a modern badminton “birdie” more than the woven object of XIII 12.
Seal Blk-3 with inscription (partially reconstructed here, as shown by the pale line): BLANKET WITH 6 TICKS / POTTED ONE / BELTED FISH / BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF / POT (obviously, I cannot be certain of all of these).

Next, we have another leaf-like sign: BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF (XIII 13), also known as KP110, W253, and Fs E-6c.  Fairservis connects this oddly shaped element with the LEAF, identifying it as a depiction of the pipal leaf with the EAR affix marking the dative case (meaning “to/for”).  In most of the variations, the two extensions at the top of the LEAF are not the same.  One is triangular like the EAR element seen previously.  The other is usually – but not always – square, with at least one striped down the middle.  These same two shapes also appear on some variants of the PRAWN.  Whatever this symbol really represents, it appears 19 times according to Wells.  Of these, 11 are from Mohenjo daro, 5 from Harappa, and one each from Lothal, Chanhujo daro, and Balakot.
Seal C-23 with inscription: BUGS ON STRIPED LEAF / THREE QUOTES (?) / CIRCLED BISECTED RECTANGLE / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / CORN HOLDER // SHIELD / PANTS (?) // MAN HOLDING TWO DEE-SLASHES / CIRCLED VEE (the goat on the left is the icon rather than a sign).  Several signs have an atypical form here.

The final sign for this post is BI-FORK AND BI-RAKE TOPPED POT (XIII 14), found elsewhere as KP96 and W326.  Perhaps we can also identity it as Fs Q-12 + J-7 = name + quantity of metal?  Wells notes a single occurrence of this particular version, with the two-pronged “fork” on one side (H-14). 
Detail from seal H-14 with inscription: DOUBLE STACKED TWELVE / RAKE / PINCH // WHISKERED FISH / BI-RAKE & BI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT (the next to last sign may be an abbreviation, combining two signs).

In his statistical study of Indus signs, Korvink notes that the POT may be preceded by the TRI-FORK TOPPED POT in the terminal portion of the inscription (2007: 30).  This relatively common pair may, in effect, be abbreviated into a single sign, a “pot” with the “F” shaped prongs on one side, a trident on the other.  If this is correct, then perhaps the BI-FORK & BI-RAKE TOPPED POT is a similar abbreviation, combining the BI-FORK TOPPED POT with the BI-RAKE.  Since a number of inscriptions appear cramped and crowded, and since the form of several signs appears to vary based on the amount of room available, this type of abbreviation seems a reasonable possibility.


Aruz, Joan. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York and New Haven: Metropolitan Museum and Yale University.

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. 1992. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin: University of Texas.

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

Gardiner, Sir Alan. 1976 (orig. 1927). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (3rd ed.) Oxford: Griffith Institute and Ashmolean Museum.

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

Korvink, Michael P. 2007. The Indus Script: A Positional Statistical Approach. Gilund Press (

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.

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

Potts, D.T. 1999. The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State. Cambridge: University Press.

Shah, Sayd 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:

Willis, W. Bruce. 1998. The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adinkra. Washington D.C.: The Pyramid Complex.

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