Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Striped Signs in the Indus Script

Seal M-920 with inscription: BATTERY / SHISH KEBAB / BIRD BETWEEN PARENS.

I begin this post with consideration of BIRD BETWEEN PARENTHESES (XI 31), a schematic bird-like sign that appears to be standing on its tail.  In the literature it appears as KP67 and W110, while it occurs in the Corpus once at Mohenjo daro (M-920).  That is to say, the eleven-stroke version, which has two internal stripes, appears a single time.  But if the stroke count is ignored, there are additional instances.

Egyptian tag with incised bird and elephant (O'Connor 2009: 145, fig. 78).

Birds are quite common in the art and/or script of many places.  A long-necked bird appears on a tag in Tomb U-j at Abydos, as once of the earliest examples of proto-hieroglyphic script (O’Connor 2009: 145, fig. 78).  This bird stands on or above an elephant on the tag, forming a pair of symbols that has been interpreted as the first true writing in Egypt, but as proto-writing by others:

The later Egyptian [writing] system used many hieroglyphs interchangeably as ‘ideograms’ (to be read as the item depicted) or ‘phonemes’ (to be read as having a specific sound value, which could be used to write words unconnected with what the hieroglyphs depicted).  Was this the case with the writing system found in Tomb U-j?  Dreyer [the archeologist who excavated Tomb U-j] suggests that it was, but can cite only a handful of possible phonetic writings, and all of these might in reality be non-phonetic.  For example, he reads an elephant (written out according to him as 3b in later texts) above a triple-peaked mountain (dw) phonetically, the resulting word (3bdw) being in his view an early writing of Abydos itself.  However, the elephant and mountain could be more persuasively read as Elephantine, and regarded as purely ideograms, not phonemes: in the earlier Old Kingdom writings of Elephantine it is phonetically spelled out as 3bw (Abu), but its unvocalized determinatives or ideograms are an elephant (3bw) and the triple-peaked ‘foreign land’ hieroglyph (2009: 144).

Drawing of the Blau scraper with proto-cuneiform inscription --
note striped bird in second section from right, upper row (Aruz 2003: 39, Pl. 9).

Thus, the bird on the illustrated tag may be the ancestor of sign G26, the ibis, which could function as the determinative in the divine name of Thoth.  As such, it might well indicate that the commodity to which the tag was attached came from the estates of Thoth’s temple, or that some locale named after Thoth sent the goods.  Or again, it might mean nothing of the sort.  The bird could actually be the white-fronted goose (later glyph G38), or perhaps the pintail duck (later glyph G39).  At this early stage, it is not easy to tell.
Four types of birds that appear on proto-Elamite pottery (Potts 1999: 53).

A bird roughly similar to the ibis appears in a rare text from Byblos (Best 1989: 37).  This avian glyph rests on a horizontal line that probably represents its feet, rather than being bracketed as the Indus sign is.  The same is true of some birds appearing on early pottery from what would later be the kingdom of Elam in Iran (Potts 1999: 53).  With these too it is difficult to discern the species.  Bird motifs also occur in the Americas, for example in the fine paintings on Moche pottery of the Peruvian coast (Donnan and McClelland 1999; Van Dinter 2006: 242-247).  In this case, the type of bird helps to locate the setting of the larger painted scene, e.g., seabirds representing the coast.  Birds also appear among the miniature metal sculptures of Ghana in West Africa, functioning as weights (Phillips 2010: 19, Pl. 11).  Nor does this come near to exhausting the occurrences of birds in art and script.
Long-necked birds found on pottery of the South American Moche (Van Dinter 2006: 243).

Our second Indus sign is a more elaborate version of the SQUIRREL (XI 32).  In this form, it appears as W149b, but more schematic variations have been enumerated by other researchers as KP300 and Fs I-12.  Fairservis thinks it is a plow, apparently having not seen the more detailed variations.

Broken seal H-419 with (partial?) inscription: SQUIRREL / RECTANGLE.

The sign appears to represent a four-legged animal (or quadruped) perched on a vertical line, its head downward.  The tail angles or curves over the animal’s back.  But this version at least is not immediately identifiable as a squirrel.  Neither is the quadruped that appears in proto-cuneiform as ZATU 703.  Even more schematic and less identifiable are the (two?) quadrupeds on a proto-Elamite disk from Tepe Yahya (Potts 2001: 47, fig. 1.50).  There is also a more curvilinear animal represented among the symbols on punchmarked coins from later India, perhaps a cat (Gupta 1960: Pl. I and II, in symbol nos. 27, 33, 43, 58, 65, 69, 93, 99, 102, and 118; Gupta identifies it as a hare p. 46).
The "hare on hills" symbol that appears on some punchmarked coins of India (Gupta 1960: Pl. I, symbol 43). 
Note the short ears and relatively long, curved tail of this "hare."

In contrast to the latter, the Egyptian hare appears on its feet among the protective symbols featured in an amuletic circle (Pinch 2006: 111, Pl. 57).  Its ears are considerably longer than those on the Indian coin and its tail a good deal shorter.  Thus, it does not resemble the Indus sign at all.  An animal with its tail curving over its back appears among goldweights as a monkey (Phillips 2010: 144, Pl. 261).  Others are leopards or lions.  Among the Moche, a quadruped with an angular tail is a fox (Van Dinter 2006: 258).  Quadrupeds with curving tails appear in the rock art of North America as well, where they are usually identified as dogs or coyotes (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 86 notes 78 occurrences of quadrupeds in Nevada rock art that are not mountain sheep).
Detail of part of Egyptian amuletic circle showing protective symbols, including hare,
wedjat eye, head of Bes (?), and ankh (Pinch 2006: 111, Pl. 57).  Note the hare's long ears and short tail.

The third Indus sign to be discussed in this post is another COW LEG (XI 33), this particular variation being W154.  Other variations contain fewer (7 or 8) or more (12 or 13) strokes and are grouped accordingly in my list.  Fairservis shows an eight-stroke version (D-4), which he considers an animal haunch, but which he defines as “a mountain tribe.”  Koskenniemi and Parpola include a twelve-stroke variation (KP45).  There are apparently nine total occurrences of the COW LEG, but only one or two include eleven strokes (M-71 is the only example I find).
Detail from seal M-71 with inscription: MAN HOLDING QUOTE / TRI-FORK /

An ox leg appears among the Egyptian hieroglyphs (F-25).  It is an ideograph in whmt, “hoof (of ox),” and perhaps also in whm(t?), used for a donkey.  A similar leg appears in Cretan hieroglyphic script, the undeciphered form of writing used by the Minoans, where it probably represents the syllable ze (sign 045, Younger 2011 website address below).  Such a symbol also occurs on the Phaistos Disk (Younger enumerates it as sign 28).  Another leg is included in Luwian hieroglyphs as the syllable (Çambel 1999: 91).
Broken seal M-976 with inscription: CIRCLED VEE / STRIPED FAT LEG LAMBDA /

Our fourth Indus sign today is another EGG ON NEST (XI 34).  A forked element appears on top of an oval, in this sign, the oval in turn resting on four prongs.  Elsewhere, the symbol is enumerated KP84, as well as W179 and W180.  Wells distinguishes his two variations based on which way the fork on top is angled.  Thus, W180 is essentially a mirror image of W179.  I prefer to group them together, so long as they are drawn with eleven strokes.  Wells finds five of the EGG ON NEST altogether, one from Kalibangan and the rest from Mohenjo daro.
Egyptian glyphs M31 and M32, two variants of the lotus rhizome.

This unusual sign has no exact parallels outside the Indus Valley, so far as I can determine.  In Egyptian, there is a sign made up of a loop with prongs on top (M32).  If one views the upper prongs as equivalent to the Indus fork, and the protruding pair of lines at the base of the loop as the equivalent of the four Indus prongs, then the two are more or less similar.  The Egyptian glyph represents the highly stylized rhizome of a lotus, a determinative in rd “grow.”  As a glyph, it is quite variable in form and sometimes more resembles grass growing in a rounded pot.
Proto-cuneiform |U4 x 5(N57)| indicating "five days."

In proto-cuneiform, the symbol of the sun is sometimes pierced by a number of prongs (e.g., |U4 x 5(N57)|.  The instance cited combines the sun and the numeral five to represent “five days.”  The resemblance between this and the Indus XI 34 is quite remote, however.
Seal M-282 with inscription: CIRCLED VEE / STRIPED FAT LEG LAMBDA /

We have seen more than one example of STRIPED FAT LAMBDA, but there is an eleven-stroke version with eight stripes as well (XI 35).  Other researchers group all of these variations as a single sign: KP202, W242, and Fs Q-9.  Fairservis sees this as a very peculiar ligature, combining half of the STRIPED LEAF (his E-6) with the SLASH (his H-4) to mean “court, open area by a ‘temple’ or ‘temple’ grounds” (1992: 187).  Wells considers this variation to be “g,” the seventh and last of his variants.  He finds 43 occurrences of all variants together, while I see only one possibility for this variant (M-796).
Seal M-1111 with inscription: FAT EX / FAT STRIPED CEE / POTTED THREE / CRAB / POT.

I also previously mentioned a FAT STRIPED CEE, but now add an eleven-stroke version (XI 36).  It occurs elsewhere as KP176, W565(a), and Fs H-10.  Fairservis thinks it depicts a shield, but defines it as “sell, price, trade.”  He also wants to connect it with either his H-9, the FAT CEE or else with his H-3, the simple CEE, representing a bow without a string in his view.  This would seem to contradict his definition, though.  It matters little, I suppose, since there are only two or three occurrences of this sign, as Wells notes, only one of them being XI 36.  In any case, there is an almost exact parallel in proto-cuneiform KU3~a, "silver."  This may derive from the earlier use of a token of this arc shape that bears incised lines (Schmandt-Besserat 1992: 147).  It represents some type of metal as well.

The next Indus symbol is STRIPED LEAF (XI 37), also known as KP112 and Fs E-6a.  Wells separates the sign identified by Fairservis and by Koskenniemi and Parpola into five separate items, enumerated W254, W257, W258, W259, and W261.  All are singletons but the first, which occurs 11 times.  Several of these instances occur at Mohenjo daro (five in all), but there are more from Harappa (seven), as well as one from Chanhujo daro and one from Kalibangan.  Fairservis assigns the meaning “head or high superior, i.e., chief, god.”  As noted in earlier posts, plants including foliage appear widely outside the Indus Valley, but not shaped like this sign.
Seal H-79 with inscription: CAGED HEXAPOD / POT.

The last of the eleven-stroke signs is CAGED HEXAPOD (XI 38).  It is only listed separately elsewhere as W583, noted as a singleton from Harappa (H-79).  However, it is very much like the CAGED TETRAPOD enumerated as KP171.  Fairservis considers the four marks here termed caging to represent drops of milk, adding the meaning “tribute (of milk cattle), flow (as water).”  The symbol itself might possibly depict an insect such as a caterpillar.
Proto-cuneiform signs that may represent insects and arthropods.

There is nothing exactly comparable to this Indus sign elsewhere.  Proto-cuneiform does include signs that might depict insects though.  These include KUSZU, the ancestor of a symbol representing an aquatic animal, probably a crab.  There are certainly a few insects among the Egyptian hieroglyphs as well, most prominently the bee (L2) and scarab beetle (L1).  The most similar to Indus sign XI 38 is L5, a centipede.  Not surprisingly, this glyph acts as a determinative in sp3, “centipede.”
Bronze disk from Tepe Yahya with openwork design perhaps depicting two quadrupeds
(I have highlighted the "quadrupeds" with darker blue dots to make them clearer).


Best, Jan. 1989. “Intrusive Languages in the Proto-Linear Byblos, Linear B and C Scripts,” in Los Languages from the Mediterranean, Jan Best and Fred Woudhuizen, eds. Leiden: E.J. Brill. Pps. 35-64.

Çambel, Halet. 1999. Corpus of Hieroglyphic Luwian Inscriptions. Vol. II Karatepe-Aslantaş. The Inscriptions. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

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

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. Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (3rd ed.). Oxford: Ashmolean Museum and Griffith Institute.

Gupta, Parmeshwari Lal. 1960. Punch-Marked Coins in the Andhra Pradesh Government Museum. Hyderabad: Government of Andhra Pradesh.

Heizer, Robert F. and Martin A. Baumhoff. 1984. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. Berkeley: University of California.

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

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

O’Connor, David. 2009. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris. London: Thames & Hudson.

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

Pinch, Geraldine. 1994 and 2006. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum.

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

Potts, D.T. 2001. “Phase IVC2” in Excavations at Tepe Yahya, Iran 1967-1975: Third Millennium, C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. 1992. Before Writing. Vol. I. From Counting to Cuneiform. Austin: University of Texas.

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

Van Dinter, Maarten Hesselt. 2006. Tribal Tattoo Designs from the Americas. Amsterdam: Mundurucu Publishers.

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

Younger, John. 2011. Website: “Linear A Texts in phonetic transcription and Commentary,” section 7b, “script.”  See:

Proto-cuneiform sign list available at:


  1. Seal: m-920


    The son of the Sea Lord of the Two Lands

    Of Eden Land

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.