Monday, September 26, 2011

The Nominative Function and Inscriptions in Indus Script

Imprint from a Near Eastern cylinder seal, without an inscription, from Period IV,
2000 - 1500 BCE (after Collon 2005: 53, no. 206).  Note the man and various animals.

I previously discussed reasons for thinking that the Indus script was a proto-writing system, including the frequencies of signs (large numbers of rare signs versus a small core of frequent signs), the brevity of inscriptions (averaging 4 to 5 signs per inscription), and low rate of apparently random repetition of signs within inscriptions, a fact that suggests phonetic information is lacking.  I noted also the hypothesis that Harappan stamp seals contained the same sort of information as Near Eastern cylinder seals.  This would include names of humans and deities, occupational terms (or symbols for them), relational elements (such as “son of so-and-so”), perhaps a few toponyms (names of locations), and possibly even an occasional qualifying phrase (such as “the great”).

Korvink discusses this hypothesis that the Harappan seals contain names and titles, terming it the nominative function (2007: 71-74).  He rules out this hypothesis for two reasons.  First, although most seals (and other inscribed objects) contain very short inscriptions, there are some that contain multiple units of information.  Second, “inscriptions vary in length on functionally similar objects” (2007: 71). 
Indus seal M-314 with inscription containing 17 symbols,
the longest continuousinscription to date on any object.

For his first reason, he cites the seal with the longest inscription found in the first two volumes of the Corpus, M-314.  It contains 17 signs in three lines the content of which is not easily interpreted as a name with ancillary information such as titles, honorifics, place names, or occupations (2007: 72).  The first line begins with CARTWHEEL plus DOUBLE QUOTES, which Korvink analyzes as a prefix.  This same prefix is found on many other seals.  Three “fish” symbols follow in a common medial sequence (FISH UNDER CHEVRON / WHISKERED FISH / FISH).  At the end of this line is a common terminal sign, SPEAR.  Since the line begins with a common prefix and ends with a common terminal, it is a self-contained unit which we can symbolize as PMT (prefix, medial, and terminal). 

The second line begins with a sign resembling the letter “A” but with one short leg, caged by eight short strokes (DOUBLY CAGED AY).  This sign is a singleton (or hapax), so it cannot be analyzed further with statistics.  It is followed by CUPPED SPOON, a symbol frequently found in medial segments where it is commonly paired with THREE POSTS.  Here, though, there are no “posts.”  These two signs – DOUBLY CAGED AY / CUPPED SPOON – form the medial segment of the second line that contains no prefix.  The line ends with TRI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT, a relatively common terminal.  The final symbol in this sequence is the most frequent sign and the most common terminal in Harappan script (POT).  The sign immediately preceding it appears often in this position.  The presence of these last two signs indicates that the second line is a self-contained unit, just as the first line is, its content symbolized as MT. 

Korvink does not attempt an analysis of the final line due to the low frequency of the signs in it.  Presumably a third self-contained unit, it includes seven signs: THREE POSTS / CIRCLED DOT / PANTS / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK / VEE IN DIAMOND / PRAWN in Korvink’s study, which derives from Mahadevan’s concordance.  In my own database, based on my interpretation of the photographs in the Corpus, it is slightly different (names in bold differ from Korvink’s version):




Changing the identification of the four signs in bold does not alter the basic analysis as (1) PMT, (2) MT, (3) M. 

Korvink concludes his analysis of these three lines as indicating that the seal is not a title with ancillary information.  If a more typical PMT inscription contains a title, then this long inscription would seemingly have to contain three different titles, one per line.  Korvink asks, “Would it not be impractical to have more than one title on a seal or sealing?”  The question implies that an affirmative answer, that it would indeed be impractical to encode two or three different titles on one seal.  Being impractical, it must not have been the case. 
Lapis lazuli bead from Mari, Syria, with proto-cuneiform inscription: "For Mesanepada,
king of Ur, the son of Meskalamdug, king of Kish, has consecrated" (Aruz 2003: 143).

My own conclusion differs, although I agree with the basic analysis of three units of information.  For my reasoning, I must refer back to some of the early inscriptions on Sumerian, Babylonian, and Elamite cylinder seals (see my earlier post).  In Collon’s Period II, dating to 3000-2334 BCE, one often finds a single name whether of a human or of a deity, e.g., Ishma-ilum, the name of a ruler of Kisik (2005: 31, no. 84) or Anzu-Sud (2005: 28, no. 81).  On other seals, there is a name plus a profession, sometimes an additional name in a patronymic, and occasionally a place name (Shara-bar-a, scribe of the Lady (2005: 28, no. 83), HE-kung-sig, priestess of Pabilsag (2005: 31, no. 93).  This pattern is also found in the following Period III, 2334-2000 BCE: Ninmelila, wife of Ur-Dada (2005: 35, no. 110), E-gissu, son of Bibbi, the carpenter (2005: 36, no. 116).  Longer inscriptions more often include a second name, with qualifying elements associated with each name: AN-zabazuna, strong king: Tishatal, the scribe, is your servant (2005: 36, no. 121, in Hurrian), (Gudea, governor of Lagash: Abban, the scribe, is your servant (2005: 36, no. 114).  By Period IV (2000-1500 BCE), some inscriptions are longer still, although most continue to include only a name or two and an occupation or relationship:  AN-LUGAL-X, city ruler of the god Assur, son of Ikunum, city ruler of the god Assur (2005: 43, no. 136), alongside Ipiq-Ishtar, servant of Adad-ranka (2005: 43, no. 140), Shamash, Aya, names of the sun god and his divine wife (2005: 45, no. 153), and Harashta (2005: 43, no. 152, in Hittite).

Thus, in a single inscription, three units of information occur often enough, sometimes more more.  If we term the elements PN (for a person’s name), DN (for a deity’s name), OCC (for an occupational term), PAT (for patronymics and other relationship expressions), and LOC for place names, we can analyze the previous inscriptions simply.  A name alone is PN or DN, as found in the first two examples cited above and the last one (all of these being PN).  The inscription of HE-kung-sig contains the three elements PN / OCC / DN.  Ninmelila’s inscription also contains three elements: PN / PAT (for “wife of) / PN2.  E-gissu’s inscription includes four elements by this analysis: PN1 / PAT (“son of”) / PN2 / OCC.  Tishatal’s inscriptions includes five: PN1 / OCC (“strong king”) / PN2 / OCC / PAT (“your servant”).  Occasional inscriptions are even longer: Ilum-muttabbil, purification-priest of Inanna of Zabalam, son of Shu-ili (2005: 45, no. 157).  This can be analyzed as containing six elements: PN1 / OCC / DN / LOC / PAT / PN2. 
Stele from Mesopotamia of Early Dynastic I period, c. 2900-2650 BCE,
with text on fringed skirt: "Ushumgal the pab-shesh priest" (after Aruz 2003: 53).

The seals of those of highest social rank may be the longest for this period:  Shamshi-Adad, beloved of the god Assur, viceroy of the god Assur, son of Ila-kadkabu (2005: 47, no. 173).  The seven elements here include: PN1 / PAT (“beloved of”) / DN / OCC / DN / PAT (“son of”) / PN2.  Another example is Ishar-Lim, king of the land of Hana, son of Iddin-Kakka, beloved of the gods Ilaba and Dagan (2005: 51, no. 199), including eight elements PN1 / OCC (“king”) / LOC / PAT / PN2 / PAT (“beloved of”) / DN1 / DN2.  Thus, where a cylinder seal contains only PN or DN, this may be comparable to Indus seals with only M.  Where the cylinder seal inscriptions include two elements – PN / OCC – this may be comparable to Indus seals with MT.  The addition of relational expressions to the previous two might be comparable to the Indus sequence PMT.  If these suppositions are provisionally assumed correct, then we do find cylinder seals with more than one sequence, comparable to the longer Indus inscriptions.  The three-line inscription contains PMT + MT + M, which could be considered comparable to PAT / PN1 / OCC1 + PN2 / OCC2 + DN.  I have no evidence to show that this is exactly what M-314 indicates, of course.  But such content is indeed conceivable, given the Near Eastern parallel from cylinder seals.  Thus, I consider that the nominative function of Indus seals remains a plausible hypothesis.
From Queen Nefertari's tomb, a portion of the painted hieroglyphic inscription,
including her cartouche with its inscription, "Nefertari, beloved of the goddess Mut"
(photo by author of replica painted on papyrus).  Her titles are in the column on the
right, including "great queen, lady of the two lands."

To quote another example, this time from Egypt, during the 5th Dynasty and the reign of Userkaf, a priest of Hathor describes himself thus: “steward of the palace, governor of the New Towns, superior prophet of Hathor, mistress of Royenet, king’s-confidant, Nekonekh” (Breasted 1906: 100).  This is not a cylinder seal inscription, but the name and titles found in a will.  The queen Mertityotes, from the reign of king Khafre, includes these phrases on a false door: “king’s-wife, his beloved, devoted to Horus, Mertityotes” (across the top); “king’s-wife, his beloved, Mertityotes, beloved of the Favorite of the Two Goddesses, she who says anything whatsoever and it is done for her” (down the right side); and “great in the favor of Snefru, great in the favor of Khufu, devoted to Horus, honored under Khafre, Mertityotes” (down the left side) (Breasted 1906: 88).  Each one of these descriptive sequences includes more than three titles for a single individual.  Of course, wills and funeral monuments provide a good deal more room for such descriptions than a small seal.  But these examples demonstrate the fact that a single individual might indeed have several titles.

To continue with Korvink’s analysis, taking Mahadevan’s analysis of the terminals as indicators of social class does not improve the situation.  The first line of the inscription M-304 ends with the SPEAR, which Mahadevan interprets as indicating the warrior class, while the second line ends with POT, which Mahadevan interprets as indicating the priestly class.  Presumably, an individual could not be a member of two social classes at once, since in historical India warriors were of the Kshatriya caste and priests of the Brahmin caste.  In the Bronze Age, though, India was not yet bound by a rigid caste system as caste is thought to have evolved between about 800-550 BCE (Ions 1983: 8).  In the earlier society, warriors probably were distinguished from priests as individuals, but they may not yet have constituted distinct social classes.  We may compare early Rome at a period considerably later than the Indus civilization, where the average man expected to play many roles in life, growing the family’s food as a farmer, but taking up sword or spear to act as a soldier when the need arose, in time becoming the pater familias, or head of a household (typically leading an extended family that might comprise three generations).  As the pater familias, he would also act as a sort of priest in the family cult, leading the worship of the ancestral and household gods, the lares and penates.  If such a social structure obtained in the Indus Valley, a single individual might then play the role of farmer (or other profession), warrior, and something akin to priest in a single lifetime.  In the urban society of the Indus Valley, there may well have been more specialization of professions than this brief discussion suggests, as well as some incipient social classes.  But Harappan archeology does not suggest a highly stratified society such as was found in contemporary Mesopotamia and in Egypt (Possehl 2002: 57).  In conclusion, then, I think the nominative function has not been ruled out for Indus seal inscriptions.  In any case, Mahadevan’s interpretation of the terminal signs as indicators of social class may well be incorrect.
Detail from Indus seal M-809 with inscription: BACK CEE & CEE / STRIPED MALLET / BI-QUOTES //
STRIPED TRIANGLE / TRIPLE TRIANGLES / SPEAR (over unicorn and cult stand).

Korvink continues his discussion of this function with a second objection, namely, that inscriptions of varying lengths appear to serve the same function.  He gives examples of seal inscriptions that contain some of the same signs, but which vary in length (2007: 74).  I do not see these particular inscriptions in my database, but there are others that are almost the same.  So I will cite the ones I can find in my database, as this will not affect Korvink’s analysis.

104                         STRIPED TRIANGLE / TRIPLE TRIANGLES (not found in my database)


H-187                    STRIPED TRIANGLE / TRIPLE TRIANGLES // POT / COMB (MT).




Korvink states, “Surely the last inscription could be considered a title under the nominative hypothesis, whereas the first of these is far too simple to be considered a title (there is no terminal or prefix on the seal)” (2007: 74).  While I do not find the medial pair STRIPED TRIANGLE / TRIPLE TRIANGLES as a complete inscription, it may appear on one of the tablets that I could not make out or on an abraded seal that I read differently.  I assume it is indeed there somewhere.  If we assume that the medial segment of an inscription (M) contains a name, then the argument is that the simplest inscriptions – of M only – could not serve the same function as those with additional elements.  However, as noted above, cylinder seals from the Near East serve essentially the same function(s) regardless of whether they contain a single name in the inscription or several elements.  Specifically, the seal inscribed Anzu-Sud (PN only) served the same functions as that inscribed Gudea, governor of Lagash: Abban, the scribe, is your servant (PN1/ OCC1 / LOC / PN2 / OCC2 / PAT). 
Again, then, on the basis of comparisons with the Near East, the nominative function remains a viable hypothesis for the Indus seals.  The inscriptions may represent individuals, reflecting occupations and social relationships, perhaps also including connections with deities and possibly with places.  None of this can as yet be demonstrated, but it remains a possibility.


Aruz, J., ed. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Meditarranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

Collon, D. 2005 and 1987. First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East. London: British Museum.

Ions, V. 1983 and 1967. Indian Mythology. London: Chancellor.

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

Possehl, G.L. 2002. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Universal Iconography (or is it?) and Indus Script

American pictographs of the Columbia Plateau, showing a bird and the "universal" X
(after Keyser 1992: 54, fig. 28c).

We are now in a better position to examine claims that one or another sign is universal.  If this term means that the symbol occurs in all cultures, we shall have a very short list of universals.  The vertical stroke – among Indus signs, the SINGLE QUOTE and SINGLE POST – and the CIRCLE may well be universal in the somewhat limited sense that they occur on every inhabited continent.  But these might well be the only universal symbols in that case.
African Adinkra symbol nyame nwu na mawu, "I live not when God is not," a variation of X
(after Willis 1998: 162).

If we expand the definition of “universal” to mean that a symbol appears in societies so widely separated in time and/or space that borrowing is unlikely, then the number of universals increases.  Universal motifs by this definition include CEE, CUP, and ROOF; CHEVRON; CIRCLE, CIRCLED DOT, and DONUT; QUOTES, POSTS, and ZIGZAGS; BARBELL and LOLLIPOP (whether round or angular); and GRID.  Other possibly universal symbols by this definition include EX, CROSS, ASTERISK, CIRCLED CROSS, CIRCLED ASTERISK (or CARTWHEEL), and MAN.  One or another bird as well as some type of quadruped also enter the ranks, but specific details of portrayal vary.
Small plaque from Altyn Depe showing a cross (a variation of the "universal" X),
two "posts," and a crescent (after Masson 1988: Pl. XXII, item 3).

This is beginning to sound much like the proposal put forward by Richard McDorman of a universal iconography (2009).  His thesis is that there is a set of universal symbols that various peoples draw from when creating symbol systems.  But while the shapes are similar from place to place and from time to time, the meanings are not consistent.
European tallies -- Alpine number billets representing numbers of cattle owned,
with X a numerical symbol (after Menninger 1969: 241).

It is this final point that my research reiterates.  Thus, using the meanings of symbols of one culture to interpret the similarly shaped motifs of another culture is unwarranted.  This means that Kinnier Wilson is on the wrong track in interpreting Indus signs as variations of proto-cuneiform signs, reading the Indus signs with Sumerian values, and assuming that this procedure reveals the meaning of the Indus inscriptions (1974).  This much is generally accepted.  That is, most researchers of the Indus script do not today espouse the Indo-Sumerian thesis. 
Indus seal M-326B with inscription including EX near center top.

But other scholars have fallen into the same enticing trap since Kinnier Wilson’s proposal.  Mahadevan uses Egyptian hieroglyphs to interpret various Indus signs (2008).  He notes the similarity of the Indus EX (my II 12) and Egyptian glyph Z10, an outlined “X” shape (which is interesting since this is the Old Kingdom form of Z9, a simple “X” like the Indus sign).  “The comparison enables us to assign the same general meaning to the corresponding Indus sign, ‘to divide, share’” (2008: 3rd page).  Is it that easy?  Unfortunately not.  In the first place, one might just as easily compare the Old Chinese “X” meaning “five,” the proto-cuneiform asymmetrical “X,” SILA3, which means “street, path, road” (and compare the proto-Elamite M006~b, also an “X”), the Runic “X” which represents g, the Luwian outlined cross representing the syllable lu, the Cretan hieroglyph of a cross with circles at the ends, no. 070, indicating the syllable ro, or North American and Australian “X” shapes in petroglyphs that may represent bird tracks.  Even assuming that the signs of the Indus script have the same underlying meaning as Egyptian glyphs – clearly an unwarranted assumption – the meaning of the glyph Z10 is not simply “to divide.”  As Gardiner notes, when a determinative, Z9 or Z10 can indeed mean “divide” (as in wpi and psš), but it can also mean “break” (as in hdi and gmgm), “to lessen” (as in xbi), to cross or encounter (as in d3i, wšb, 3bx).  The same “X” can mean “one-fourth” as well as serving as a determinative for no explainable reason (as in nkt and t3š).  Instead of a determinative, it can even represent any of half a dozen phonetic elements (including sw3, xbs, and wp).  Given these many uses of Z9/Z10, one cannot be confident that the Indus EX means only “to divide, share” (Gardiner 1976: 538-539).
Detail from a plaque showing the family of Ur Nanshe of Sumer -- note the three triangles above a "rake"
on the man to the far left, KUR, "mountain; (foreign) land; netherworld; the east" (after Aruz 2003: 31, fig. 16).

Mahadevan similarly interprets the Indus TABLE (my III 6) as a variation of the Egyptian glyph N1 (2008: 5th page).  Because the glyph represents the sky or heavens, Mahadevan reasons, so the Indus TABLE must mean “sky, heaven, pertaining to god.”  Instead of Egyptian, though, one might compare Old Chinese jiung3, “suburbs, country; the space,” now the 13th radical; or the runic symbol for e, or again similar shapes appearing in North American rock art (see my previous post on III 6 for full listing and references).  Assuming that Egyptian can provide the basis for interpretation of Indus signs, a further objection is that it is not obvious which Egyptian glyph is most similar to the Indus TABLE.  The sky glyph (N1) is not a simple, three-stroke motif as is the Indus sign.  Perhaps a closer match is glyph O1, pr “house.”  Even if we could be confident that the Indus sign followed the Egyptian N1 in meaning, we could not be certain that “sky” was the primary significance.  In some words, the Egyptian N1 appears to represent a gate or portal rather than the heavens (as in rwty, “the double gate,” ht or hyt, “portal,” and perhaps in h3t “ceiling”) (Gardiner 1976: 485).
Egyptian hieroglyphs from a Theban tomb, including the three hills (above three "posts")
glyph N25, determinative of foreign lands and the desert (after Gardiner 1976: frontispiece).

Mahadevan goes a step further when it comes to interpreting compound signs.  He assumes that the parts of the compound maintain their original meanings so that the meaning is also a compound.  For example, the ROOF means “heaven” (more or less) and the EX means “divide, share,” so EX UNDER ROOF must mean “god’s share” (2008: 5th page). 
Chinese oracle-bone script showing three variants of a character that may be ancestral to yue4,
"mountain peak" (or "wife's parents"), not the same character as shan1, "mountain" (Keightley 1985: 218).

However, in Egyptian, a combination of glyphs may or may not follow this simple additive pattern.  In the combination of the vulture (G1) and sickle (U1), both elements help to spell out m3.  The result is hardly a “harvest of vultures” or “vulture who wields a sickle.”  Both elements are phonetic and neither conveys the meaning (as in sm3wy, “to renew”). 

A second pattern appears in glyph O35, made up of the bolt (O34) atop the walking legs (D54).  As an independent glyph, the first can be an ideograph meaning “bolt” while the second can be an ideograph in “come” or a determinative of movement in general.  But the combination certainly does not signify a wandering bolt.  Instead, the bolt seems to convey the phonetic value s, with the feet still indicating movement.  This is the rule for compound glyphs with the feet (D54).  The reed with feet (M18) appears in the verb ii, “come,” where the reed provides a hint of pronunciation and the feet indicate movement; the pool with feet (N40) appears in the verb šm, “go,” where the pool provides part the first phonetic element and the feet again represent movement (see also T32, the knife with feet; V15, the tethering rope with feet; and W25, the round pot with feet). 

The forearm (D36) combines with other glyphs in a third manner.  While D36 frequently represents a consonant (transliterated with an apostrophe), it does not have this sense in D37, where the hand holds a triangular bread loaf (which is X8).  This combination of D37 + X8 means “to give” (and not “bread in hand” or “handful of bread”).  When the same forearm appears with the hand holding the round pot (D37 + W24) the combination is a determinative for “present” or “offer.”  When the hand holds the flagellum (S45), the meaning is often “protect.”  But if the hand is holding the ‘b3 sceptre (S24), the meaning becomes “administer, control.”  In these ligatures, neither element provides phonetic information.  The meaning derives from the combination though, not from an addition of the meanings of the individual parts.
Detail from Indus seal M-29 with inscription: STRIPED TRIANGLE / SPACESHIP / FISH / BI-QUOTES //
(does the SPACESHIP mean the same thing as TRIPLE TRIANGLES or are they different?).

In Chinese, several patterns also appear.  There is a character resembling the Egyptian walking legs, ren2, “person.”  It is a common radical in compound characters, usually occurring on the left side.  Beside the character fang1, Mahadevan’s additive method of interpretation would yield something like “human region” or “square man.”  But in fang3, the person radical hints at the meaning while the second element provides the pronunciation.  This word means “to imitate, copy.”  Similarly, the same fang1 (“square, region”) appears to the right of mi4, the character for “silk.”  This compound character is also pronounced fang3, now with the meaning “to spin.”  This type of combination, where one element provides some of the meaning and the other conveys the pronunciation (in a rough way), is the most frequent.

But there are other patterns as well.  Two independent characters sometimes combine to represent a meaning that neither suggests alone.  Such is the case with hao3, “good,” which is written with the character for “woman” (niu3) beside that for “child” (zi3).  The character of the woman also appears beneath the Chinese roof element in the word for “quiet, rest” (an1).  When the same roof is over the pig character, the combination signifies “family” (jia1).  Thus, “woman” plus “child” does not mean “mother” or “family” and “woman” plus “roof” does not signify “woman’s house” or “housewife.”
Indus seal H-515 with inscription: TWO POSTS / MALLET / POTTED ONE / CORN HOLDER /
TRIPLE TRIANGLES / CRAB / POT (do the 3 triangles mean "mountain" or "dairy"?).

Thus, adding together the meanings of Indus signs – even if we could be certain that the separate meanings were correct – may not give the correct definition of a ligature.  This is not the only type of error that researchers make in moving from the known (signs in proto-cuneiform or in Egyptian hieroglyphs) to the unknown (Indus signs).  Fairservis, for instance, defines the Indus SPACESHIP as “mountains” (his N-1, my VIII 22).  The reason for this identification is that this symbol is a “universal sign” (1992: 1978).  Three triangles in a stacked configuration do appear in proto-cuneiform, transliterated KUR following the phonetic form of the later Sumerian descendant of the sign.  In Sumerian, this means “mountain; (foreign) land; netherworld.”  But this is not actually universal.  An Egyptian glyph representing three hills side by side (N25) suggests possible meanings “foreign land” or “desert,” not specifically “mountain.”  A stacked variation does not occur.  Three triangles side by side appear in Luwian hieroglyphs as the ideogram CASTRUM, “fortress.”  The Old Chinese shan1 has three vertical strokes rising from a triangular element with a rounded base.  Wieger interprets the pictorial elements as a single mountain with three rocks on top (1965: 208).  Thus, “mountain(s)” may appear as a symbol with three repetitions in it (as in proto-cuneiform and in Chinese), but such a meaning is not universally conveyed in this manner (as in Egyptian and Luwian).  Besides these facts, it would seem that by Fairservis’ own argument, the Indus TRIPLE TRIANGLES ought to mean “mountain” as well.  But Fairservis does not propose this, defining it rather as “dairy, storage.”
Four variants of Old Chinese yu3, "rain" (Keightley 1985: 217).

Fairservis would seem to be on firmer ground when he proposes the meaning “rain” for the Indus STACKED NINE UNDER TABLE (his F-10, my XII 35).  He compares with this the Egyptian glyph of vertical strokes descending from the sky (N4).  There is a certain resemblance, though the two are not identical.  The Chinese character for rain, yu3, is something like a “table” with a “stacked four” beneath, plus a horizontal stroke above, a vertical stroke descending from the latter down through the rest of the character (thus separating the “stacked four” into two “stacked two” elements).  Again, the character is not identical to either the Egyptian hieroglyph or Indus sign XII 35, but there is a resemblance. 
Two variants of proto-cuneiform GI6, "black, dark," resembling the Chinese "rain."

This Indus sign and the corresponding glyph appear in the list “Signs Universal in the Ancient World” (Fairservis 1992: 228).  In the same table there are two “archaic Sumerian” symbols.  The latter are now transliterated GI6 (a “stacked eight” under a chevron and a rounded “roof” over as many as 14 dots that are not neatly arranged).  This sign, in later Sumerian, does not represent rain but means “(to be) black/dark.” 

The “universal” sign for “rain” does not always mean “rain,” then.  Fairservis includes an Old European motif, a “C” with several horizontal strokes beside it, for comparison, as if to demonstrate the universality of the symbol.  But of course, the meaning of this European symbol is not known, so it may or may not represent rain.  We may also compare the horizontal “comb” element that depicts rain in the Puebloan style of North American art (Newcomb and Kirkland 1996: 198).  The symbol most likely to represent rain in Nevada and eastern California is similar to the “comb,” but also has the stem curving back over it so that it could be a schematic quadruped instead (e.g., Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 140, fig. 77b).  There is, then, no single “rain” symbol that is truly universal.  A "comb" seems to be more common than dots or lines beneath a roof-like element, despite Fairservis' assertion.  However, the Puebloan comb-shaped element -- known to mean "rain" in the American Southwest -- is interpreted not as rain but as "comb," that is as depicting an actual comb when it appears in the Indus script (Fairservis 1992: 177, his L-9).

Having discussed each of the Indus signs in turn, I would note that such cross-cultural comparisons cannot reveal the meaning of the Harappan symbols.  At best, such comparisons can only suggest possibilities for interpretation.  And since several different meanings are generally ascribed to a given form, anyone who uses comparisons in this way must really investigate each one. 


Aruz, J., ed. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.
Fairservis, W.A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Gardiner, A. 1976 and 1927. Egyptian Grammar. Oxford: Griffith Institute and Ashmolean Museum.

Heizer, R.F. and M.A. Baumhoff. 1984. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. Berkeley: University of California.
Keightley, D.N. 1985 and 1978. Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California.
Keyser, J.D. 1992. Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau. Seattle: University of Washington.
Kinnier Wilson, J.V. 1974. Indo-Sumerian: A New Approach to the Problems of the Indus Script. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

McDorman, R.E. 2009. Universal Iconography in Writing Systems: Evidence and Explanation in the Easter Island and Indus Valley Script. Amazon (Kindle edition).
Mahadevan, I. 2008. “Agricultural Terms in the Indus Script” in Journal of Tamil Studies, available:

Masson, V.M. 1988. Altyn-Depe. Transl. H.N. Michael. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.
Menninger, K. 1969. Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers. Transl. P. Broneer. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press.
Newcomb, W.W. Jr. and F. Kirkland. 1996. The Rock Art of Texas Indians. Austin: University of Texas.
Wieger, L. 1965. Chinese Characters, Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. Transl. L. Davrout. New York: Paragon and Dover (orig. 1927 by Catholic Mission Press).

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

Friday, September 16, 2011

Indus Script and Semasiography

Seal M-314, bearing the longest Indus inscription: CARTWHEEL / BI-QUOTES //
TRI-FORK / CIRCLED VEE / QUADRUPED (probably 3 units of information).

At this point, we should examine the evidence presented against the hypothesis that the Indus script is a writing system (Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel 2004).  There are several indicators noted in this famous paper, all of them suggesting that this script is not a fully developed writing system:

(1)    Brevity of the inscriptions, with an average of 4 to 5 signs each, the longest by any count containing fewer than 30 signs;

(2)    The absence of evidence that longer inscriptions once existed on a perishable medium (such as remains of “inkpots, brushes, palettes, styli, pens, and other literate paraphernalia; representations of scribes, texts, and writing instruments in art or pictographic scripts; and major changes in the shapes and orientations of signs tied to scribal attempts to increase the efficiency of copying long texts” (2004: 25);

(3)    The odd sign frequencies, described above, in which twenty signs account for over 50% of all sign occurrences, while the vast majority of signs are rare;

(4)    The low frequency of sign repetition within single inscriptions, which suggests that the signs did not represent phonetic information;

(5)    Within the group of repeating signs, some seem to appear in groups (such as the various types of FISH that appear in a series), and when a specific sign does repeat in an inscription, it may repeat several times in a row, which suggests a possible enumerative function rather than encoding of phonetic information;

(6)    Besides the large number of singletons and rare signs, new excavations tend to turn up still more of this class, suggesting that new symbols were created as time went on, a characteristic not normally found in phonetic writing;

(7)    Some non-linguistic symbols “exhibit a kind of linearity that is not dissimilar from the sort found on some (but by no means all) Indus inscriptions,” including Vinča inscriptions from southeastern Europe and the symbols of deities on kudurru and elsewhere in the Near East;

(8)    Sometimes symbols with seemingly clear meaning behave in odd ways, such as apparent numerals appearing in inscriptions where they appear not to qualify or enumerate anything -(e.g., K-59 which reads: DEE-SLASH / SINGLE POST / STACKED THREE / STACKED FIVE; or K-49: THREE QUOTES / STACKED SEVEN / MAN WITH SHOULDER YOKE).

The conclusion of Farmer et al is that “Indus inscriptions were neither able nor intended to encode detailed ‘messages,’ not even in the approximate ways performed by formal mnemonic systems in other nonliterate societies.  Their most likely function, as suggested by Near Eastern parallels, was to associate individuals, families, clans, offices, cities, festivals, or professions, etc., with specific gods or their celestial correspondents, partly for identification purposes and partly to draw down whatever magic was accessible through those gods’ symbols” (2004: 42-43).
A sealed proto-Elamite economic tablet from Susa, with two numerals;
perhaps to be read "twelve [animals]" (after Potts 1999: 61, Pl. 3.1)

We may wish to examine some of these arguments in greater detail.  For example, some scholars counter the fact of the brevity of inscriptions by presuming that longer texts did occur, but on perishable media.  They may cite the existence of long texts on such media in later, historical periods, as evidence by analogy (e.g., Parpola 2009: 54).  Historical arguments of this type are very weak evidence, since we know of a great many things that only came to exist in later, historical periods.  For example, we cannot look at the bronze artifacts from the Indus Valley and say that, because iron and steel implements also appear later on, the Indus Civilization must also have produced iron and steel – in the Bronze Age.  No, in the Bronze Age, implements were made of bronze, while iron came into use later.  No doubt many objects were made of perishable material during the Bronze Age and so are lost to us.  For example, cloth has not survived from this period in the Indus Valley.  However, unlike the proposed long texts, there is evidence of cloth and clothing from Harappan statues and figurines that were modeled to depict clothing.  Thus, even though the cloth itself is gone now, we do find evidence that it existed during the Bronze Age.  This is the type of evidence that Farmer et al do not find when it comes to longer Indus texts.  Not only are there no long texts, there is no indirect evidence that lengthy inscriptions once existed.
Analysis of proto-Elamite tablet TY 7, showing the three typical parts: heading ("hairy triangle"),
entries in numerical form concerning grain, and total from the reverse (Damerow and Englund 1989: 39). 

This by itself is insufficient to make the case against Indus script being a fully developed writing system, of course.  Most of the evidence for a Lycian script comes from short inscriptions, for example, as is also true of Etruscan (although in each of these cases there is also at least one long text).  It is sometimes argued that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  But, of course, when no evidence is forthcoming, that does suggest something.  In other words, absence of evidence is indeed a kind of evidence for absence; it just is not proof. 

Regardless of this point, Farmer et al have additional arguments that are stronger.  The statistics on sign frequency suggest that Indus “script” is a proto-writing system along the lines of proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  They themselves note this parallel.  Now, an Assyriologist may not focus on proto-cuneiform not being a fully developed writing system, because, in time, it did develop into such a system.  Determining the precise point at which this happened seems unimportant because of the continuity. 
A tag from Egyptian Tomb U-j at Abydos bearing possible early hieroglyph
(after O'Connor 2009: 145).

Egyptian hieroglyphs also had an early phase that may have been proto-writing, as evidenced by the brief inscriptions on tags (small, flat, rectangular objects of wood or ivory on which there may be a glyph or two) found in pre-Dynastic tombs at Abydos (O’Connor 2009: 143-147).  Here again, the determination of the exact point at which proto-writing developed into true writing is not a major focus of scholars.  That it did develop into true writing is clear.

But in the case of both proto-Elamite and the Indus script, there is no continuity with later writing systems.  Instead, these early systems died out.  This is also the case with Aztec proto-writing in Mesoamerica.  Unlike the neighboring Mayans, the Aztecs (and their predecessors) did not develop true writing and eventually their symbols ceased to be used at all.
Detail from a Mixtec "map" (lienzo) with year sign (AO combination), attached numeral indicating date,
footprints on path indicating movement, and a geographical glyph for Zacatepec (Smith 1973: 268, fig. 89).

Moving to the second argument against the Indus script thesis, Farmer et al note the absence of Harappan artwork depicting scribes at work along with the equal absence of archeological evidence that writing occurred.  This, too, is rather weak evidence, but evidence it still is.  The third argument, the peculiar frequency data, with many rare signs versus a small core of frequent signs, was discussed in the previous post.

The fourth argument focuses on the behavior of the frequent signs, the core symbols that appear again and again.  I noted in the last post that the Egyptian glyphs representing single consonants tend to occur the most frequently, even in the limited area of royal names and titles in cartouches.  I noted that the bread loaf representing t is one of the most common glyphs, a symbol that appears twice in King Tut’s name (in the New Kingdom) and twice in the name of two First Dynasty kings, Atet I and II (during the Old Kingdom).  Other glyphs are sometimes doubled, as is the case with the irrigation ditches (N24) representing Semti, fifth pharaoh of the First Dynasty, and as is the case with Bebi, a king of the Second Dynasty (the glyph of a human leg and foot, D58, is doubled, representing b).  The final element in these names is –i or y, a sound that represents dual number in the Egyptian language.  In the names, the same sound may or may not represent the dual.  Glyphs can also be tripled to represent the plural, as in the name of the fifth king of the Fourth Dynasty, Menkaure.  But besides such consecutive repetitions, glyphs can be repeated in non-adjacent positions.  This is the case of the chick (G43) representing w in the name of Khufu (Fourth Dynasty), as is also true of the reed (M17) in Asa (son-of-Ra name of Shepseskara of the Fifth Dynasty).
Tablet H-764AB with inscriptions: CIRCLE / 3 TOED FOOT / POT (A side);
TRIPLE CUPS (B side) (tripling may be enumerative, i.e., equal to 3 + CUP).

A fair number of Indus signs appear either singly or doubled, e.g., the GRID, the CEE, and CIRCLE.  Less commonly, one finds a symbol repeated in a non-consecutive position: M-396 contains two of the BLANKET WITH FOUR TICKS separated by four signs; H-369 contains two of the POTTED ONE separated by one sign; M-634 contains three of the CARTWHEEL with one sign separating each instance.  If this type of repetition were common in Indus inscriptions, this would suggest that phonetic information was conveyed by the common, repeating signs, as in Egyptian.  But since this kind of repetition is infrequent, the argument against phonetic encoding is supported.
Reverse of seal M-326B with inscription (from right): STRIPED TOP / EX / THREE QUOTES / CARWHEEL // BARBELL ON POST / TWO POSTS & BACKSLASH / BARBELL ON POST / (?) POSTS (corner abraded).
(If we add these signs, those in the inscription on the A side, and those on the edges, there are 20 signs altogether).

The fifth argument addresses the kind of sign repetition that occurs more often, doubling and tripling in consecutive series.  Parpola mentions this:

A few signs occur with three- or fourfold repetition: [TRIPLE BOATS, TRIPLE RECTANGLES, TRIPLE CUPS, QUADRUPLE TRI-FORKS].  Of these signs, only [CUP] and [TRI-FORK] are preceded (in other texts) by groups of strokes, which evidently denote numbers.  The sequence [CUP / CUP / CUP] occurs on the reverse sides of some of the miniature tablets from Harappa, which normally show the sequences [CUP], [TWO POSTS / CUP], [THREE POSTS / CUP], or [FOUR POSTS / CUP].  The sequence [CUP / MAN HOLDING CUP] in the broken seal inscription 1165 [CUP / MAN HOLDING CUP / BI-QUOTES // BELTED FISH /...] is paralleled by the sequence [TWO POSTS / MAN HOLDING CUP] on the reverse of tablet H-247.  The sequences [TRIPLE TRI-FORKS] and [QUADRUPLE TRI-FORKS] form the entire inscriptions of two ivory sticks (2795 and 2803), but a third ivory stick (2792) bears the inscription [FOUR QUOTES / QUINT-FORK].  It therefore seems safe to regard [TRIPLE CUPS] and [THREE POSTS / CUP] as alternative ways to write ‘3 CUP' (2009: 81).

Farmer et agree that this kind of sign repetition is enumerative rather than phonetic.  It may very well be.  I would point out, though, that such repetition is only quasi-enumerative in Egyptian, with three repetitions of a glyph often representing a plural form (ending in –w), alongside rare instances of quadrupling where three instances still represent the plural form with the fourth representing phonetic repetition, as in Nefer-neferu-aten, with three nfr glyphs for –neferu- and a fourth nfr representing the initial Nefer-.
Impression of a cylinder seal with Mesopotamian images but Indus inscription, MS2046 (from right):

Farmer et al further note that continuing excavations periodically turn up additional Indus symbols.  For example, there is an apparent lizard, depicted in bird’s eye view, on a seal in the Schoyen collection, a sign not included in any published list.  Another seal contains an inscription with another new symbol, a DEE with a BACK DEE overlapping it.  This type of open-endedness is to be expected in a proto-writing or non-glottographic system, especially if there is a need for new symbols to representing “owners” – just as in modern Texas, there is always room for another cattle brand to represent the owner of the livestock.
Stone block with Luwian hieroglyphs -- within the neatly incised lines separating the rows,
the hieroglyphs are grouped in a largely non-linear fashion, even though this is true writing
(from an old Turkish postcard).

An additional argument focuses on the linearity of Indus symbols.  The fact that the signs often appear in neat rows makes the script seem like writing.  But this is only a subjective judgment.  Symbols that are not linguistic have been known to appear in similar rows.  Farmer et al cite the symbols on kudurru, the foundation stones of Kassite Babylonia that bear both written texts and non-linguistic emblems of deities.  Both the signs of the text and the non-linguistic emblems are neatly aligned in rows.  To this observation I note some Navaho sand paintings, in which representations of yeis (supernatural beings) also line up in rows (Newcomb and Reichard 1975: Pl. III, with three rows of four Snake People).  In fact, the preschool child often arranges toys in a neat linear manner as a habitual form of play.  So the urge to make linear arrangements may be universal (although obviously that urge is much less strong in some people than in others).
Proto-cuneiform inscription on the Blau chisel, showing grouping of signs in compartments
rather than a strictly linear arrangement (drawn after Aruz 2003: 39).

The reverse of this argument is also of interest.  Signs of a known writing system may not necessarily be arranged in lines – whether rows or columns.  Egyptian hieroglyphs could be written either in rows or columns, from right to left or from left to right.  But even within each row or column, the glyphs do not always follow one another in a perfectly linear sequence.  Two small glyphs are frequently stacked one on top of the other in a row.  In effect, this creates a short column within a row.  And in a column, two tall and thin glyphs are frequently placed side by side, in effect forming a row within a column.  In addition, even within a word, glyphs sometimes follow a peculiar sequence.  Theophoric elements in names precede other glyphs, regardless of the sequence in the spoken language.  In King Tut’s name, for example, the last element is Amun, the name of the ram god.  But when the king’s name is written, the two glyphs spelling Amun appear in initial position, with Tut- and –ankh- following.  Luwian hieroglyphs appear even less ordered than Egyptian, in a great jumble of symbols minimally arranged in rows.  So linearity is not necessarily a sign of a writing system and writing is not necessarily linearly arranged.

Indus seal B-10 with non-linear arrangement of symbols in the inscription:
SEVEN QUOTES // TRI-FORK (or is the latter an abbreviated cult stand?).
Farmer et al also note some of the peculiarities of the apparent numerals in the Indus script.  Some of the oddest inscriptions seem to contain nothing for the “numerals” to enumerate.  With Korvink’s analysis of the various BEARER signs as terminals, how does one analyze such inscriptions as M-96 (FOUR QUOTES / POT-HATTED BEARER), or M-919 (THREE QUOTES / BEARER), or the bare "numeral" in B-10 (SEVEN QUOTES)?  Similarly, bearing in mind Korvink’s analysis of sign + BI-QUOTES as a prefix, how can one interpret M-692 (CIRCLED VEE / BI-QUOTES // FOUR QUOTES / SINGLE POST)? 
Tablet H-892A and B: note inscription on B begins with CUP on right.

Tablet H-951A and B: note the B begins with FOUR POSTS on right, ending with CUP.
The apparent numerals that do appear alongside other types of signs are sometimes described as preceding the other sign, supposedly an indication that qualifiers in general must have preceded their referents in the Harappan language.  For example, Koskenniemi and Parpola cautiously state, “Soviet scholars have expressed an opinion which we share that the Indus language appears to be fairly consistently left-branching” (1982: 12).  It is indeed common to find CUP preceded by an apparent numeral on tablets (reading right to left).  But there are also tablets with the opposite sequence, the “numeral” preceded by the CUP (H-771B right to left FOUR POSTS / CUP; H-777B CUP / TWO POSTS; H-784B TWO POSTS CUP; H-781B CUP / THREE POSTS). 

It is not just the tablets that present such contradictory data.  On seals, one frequently finds a sequence with one or another form of SEVEN preceding EF TOPPED EXIT (e.g., in H-268) (19 occurrences), but almost as common is STRIPED TRIANGLE followed by SEVEN (12 occurrences).  Similarly, some form of THREE precedes OVERLAPPING CIRCLES 18 times, but typically follows CUPPED POST or CUPPED SPOON (as in M-714).  Thus the “numerals” neither inevitably precede nor invariably follow a sign in pair-wise combinations.  If these symbols were interpreted linguistically, one would be at a loss to explain such contradictory pairings.

It is for these reasons that I accept the argument of Farmer et al that the Indus script does not represent fully developed writing.  Or, as Malcolm Hyman prefers to express it, this script is non-glottographic.  In his point of view, the important question is what relationship exists between glottographic and non-glottographic writing? (2006: 1-29).  His suggested answer is that there is no simple dividing line between these two types.  Even a society that has glottographic writing will often still continue to use non-glottographic “writing” or symbols.  As noted earlier, while we have true writing today, we also use non-glottographic numerals.  Thus, semasiography or non-glottographic systems are not failed writing, not mere historical stages on the way to true writing.  They may serve entirely different functions.  So it would be more useful to focus on the question of what functions a non-glottographic Indus system performed and how this was accomplished rather than attempting to assert that it was glottographic in the absence of clear evidence.


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Budge, E.A. Wallis. 1920 and 1978. Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary. Volume I-II. New York: Dover (1978 reprint of 1920 original, published by John Murray, London).

Dahl, Jacob L. 2005. “Animal Husbandry in Susa during the Proto-Elamite Period” in SMEA 47: 81-134.

Damerow, Peter and Robert Englund. 1989. The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Englund, Robert. 2001. “The State of Decipherment of Proto-Elamite,” available at online.

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

Farmer, Steve, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel. 2004. “The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan civilization,” in Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies (11) 2: 19-57.  Available at

Hyman, Malcolm D. 2006. “Of Glyphs and Glottography,” in Language and Communication.

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.

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

Nakanishi, Akira. 1980. Writing Systems of the World: Alphabets, Syllabaries, Pictograms. Boston: Tuttle Publishing.

Newcomb, F.J. and G.A. Reichard. 1975. Sandpaintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant. New York: Dover (orig. 1937 by J.J. Augustin).

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

Parpola, Asko. 2009 and 1994. Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge: University Press.

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

Smith, M.E. 1973. Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico: Mixtec Place Signs and Maps. Norman: University of Oklahoma.

Wells, Bryan K. 2011. Epigraphic Approaches to Indus Writing. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Old Persian cuneiform unicode document: