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.

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