Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Indus Script as Tamga Symbols

Seal M-1134 with inscription of four medial signs, plus rhino icon,
perhaps an emblem of a Wild Animal sodality.

I have indicated previously that I consider the Indus script as a proto-writing system.  The term “proto-writing” is unfortunate, since these kinds of symbol systems are certainly not failed writing.  Nor are they necessarily precursors to fully developed writing systems, although they can be.  The proto-writing of one people may also differ quite considerably from that of another, with these systems sharing only the fact that they are not true writing.  For these reasons, I.J. Gelb used the term semasiographic to describe such systems (1963: 11).  By his definition, these types of symbols express meaning that is only loosely connected to speech.  True writing must have a closer connection to language, with at least some systematic representation of sound (i.e., it must be phonetic to some degree).  It is not clear where the precise dividing line lies between these two – between a semasiographic script and the script of a writing system that includes phonetic information.  But the occasional use of one symbol to represent a word characterized by similar sounds (use of the rebus principle, in other words) is insufficient.  Thus, the Na Xi script is an example of proto-writing or a semasiographical script, even though it occasionally uses the rebus principle.

Seal M-1162 with single-sign inscription and elephant icon,
another possible emblem of a Wild Animal sodality.

In discussing the various signs of the Indus script, I frequently referred to two proto-writing systems of the Near East, proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  The known texts of these scripts are typically economic in nature.  But these are not the only types of semasiographical systems that are known.  The Mixtecs and Aztecs also had proto-writing, though of a very different type.  Texts in these script generally have to do with the calendar, geography, and a bit of history (Smith 1973).  I do not think it likely that any of these resembles the Indus script closely, mainly because of the differences in text length but also due to the context.  As noted previously, the apparent numerals in the Indus script generally follow a pattern found in folklore rather than in economic texts, so the seals and tablets are unlikely to bear economic accounts.  In this, they probably differ from the administrative tablets in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  The seals and tablets are also too brief to contain much – if any – calendrical information, a prominent feature of the Mesoamerican texts.
Seal M-310 with inscription containing prefix (FOOTED STOOL / SINGLE QUOTE), medial
segment (FAT CHEVRON), terminal (POT), and an additional medial sign (WINDOW), as well
as the tiger icon, perhaps a symbol of a third Wild Animal sodality.  A "stool" and a "window"
appear as tamgas in some Eurasian pastoral societies.

There is another set of symbols that is useful for comparison with the Indus script.  These other symbols do not comprise a writing system, thus qualifying as semasiographical motifs.  They appear primarily in Eurasia and are known by various names, including tamga or tamaga, nishan, and gakk.  In Central Asia, from Iran and Turkey in the West to Mongolia and southern Siberia in the east, many peoples have used these symbols, which I refer to collectively as tamga.  These are most simply described as ownership marks, but there is more to it than that.  In some cases, the symbols are marks of identity in the same way as European heraldic signs (Perrin 2010: 25).  People put such symbols on houses and other buildings, on objects that they own, and mark their animals with them.  The individual mark typically represents an extended family or clan, although some peoples allow modification of the family tamga to further indicate the individual.  This modification is usually the addition of a line, a dot, or other small mark to the basic sign.  Despite its connection with the extended family, the tamga is not the same as a symbol of a family name, though.  The connotations and associations of the tamga are multiple.  Each extended family might well have a tamga, a battle cry, and an associated epic (or dastan) that describes some of its history (2010: 39). 
A circled Lone Star on a house in Texas, similar to a tamga in function.

We do not have tamgas in Texas, but many people mark their homes with similar symbols, the most popular in my neighborhood being a star.  This is known as the Lone Star, the symbol of Texas as a state, a motif that also appears on the state flag.  The star that appears on people’s homes (and sometimes on businesses) is sometimes just the five-pointed star, sometimes this is enclosed in a circle, and occasionally it is enclosed in two circles, with smaller stars between the inner and outer rings.  A few instances have words between these two rings instead of small stars or in addition to them  -- “The Lone Star of Texas” being the commonest I have seen.  In addition, a fair number of houses have a cross adorning them, indicating the Christian religious affiliation of the resident(s).  The cross and star, then, mark membership in a larger group rather than functioning to mark ownership by the individual and the same is typically the case with tamgas.  Texans also brand livestock with symbols and, in this case, the symbols do represent individual owners.
A circled Lone Star on a bench in Texas.

Among many Eurasian pastoral peoples, the marks used as brands for livestock represent clans (Landais 2010: 85).  Since animals are traded or sold to others from time to time, a given animal may have several brands on it, one for each owner in turn.  While most animals bear the brand that represents the owner’s paternal clan (the father’s family), sometimes an owner will add the brand of his maternal clan (that of his mother’s family), the clan sign of an earlier ancestor, his wife’s clan sign, or a sign representing a clan with whom he lives.  Thus, even an animal that has never been sold may bear more than one brand.  Among some groups, an individual’s mark may be added beside that of the clan.  In other groups, the original tamga is slightly modified for each owner within the clan, either by adding a small mark or removing one.  Persons who are dependent on non-familial relationships, such as craftsmen serving a wealthy owner, may sometimes use the marks of the “master” with perhaps some minor modification (2010: 93).
A bovine head as painted on Indus pot shard Rhd-241, not a sign
in the script but perhaps something akin to a tamga.

In all these cases, the tamga communicates a message.  On one level, the tamga communicates to outsiders, the message being that this house, these cattle, these objects belong to such-and-such a clan.  To those within the clan, the tamga communicates solidarity and is associated with other things that characterize that clan (such as the dastan).  A third level of communication is also common, between the clans that mark things and the gods or spirits.  This arises from the belief that the tamga invokes supernatural protection of that which is marked.  Alternatively, evil spirits are warded off by the presence of the supernaturally potent tamga.
Broken seal L-50, the only one with an iconic bird, as well as
a single surviving sign, the BI-FORK, also found as a Central
Asian tamga sign.

Typically, each tamga has a name, some of these indicating the form of the symbol, others deriving from the history of associated clan.  The Tuareg of North Africa use marks that mimic animal tracks, simplified depictions of objects such as tools and weapons, representations of celestial objects such as the sun, moon, and stars, and individual letters from Arabic or Tifinagh writing (2010: 94).  Being schematic and simplified, even the representational marks are not necessarily recognizable to a naive observer:  “For instance, the Y mark represents the nasal cleft of the camel (bujila), which is small in size but great in power since it leads the camel...” (2010: 95).  In most Eurasian systems, the origin of the tamga is not clear.
Broken seal H-95, the only seal with an iconic rabbit, as well as
a FIGURE EIGHT sign, one which also appears as a tamga.

These remarks convey only part of the sophisticated symbol system of the tamga.  What is important is that some of the characteristics of tamgas recall the hypothesized function of the Indus script.  I suggested previously that the signs on seals may serve a nominative function, representing the names, titles, and relationships of individuals.  The analogous information conveyed by a tamga indicates that this function may be borne by semasiographic motifs and not only by writing.  Thus, an Indus seal inscription with a prefix, medial section, and terminal, might indicate an owner (medial section) with an occupational title (terminal) and a relationship to another owner (prefix).  The three sections of the inscription may then be similar to the multiple brands on a domestic animal, which as noted above may indicate paternal clan, individual identity, and perhaps a third relationship – maternal clan, wife’s clan, or patron’s clan.  If something like this underlies the Indus inscriptions, then it is worthwhile to examine each segment in greater depth to see how this might work.
Seal B-7 with an inscription containing only a prefix (CIRCLED VEE / BI-QUOTES),
as well as a buffalo icon, perhaps another Wild Animal sodality emblem.

By my count, there are 775 prefixes in the inscriptions published in the first two volumes of the Corpus.  Of these, the largest number contain a single variable sign followed by one of the three possible constants (SINGLE QUOTE, BI-QUOTES, or PINCH).  There may be more variable signs, up to seven.  As the number of variable signs increases, the frequency of inscriptions with that many decreases:

Sign No.
No. of
of Inscriptions

The medial segment is considerably more variable.  It may contain a single sign or a good many more.  In my analysis, I have generally assumed that each line of an inscription constitutes a single element.  That is, an inscription of two lines may contain prefix, medial segment, and terminal in the first line, making up one element or message.  The second line is then an additional element, message, or unit of information.  This may not be true in all cases and I have not thoroughly examined this assumption yet.  But for now it is a reasonable working hypothesis.
Seal B-1 with inscription containing a four-sign prefix (DOUBLE CARTWHEELS / FOOTED STOOL / STRIPED FAT LEG LAMBDA / BI-QUOTES), a single-sign medial segment (FISH), and a two-sign terminal (POT / MAN), over the
"unicorn" and cult stand that may represent a sodality or clan.

The terminal section of the inscription is somewhat shorter than the prefix.  Again, the most common terminals contain a single sign, with declining frequency of occurrence of longer terminals.  The possibilities for a single-sign terminals are more numerous than those for prefix constants.  Where only three of these prefix elements occur, terminals include POT (907 occurrences), SPEAR (203), POT-HATTED BEARER (80), COMB (69), PINWHEEL (68), BEARER (56), MAN (25), and CHEVRON-HATTED BEARER (10).  Occurrences of all of these as single terminals add up to 1,418.  Two-sign terminals are less common but still of some frequency: POT + COMB (118), POT + MAN (70), TRI-FORK TOPPED POT + POT (42), BI-FORK TOPPED POT + POT (38), FLANGE-TOPPED POT + POT (35), POT-HATTED BEARER + COMB (22), COMB + POT (11), DOUBLE COMBS (10), and others, each of which is rare (39 altogether).  This yields a total of 385 two-sign terminals.  None of the three-sign terminals is at all common, with only 12 total occurrences (the most frequent of which is POT + MAN + COMB, 3 occurrences).  Thus, terminals total 1,815.

Sign No.
No. of
of Inscriptions

There are, then, only three possible lengths for a terminal.  It may consist of one sign, two signs, or three.  This is considerably shorter than the prefix, which may contain up to eight signs (seven variables plus a constant).  And while the set of prefix constants is small, the set of possible signs for the variable portion is quite large.  The medial segment of an inscription may be even longer than the prefix. 
Tablet H-351 with an inscription perhaps containing a prefix (STACKED THREE? + PINCH),
a medial segment (TWO POSTS), and a two-sign terminal (POT / COMB).  Like many
tablets, this one does not bear an iconic animal or other pictorial element, perhaps indicating
a functional difference between seals and tablets.

There is, of course, no clear evidence of the existence of clans in the Indus Valley in the bronze age, certainly no indication of how many might have existed (three, as symbolized the terminals or up to eight as suggested by the prefixes?).  Since large-scale cemeteries have not been excavated (if they even exist), there would seem to be no method for discovering such data, either.  Thus, I am not prepared to claim that any particular segment of an inscription must contain clan designations.
An atypical seal, M-304, depicting an apparent "Master of Animals" in the center (also described as "proto-Shiva"),
with an inscription across the top and several animals: rhino and buffalo on the left, elephant and tiger on the right,
and two ungulates below, perhaps a goat and gazelle or two goats.  If the animals represent sodalities or clans,
this seal might have belonged to an individual with authority over all of these social groups, a type of king.

Even so, I am not the only one to suggest a possible link between social groupings and Indus symbols.  Fairservis suggested that the iconic animals that appear on the square seals and on some tablets represent something like clans (1992: 6).  He groups these iconic animals into two sets.  The domestic set includes the “unicorn” as well as the goat, zebu, and gaur, in other words, the various types of bull and goat.  The wild set includes the tiger, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros.  The occurrence of these various types in many Harappan settlements “strongly suggests that pan-settlement sodalities like clans or associations were present, and that these sodalities divided into a rough moiety of wild and domestic animal related groups” (1992: 6).  The appearance of composite animals on several seals and tablets indicates, in his view, relationships between clans or sodalities.  “Here then is a clue to the meaning of the writing as it appears on the seal tablets,” he continues.  “With high probability it describes the individual who bears the tablet by name, title, occupation, social status, family, etc., in the conventional manner of the time.  In toto the large seal tablet motifs represent the sodality to which the bearer of the seal tablet belongs.  The writing identifies the individual within the sodality” (loc. cit.).
Seal Ns-9 with an inscription containing long, six-sign prefix (CIRCLED DOT WITH EAR /
medial segment, and perhaps a two-sign terminal (POT / MAN), with an additional
medial sign (SINGLE POST).  The iconic animal is a composite, with the hind end of
a tiger, horns of a goat, and a human element, perhaps indicating an allied group of two
sodalities (domestic goat and wild tiger).

In sum then, the Indus inscriptions may parallel the proto-Elamite texts only slightly, in which many rare symbols serve to indicate “owners” (perhaps institutions such as temples to begin with rather than individuals).  The Indus inscriptions may, instead, follow the pattern of the more elaborated systems of tamgas that represent clans (or sodalities, as Fairservis suggests).  An individual might then use a seal to stamp a series of symbols on objects to mark the latter as (a) belonging to the seal bearer, (b) given by the seal bearer to another individual, (c) or donated by the seal bearer to an institution.  The inscriptions might then include information on the larger social groups to which the seal owner belongs, including paternal clan, perhaps maternal clan or wife’s clan as well, the larger sodality to which the clan belongs, perhaps another clan or sodality with which the owner’s clan is allied, and even some indication of the individual owner as well.  Instead of multiple clan symbols, some of the Indus signs might be occupational tamgas (similar to later masons’ marks), and symbols representing other social groupings such as religious affiliation. 
Button seal Dmd-1 with a single sign, POT.  This seal strongly suggests that
terminal signs are not suffixes, since a suffix must be attached to something.
If this indicates a clan or occupational group, like a guild, it is much less problematic.

The added prongs, stripes, and other marks seen on a number of signs – the “hairs” on the HAIRY HUNCHBACK as opposed to the “hairless” HUNCHBACK, the stripes in the STRIPED VEST as opposed to the unstriped VEST, the small TRI-FORK attached to a number of signs – may not be equivalent to “gunification” in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite.  Instead, these additional marks may serve to differentiate individual lines within a clan or sodality.
Tablet M-575A and B sides, with an inscription that includes only a medial segment
on side A, and a composite, two-headed animal on side B, perhaps a symbol of an
alliance between two social groups, both within the wild sodality (rhino clan + snake clan?).

Shapes of symbols common to both the Indus script and one or another Eurasian set of tamgas include the following (using my descriptors for the Indus signs):  EX, BACK CEE & CEE, RAYED CIRCLE, CIRCLE, DUCK HEAD, LOLLIPOP, BARBELL, SWASTIKA, LAMBDA, BI-FORK, TRI-FORK, FLAIL, CHEVRON , ZEE, SHISH KEBAB, CUP, ROOF, CIRCLED CROSS, COMB, CIRCLE, STACKED TRIPLE CIRCLES, SPEAR, BOWTIE, VEST, BOXED EX, TRIANGLE, SKEWERED EX, GRAIN EAR, TABLE, DIAMOND, BISECTED RECTANGLE, DOUBLED BELTED AITCH, SKEWERED CIRCLE, ZIGZAG, DOTTED CIRCLE, DEE, SINGLE POST, TWO POSTS, STOOL, LOOP, FISH.  Note that these are mostly the simplest geometric shapes, and, as we have seen, they have multiple parallels elsewhere as well.  So I do not propose a direct relationship between the signs of the Indus script on one hand and the tamga signs of any pastoral group on the other.  Instead, I only propose that there may be parallels in function and perhaps some parallels in the contexts of sign use.


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

Gelb, I.J. 1963. A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Landais, E. 2010. “The Marking of Livestock in Traditional Pastoral Societies,” in Traditional Marking Systems: A Preliminary Survey, J.E. Pim, S.A. Yatsenko, and OT. Perrin, eds. London: Dunkling Books.

Pim, J.E., S.A. Yatsenko, and O.T. Perrin, eds. 2010. Traditional Marking Systems: A Preliminary Survey. London: Dunkling Books.
Smith, M.E. 1973. Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico: Mixtec Place Signs and Maps. Norman: University of Oklahoma.

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