Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Paleolithic symbols and a few Indus signs

I have not written a post in some time, as I have been reading a few books concerning rock art, that is, on petroglyphs and pictographs created by non-literate peoples.  In his famous work on European Paleolithic art, A. Leroi-Gourhan grouped the geometric or non-representational symbols into two major groups, male and female (1967: 513-514, Charts XXXII & III). 

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, types A 1-3 (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

  Among the female symbols, he included four subgroups: (1) triangular signs, (2) oval signs, (3) quadrangular signs, and (4) claviform signs.  The triangular elements, he thought, derived ultimately from representations of female genitalia.  Included in this group are symbols that resemble a bird track, or arrow with short shaft, which do bear some resemblance to the original triangle-with-central-vertical.  Also included in his “triangular signs,” though, are those also termed tectiforms (hut-like).  In this subgroup, the “huts” have peaked “roofs” and so contain an angle but are not necessarily otherwise very similar to triangles.  

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, types B 1-3 (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Among Indus signs, the BISECTED TRIANGLE (IV 11) best parallels the simple form of the ancient triangular symbols.  An almost identical symbol came to be used in proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite for a female of low status.  As noted in my earlier post on this Indus sign, triangular symbols in other cultures have very different significations: Egyptian uses a small triangle within a larger one (Gardiner X8) representing a type of bread loaf for the sound di, most often meaning “give.”  Luwian uses a triangle with vertical and/or horizontal line(s) for REX, i.e. “king.”  In rock art of North America, the bisected triangle may occasionally represent an arrowhead (Newcomb 1996: 90, Pl. 50 no. 3).  More commonly, the angle with an inner vertical, similar to a short-stemmed Indus TRI-FORK (III 13), appears to represent a bird track (Heizer and Baumhoff 1984: 165, fig. 102a).

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, type C (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Oval signs, the next of Leroi-Gourhan’s female group, also derive from depictions of female genitalia, according to his proposal, but from a different viewpoint.  Among Indus symbols, there is a circle or oval containing a short vertical like the ancient sign (PACMAN, my III 28), but contextual analysis of inscriptions indicates this is merely a variant of CIRCLED FORK.  One variation of the oval that Leroi-Gourhan shows is almost identical to the Indus LOOP (II 10); yet another seems more like PARENS (II 20) but without surrounding anything.  One more remarkable inclusion in the Paleolithic grouping is a close match for the Indus SKEWERED STACKED TRIPLE CIRCLES (VII 55).  Grouping together such disparate symbols may not be good idea in the early stages of research, as any statistical measures will then obscure as much as they reveal.

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, types D 1-2 (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Leroi-Gourhan views his fourth subgroup, the quadrangular signs, as further variations on the original depiction of the vulva.  In appearance, however, the squared off symbols are rather different from either triangles or rounded signs.  Some are simple squares or rectangles, containing a short vertical, while others contain one or more tall, bisecting verticals. Compare to this the Indus DOUBLE BISECTED RECTANGLE (VI 7). Still others contain both vertical(s) and a horizontal, which recalls the Indus WINDOW (VI 4) and TRIPLE BRICK (VI 5).  As more lines are added to the various possibilities, some eventually resemble the Indus GRID (VIII 6) or even representations of decorated cloth.  Also included among the quandrangular signs are elements much like the Indus COMB (VI 20) and HAIRPICK (V 12), as well as the very simple and not very boxy EX (II 12)!  Even vertical strokes not joined by a horizontal may appear in this category.

Leroi-Gourhan's female triangular signs, type E (1967: 513, Chart XXXII).

 Leroi-Gourhan’s final subgroup of female signs is termed claviform (club shaped).  In contrast to all the other female signs, this group supposedly derives from a profile depiction of a woman whose behind is somewhat exaggerated.  In the more typical simplified version, there is a single vertical stroke with a bump attached on one side which Leroi-Gourhan takes to be the remnant of the big behind.  In some versions, there is more than one vertical stroke, and in others, the verticals are somewhat curved.  The “derived” versions are quite varied and differ substantially from the supposed original, sometimes being termed aviforms (bird-like).  These are typically horizontal signs where the claviforms are more often vertical.  The aviforms reminds me of the Indus POT LID (V 17 AND VI 21), though its name indicates that it recalls to others a bird in flight.

The male signs are subdivided into four groups: hooked or “spear-thrower” signs, barbed signs, single and double strokes, and dots, rows of dots, single and double.  Here again, Leroi-Gourhan begins with an ancient depiction of male genitalia, seeing this as the inspiration for the hooked signs.  Most of those found in rock art comprise a longish vertical stroke with various short vertical strokes near the top and sometimes the bottom of the long stroke.  This type does not seem to have a parallel among the Indus signs.  The closest parallel is the "arrow" element found in a few uncommon signs.  And in these, as my name for such implies, the two short strokes are oblique, meeting the top of the taller vertical -- not the case in most of the Paleolithic "spear-thrower" signs.

The second male subgroup, barbed signs, is more familiar, containing what I termed the GRAIN EAR (V 18).  As noted in the post concerning this Indus sign, a symbol resembling an ear of grain is virtually universal, though it represents somewhat varied items from place to place (and time to time) – sometimes a plant, sometimes a feather, occasionally something else.

The single and double strokes of Paleolithic art are much like the apparent numerals among Indus signs.  Interestingly though, the Ice Age “shorts” and “longs” sometimes appear in groups of two, either pairs of strokes arranged in a vertical series, or such pairings stretched out in a horizontal line.  Such pairings do not appear in Indus inscriptions.

The final male group includes dots.  Like strokes, these occur in lines, either vertical or horizontal lines.  Sometimes too, again like the strokes, pairs of dots occur, arranged in vertical or horizontal sets.  Occasionally, both dots and strokes occur together in a larger pattern, an arrangement found only once on an Indus tablet as far as I know.  The Indus "symbol" may be a representation of the so-called "trough" that often appears before an iconic animal.  Since there were no domestic animals during the Ice Age when arrangements of dots and strokes were carved or painted, we can confident these are not representations of feeding troughs, not even highly schematized ones.

As with many attempts to discover the meaning of symbols without a living tradition, Leroi-Gourhan’s analysis has not convinced everyone.  He does show that certain elements – whether geometric signs or depictions of Ice Age animals – tend to appear together in Paleolithic art.  But when it all seems to come down just two categories, one has to wonder if more has been lost in the analysis than has been gained by such a description. Why would the artists have needed so many different symbols and depictions just to communicate two ideas? 

A recent unpublished MA thesis has reexamined some of the basic data in Leroi-Gourhan’s study (G. von Petzinger 2009).  This author has divided the symbols into 26 groups, ignoring the earlier clumping into male and female.  Many of the variants of a single sign in Leroi-Gourhan’s study appear here as separate signs.  For example, von Petzinger separates out many variations of the earlier “triangular signs”:
  • OPEN ANGLE (found as a vee or chevron, or as a bisected vee or DUBYA),
  • FLABELLIFORM (resembling the top of the Indus QUAD-FORK or QUINT-FORK without the “stem”), and
  • TECTIFORM (or hut-like element, something like an arrow on a horizontal base, sometimes with additional elements included).
  • She keeps CIRCLE and OVAL (pointed at both ends as in Indus script) separate as well, both from each other and from the triangular signs they were grouped with in the earlier scheme.
  • Leroi-Gourhan placed HALF CIRCLE or “U” shape among the triangular signs also, which again Von Petzinger separates.
  • Two unusual “variants” of the triangular signs that are separate here are CORDIFORM (resembling a Valentine’s heart) and RENIFORM (or “kidney-shape” resembling the Indus DOWN HEART).
  • SPIRAL is perhaps to be included here, as Leroi-Gourhan seems to have viewed this as a variant of a circled circle (or DONUT in the terms I used for Indus signs) and grouped with circles and ovals among the “triangular signs.”
  • The CLAVIFORM appears as separate category,
  • AVIFORM being independent of it here.

Von Petzinger has a separate category for QUANDRANGLE wherein she considers most of the quadrangular signs of Leroi-Gourhan’s analysis.  But she does separate out some elements:
  • SCALARIFORM (or ladder-like element) is independent,
  • CROSSHATCH (TIC TAC TOE or  GRID without an enclosing line)
  • “X” is also a separate category, termed CRUCIFORM, as well as a
  • DOTS comprise another category.
  • LINES are yet another, not grouped together here.

There are six additional symbols in von Petzinger's work that Leroi-Gourhan did not list in his work:
  • ZIGZAG, 
  • SERPENTIFORM (a lazy “S” shape), 
  • POSITIVE and NEGATIVE HANDS (considered separately), 
  • CUPULES (similar to dots in shape but indentations), and 
  • FINGER FLUTING (miscellaneous markings made in soft clay with the fingers, usually not either representational or forming clearcut signs).

Thus we see that two researchers looking at much the same material classify its elements differently, a result also found in research on the Indus script.  The approaches of the two researchers also differ.  Where Leroi-Gourhan attempted an analysis involving at least some level of meaning, Von Petzinger does not.  Instead, she focuses on determining when, where, and how often each sign appears.  Both approaches are useful and provide suggestions for future study.  So it is with Indus script research.  Much can be done without getting into the question of what the symbols mean.


Heizer, R.F. and M.A. Baumhoff. 1962 & 1984. Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. Berkeley: University of California.
Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1967. Treasures of Prehistoric Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Newcomb, W.W. 1967 and 1996. The Rock Art of Texas Indians. Austin: University of Texas.
Von Petzinger, G. 2009. Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art. Accessed at http://dspace.library.unic.ca:8080/handle/1828/1402 ; also available at the Bradshaw Foundation website.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Testing a Hypothesis on Indus Inscriptions

Seal M-1107 with inscription: FAT EX IN DIAMOND / BI-QUOTES //
(the constant in this prefix is the most common of the rare ones, as
it occurs before BI-QUOTES nine times).

In an earlier post I noted the possibility that the prefix (P) found in many inscriptions contains one type of information, while the medial segment (M) contains another type, and the terminal (T) could contain still a third type.  If the Indus symbols represent identity markers as in Near Eastern cylinder seals, one might hypothesize that the three distinct segments contain something akin to names of owners, occupational terms or titles, and relational information such as “son of X” or “servant of deity Y” (not necessarily in that order).  Not only is such information borne by early cylinder seals from Mesopotamia, but very similar information is found on many ancient Egyptian scarabs (sometimes used as stamp seals).

Focusing on the Indus inscriptions, we have seen that the T segment is generally short; usually it consists of a single sign, but sometimes includes two or three symbols.  The content of this segment is also highly constrained compared to the other segments, with fewer than a dozen signs demonstrably falling into this category.  These include POT, FORK-TOPPED POT (2 variants), FLANGE-TOPPED POT, COMB, SPEAR, MAN, BEARER, CHEVRON-HATTED BEARER, POT-HATTED BEARER, and PINWHEEL.  Because of the limited size of the terminal set, it is unlikely that these symbols represent individual owners. 

In proto-Elamite, as noted in previous posts, the many singletons and other rare symbols most likely represent owners, presumably because each owner needs a distinct symbol (or two) that will not be confused with that of another owner (Damerow and Englund 1989: 11-13).  In societies that used tamgas, especially Central Asian societies using ownership marks, scholars have generally found more than 10 distinct emblems (Pim et al 2010).  For example, there are more than 20 examples used in Arabia for marking camels (2010: 84), more than 70 Mongolian tamgas (2010: 98), over 60 nishan signs in one Mazdean sanctuary in southern Kazakhstan (2010: 135), and 60-plus linear symbols found on pyramidal and other seals in western Anatolia dating to the Classical period (2010: 154).  So it is probably safe to conclude that the T segment of Indus inscriptions does not indicate an owner.
Seal M-272 with inscription: CIRCLED CROSS / BI-QUOTES
(an unusual inscription with a singleton sign as the variable in
the prefix; also unusual in that there is nothing but a prefix).

It also seems unlikely that these signs represent social groups based on (real or fictive) kinship such as families, clans, or sodalities, for the same reason -- tamgas are marks of family/clan ownership at least as often as individuals’ marks.  It is conceivable that terminals represent deities, perhaps patrons of the seal owners.  It is also possible that these signs indicate social roles, the equivalent of the titles on cylinder seals and scarabs.  If the latter is the case, there were not many different roles in Indus society or else owners of inscribed objects came from only a few social statuses. 

The other two segments – P and M – may contain a single sign just as the terminal may.  But P and M also occur frequently with two, three, or even more symbols.  Does this indicate that P and M contain the same or similar types of information?  I am thinking specifically of the common Near Eastern pattern of early seal inscription, with a personal name followed by a relation to another personal name (in the following, a personal name is abbreviated PN, OCC indicates an occupational term or title, REL represents a social relationship, and DN indicates a divine name):

·         PN:  Ishma-ilum (Semitic ruler of Kisik during Period II 3000-2334 BCE; Collon 2005: 31, no. 84)

·         PN +OCC + DN:  HE-kung-sig, priestess of Pabilsag (Ur, Period II; Collon 2005: 31, no. 93)

·         PN + REL + PN:  Ninmelila, wife of Ur-Dada (Period III 2334-2000 BCE; Collon 2005: 35, no. 110)

·         PN + OCC + LOC + PN + OCC + REL:  Gudea, governor of Lagash: Abba the scribe (is) your servant (Period III; Collon 2005: 36, no. 114)

·         PN + REL + PN + OCC:  E-gissu, son of Bibbi, the carpenter (Period III; Collon 2005: 36, no. 116)

·         PN + REL + DN:  Danni, servant of the god Nergal (Period IV 2000-1500; Collon 2005: 47, no. 158)

One way to examine the possibility of similar information types appearing in both P and M is to compare the specific Indus signs that occur in these two segments.  If signs found in P generally do not appear in M (and vice versa), then the two segments most likely contain two different types of information.  If both segments generally contain the same set of symbols, then this is evidence that similar information appears in both segments.  If this proves to be the case, the constant sign that ends the prefix (SINGLE QUOTE, BI-QUOTES, PINCH, or, rarely, a combination of two of these) may contain no actual information itself, merely serving to separate P from M.

I.  Prefixes containing a single variable sign plus the constant:
1.  29 symbols appear only rarely as the single variable before BI-QUOTES in a prefix (between 1 and 9 occurrences each).
2.  Three single-sign variables are very common before BI-QUOTES
a.  CARTWHEEL (73 inscriptions)
b.  CIRCLED VEE (93 inscriptions)
c.  VEE IN DIAMOND (99 inscriptions)
d.  A few of these inscriptions include a second constant sign
i.  BI-QUOTES + SINGLE QUOTE (8 inscriptions)
ii.  BI-QUOTES + BI-QUOTES (2 inscriptions)

1.  Common: FOOTED STOOL (20), FAT EX (39), CARTWHEEL (27), BOAT (54).
2.  Rare: 10 signs, each appearing in 1 to 4 inscriptions.
3.  A few inscriptions combine PINCH with another constant in the variable: PINCH + SINGLE QUOTE (2 inscriptions); PINCH + BI-QUOTES (2 inscriptions).

1.  Rare: 11 signs, each appearing in 1 to 3 inscriptions.
2.  Common: CARTWHEEL (14 inscriptions).
3.  A few inscriptions include two constants in the variable: SINGLE QUOTE + BI-QUOTES (1 inscription); BI-QUOTES + SINGLE QUOTE (included in section on BI-QUOTES above -- 8 inscriptions); SINGLE QUOTE + SINGLE QUOTE (2 inscriptions).

II.  Two or more variables before the constant in the prefix
1.       Two variables appear in 133 inscriptions.
2.       Three variables appear in 74 inscriptions.
3.       Four variables appear in 17 inscriptions.
4.       Five variables appear only in 2 somewhat doubtful inscriptions; in both cases, one symbol occurs twice, such doubling being counted as a single sign by Wells (which would make these additional instances of four variables).
5.       Six variables appear in 2 inscriptions.
6.       Seven variables appear in 1 inscription (KP2109).
7.       Embedding apparently occurs in 8 inscriptions.

B.      PINCH
1.       Two variables appear in 19 inscriptions.
2.       Three variables appear in 6 inscriptions.
3.       Embedding apparently occurs in 9 inscriptions.

1.       Two variables appear in 34 inscriptions.
2.       Three variables appear in 24 inscriptions.
3.       Four variables appear in 10 inscriptions.
4.       Five variables appear in 4 inscriptions (H-642, M-634, M-1057, M-1103).
5.       Embedding apparently occurs in 26 inscriptions.

Looking only at the prefix variable consisting of a single sign, several characteristics are clear.  Of the signs that occur in P in the variable slot, few are singletons.  By definition, singletons do not occur anywhere else, so they appear just in P.  In contrast, the vast majority of signs that appear as a variable in P also occur in other inscriptions in M.  Some, in fact, occur as the whole medial segment; i.e., the middle section includes only this one sign.  Thus, by and large, the signs found in P do not differ remarkably from those found in M.  This would seem to suggest that P and M do contain similar types of information.  So far, so good for my hypothesis.

However, this is only true when the variable portion of P contains only one sign.  The picture differs in the longer prefixes, those containing two or more variable signs.  Many sign combinations that occur frequently in M do not appear in P.  For example, CUPPED SPOON (or CUPPED POST) + 3 POSTS is a frequent pair, but only in M, never in P.  One of the constituent signs – 3 POSTS – does occur in the occasional P, but the other constituent, CUPPED SPOON, does not.  Similarly, the pair 2 POSTS + FISH occurs frequently in M, but not in P.  The first part, 2 POSTS, occurs occasionally in a prefix, but the second part, FISH, does not.  The main overlap in content between P and M where the variable portion contains two or more signs is the set of doubled signs (e.g., DOUBLE GRIDS, DOUBLE CUPS).  Such doubled symbols can occur in either P or M in an inscription – but not both in one and the same inscription.

This finding suggests that the informational content of P is not of the same type as that found in M, after all, despite some superficial similarities.  This, in turn, suggests that Indus inscriptions do not contain information similar to the Near Eastern type PN + REL + PN (e.g., Ninmelila, wife of Ur-Dada; or E-gissa, son of Bibbi).  Finally, if this conclusion is correct, then the prefix constants (SINGLE QUOTE, BI-QUOTES, PINCH) probably do not function simply as marks separating P from M. 


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

Damerow, P. and R.K. Englund. 1989. The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.
Pim, J.E., S.A. Yatsenko, and O.T. Perrin. 2010. Traditional marking Systems: A Preliminary Survey. London: Dunkling Books.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Seals Vs. Tablets: The Case of "Hairy Hunchback"


What information is likely to be included in Indus inscriptions?  No one knows for sure but many researchers have provided hypotheses.  Some of these focus on the presumed economic function of inscribed objects.  For example, M. Korvink suggests, “The script at the top of a seal could conceivably express the commodities, their quantity, locations, and the proprietor, etc. while the motif was ‘guarantor of the transaction’” (2008: 76-77).

B. Wells also considers an economic function likely: “Seals can be demonstrated to function as closures for doors, boxes and other packages enclosed in reeds and textiles” (2011: 162).  As an example of more specific meaning, he cites a particular jar (designated Jar G) found at Mohenjo daro, Moneer southeast area.  This jar contained many fragments of stoneware bangles, which Wells estimates derived from 17 or 18 original bangles.  The jar had a sealing closing it and on this sealing were the two signs SINGLE POST / STACKED SEVEN, which Wells takes to be a way of writing “seventeen,” the (approximate) number of bangles inside.  From this, he concludes that one function of seals was “to facilitate the cycle of production” (2011: 161).  If he is correct in his reconstruction of the bangles in this jar and if he is also correct about the meaning of SINGLE POST / STACKED SEVEN, then the inscription does seem to refer to the quantity if not the identity of the items inside the jar.

Because of the parallel use of Near Eastern cylinder seals to close various containers and doors, M. Coe posits an economic function as well (1995: 394).  That is, he says, the inscriptions on seals “in all likelihood name the owner or owners of the goods sealed.”  So, assuming an economic function is correct, we find more than one possibility for the content of inscriptions.  These could identify owners or they could identify the objects of commerce, the commodities.

In proto-Elamite, as I have noted before, the rare signs typically indicate owners, while common signs that represent commodities are paired with numerals (Damerow and Englund 1989: 11-13).  As discussed at length in previous posts, I do not interpret the apparent numerals in Indus script as modifyers that actually enumerate.  As a result, I consider it unlikely that Indus inscriptions on seals parallel proto-Elamite economic tablets in their content.  Instead, I hypothesize that the Indus inscriptions on seals are largely owners’ marks, perhaps similar to Turkic tamgas (e.g., see Pim, Yatsenko, and Perrin 2010).

Even if this hypothesis is correct, it does not necessarily mean that all the Indus inscriptions have the same type of content.  In particular, the group of objects termed tablets may bear something different from what appears on seals.  The former group comprises three different types of objects, actually.  The bas-relief tablets may have been created from impressions of seal inscriptions, in which case the inscriptional content of both objects should be essentially of the same type.  But there are also incised tablets, some on baked clay, some on metal.  Many of the former have an inscription on both sides, with the second side usually containing CUP plus an apparent numeral (most often from SINGLE POST to FOUR POSTS, rarely SIX POSTS).  It is conceivable that this type of artifact had a function different from that of the seals (and perhaps different from bas-relief tablets).

So let us examine the inscriptions on tablets with those on seals to see whether there are indeed differences.  One way of doing this is to look at specific signs.  For example, my first impression is that HAIRY HUNCHBACK appears more often on tablets than on seals.  Wells divides variations of this symbol into four separate signs in his latest work (2011: 180).  The “head” is on the right and there are four “hairs” on W176; the “head” is on the left and there are three “hairs” on W177; an angular version of the first is W178; and a variation of the second with an open “head” is W179.  Together, these variants occur 201 times by Wells’ count.  Of these occurrences, 123 are on tablets while 72 are on seals (6 additional occurrences on pot shards or other objects).  That is, using Wells’ figures, 61% of occurrences are on tablets versus 36% on seals (3% other).  Many of the tablets bear inscriptions that are duplicated on other tablets, however; if each inscription is counted just once no matter how many duplicates there are, the imbalance between tablets and seals is not as pronounced.

It is still interesting to note what contexts this sign appears in, on the different objects.  Among the inscriptions recorded in the KP concordance, I find the following on tablets (underlining indicates tablets that are incised, i.e., those we are most interested in here):

·         1 of HAIRY HUNCHBACK alone (actually placed between two circles, which may or may not be intended as signs) on H-220-222A (bas relief)

·         1 of HAIRY HUNCHBACK in final position on M-1418 (bas relief)

·         1 of HAIRY HUNCHBACK + POT-HATTED BEARER on H-220-222 (bas relief)

·         4 of HAIRY HUNCHBACK + WINGED MAN on tablets on H-179 (bas relief), H-740-742 (bas relief), M-543-546 and M-1497-1502 (incised)

·         1 of HAIRY HUNCHBACK + VEST on H-837 (round bas relief tablet)

·         3 of HAIRY HUNCHBACK + STRIPED VEST on H-218 (bas relief), H-341 (triangular bas relief), H-892-893 (incised)

·         13 of HAIRY HUNCHBACK + POT on M-511-512 and M-550 (incised); M-1448-1451, M- 1453, and M-502-503 (incised); M-1452 (incised); H-699 and H-171 (bas relief); M-494-495 (bas relief); M-1460 and M-509-510 (incised); H-315 (incised); H-932, H-934-935, H-937, H-959, H-961-963, H-978-981, H-309, H-311, H-316-318, and H-352-357 (incised) as well as H-233 (bas relief); H-987 (incised); H-933, 936, 960, 964, 308, and 312-314 (incised); H-853 (bas relief); H-232 (“shield” shaped bas relief); H-811 (bas relief)

Other inscriptions in the concordance are either on seals or on objects I cannot identify in my database.

In comparison, I find the following on seals:

·         2 + one of the various BEARER signs (BEARER, CHEVRON-HATTED B., POT-HATTED B.)

·         4 + WINGED MAN



·         1 + RAKE

·         1 + DOUBLE CEES

·         1 + HUNCHBACK (not “hairy”)

·         1 + SPACESHIP

·         4 + STRIPED VEST

·         2 + CUPPED SPOON

·         28 + POT
Aside from the multiple co-occurrences of HAIRY HUNCHBACK and POT, there is no clear pattern and this particular "pair" is common to both tablets and seals.  Hence, analysis of this sign indicates no significant difference between media.  Whatever the inscriptions once meant, they seem to mean the same regardless of whether they appear on tablets or seals.  However, this tentative conclusion only pertains to this particular sign thus far.  Ideally, we would analyze occurrences of the other common signs in the same way before drawing a firm conclusion.


Coe, M.D. 1995. “On not breaking the Indus code” in Antiquity 69 (1995): 393-5.

Damerow, P. and R.K. Englund. 1989. The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Korvink, M.P. 2008. The Indus Script: A Positional Statistical Approach. Gilund Press.

Pim, J.E., S.A. Yatsenko, and O.T. Perrin. 2010. Traditional Marking Systems: A Preliminary Survey. London: Dunkling Books.

Wells, B.K. 2011. Epigraphic Approaches to Indus Writing. Oxford and Oakville: Oxbow Books.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Compound and Complex Sequences in Indus Script

Tablet H-773A with inscription: POTTED ONE / CRAB / TRI-FORK / BI-QUOTES //
COIL / CRAB // POT (poorly rendered so that the POT and POTTED ONE have switched places).

Over 250 Indus inscriptions appear to include two units of information.  On a large number of tablets, for example, inscriptions appear on both sides, typically a relatively long one on side A and a brief one on side B made up of CUP plus an apparent numeral between “one” and “four.”  For example, H-773 bears PMT on side A (POTTED ONE / CRAB / TRI-FORK / BI-QUOTES // COIL / CRAB // POT), plus an unusual M on side B (SHISH KEBAB / BATTERY / VEST / CUP / 4 POSTS).  In the previous post, I analyzed this type as PMT.M (the period marking the boundary between the two sides).  In such cases, it is evident that the information on side A differs from that on side B; thus, the inscribed object bears more than one unit of information. 
Seal M-326B (shown reversed as an impression would appear).
The final sign (bottom left), heavily abraded, may be 5 POSTS.

On a few objects, inscriptions appear on more than two sides.  For example, seal M-326 shows PMT on side A (BOAT / PINCH // POTTED ONE / FISH UNDER CHEVRON / DOUBLE CEES // POT), two lines of medial content on side B (STRIPED BISECTED TOP / EX / 3 QUOTES / CARTWHEEL // [over] BARBELL ON POST / POSTS & SLASH / BARBELL ON POST / 5 [?] POSTS).  In addition, three of the four edges are inscribed: side C (CIRCLE [?] / MAN HOLDING CUP / TRI-FORK); side D (BARBELL); and side E (TEETH / OVERLAPPING CIRCLES).  We may characterize the whole set as PMT.M-M.M. M.M (the segments separated by periods could also be sequenced differently, some before the PMT here shown as initial).
Seal M-326, edges D (top) and E (bottom), with inscriptions:

Such inscriptions, appearing on multiple sides of an object are interesting, as they pose the questions of whether all the symbols pertain to one topic (i.e., do the inscriptions go together in some sense, even though they are physically separated), and what sequence they take (if any).  But even more interesting are the instances where an inscription on a single side of an object appears to contain more than one unit of information.  Here, the information units most likely do converge on a single topic, while the sequence is usually clear (tablets and other objects mostly being “read” from right to left and top to bottom, as are the impressions of seals).  For the most part, the second unit of information in these cases is not a combination of CUP and an apparent numeral, either. 

Some of the longer inscriptions contain a complete sequence of prefix, medial section, and terminal (or PMT) following by an additional sequence of elements.  A few examples follow, with each informational unit underlined to highlight its unity:

H-386 PMT-MT: FIGURE 8 WITH ATTACHED LADDER / PINCH // CRAB / RAKE / FISH / STACKED 12 // POT // FOOTED STOOL WITH TICK // PINWHEEL.  Other inscriptions with the same analysis (PMT-MT) include H-46, H-122, M-644 (9 signs), M-833 (6 signs), L-46 (8 signs), L-122 (6 signs)


M-234 PMT-PMT-M: BOAT / PINCH // FISH UNDER CHEVRON / FISH // SPEAR /// FAT EX / PINCH // FAT LAMBDA // POT /// (over) 4 QUOTES / MAN WITH TAIL / FAT STOOL / CAGED OVERLAPPING CIRCLES (the 4 QUOTES + MAN WITH TAIL are grouped together in KP as MAN HOLDING 4 QUOTES).  The same analysis applies to M-626 (13 signs).


M-314 PMT-MT-M: CARTWHEEL / BI-QUOTES // FISH UNDER CHEVRON / WHISKERED FISH / DOT IN FISH // SPEAR /// (over) DOUBLY CAGED AY / CUPPED SPOON // TRI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT /// (over) 2 POSTS / CIRCLED RECTANGLE (?) / PANTS / MAN HOLDING DEE-SLASH / TRI-FORK / CIRCLED VEE / QUADRUPED (with 17 signs, this is the longest inscription on a single side of any object thus far discovered).  Seal M-665 bears an inscription with the same analysis (10 signs).

M-165 PT-MT-M: 2 POSTS / TRI-FORK / POTTED ONE // BI-FORK TOPPED POT / POT /// (over) DOTTED DUCK HEAD // POT // CIRCLED VEE (occasionally an inscription is best read boustrophedon, so the signs in the second row here might also be transcribed CIRCLED VEE // POT // DUCK HEAD).  Another inscription with this analysis is H-217


H-350 MT.M.M: (side A, right to left) WHISKERED FISH / BLANKET WITH TICKS & DASHES / CROSSROADS EX // POT /// (side B) 4 POSTS / CUP /// (side C) FISH (the final sign is oriented horizontally, unlike the vertical “fish” on side A; thus, the “fish” on side C may be decorative rather than a sign).

H-245 MT-MT.M: (side A, right to left) WHISKERED (?) FISH / FISH // POT /// CAGED CIRCLED FORK // COMB /// (side B) 3 POSTS / CUP.

H-103 MT-MT-MT: (horizontal top row) CIRCLED FORK / RAKE / FISH / FOOT // POT /// (vertical side row) CUP / 3 POSTS // SPEAR /// (horizontal inverted bottom row) MAN BETWEEN POSTS // CHEVRON HATTED BEARER (no other seal is inscribed in this peculiar fashion, “read” in three different directions).

M-495 MT-M.MT.MT-M: ([side A] CIRCLED FORK / CRAB / HAIRY HUNCHBACK // POT / BEARER /// 3 CUPS / TRI-FORK /// [side B] POTTED ONE / DOUBLE CEES / CUP / CARTWHEEL / 2 POSTS / PRICKLY CORN HOLDER / DOUBLE CEES / RAKE / WINGED MAN // POT /// [sides G-B] SNOWFLAKE / ANKH / POTTED ONE // BEARER WITH SHOULDER YOKE /// BIRD BETWEEN PARENS / OVERLAPPING CIRCLES / 2 POSTS (with 24 signs covering three sides of a prism-shaped tablet, this inscription – or these inscriptions – form the longest Indus “text”).

Thus far, most inscriptions that go beyond PMT contain one or more elements of a second (P)M(T) or occasionally more.  Assuming that each (P)M(T) segment contains one unit of information, the inscriptions cited in this post contain 2 (H-386, M682), 3 (H-103, H-245, H-350, M-23, M-165, M-234, M-314), 4 (M-326), or 5 (M-495) such units.  The inscription M-165 is somewhat peculiar in that the first unit is PT and thus lacks M, but the following two units are not problematic and do contain this element (MT and M).  If these were the only lengthy inscriptions, we might conclude that Indus inscriptions could be compound (formed simply by concatenating two or more (P)M(T) segments) but not complex.

There are, however, a small number of inscriptions that appear to be slightly more complex.  In these, an initial PMT is followed by a prefix constant without an apparent variable, after which there is another M.  Placing a prefix constant immediately after a terminal may serve to make the whole initial PMT into the variable of a long prefix with internal subdivisions.  I propose to write the analysis of this type as (P1MT)P2M, the parentheses indicating the elements inside the P2.  Note that in all the examples I have found, SINGLE QUOTE is the prefix constant appearing after the terminal, although either BI-QUOTES or PINCH may occur in the initial (embedded) prefix.  It is interesting that a similar recursive feature does not appear possible with the terminal (because it may contain only one sign).  Examples follow, with the unusual prefix underlined:




                SINGLE QUOTE // CORN HOLDER.







I will include tree diagrams of some of the compound and complex forms described above in another post.