Friday, March 9, 2012

A Comparison of Kudurru Symbols and Indus Signs

A kudurru from the prehistoric period (Seidl 1989: 21, fig. 1, no. 5).
Note the sun, moon, and star in the top row on left, the snake in row 4.

In Science magazine, R.P.N. Rao and colleagues published a study of the conditional entropy in the Indus script (Rao et al 2009: 1165).  That is, they examine the likelihood that a given sign will be followed by any other given sign.  They also compare the conditional entropy of the Indus script with that of various linguistic and non-linguistic systems.

In this article, the authors state that symbols of deities found on kudurru – or Mesopotamian boundary stones – follow a rigid sequence that reflects the hierarchy of the deities.  In contrast, they say, Indus signs exhibit some regularity of sequencing but also evince flexibility similar to that of linguistic symbols.  In part, they conclude that this is evidence that the Indus script encodes a language. 

Their graphs show the Indus script to have a conditional entropy similar to that of known languages (Sumerian, Old Tamil, Sanskrit, and English).  But a major criticism of the study is that some of the non-linguistic data are inaccurate.  Specifically, the authors did not actually sample data on symbols of Mesopotamian gods from real boundary stones.  Relying on the “fact” that kudurru symbols are rigidly sequenced, they created an artificial data set reflecting this “fact” (based on a statement from Black and Green 1992).
Another kudurru from the prehistoric period (Seidl 1989: 23, fig. 2, no. 9).
Note star, moon, sun sequence at the top, the snake at the bottom.

But the real fact is that sequences of kudurru symbols are not as rigid as presented in the article.  This post examines the types of sequences that do occur on real kudurru, based on descriptions and illustrations of these stones (Seidl 1989).  According to Rao et al, such a reanalysis of the non-linguistic symbols on kudurru should not alter the conclusions of their study because this data set served only as a control (Rao et al 2010).  Let us see whether that is, in fact, the case.

Seidl lists 110 specific kudurru, providing either a drawing, a photo, or a description of the vast majority (1989: 19-63).  She examines 66 symbolic representations (anthropomorphic and zoomorphic symbols, depictions of objects, and scenes) through 10 time periods from the prehistoric to the Achaemenid era.  The symbols fall into various categories: astral objects (sun, moon, stars, lightning), man-made objects, plants, animals, objects bearing the head and sometimes the forelimbs of an animal (objects with protomes), hybrid beings that are composites of various animals or partly human, anthropomorphs, unidentifiable objects, and scenes.

Of the 66 representations, 21 occur in nearly periods.  This core of very frequent symbols includes the following: crescent moon (moon god Sin), sun disk (sun god Shamash), single star (Venus as the goddess Ishtar), lightning fork (thunder god Adad, Marduk, or Buriaš), spade (Marduk in another role or Šulpa’e), lamp (Nusku, god of fire and light), pedestal or base (usually with another symbol on top), horned crowns (high/sky gods Anu, Enlil, and sometimes Aššur), stylus (Nabu, the scribe god), dog (Gula, goddess of healing), striding bird (Papsukkal, a messenger or vizier among gods), snake (Nirah and/or Ištaran, formerly known as Sataran), scorpion (the goddess Išhara in the Kassite period), turtle (Ea, the water god), lion-headed staff (Nergal, god of war, or Meslamta’ea, whose function seems to be guarding doors), staff with double lion heads (Nergal, same as the previous, or else the obscure Šar-ur), eagle-headed staff (among the Kassites, Zababa, again a war god, but Šar-gaz otherwise), ram-headed staff (Ea again), snake-dragon (Marduk or Nabu), goat-fish (Ea yet again), and an item resembling the Greek letter omega (Ω) (mother goddess). 
A kudurru from the early historic period (Seidl 1989: 27, fig. 3, no. 26).
Note there are no visible astral symbols and no snake here.

Some symbols are quite rare, appearing only in a single period.  Such “singletons” include a shrine, boat, plow, dagger, twig or branch, cat, equid (horse or donkey), horse head, waterbird, woman with bird legs, scorpion-man, winged bull, cross, standard, and a scene of divinities in procession.  Other symbols may occur in only a few periods or in several, their frequency often peaking in one period while they appear only occasionally or not at all during other periods.

There is a certain amount of regularity in the positions in which the symbols occur.  Astral symbols generally appear at the top of a kudurru, although this varies somewhat.  On several of the later kudurru, the astral symbols decorate the top edge, while the same symbols appear over the other symbols elsewhere, on the same side of the stone.  Among these, the crescent moon, sun disk, and star are the most frequent.  The lightning fork may occur with the other astral symbols but it may also stand on a pedestal or base, lower down and among other symbols on bases.  The last of the astral symbols, a grouping of seven small stars probably representing the Pleiades, only characterizes a few kudurru of the two latest periods.  Seidl considers the position of the astral symbols to be due to their character, not the rank of the deities symbolized.  That is, the sky is above and the earth below, so astral symbols stand above items and beings that are earth-bound.
A kudurru from the Mesilim period (Seidl 1989: 31, fig. 4, no. 40).
Notice the snake coiled on top, with astral symbols by its head, the
moon here combined with the star (?), the sun beneath.

Man-made objects most often stand on bases, but this is not a hard and fast rule.  The lamp, for example, often seems to float in mid-air over another symbol.  During some early periods, objects seem to rise out of the back of one of the hybrid animals.  And at times a hybrid bears a pedestal on its back, with an object perched on the pedestal. 

One particularly frequent object, the horned crown – which does not appear during the first, prehistoric period – is usually duplicated, but in a few cases there are three of these side by side.  As these crowns represent high gods, they often occur immediately below the astral symbols, reflecting the divine hierarchy.  Immediately after the crowns on their bases there is often a symbol for the water god, Ea.  This may be a goat-fish (the ancestor of Capricorn), a turtle, a ram-headed staff, or a combination of two of these (sometimes including a pedestal, sometimes not).  The “omega” sometimes appears among the symbols of high-ranking gods, probably representing the mother goddess Nintu (Black and Green) or Ninhursag/Ninmah (Seidl).  Generally speaking, the sequence of other symbols appears to be less standardized.
A kudurru from the Ur I period (Seidl 1989: 39, fig. 8, no. 62).
Note the moon, sun, and star at the top and snake at the bottom.

A snake is very commonly depicted, for example, but its position is not codified.  There may be a snake coiled on the top of the kudurru, one crawling up one or the other side, or the body of the snake may underlie a whole row of symbols, sometimes with the snake’s head rising up to stand among the ther other symbols.

To better demonstrate the variability, I present images of several kudurru (my artwork based on drawings or photos in Seidl 1989).  The first comes from the earliest period when kudurru were made, the prehistoric period (1989: 21, fig. 1, no. 5).  The top row on one side bears the astral symbols (an apparent four-pointed star representing the sun, the crescent moon in its typical lazy position, and a five-pointed star for Venus).  The second row or register includes a reclining animal or hybrid, a seated dog, and a bird.  The third row has a hybrid, part man and part animal, standing upright on the far left.  Next to him seems to be the spade followed by the stylus, though it is hard to be sure of these.  The “U” shape with rumpled sides is a lightning bolt.  Next to it stands an anthropomorphic figure, perhaps a deity.  The fourth row of symbols includes a standing animal (a jackal?), a snake, a scorpion, and the lion-headed staff.  The bottom row bears a double lion-headed scepter, what seem to be two arrows or knives, two birds – one stacked upon the other – and a cross.  There are also a few symbols on an adjacent side, over the text of the inscription.  These include an unidentified animal, a peculiar symbol that Seidl terms a bundle, and a turtle, beneath which there are three birds, one on a staff.
A kudurru from the Ur III period (Seidl 1989: 47, fig. 13, no. 79).
The moon, sun, and star are more or less beside the snake here.

The second illustration is clearer, showing a disorderly grouping of symbols that are not lined up in neat rows.  Symbols include a six-pointed star (Venus), the crescent moon, and the sun disk on the upper right.  Beneath these are a lamp, turtle, and scorpion.  And below these there is a ram-headed staff, a spade, a bird on a staff or perch, a seated dog, a possible jackel over a crouching ram.  A snake holds its head up before the ram, the snake’s body lying beneath the ram and partly below the dog.  In front of the snake is a bird with the lightning bolt above it as well as a lion-headed staff.  Note that several symbols from the first example are not included in the second.  There is no standing hybrid, no anthropomorph, no double lion-headed scepter, and no arrows or knives.  Also note that the sequence of astral symbols at the top differs, although the moon is in the center in both cases.

The next kudurru comes from the second period, the early historic period (Seidl 1989: 27, fig. 3, no. 26).  Here, there seem to be no astral symbols, but much of the top of this stone has broken away.  So the sun and moon may once have adorned this kudurru as well.  What is visible is a lightning bolt in the center with a lamp to its right.  Below, there is a standing anthropomorph with one foot upon a winged snake-dragon (one of the most common hybrids).  There may be a bundle on the lower right, partly broken away.  Thus, many symbols appear to be missing, but due to the condition of the stone, it is not clear which ones never were present and which have been obliterated by time.

From the following Mesilim period comes the next example (1989: 31, fig. 4, no. 40).  The snake that was so small in the first example (fourth row) and stretched beneath some symbols on the second is here coiled on top with its head extending down among the symbols.  The text indicates that the snake is wound around a cow or bull.  Next to the snake’s head are the astral symbols, the moon taking up the lower part of a circle containing a seven-pointed star, with an eight-pointed star below.  To the left of these are two horned crowns on pedestals, representing the high gods Anu and Enlil (or Ellil).  To the left of these is the goatfish before a base with a ram protome on top, together symbolizing the god Ea.  To the left again is the “omega” on a base, representing a goddess, perhaps Nintu or Ninhursag.  Beside this is a hybrid being called snake dragon before a base with a spade on it (Marduk) followed by another such dragon before a base bearing a rectangle.  The next base has no creature associated with it and holds a triangular object adorned with dotted circles.  There follow a winged lion dragon, a lion-headed staff, a bird looking backward, an eagle-headed staff, and another winged lion-dragon, this one with apparent horns.  A second lion-headed staff is partly covered by the head of the snake.  Several symbols make their appearance here that did not occur on the previous examples: the horned crowns, the goatfish, and the “omega” are very common from this period forward.
A fragmentary kudurru from the Neo-Babylonian-Assyrian period
(Seidl 1989: 56, fig. 19, no. 97).  The sun and star are visible
on the right, with a possible fragment of the moon further right. 
The snake is possibly on the left, itstail or nose appearing alongside a break.

The next example is from the fourth or Ur I period (1989: 39, fig. 8, no. 62).  Like the first kudurru shown here, it is characterized by rows or registers of symbols, though not all are neatly linear.  Above the first row are the astral symbols, this time in the sequence moon, sun, star.  A lamp appears to the right of them despite the fact that this is not an astral symbol.  Beneath are the eagle- and lion-staffs, the seated dog, and a scorpion that floats above the baseline.  To the right of this are probably an “omega” on a base with a bird above it, though these are nearly worn away, making identification somewhat uncertain.  The second row includes a bird on a perch, a calf with the lightning bolt rising from its back, a snake dragon with a spade rising from its back, and another dragon, very small this time, with a stylus rising from it.  The last hybrid is in front of a large stepped pyramid.  The bottom row depicts the snake, whose body underlies the other symbols – this serpent sporting horns.  A goatfish with a ram-staff rising from it lies over the snake and a winged lion-dragon strides upon the serpent as well.  It is significant for our purposes to note that the snake is at the bottom rather than the top and that the goat-fish does not immediately follow any horned crowns (which are not present at all).

Skipping the poorly attested fifth period, we move on to an example from the sixth, the Ur III or Isin period (1989: 47, fig. 13, no. 79).  Some kudurru from this period have symbols neatly arranged in rows or registers, but this one does not.  The snake’s head is on top, but the creature is not coiled.  Instead, its body stretched up the side of the stone.  Beneath the snake’s head and part of its body are the three astral symbols (moon, sun, star), with two horned crowns on bases beneath them.  To the right of the crowns is a turtle over a base, representing Ea who appeared as a goat-fish elsewhere.  Further to the right is a scepter and a bird.  To the left of the horned crowns is the lightning bolt, a bird on a perch, and an arrow (moving from right to left).  These are followed by a seated dog and an “omega” without a base.  There are two horned snake-dragons – or rather the protomes of such dragons – next to bases bearing the stylus and spade.  A double lion-headed scepter floats above the second hybrid, a scorpion above the first.
A kudurru from the Neo-Babylonian-Assyrian period (Seidl 1989: 58,
fig. 21, no. 100).  The star, sun, and moon appear here on the top of
the stone.  There is no snake on this boundary stone.

Ignoring the Old and Middle Babylonian-Assyrian periods for the moment, we come to the ninth Neo-Babylonian-Assyrian period (1989: 56, fig. 19, no. 97).  This example is broken into several pieces, with some parts entirely missing.  Only two astral symbols are visible, the star to the left of the sun.  The moon may once have been further to the right but is gone now.  What is most interesting is the appearance of two very small stars to the left of the scorpion.  These small orbs are probably part of an original group of seven, representing the Pleiades (a rare symbol).  Beneath these are an eagle-staff, a scepter, a lion-staff, and two horned crowns on bases.  There may have been a stylus on a base to the right, now mostly broken away.

A more complete example from the ninth period has symbols on the top edge and down one side (1989: 58, fig. 21, no. 100).  The top bears the three astral symbols: star, sun, moon.  The lightning bolt is also there, standing on a pedestal, as well as the seated dog.  Down the side are a spade on a base, the double lion-headed staff on a base, and a lion-staff on a base.  The other side also has a single symbol, the stylus on a base.  Notice that the high gods, Anu and Enlil, are missing completely as there are no horned crowns.  Ea is also missing as there is neither a goat-fish nor a turtle.  And while the lion-staff is present, its usual companion, the eagle-staff, is missing.
The side of the same kudurru as shown above (Seidl 1989: 58, fig. 21, no. 100).

The last example shown here comes from the tenth and last period, the Late Babylonian / Achaemenid period (1989: 60, fig. 22, no. 103).  The snake lies across the top of this stone with the astral symbols beside its tail: moon, sun, star, and Pleiades (all seven stars present this time).  The scorpion is next followed by the lamp and the bird.  Beneath these are two horned snake-dragon protomes before bases, the first bearing a spade, the second a stylus.  The “omega” floats above the second hybrid’s head.  There follows the goat-fish – protome only – before a base that holds the ram-staff, both symbols of Ea.  After these hybrids there are lion- and eagle-staffs and the two horned crowns on bases.  The head of the snake on the top of the stone hangs down onto one edge, over a lightning bolt.  Beside this there is a scepter.  There are also symbols on the back of this kudurru, including the seated dog, three standards with ribbons hanging down, and three anthropomorphic figures.  The first of these apparent human holds a bow and is accompanied by a reclining snake-dragon with wings.  The second holds her (?) hands out before her and has no accompanying creature.  The third holds a ring and has a reclining lion at his (her?) feet.

A kudurru from the Late Babylonian-Achaemenid period (Seidl 1989: fig. 22, no. 103).
On the top of the stone are the astral symbols, moon, sun, and star, as well as the snake.

Thus, it is clear that the number of symbols varies from kudurru to kudurru.  Some are quite common, appearing on stones from the early to the late periods, while others appear at some point and then disappear.  The particular symbols even vary when a single god is represented.  For example, Ea may be included in the form of a turtle, a goat-fish, a ram-staff, or some combination of these – with or without a pedestal or base.  Where the horned crowns appear, they stand side by side.  But there seems to be no hard and fast rule about what stands next to them.  It is sometimes a representation of Ea (1989: 50, fig. 16, no. 84 as the ram-staff on base; p. 47, fig.13, no. 79 as the turtle); sometimes the paired eagle- and lion-staffs (1989: 60, fig. 22, no. 103); and elsewhere something different (p. 46, fig. 12, no. 75 right beside the three astral symbols).  The astral symbols tend to occur above the other symbols, but there is no fixed order within this set.  The moon may be on the left (fig. 13, no. 79), in the middle (fig. 2, no. 9), or on the right (mostlikely fig. 19, no. 97).  The eagle- and lion-headed staffs tend to occur together, but this is not an invariable rule either.  On kudurru no. 97 (in Seidl’s list), we see eagle-staff, scepter, lion-staff; on no. 98 the sequence is lion-staff, eagle-staff, scepter.

If we describe these regularities in the same terms as are used for the Indus script, we might say that there are "prefixes" here (the astral symbols).  But there seem to be no "terminals" since the end of the symbol groupings is less standardized than the beginning.  There may be some "sign pairs" such as the eagle- and lion-staffs, but these symbols also occur alone.  Some symbols may be doubled, especially the horned crowns, which recalls the doubling of certain Indus signs (such as the DOUBLE BLANKETS).  We might even describe the appearance of symbols on pedestals or bases as a kind of "ligature" -- this type of variation sometimes appearing and sometimes not.  Like signs in a true script, the kudurru symbols sometimes line up very neatly, as well, a feature that often impresses people as indicating writing.  These symbols are quite definitely not signs in a form of writing, though, and the fact that they often appear in non-linear arrangements is not surprising in view of this.  I do not think there is enough material here to repeat the statistical test that Rao et al used.  And I lack the competence to do it in any case.  But it is clear, at least, that kudurru symbols do not provide an example of rigidly sequencing of nonlinguistic elements.


Black, J. and A. Green. 1992. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin: University of Texas.

Rao, R.P.N., N. Yadav, M.N. Vahia, H. Joglekar, R. Adhikari, I. Mahadevan. 2009. “Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script,” in Science (324) 5931: 1165 (doi: 10.1126/science.1170391).

_____. 2010. “Probabilistic analysis of an ancient undeciphered script” in IEEE Computer online at and
Seidl, U. 1989. Die Babylonischen Kudurru-Reliefs: Symbols Mesopotamischer Gottheiten. Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Freiburg Schweiz, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (reprint, orig. 1969).


  1. Wandering through the web looking for help, I stumbled upon your page, which I find very interesting and expert, so maybe you can and want to help me with a translation that I have ventured, not with much conviction. Could you take a look?, Is at the bottom, in this page:
    . It is about the statuette of Lugaldala ....


    Please find my two papers below and circulate amongst the skeptics, particularly!

    To state the obvious, the Indus script was a logo-syllabic script and a lost corpus did exist.

    Published in the ICFAI journal of history and culture, January 2011

    Published in International journal of philosophy and journal sciences , November 2012

    I am also introducing logo-syllabic thesis B in this paper

    The paper is very self-explanatory! does anybody still beg to differ?

    Sujay Rao Mandavilli

  3. i am pleased to announce the publication of my fifth research paper in a peer-reviewed journal

    this deals with the origin of Brahmi . this is a logical and self-explanatory paper and is written using a multi-disciplinary approach. it is written in such a way that anybody can cross-verify the conclusions.

    sujay rao mandavilli