Saturday, March 3, 2012

Complex Signs in Proto-Elamite and Indus Script

Handmade replica of a proto-Elamite tablet.  Repeated symbols are numerical.
The third from the bottom on the left shows a symbol between "less than" and
"greater than" signs, a form of ligature also found in the Indus script (A + B + A).

I recently reread J.L. Dahl’s article on complex graphemes (or signs) in proto-Elamite and noted how often this author’s remarks also apply to the Indus script.  For example, he begins by noting that, although proto-Elamite was clearly inspired by proto-cuneiform, the Iranian system “exhibits a high degree of independent development of both sign repertoire and text structure” (2005: 1).  Similarly, the Indus script arose around the time that contact between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia is documented in cuneiform, so it is quite reasonable to suggest that cuneiform (and perhaps Linear Elamite from Iran) influenced the development of the Indus script (see dates in Parpola 1994: 18).  However, even if the idea for the Indus script came from outside – from Iraq or Iran – the forms of the signs and the patterns of their use differ, indicating that same “high degree of independent development” cited by Dahl for proto-Elamite.

Dahl divides the complex signs of proto-Elamite into two basic types, with further subdivisions.  The first category is formed by the placement of a numeral in, on, or next to a non-numerical sign.  He terms these Complex Capacity Signs (CCS).  While we cannot tell whether Indus signs represent symbols for capacity, there are signs resembling CCS’s in this script.  For example, the POT acts as a terminal marker when there is nothing inside it.  But when an almost identical sign contains an apparent numeral (one to four “quotes”), the result is a ligature that behaves quite differently.  POTTED ONE, POTTED TWO, and so on are medial signs, not terminals.  Similarly, the CUP sometimes contains an apparent numeral, so there is a CUPPED TWO and a CUPPED THREE (KP signs 311 and 312). 
Seal H-76 with inscription, using a proto-Elamite transcription method, as described in this post:
(Note that the addition of a "quote" inside the "pot" changes the sign's position from terminal to medial).
In a discussion of the BLANKET sign in a previous post, I noted the hypothesis of W. Fairservis that the differing numbers of “ticks” inside the rectangle might have significance (1992: 100-101).  There are BLANKETS with 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 short strokes (“ticks”) attached to the inner top and bottom.  In addition, sometimes those with 4 such strokes also have additional strokes in the center, usually two (“dashes”).  Occasionally, the sign contains “ticks,” “dashes,” and an additional “C” shaped mark attached to one side.  Fairservis thinks it possible these represent various weights.  However, he consider it unlikely that the CUP and POT containing “numerals” represent quantities (1992: 87). Without claiming to know the purpose of such “numerical” inclusions, I merely point out the existence of Indus ligatures containing both “numerical” and “non-numerical” elements.

The second type of complex grapheme in proto-Elamite is that containing two non-numerical symbols, according to Dahl (2005: 1).  These can be subdivided into three groups, the first of which is termed framing (written A + B + A).  The second subtype is formed by placing one symbol inside another (written A x B).  The third is simply the grouping of two symbols in close proximity, one after the other (A + B).  We can symbolize several Indus ligatures in a similar fashion.  The CEE symbol, for example, can appear singly (CEE) or doubled (CEE + CEE).  Additionally, a different sign may stand between two CEES (e.g., CEE + WINGED MAN + CEE).  Since there is also a reversed CEE (BACK CEE), a symbol can also be framed by “parentheses” (CEE + BIRD + BACK CEE).  In some cases, the positions of the “parentheses” seem to be reversed (BACK CEE + SKEWERED CHEVRON + CEE).  Less frequently, one sign appears inside another (MALLET x FOOTED STOOL).  Using the same type of notation, we can rewrite POTTED ONE as POT x SINGLE QUOTE (or, more briefly, as POT x 1Q). 
Detail of seal fragment M-1106 with partial inscription, now transcribed:

Not all types of ligatures can be written with these symbols, when it comes to the Indus script.  In some cases, the choice of one transcription system over another must be purely subjective.  For example, “caging” is a relatively common qualification of an Indus sign.  If we wish to define this as framing, then CAGED MALLET consists of three signs: STACKED 2 + MALLET + STACKED 2.  But if we wish to define this as enclosing one sign in another, then the same sign becomes STACKED 4 x MALLET (because the MALLET is inside STACKED 4).  Where a POST is attached to another element by a slanted line, we might choose to “read” the group from left to right on seals, from right to left on tablets (e.g., KP 31 is MAN + SINGLE POST, or more succintly, MAN + 1P; KP 74 is 1P + PRAWN).  Alternatively, it might be better to ignore the side an attachment is on, instead always writing the name of the dominant element first, followed by the (often smaller) attached portion (MAN + 1P, PRAWN + 1P).

Indus ligatures sometimes add an element above or below the main sign as well, something not demonstrated for proto-Elamite.  We could press the symbol for division into service to represent this relationship, placing the upper element first in the “equation,” followed by the lower element.  Thus, FISH UNDER CHEVRON would become CHEVRON ÷ FISH.  Since this symbol is not on the standard keyboard, this is not convenient, however.  Since the percentage sign resembles the mathematical division sign, I suggest we use it instead: CHEVRON % FISH; TABLE % EX.
Seal L-45 with inscription, now transcribed: BLANKETx8Q / POTx1Q / FISH /

In proto-Elamite, the third type of complex grapheme consists of two signs placed side by side.  The result is not a true ligature, but “it can be established that they form a distinct semantic unit that can be replaced by a CG of the second type” (Dahl 2005: 1).  In other words, a single concept is sometimes written A x B (with B inside A) and sometimes A + B (with B next to A).  This kind of replacement of a sign pair by a ligature cannot be demonstrated for the Indus script.  Thus, it is not a good idea to write the pair with the same “+” sign used in examples of attached elements.  Instead, we can pull the equal sign into use for this.  Thus, the common pair TWO POSTS plus FISH can be rewritten as 2P = FISH.

Another complication introduced by the Indus script is the combination of three elements in a single ligature.  For example, using notation similar to that for proto-Elamite, we can rewrite CIRCLED FORK as CIRCLE x FORK.  But if CAGED CIRCLED FORK is a FORK inside a CIRCLE inside a STACKED 4, how do we write it?  It seems reasonable to simply extend the system, writing the outermost element first and proceeding toward the inside: STACKED FOUR x CIRCLE x FORK (or more succintly 4S x CIRCLE x FORK).  Similarly, CARTWHEEL IN FAT EX IN DIAMOND can be shortened to CARTWHEEL x FAT EX x DIAMOND.  Or the BOXED BI-RAKE WITH EAR can be rewritten as (BOX x BI-RAKE) + EAR, using parentheses to show that the EAR is not attached to the BI-RAKE inside the “box” but to the BOX (the outer symbol containing the BI-RAKE).  When the attachment is inside, the position of the parentheses can show this as well.  Thus, TRI-FORK & VEE IN DIAMOND becomes DIAMOND x (VEE % FORK) – the VEE and FORK touch one another, both being inside the DIAMOND, with the VEE above the FORK (KP 390).  Where the FORK attached on the outside of the DIAMOND and the VEE is inside (KP 392), the transcription differs: (DIAMOND x VEE) + FORK – the FORK is attached to the outside of the DIAMOND, which encloses the VEE.
Detail from seal M-831 with inscription, now transcribed: COMB$MAN / CIRCLEx1Q.

Occasionally, one element is placed right on top of another element, so that the two overlap.  This is sometimes seen in Egyptian hieroglyphs, where a long but short glyph crosses the median of a tall and thin glyph, e.g., D59, where the arm, D36, forms the horizontal portion of a sort of cross shape and the leg, D58, forms the vertical portion.  Often such a ligature is read as if one glyph sat next to the other.  This type of ligature appears in the Indus script in the COMB BELTED MAN, where a horizontal “comb” seems to lie right on top of the MAN’s waist.  To represent this type of combination, I suggest using the dollar sign which itself resembles the letter “S” with a vertical stroke drawn right through it ($).  Thus, the COMB BELTED MAN becomes COMB $ MAN.  The signs I term “skewered” show this type of combination as well: SKEWERED CHEVRON is thus rewritten 1P $ CHEVRON.  This same character framed by inverted parentheses (formerly SKEWERED CHEVRON BETWEEN BACK CEE & CEE) can now be rewritten thus: BACK CEE + (1P $ CHEVRON) + CEE.

In some cases, though, it may be preferable to continue referring to a complex symbol with a simple name.  The BEARER, for example, might be seen as a ligature of MAN with two CIRCLES and possibly the TABLE (as the shoulder yoke).  But BEARER is much briefer and clearer than CIRCLE + (TABLE $ MAN) + CIRCLE.  When doing so shortens some of the clumsier designations, the use of symbols +, x, =, %, $, and parentheses is useful.  When the use of such symbols obscures the unity of a sign or becomes cumbersome, a simple name is preferable.

As a final note, Dahl observes that while proto-Elamite scribes shared a common stock of symbolic elements, the system was not fully standardized, a characteristic that “allowed the scribes who wrote the proto-Elamite tablets to generate signs in an ad hoc manner when needed, usually relying on a set of basic signs” (2005: 7).  This same situation characterized proto-cuneiform as well.  It seems quite likely that it was true of the Indus script, too.  This may be the reason that (1) there are so many rare signs (they were invented on the spot and used only for a short period by a small number of “scribes”) and (2) so many signs are vanishingly rare (the vast majority occur in the Corpus fewer than 100 times).


Dahl, J.L. 2005: “Complex Graphemes in Proto-Elamite” in Cuneiform Digital Library Journal (3): 1-15.

Fairservis, W.A. 1992. The Harappan Civilization and Its Writing: A Model for the Decipherment of the Indus Script. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Parpola, A. 1994 and 2009. Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

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