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.

1 comment:

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