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.

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