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Tag Archives | Before 1 CE

Lost Language Decipherment using Computers

The headline reads Software that automatically deciphers ancient language developed. The language thus deciphered was Ugaritic – used in Syria from the 14th through the 12th century BCE.  To find out if such a technique can be used to decipher the Indus script, we need to understand how Ugaritic was deciphered.

The language itself was deciphered manually decades earlier. What helped the manual decipherment was the fact that Ugaritic is similar to Hebrew and Aramaic. The first two Ugaritic letters were decoded by mapping them to Hebrew letters and then based on this information few other words were also deciphered. Then one word inscribed on an axe was guessed to be “axe”, which turned out to be a lucky guess.

There were two inputs to the computer program: corpus of the lost language and the lexicon of the related language. The output was the mapping between the alphabets of the known language and Ugaritic and also the traslation between Ugaritic and cognates in the known language. The program was able to map 29 of the 30 letters accurately. It also deduced the cognates in Hebrew for about 60% of the words.

But when it comes to the Indus script, both the script and language are unknown; there is no second input to the program. Still that has not prevented researchers from applying various techniques to gain insight into what the script represents. In the 60s the Soviets and Finns used mathematical models find order in the symbols. Taking this further, Subhash Kak did a mathematical analysis of the Indus script and the oldest Indian script – Brahmi. When a table containing the ten most commonly occurring Sanskrit phonemes (from ten thousand words), was compared to the ten most commonly occurring Indus symbols and there was a convincing similarity, even though Brahmi was a millennium after the Indus script. Surprisingly some of the characters, like the fish, looked similar too.

But that’s it. The current research is not in comparing Indus script with a known language, but in finding if the Indus script even encodes a language or not.


  1. Benjamin Snyder, Regina Barzilay, and Kevin Knight, A statistical model for lost language decipherment, in Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics(Uppsala, Sweden: Association for Computational Linguistics, 2010), 1048-1057
  2. Subhash C. Kak, A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT – PB – Taylor & Francis, Cryptologia12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  3. Subhash C. Kak, INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS – PB – Taylor & Francis, Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.
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2000 Year Old Shiva Temple

Last year at a place called Sanchakot in Uttar Pradesh, archaeologists found evidence of a temple complex consisting of five temples. Four temples were dated between 1st – 3rd century CE, but one temple built for worshipping Lord Shiva dated to an older period: either late Maurya or early Sunga period. Till now it was believed that temples were constructed in India during the Gupta period, but this evidence changed that.

Now just five kilometers away we have discovery of another temple from the same period.

Interestingly, the site is called ‘twin temple’ because an octagonal temple structure was found to be superimposing an older apsidal temple. “It may be assumed that there was an older temple which was renovated by the rulers who succeeded the Sunga rulers,” said Prof Tewari. 

What makes the discovery of this temple more interesting is the fact that it housed a mysterious deity. “We are sure that the site was a Hindu temple… there is a proper entrance, portico, ardha mandap, mandap, transepts and a garbha griha…but we cannot claim which deity the temple housed,” said Sandeep, a team member. In fact the team prefers to stay silent on the issue till they get a concrete evidence.[Temples are older than you think (via IndiaArchaeology)]

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Dr. Allchin and Sarasvati Research

In the 31st Indian History Carnival, we featured a post by Nicole Bovin on Dr. Raymond Allchin, the South Asian archaeologist who passed away on June 4th. The European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Art too had a brief note about his work.

Raymond Allchin was born in Harrow in 1923 and educated at Westminster, but his lifetime commitment to South Asia came when he was posted there during the War in 1944. Quickly switching interests from architecture to archaeology, Raymond was appointed a Lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1954 before moving to Cambridge in 1959. Following a career of fieldwork and research across India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, he retired from Cambridge University with the title of Emeritus Reader in South Asian Archaeology in 1989. Now freed from University burdens, Raymond committed the next twenty years to developing the research profile of The Ancient India and Iran Trust.[In memoriam Raymond Allchin]

Dr. Allchin was an expert on the Indus Valley civilization. “Cultural convergence” — that is the name he proposed for the process by which various regional cultures like Amri-Nal, Kot-Diji, and Sothi-Siswal converged for the Mature Harappan phase. Dr. Allchin also connected Harappan motifs with Vedic themes. For example, looking at a seal from Chanhu-daro he connected it with the Vedic theme of union of heaven and earth. When Dholavira was discovered in J.P.Joshi in 1966 he thought it was one of the most exciting discoveries of the past half a century. On the fire altars found at Kalibangan, he noted that fire rituals formed a part of the religious life at a civic, domestic and popular level.

One of the questions that still remain unanswered about the Indus civilization is this: How was it administered.? We don’t know who controlled the urban centers or how such a vast territory — bigger than ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt — was controlled. Even though he acknowledged that there was no trace of royalty like in other ancient societies, Raymond Allchin thought that there was a forgotten Indian leader who unified the Indus heartland and controlled trade with Mesopotamia.

He had accepted the Ghaggar-Hakra as Sarasvati. This was not unusual for Sarasvati was not such a controversial topic then. Ever since the French scholar Vivien de Saint-Martin identified the Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda and other small tributaries as part of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati, scholars like Max Müller, Sir Monier Monier-Williams, A. A. Macdonnel, A.B. Keith, Louis Renou, Thomas Burrow A. L. Basham along with Indian scholars like M. L. Bhargawa, B.C.Law, H.C. Raychaudhuri, A.D. Pusalker and D.C. Sirkar had all agreed on this point.

In the entry he wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica he mentioned that hundreds of Indus sites were found on the banks of the ancient Sarasvati river which flowed east of the Indus. He also wrote how moved he was standing on a mound in Kalibangan looking at the flood plain of Sarasvati. Dr. Allchin also believed that there was a reduction of sites between 2000 – 1700 BCE after a major part of the river’s water supply was lost.

But doesn’t this mean that the Vedic people, who composed the Rig Veda, while Sarasvati was a majestic river co-existed with the Harappans? Dr. Allchin was not ready to make that leap. In the same book where he mentioned that Sarasvati lost a major part of the water supply between 2000 – 1700 BCE, he contradicted himself and wrote that Sarasvati was a major river between 1500 and 1000 BCE. By this trick, Sarasvati remains a mighty river when the Aryans came in 1500 BCE.

This is not surprising too. Only few scholars like B.B.Lal, S.P. Gupta, V.N. Mishra and Dilip Chakrabarti have argued that the Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period.


  1. Michel Danino, Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010)
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Dead Sea Scrolls and Proton Beams

Given a particle accelerator and the Dead Sea Scrolls, what would you do? If you are from Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Italy, you would send proton beams of 1.3 MeV into one square centimeter pieces of the scroll to find out if they were created elsewhere and bought to Qumran.

At the LANDIS laboratory (one of the INFN laboratories in Catania), non-destructive analyses were performed to obtain results on the origin of the scrolls. To produce a scroll, which was the writing material used at the time, a great quantity of water is needed. By analysing water samples taken in the area where the scrolls were found, the presence of certain chemical elements was established, and the ratio of their concentrations was determined.

According to this analysis, the ratio of chlorine to bromine in the scroll is consistent with the ratio in local water sources. In other words, this finding supports the hypothesis that the scroll was created in the area in which it was found. The next step in the research will be to analyse the ink used to write the scrolls.[Protons for studying the Dead Sea Scrolls]

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The Gandharans in Thermopylae and Plataea

In August or September of 480 BCE, the 38 year old Xerxes, the Zoroastrian king of the Achaemenid Empire, set off to wage a war against the Greeks.There were two famous battles, The Battle of Thermopylae — immortalized by movies like 300 and novels like Gates of Fire — and The Battle of Plataea where the Greeks took revenge. Less known is the fact that people from the Indian subcontinent participated in both the battles.

Cyrus (576 – 530 BCE) expanded the Achaemenid Empire from Egypt to the Indus. The region called Paropamisadae (Hindu-Kush, Kabul, Bagram) was under Achaemenid control since the time of Darius I (522 – 486 BCE). The Persians called this region India. Darius built a palace in Susa in Elam and according to a text he got sisoo-timber and ivory from Gandhara. Also the ivory came from India. 

The 20th satrapy was India and it paid the largest tribute — 360 talents of gold dust — even more than Babylon. The primary source regarding Indians of this era is Herodotus; according to Herodotus, the Indians spoke many languages and some of them were nomads. Also some Indians were cannibals, had black semen and had gold-digging ants. So the “first” historian’s statements have to be taken with a pinch of sodium chloride. This 20th satrapy was located at the junction of a road network connecting Central Asia, West Asia and Kashmir. While invaders, art, and languages came into India via this route, Indian soldiers also went West as mercenaries.

In 490 BCE, Darius I tried to subdue Greece in the Battle of Marathon, but was routed. Following Darius’ death in 486 BCE, his son Xerxes decided to take revenge. The line of defence was the pass of Thermopylae. Sparta sent only a token elite force under the leadership of one of its two kings – Leonidas. Their allies too stayed back, citing various reasons. It was like the scene in India when Alexander arrived around 200 years later.

According to Herodotus, 1,700,000 Persian troops and 1200 warships arrived for the war against the Greek Coalition of the Willing. The Indians wore clothes made of cotton and carried reed bows and arrows of reed with iron heads. They were under the command of Pharnazathres who was the son of Artabates. There were Indian cavalrymen as well as those who rode horses and chariots pulled by horses and asses. 

Following the famous Spartan defeat at Thermopylae, there were naval battles at Artemisium and Salamis which was followed by the decisive Battle of Plataea. In this battle, the Spartans were not alone: Athens, Corinth, and Megara joined the alliance of states. Herodotus mentions that around 110,000 Persian troops from various countries were deployed near the Asopus River. There is a brief mention of where the Indians stood relative to the other troops and nothing more.

In this battle fought near Thebes, the Persian infantry was defeated and expelled from the Greece. The leading Persian commander Mardonius was killed. We mostly read the Western interpretation of these wars. For these historians, the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans were killed, represents patriotism while the Battle of Plataea shows how a defeated force can come together and rout a superpower. Unfortunately we don’t have any Indian accounts of these battles.


  1. Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Vintage, 2007). 
  2. Robert B. Strassler,The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories Reprint. (Anchor, 2009). 
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