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Tag Archives | Harappa

Indus Script: A Formal Language

This picture shows a Harappan seal with five inscriptions or characters, which have been undeciphered. In fact there are many decipherments, but no scholarly consensus. One of the disputes is at a fundamental level: do these markings belong to a language or were the Harappans illiterate?

Finally, in a breaking news moment, we have an answer.

Now, a team of Indian scientists reports in Friday’s issue of Science journal that the Indus script has a structured sign system showing features of a formal language. Using mathematical and computational tools, researchers show that the script has well-defined signs, which begin and end texts, with strong correlations in the order in which the signs appear.[Scientists inch closer to cracking Indus Valley script – Home – livemint.com]

According to Asko Parpola, an expert on Indus seals

“It’s a useful paper,” said University of Helsinki archaeologist Asko Parpola, an authority on Indus scripts, “but it doesn’t really further our understanding of the script.”

Parpola said the primary obstacle confronting decipherers of fragmentary Indus scripts — the difficulty of testing their hypotheses — remains unchanged. [Artificial Intelligence Cracks 4,000-Year-Old Mystery | Wired Science from Wired.com]


J. Mark Kenoyer, a linguist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says Rao’s paper is worth publishing, but time will tell if the technique sheds light on the nature of Indus script.

“At present they are lumping more than 700 years of writing into one data set,” he says. “I am actually going to be working with them on the revised analysis, and we will see how similar or different it is from the current results.”[Scholars at odds over mysterious Indus script – life – 23 April 2009 – New Scientist]

Additional Reading:

  1. The original paper: Statistical analysis of the Indus script using n-grams
  2. Indus script encodes language, reveals new study of ancient symbols
  3. Artificial Intelligence Cracks 4,000-Year-Old Mystery
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The Peaceful Indus People

In chapter 1 of the companion book of the PBS series The Story of India, which talked about bird songs and mantras, Michael Wood writes about Indus Valley. Excavations in the Indus Valley have, so far, not answered this question: how was the city administered? For 700 years, who managed trade or planned the cities? Who established the script, the standard weights and pottery.? We don’t know.

Besides these usual items, Wood brings up something which is rarely given prominence: Unlike Egypt or Mesopotamia, there is no evidence of war in the Indus.

But, the Indus cities had fortified walls. Archaeologists have found arrowheads, and spearheads, besides a small number of daggers and axes. Sir Mortimer Wheeler believed that the tools could have been used for hunting and not warfare. The walls, it is believed, were built to protect the city against flood or to impress. There is no evidence of swords or body armor or military equipment like swords or catapults. Even the Indus art does not depict warfare or killing. Probably the residents were concerned with defense and had no experience in warfare.

All this caused Mark Kenoyer to say it is possible that the Indus civilization, which evolved over a period of 4000 years from the local cultures of Mehrgarh, managed to resolve conflict without warfare. If so, this would be a unique example of living among the bronze age civilizations – an early example of ahimsa.

Why didn’t the Indus cities fight among themselves? One explanation is that they did a good job in the distribution of resources. The distribution was uneven, but most households had more than adequate supply of food hence mitigating the need to become a communist.

Still this claim of “peaceful” Indus is a bit over the top. Kenoyer himself is skeptic suggesting that battles could have been recorded on perishable material, like painted cloth or clay.


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Valuable Discoveries

(The Unicorn Seal)

The Smithsonian Magazine article about Gobekli Tepe, one of the oldest man-made place of worship yet discovered had the following anecdote.

Gobekli Tepe was first examined–and dismissed–by University of Chicago and Istanbul University anthropologists in the 1960s. As part of a sweeping survey of the region, they visited the hill, saw some broken slabs of limestone and assumed the mound was nothing more than an abandoned medieval cemetery. In 1994, Schmidt was working on his own survey of prehistoric sites in the region. After reading a brief mention of the stone-littered hilltop in the University of Chicago researchers’ report, he decided to go there himself. From the moment he first saw it, he knew the place was extraordinary.[Gobekli Tepe: The World’s First Temple? | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine]

The July 2008 edition of Calliope, a world history magazine for kids, has a similar anecdote about Sir Alexander Cunningham. This British archaeologist, who was the founder of ASI, was digging around in Harappa in 1853 and 1856 and found the unicorn seal. He did not make much of the seal and before he died in 1893, thought that his work was a failure.

On the contrary, this proved to be one of the most valuable archaeological discoveries ever made in India. Till then it was believed that the oldest cities in India dated to 700 BCE, but later work in Harappa pushed the antiquity of Indian civilization much farther in time and now we know that the Indus civilization peaked around 2500 BCE.

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First Harappan burrial site in UP

“An ancient riddle will be solved and historical chronology will change.â??â??

Few months back we reported on a Harappan burrial site in Baghpat, in Uttar Pradesh. There was a mummified body wearing copper bracelets and the site had pottery and other artefacts dating back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Here is another report with some more details.

â??â??It is the first Harappan burial site to be found in Uttar Pradesh,â??â?? says Sharma. Previously Harappan cemetries have been unearthed at Kalibanga and Lothal. Says Upinder Singh, reader in the department of history at St Stephenâ??s College, Delhi: â??â??This is just the tip of the iceberg. Thereâ??s so much new evidence coming in that archaeologists may have to re-think on many counts.â??â??

The burial ground could shed new light on the funeral practices of the Harappans. â??â??It could also point to a larger habitation. Also the pots found here are all unpainted. These should be co-related to the pots found in other burial sites. That exercise is yet to be done,â??â?? says Singh.

At Sinauli, the skeletons lie with their arms crossed and feet close to each other, head facing north-west. The burial site has many layers. â??â??In archaelogical terms it means it was in constant use,â??â?? says Sharma. Evidences of the Harappan civilisation have earlier been found in UP in Saharanpur and Alamgirpur but Sinauliâ??s haul is much richer.

Sinauli has also marked another first. Says Sharma: â??â??There is a copper hoard culture that is presumed to be late Harappan or said to follow it. But no one is sure of its authorship. Now two antenna swords belonging to this culture have been found next to a corpse. This could mean that the copper hoard was a contemporary or belonged to the mature Harappan period. An ancient riddle will be solved and historical chronology will change.â??â??

â??â??What is also interesting is that the soil found here shows that this site was on the banks of the Yamuna. The river now flows 8 km away,â??â?? says Sharma. It will take a while to tie up all these threads blown astray by time. At present, a team from Kolkataâ??s Anthropological Survey of India is conducting DNA and other tests on the ancient bodies.[UP village offers a fresh clue to solve a Harappan puzzle]

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