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Indus Script Archives - Page 3 of 6 - varnamvarnam | Page 3
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Tag Archives | Indus Script

The sign board at Dholavira

While various techniques are being applied to decipher the Indus script, there is an even more fundamental debate on if the Indus people were literate or not. The average length of a seal is five symbols; the longest single-sided inscription has seventeen signs.

One probable use of Indus seals was in economic activity; the seals found in Lothal had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse and sometimes several seals were used to mark the goods. Thus the seals meant something to the sender and receiver though we are not quite sure what. But did those seals have meaning only to the trading community? The sign board at Dholavira says no.

This signboard — accidently discovered and painstakingly excavated — is large. The board is 3m long and each of the ten signs is “35 cm to 37 cm tall and 25 cm to 27 cm broad.” The width of the board to the specific length was intentional: it fit the northern gate of the citadel. The signs were made of baked gypsum so that it could be seen from the distance.

Since this board was placed in a public place, big enough to be seen by people in the middle and lower town, it is sure that it had some meaning. According to R. S. Bisht, who discovered the board in 1991, “The inscription could stand for the name of the city, the king or the ruling family,”

He also adds

Bisht opined that the Harappans were a literate people. The commanding height at which the 10-sign board had been erected showed that it was meant to be read by all people.

Besides, seals with Indus signs were found everywhere in the city – in the citadel, middle town, lower town, annexe, and so on. It meant a large majority of the people knew how to read and write. The Indus script had been found on pottery as well. Even children wrote on potsherds.

Bisht said: “The argument that literacy was confined to a few people is not correct. You find inscriptions on pottery, bangles and even copper tools. This is not graffiti, which is child’s play. The finest things were available even to the lowest sections of society. The same seals, beads and pottery were found everywhere in the castle, bailey, the middle town and the lower town of the settlement at Dholavira, as if the entire population had wealth. [Inscriptions on stone and wood]

See Also: Stone inscription with Indus signs

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Stone inscription with Indus signs


(Indus Signs from a earlier find in Dholavira)

An inscription on stone, with three big Indus signs and possibly a fourth, has been found on the Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat.

The discovery is significant because this is the first time that the Indus script has been found engraved on a natural stone in the Indus Valley. The Indus script has so far been found on seals made of steatite, terracotta tablets, ceramics and so on. Dholavira also enjoys the distinction of yielding a spectacularly large Indus script with 10 big signs on wood. This inscription was three-metre long. [Stone inscription with Indus signs found in Gujarat]

Dholavira, located on the island of Khadir in the Rann of Kutch, is among the top five Harappan cities in terms of size. Previously an inscription with ten large size signs of Indus script was found here. This sign board was hung on a wooden plank in front of a large stadium.

It is usually mentioned that if the Indus script indeed did represent something, it must have been for the elite. The sign board at Dholavira refuted that claim. It has also been mentioned quite often that the Harappans never wrote anything on stone. This discovery refutes that claim too.

This new find — the stone with three or four inscriptions — is not really a new find. It was discovered in 1999 and was even mentioned in the 2007 ASI report. Finally in 2010, someone decided to take a look which makes you wonder how many such Indus script pieces must be lying in the basement of various Government institutions.

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Pictish writing?

Like the ancestors of Indians, the ancestors of Scots also left a sequence of symbols. For example, “One symbol looks like a dog’s head, for example, while others look like horses, trumpets, mirrors, combs, stags, weapons and crosses.” Like the Harappan symbols these ancient Scottish symbols — known as Pictish — has not be deciphered. The questions are the same? Do they even encode a language? If they don’t encode a language what were they trying to convey?

To analyze the script, the researchers applied Shannon entropy “to study the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of each engraving.”

The resulting data was compared with that for numerous written languages, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese texts and written Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish and Old Welsh. While the Pictish Stone engravings did not match any of these, they displayed characteristics of writing based on a spoken language.

Although Lee and his team have not yet deciphered the Pictish language, some of the symbols provide intriguing clues. [New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered]

Now does having order, direction and non-randomness indicate that it is a language? Last year there was a paper which calculated the conditional entropy of the Indus script

The new study compared a well-known compilation of Indus texts with linguistic and nonlinguistic samples. The researchers performed calculations on present-day texts of English; texts of the Sumerian language spoken in Mesopotamia during the time of the Indus civilization; texts in Old Tamil, a Dravidian language originating in southern India that some scholars have hypothesized is related to the Indus script; and ancient Sanskrit, one of the earliest members of the Indo-European language family. In each case the authors calculated the conditional entropy, or randomness, of the symbols’ order.

They then repeated the calculations for samples of symbols that are not spoken languages: one in which the placement of symbols was completely random; another in which the placement of symbols followed a strict hierarchy; DNA sequences from the human genome; bacterial protein sequences; and an artificially created linguistic system, the computer programming language Fortran.

Results showed that the Indus inscriptions fell in the middle of the spoken languages and differed from any of the nonlinguistic systems[Indus Script Encodes Language, Reveals New Study Of Ancient Symbols]

Statistical analysis can only show that the symbols had an order. But can this be assumed to be a spoken language? This methodology has been questioned.

The trouble with this form of argument is that it’s heavily dependent on the particular combination of statistical measure and comparison sets that we choose. And the argument becomes especially unconvincing when there’s an obvious alternative choice of comparison set — generated by a simple random process — that would fall squarely on the side of the line that allegedly identifies “written language”. [Pictish writing?]

It could represent a language or a set of ordered symbols to represent a personal seal or something to mark the goods. Since it was created by humans it probably meant something to the person who created it and the person who saw it. While we know the Indus seals were used in an economic context in some cases, it is not clear what the Pictish seals convey.

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In Pragati:The Indus colony in Mesopotamia

Someone recently asked why sea voyages were prohibited in India. The answer is simple: sea voyages were not prohibited in India. How else do you explain the Indian Ocean Trading system where merchants — Gujarati vaniyas, Tamil and Telugu chettis, Malabar Mappilas, Saraswats, Navayats — traded in ports from Meleka to Aden? The June 2009 issue of Pragati had an article by Manmadhan Ullatil on this trading network.

But the history of sea voyages is much older; around 2000 B.C.E, there was a Meluhhan (identified as people from Indus region) colony in Mesopotamia. There was also a person who could read Meluhhan and Sumerian or Akkadian which could help in deciphering the Indus script. Read all about it in the latest issue of Pragati. The references can be found here.

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The Harappan Volumetric System

One of the functions of ancient scribes was to record economic activity, which would mean keeping count of various trade items; for example, 5 cows, 17 bangles. Hence one of the obvious things to look for in Indus seals are signs which represent numbers.

According to one study based on statistical analysis, “U” is the symbol for 5. The number 6 was written either as “UI” or with six vertical strokes; ten was “UU”. What is interesting is that in Nagari, the sign for 5 is “U” with a tail added to it; “U” in Brahmi denotes pa, the first syllable of panca[1]. The fish symbol, it is proposed, represents a higher number – 10 – and the trident sign, a multiplicative higher number[2].

That was a decade back. Now, based on an analysis of inscriptions on bas-relief tablets, incised tablet texts, and ceramics (pic), there are new proposals.

… indicating that the sign ‘V’ stood for a measure, a long linear stroke equalled 10, two long strokes stood for 20 and a short stroke represented one, according to Bryan Wells, who has been researching the Indus script for more than 20 years.Dr. Wells has proposed that “these sign sequences [sign ‘V’ plus numerals] are various values in the Indus volumetric system. The bas-relief tablets might have been used as ration chits or a form of pseudo-money with the repetitive use of ‘V’ paired with ||, |||, |||| relating to various values in the Indus volumetric system. The larger the ceramic vessel, the more strokes it has. This postulation can be tested by detailed measurements of whole ceramic vessels with clear inscriptions.” [Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

So what is the basic measure here represented by “V” ?

When he measured their volumes, Dr. Wells found that the pot with three long strokes had an estimated volume of 27.30 litres, the vessel with six long strokes 55.56 litres and the one with seven 65.89 litres. Thus, the calculated value of one long stroke was 9.24 or approximately 10 litres.[Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

This means that “V” stands for a specific volume and  one though n long strokes are used to specify the exact values. The most common combinations are VII, VIII and VIIII making it a three tiered system, like the Tall, Grande and Venti at Starbucks. One theory is that this was a measure of grain paid as wages from the granary.

Besides this volumetric system, there is a unit of counting as well. When one long stroke is combined with seven short strokes, it represents 17 (10 + 7) as in 17 bangles. There is a rake sign which is read as 100 and a double rake as 200. Another important point is that, this system is used only in Harappa; bas-relief tablets are common in Harappa than other locations.

Since there are clues that some Indus seals were used in economic activity —  seals found in Lothal warehouse had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse  — this find that the tablets were used as ration chits or pseudo-money is not surprising. It would be interesting if this discovery is a key which can unlock other secrets held in the seals and tablets.

References:

  1. Subhash C. Kak, “A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  2. Subhash C. Kak, “INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.
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