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Tag Archives | Indus Valley Civilization

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 Indus Silk

Even though China formally started exporting it only after 119 BCE, silk, dated to much earlier period, has been found in Germany, Egypt, Mediterranean, and Central Asia. This silk, it was explained, came through contact with the Chinese. Now there is a new explanation: sericulture was known to other civilizations and a new paper reveals that the Indus people definitely knew about it.

The new evidence which comes from Harappa and Chanhu-daro show silk threads almost a millennium earlier than previously believed; the earliest find for silk in India was a thread found in Nevasa (1500 BCE). Now three silk fragments, which came from wild silk moth species, dated to the mature Harappan period (2600 – 1700 BCE) show that wild silk was used not just in China.

Previously it was believed that silk and the associated technologies — removing gum from silk and collecting silk strands on to a bobbin — were known only to the Chinese, but now we know that the Indus people too knew about it around the same time. The Chinese knew about silk weaving from 1600 BCE and had silk textiles a millennium back; the Indus discoveries are only few fragments used to connect copper-alloy bangles.

So for all the years of Mature Harappan, we have only three strands of silk. Does this mean that silk was not so important there or that it was not preserved well in the region or that the archaeologists were not trained to look for it specifically.? This finding, hopefully, is the beginning of new discoveries which will answer all those questions.

Reference: New Evidence for Silk in the Indus Valley

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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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