Undeciphered Bronze Age writing
|Languages||Unknown (see Harappan language)|
The Indus script (also known as the Harappan script) is a corpus of symbols produced by the Indus Valley Civilization during the Kot Diji and Mature Harappan periods between 3500 and 1900 BCE. Most inscriptions containing these symbols are extremely short, making it extremely difficult to judge whether or not these symbols constitute a script used to record a language, or even symbolise a writing system. In spite of many attempts, 'the script' remains undecipherable. There is no known bilingual inscription to help decipher the script, nor does the script show any significant changes over time.
The first publication of a seal with Harappan symbols dates to 1875, in a drawing by Alexander Cunningham. Since then, over 4,000 inscribed objects have been discovered, some as far afield as Mesopotamia. In the early 1970s, Iravatham Mahadevan published a corpus and concordance of Indus inscriptions listing 3,700 seals and 417 distinct signs in specific patterns. He also found that the average inscription contained five symbols, and the longest inscription contained only 14 symbols in a single line. He also established the direction of writing as right to left.
Some scholars, such as G.R. Hunter, S. R. Rao, John Newberry, Krishna Rao, and Subhash Kak have argued that the Brāhmī script has some connection with the Indus system, while others such as Iravatham Mahadevan, Kamil Zvelebil and Asko Parpola have argued that the script had a relation to the Dravidian language. F. Raymond Allchin have somewhat cautiously supported the possibility, that even many supporters of the theory that Brāhmī probably derives from Aramaic influence consider: that the Brahmi language can have some Indus script influence. Another possibility for continuity of the Indus tradition is in the megalithic culture graffiti symbols of southern and central India (and Sri Lanka), which probably do not constitute a linguistic script but may have some overlap with the Indus symbol inventory.
Early examples of the symbol system are found in an Early Harappan and Indus civilisation context, dated to possibly as early as the 35th century BCE. In the Mature Harappan period, from about 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE, strings of Indus signs are commonly found on flat, rectangular stamp seals as well as many other objects including tools, tablets, ornaments and pottery. These signs were written in many ways, including carving, chiseling, painting and embossing, on objects made of many different materials, such as soapstone, bone, shell, terracotta, sandstone, copper, silver and gold. Often, animals such as bulls, elephants, rhinoceros, water buffaloes and the mythical unicorn accompanied the text on seals, to help the illiterate identify where a particular seal came from.
After 1900 BCE, the systematic use of the symbols ended, following the final stage of the Mature Harappan civilization. A few Harappan signs have been claimed to appear until as late as around 1100 BCE (the beginning of the Indian Iron Age). Onshore explorations near Bet Dwarka in Gujarat revealed the presence of late Indus seals depicting a 3-headed animal, earthen vessel inscribed in what is claimed to be a late Harappan script, and a large quantity of pottery. The thermoluminescence date for the pottery is 1528 BCE. This evidence has been used to claim that a late Harappan script was used until around 1500 BCE.
The characters are largely pictorial but include many abstract signs. The inscriptions are thought to have been mostly written from right to left (because there are several instances of the symbols being compressed on the left side, as if the writer was running out of space at the end of the row there), but sometimes follow a boustrophedonic style. The number of principal signs is about 400. Since this is too large a number for each character to be a phonogram, it is taken that it must, instead, be a logo-syllabic script.
An opposing hypothesis that has been offered by Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, is that these symbols are nonlinguistic signs which symbolise families, clans, gods, and religious concepts—similar to components of coats of arms or totem poles. In a 2004 article, Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel presented a number of arguments stating that the Indus script is nonlinguistic, principal among them being the extreme brevity of the inscriptions, the existence of too many rare signs (increasing over the 700-year period of the Mature Harappan civilization), and the lack of the random-looking sign repetition typical of language.
Asko Parpola, reviewing the Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel thesis in 2005, stated that their arguments "can be easily controverted". He cited the presence of a large number of rare signs in Chinese, and emphasised that there was "little reason for sign repetition in short seal texts written in an early logo-syllabic script". Revisiting the question in a 2007 lecture, Parpola took on each of the 10 main arguments of Farmer et al., presenting counterarguments for each.
A 2009 paper published by Rajesh P N Rao, Iravatham Mahadevan, and others in the journal Science too challenged the argument that the Indus script might have been a nonlinguistic symbol system. The paper concluded that the conditional entropy of Indus inscriptions closely matched those of linguistic systems like the Sumerian logo-syllabic system, Rig Vedic Sanskrit etc., though they are careful to stress that this does not by itself imply that the script is linguistic. A follow-up study presented further evidence in terms of entropies of longer sequences of symbols beyond pairs. However, Sproat claimed that there existed a number of misunderstandings in Rao et al., including a lack of discriminative power in their model, and argued that applying their model to known non-linguistic systems such as Mesopotamian deity symbols produced similar results to the Indus script. Rao et al.'s argument against Sproat's claims, and Sproat's reply, were published in Computational Linguistics in December 2010. The June 2014 issue of Language carries a paper by Sproat that provides further evidence that the methodology of Rao et al. is flawed. Rao et al.'s rebuttal of Sproat's 2014 article and Sproat's response are published in the December 2015 issue of Language.
Attempts at decipherment
Over the years, numerous decipherments have been proposed, but there is no established scholarly consensus. The following factors are usually regarded as the biggest obstacles for a successful decipherment:
- The underlying language has not been identified though some 300 loanwords in the Rigveda are a good starting point for comparison.
- The average length of the inscriptions is less than five signs, the longest being only 26 signs long.
- No bilingual texts (like a Rosetta Stone) have been found.
The topic is popular among amateur researchers, and there have been various (mutually exclusive) decipherment claims.
The Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov suggested, based on computer analysis, the Dravidian language as the most likely candidate for the underlying language of the script. Knorozov's suggestion was preceded by the work of Henry Heras, who also suggested several readings of signs based on a proto-Dravidian assumption.
The Finnish scholar Asko Parpola wrote that the Indus script and Harappan language "most likely belonged to the Dravidian family". Parpola led a Finnish team in the 1960s-80s that, like Knorozov's Soviet team worked towards investigating the inscriptions using computer analysis. Based on a proto-Dravidian assumption, the teams proposed readings of many signs. A lot of people agreed with the suggested readings of Heras and Knorozov, one such reading was legitimised when the Dravidian word for both 'fish' and 'star', "min" was hinted at through drawings of both the things together on Harappan seals. A comprehensive description of Parpola's work until 1994 is given in his book Deciphering the Indus Script.
Iravatham Mahadevan, another historian who supports the Dravidian hypothesis, says, "we may hopefully find that the proto-Dravidian roots of the Harappan language and South Indian Dravidian languages are similar. This is a hypothesis [...] But I have no illusions that I will decipher the Indus script, nor do I have any regret". According to Mahadevan, a stone celt discovered in Mayiladuthurai (Tamil Nadu) has the same markings as that of the symbols of the Indus script. The celt dates to early 2nd millennium BCE, post-dating Harappan decline. Mahadevan considers this as evidence of the same language being used by the neolithic people of south India and the late Harappans.
In May 2007, the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department found pots with arrow-head symbols during an excavation in Melaperumpallam near Poompuhar. These symbols are claimed to have a striking resemblance to seals unearthed in Mohenjo-daro in present day Pakistan in the 1920s.
Indian archaeologist Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao claimed to have deciphered the Indus script. He compared it to the Phoenician Alphabet, and assigned sound values based on this comparison. His decipherment results in an "Sanskritic" reading, including the numerals aeka, tra, chatus, panta, happta/sapta, dasa, dvadasa, sata (1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 12, 100). He also noted a number of striking similarities in shape and form between the late Harappan characters and the Phoenician letters, arguing than the Phoenician script evolved from the Harappan script, and not, as the classical theory suggests from the Proto-Sinaitic script.
John E. Mitchiner dismissed some of these attempts at decipherment. Mitchiner mentioned that "a more soundly-based but still greatly subjective and unconvincing attempt to discern an Indo-European basis in the script has been that of Rao".
Support for a connection between the Indus script and the Brahmi script has also been sought, due to graphic similarities between Brahmi and the late Harappan script. A large number of symbols and numerals of the two scripts match.
There have been several hypotheses regarding the language pertaining to the Indus Script. One of the most common ones has been that the script belongs to the Aryan language. However, there are many problems with this hypothesis. A major one includes: Since the people belonging to the Indo-European cultures were always on the move, horses played a very important role in their lives or as Parpola put it, "There is no escape from the fact that the horse played a central role in the Vedic and Iranian cultures..." (Parpola, 1986). However, no depiction of horses on seals nor any remains of horses have been found in the subcontinent before 2000 BCE. Thus, it is very likely there were no Aryan speakers present before 2000 BCE in the Indus Valley.
A second, though not as popular hypothesis is that the Indus script belongs to the Munda family of languages. The Munda family of languages is spoken largely in Eastern India, and is related to some Southeast Asian languages. However, much like the Aryan language, the reconstructed vocabulary of early Munda does not reflect the Harappan culture. Therefore, its candidacy for being the language of the Indus Civilization is dim.
Scholars also compare the Indus valley script with a writing system from ancient Persia, known as Linear Elamite. The two languages were contemporary to each other and resembled one another strongly. Scholars gained knowledge of the Elamite language from a bilingual monument called the Table of the Lion in the Louvre museum. The monument contained the same text in Akkadian, a known writing system, and in Linear Elamite. On comparing this ancient language to the Indus script, a lot of common symbols have been found.
Other languages connected to the script include Austroasiatic and Sino-Tibetan.
The Indus symbols have been assigned the ISO 15924 code "Inds". The script was proposed for encoding in Unicode's Supplementary Multilingual Plane in 1999; however, the Unicode Consortium still lists the proposal in pending status.
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- Indus Script (ancientscripts.com)
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- "Discovery of a century" in Tamil Nadu ("Discovery of a century" in Tamil Nadu )
- The Indus Script (From harappa.com)
- BBC - 'Earliest writing' found
- How come we can't decipher the Indus script? (from The Straight Dope)
- Iravatham Mahadevan, Towards a scientific study of the Indus Script
- "Studies in Indus Scripts - I" by S. Srikanta Sastri, published in Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, Vol XXIV, No. 3
- "Studies in Indus Scripts - II" by S. Srikanta Sastri, published in Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, Vol XXIV, No 4
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- Collection of essays about the Indus script (Steve Farmer)
- WIRED.com (WIRED.com)
- "Computers Unlock More Secrets Of The Mysterious Indus Valley Script". Science Daily. August 4, 2009..
- Rao, Rajesh (2011) "A Rosetta Stone for a Lost Language" TED Talks