Indus Seals and the Indus Civilization Script

01
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Does the Indus Civilization Script Represent a Language?

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets
Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets. Image courtesy of J.M. Kenoyer / Harappa.com

The Indus Civilization—also called the Indus Valley Civilization, Harappan, Indus-Sarasvati or Hakra Civilization—was based in an area of some 1.6 million square kilometers in what is today eastern Pakistan and northeastern India between about 2500-1900 BC. There are 2,600 known Indus sites, from enormous urban cities like Mohenjo Daro and Mehrgarh to small villages like Nausharo.

Although quite a bit of archaeological data has been collected, we know almost nothing about the history of this massive civilization, because we haven't deciphered the language yet. About 6,000 representations of glyph strings have been discovered at Indus sites, mostly on square or rectangular seals like the ones in this photo essay. Some scholars—notably Steve Farmer and associates in 2004—argue that the glyphs don't really represent a full language, but rather simply a non-structured symbol system.

An article written by Rajesh P.N. Rao (a computer scientist at the University of Washington) and colleagues in Mumbai and Chennai and published in Science on April 23, 2009, provides evidence that the glyphs really do represent a language. This photo essay will provide some context of that argument, as well as an excuse to look at pretty pictures of Indus seals, provided to Science and us by researcher J.N. Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin and Harappa.com.

02
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What Exactly is a Stamp Seal?

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets
Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets. Image courtesy of J.M. Kenoyer / Harappa.com

The script writing of the Indus civilization has been found on stamp seals, pottery, tablets, tools, and weapons. Of all these types of inscriptions, stamp seals are the most numerous, and they are the focus of this photo essay.

A stamp seal is something used by the—well you absolutely have to call it the international trade network of the Bronze age Mediterranean societies, including Mesopotamia and pretty much anybody who traded with them. In Mesopotamia, carved pieces of stone were pressed into the clay used to seal packages of trade goods. The impressions on the seals often listed the contents, or the origin, or the destination, or the amount of goods in the package, or all of the above.

The Mesopotamian stamp seal network is widely considered the first language in the world, developed because of the need for accountants to track whatever was being traded. CPAS of the world, take a bow!

03
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What are the Seals of the Indus Civilization Like?

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets
Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets. Image courtesy of J.M. Kenoyer / Harappa.com

Indus civilization stamp seals are usually square to rectangular, and about 2-3 centimeters on a side, although there are larger and smaller ones. They were carved using bronze or flint tools, and they generally include an animal representation and a handful of glyphs.

Animals represented on the seals are mostly, interestingly enough, unicorns—basically, a bull with one horn, whether they're "unicorns" in the mythical sense or not is vigorously debated. There are also (in descending order of frequency) short-horned bulls, zebus, rhinoceroses, goat-antelope mixtures, bull-antelope mixtures, tigers, buffaloes, hares, elephants, and goats.

Some question has arisen about whether these were seals at all—there are very few sealings (the impressed clay) which have been discovered. That's definitely different from the Mesopotamian model, where the seals were clearly used as accounting devices: archaeologists have found rooms with hundreds of clay sealings all stacked and ready for counting. Further, the Indus seals don't show a lot of use-wear, compared to Mesopotamian versions. That may mean that it wasn't the seal's impression in clay that was important, but rather the seal itself that was meaningful.

04
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What Does the Indus Script Represent?

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets
Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets. Image courtesy of J.M. Kenoyer / Harappa.com

So if the seals weren't necessarily stamps, then they don't necessarily have to include information about the contents of a jar or package being sent to a far away land. Which is really too bad for us—decipherment would somewhat easier if we know or could guess that the glyphs represent something that might be shipped in a jar (Harappans grew wheat, barley, and rice, among other things) or that part of the glyphs might be numbers or place names.

Since the seals aren't necessarily stamp seals, do the glyphs have to represent language at all? Well, the glyphs do recur. There's a fish-like glyph and a grid and a diamond shape and a u-shape thing with wings sometimes called a double-reed that are all found repeatedly in Indus scripts, whether on seals or on pottery sherds.

What Rao and his associates did was try to find out if the number and occurrence pattern of glyphs was repetitive, but not too repetitive. You see, language is structured, but not rigidly so. Some other cultures have glyphic representations that are considered not language, because they appear randomly, like the Vinč inscriptions of southeastern Europe. Others are rigidly patterned, like a Near Eastern pantheon list, with always the head god listed first, followed by the second in command, down to the least important. Not a sentence so much as a list.

So Rao, a computer scientist, looked at the way the various symbols are structured on the seals, to see if he could spot a non-random but recurring pattern.

05
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Comparing Indus Script to Other Ancient Languages

Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets
Examples of the 4500 year old Indus script on seals and tablets. Image courtesy of J.M. Kenoyer / Harappa.com

What Rao and his associates did was compare the relative disorder of the glyph positions to that of five types of known natural languages (Sumerian, Old Tamil, Rig Vedic Sanskrit, and English); four types of non-languages (Vinča inscriptions and Near Eastern deity lists, human DNA sequences and bacterial protein sequences); and an artificially-created language (Fortran).

They found that, indeed, the occurrence of glyphs is both non-random and patterned, but not rigidly so, and the characteristic of that language falls within the same non-randomness and lack of rigidity as recognized languages.

It may be that we will never crack the code of the ancient Indus. The reason we could crack Egyptian hieroglyphs and Akkadian rests primarily on the availability of the multi-language texts of the Rosetta Stone and the Behistun Inscription. The Mycenaean Linear B was cracked using tens of thousands of inscriptions. But, what Rao has done gives us hope that one day, maybe somebody like Asko Parpola may crack the Indus script.

Sources and Further Information

Rao, Rajesh P. N., et al. 2009 Entropic Evidence for Linguistic Structure in the Indus Script. Science Express 23 April 2009

Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel. 2004. The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization. EJVS 11-2: 19-57. Free pdf to download