The term Indus script (also Harappan script) refers to short strings of symbols associated with the Indus Valley Civilization, in use during the Mature Harappan period, between the 26th and 20th centuries BC. It is not generally accepted that these symbols form a script used to record a language, and the subject remains controversial. In spite of many attempts at decipherments and claims, it is as yet undeciphered, and no underlying language has been identified. There is no known bilingual inscription.
The first publication of a Harappan seal dates to 1873, in a drawing by Alexander Cunningham. Since then, over 4,000 symbol-bearing objects have been discovered, some as far afield as Mesopotamia. In the early 1970s, Iravatham Mahadevan published a corpus and concordance of Indus writing listing about 3,700 seals and about 417 distinct signs in specific patterns. The average inscription contains five signs, and the longest inscription is only 17 signs long. He also established the direction of writing as right to left.
Some early scholars, starting with Cunningham in 1877, thought that the script was the archetype of the Brāhmī script. Cunningham’s ideas were supported by G.R. Hunter, F. Raymond Allchin and a minority of scholars, who continue to argue for the Indus script as the predecessor of the Brahmic family.
Seal impression showing a typical inscription of five characters.
Early examples of the symbol system are found in an Early Harappan context, dated to possibly as early as the 33rd century BC. In the Mature Harappan period, from about 2600 BC, strings of Indus signs are most commonly found on flat, rectangular stamp seals, but they are also found on at least a dozen other materials including tools, miniature tablets, copper plates, and pottery.
After 1900 BC, the systematic use of the symbols ended, after the final stage of the Mature Harappan civilization. A few Harappan signs have been claimed to appear until as late as around 1100 BC (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 similar to Lustrous Red Ware bowl and Red Ware dishes, dish-on-stand, perforated jar and incurved bowls which are datable to the 16th century BC in Dwarka, Rangpur and Prabhas. The thermoluminescence date for the pottery in Bet Dwaraka is 1528 BC. This evidence has been used to claim that a late Harappan script was used until around 1500 BC. Other excavations in India at Vaisali, Bihar and Mayiladuthurai, Tamil Nadu have been claimed to contain Indus symbols being used as late as 1100 BC.
Collection of seals
In May 2007, the Tamil Nadu Archaeological 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 the 1920s.
In one alleged “decipherment” of the script, the Indian archeologist S. R. Rao argued that the late phase of the script represented the beginning of the alphabet. He notes 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, challenging the classical theory that the first alphabet was Proto-Sinaitic.
The writing system is largely pictorial but includes many abstract signs as well. The script is thought to have been mostly written from right to left, but sometimes follows a boustrophedonic style. The number of principal signs is about 400-600, comparable to the typical sign inventory of a logo-syllabic script. The prevailing scholarly view maintains that structural analysis indicates that the language is agglutinative, like the Dravidian languages.
Inscription of ten characters from Dholavira
According to a paper by researchers doing a comprehensive analysis of Indus signs at TIFR and published in the Korean journal Scripta, it took a significant time and effort, intellect, aesthetics, detailed planning and care to design the Indus script. It was acceptable all across the civilization and combining signs or combining signs with modifiers seems to have been done at all sites.
In a 2004 article, Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel presented a number of arguments in support of their thesis 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 random-looking sign repetition typical for representations of actual spoken language (whether syllabic-based or letter-based), as seen, for example, in Egyptian cartouches.
Asko Parpola, reviewing the Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel thesis in 2005, states that their arguments “can be easily controverted”. He cites the presence of a large number of rare signs in Chinese, and emphasizes that there is “little reason for sign repetition in short seal texts written in an early logo-syllabic script”. Revisiting the question in a 2007 lecture, Parpola takes on each of the 10 main arguments of Farmer et al., presenting counterarguments for each. He states that “even short noun phrases and incomplete sentences qualify as full writing if the script uses the rebus principle to phonetize some of its signs”.
A computational study conducted by a joint Indo-US team led by Rajesh P N Rao of the University of Washington, consisting of Iravatham Mahadevan and others from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, was published in April 2009 in Science. They conclude that “given the prior evidence for syntactic structure in the Indus script, (their) results increase the probability that the script represents language”. Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel have disputed this finding, pointing out that Rao et al. did not actually compare the Indus signs with “real-world non-linguistic systems” but rather with “two wholly artificial systems invented by the authors”. In response, Rao et al. point out that the two artificial systems “simply represent controls, necessary in any scientific investigation, to delineate the limits of what is possible.” They state that real-world non-linguistic systems were indeed included in their analysis (“DNA and protein sequences, FORTRAN computer code”). Farmer et al. have also compared a non-linguistic system (medieval heraldic signs) with natural languages using Rao et al.’s method and conclude that the method cannot distinguish linguistic systems from non-linguistic ones. Rao et al. have clarified that their method is inductive, not deductive as presumed by Farmer et al., and their result, together with other known attributes of the script, increases the evidence that the script is linguistic, though it does not prove it. In a follow-up study published in IEEE Computer, Rao et al. present data which strengthen their original conditional entropy result, which involved analysis of pairs of symbols. They show that the Indus script is similar to linguistic systems in terms of block entropies, involving sequences up to 6 symbols in length.
A discussion of the linguistic versus nonlinguistic question by Sproat, Rao, and others was published in the journal Computational Linguistics in December 2010.
Attempts at decipherment
Further information: Harappan language
Over the years, numerous decipherments have been proposed, but none has been accepted by the scientific community at large. The following factors are usually regarded as the biggest obstacles for a successful decipherment:
The topic is popular among amateur researchers, and there have been various (mutually exclusive) decipherment claims. None of these suggestions has found academic recognition.
The Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov surmised that the symbols represent a logosyllabic script and suggested, based on computer analysis, an underlying agglutinative Dravidian language as the most likely candidate for the underlying language. Knorozov’s suggestion was preceded by the work of Henry Heras, who suggested several readings of signs based on a proto-Dravidian assumption.
The Finnish scholar Asko Parpola led a Finnish team in the 1960s-80s that vied with Knorozov’s Soviet team in investigating the script using computer analysis. Based on a proto-Dravidian assumption, they proposed readings of many signs, some agreeing with the suggested readings of Heras and Knorozov (such as equating the “fish” sign with the Dravidian word for fish “min”) but disagreeing on several other readings. A comprehensive description of Parpola’s work until 1994 is given in his book Deciphering the Indus Script. The discovery in Tamil Nadu of a late Neolithic (early 2nd millennium BC, i.e. post-dating Harappan decline) stone celt allegedly marked with Indus script signs has been considered by some to be significant for the Dravidian identification.
Iravatham Mahadevan, 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.”
Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao claimed to have deciphered the Indus script. Postulating uniformity of the script over the full extent of Indus-era civilization, 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).
The Indus script has been assigned the ISO 15924 code “Inds”. It was proposed for encoding in Unicode’s Supplementary Multilingual Plane in 1999; however, the Unicode Consortium still list the proposal in pending status.
Published - September 2013
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