Indus Script

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. In spite of many attempts at decipherments and claims, it is as yet undeciphered. The underlying language is unknown, and the lack of a bilingual makes the decipherment unlikely pending significant new finds.

The first publication of a Harappan seal dates to 1873, in the form of a drawing by Alexander Cunningham. Since then, well over 4000 symbol-bearing objects have been discovered, some as far afield as Mesopotamia. In early seventies Iravatham Mahadevan published a corpus and concordance of Harrapan writing listing about 3700 seals and about 417 distinct sign in specific patterns. The average size of writing is five signs and largest text in a single line is 14 signs. 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 Brahmi script used by Ashoka. Cunningham's ideas were supported by G.R. Hunter, Iravatham Mahadevan and a minority of scholars continue to argue for the Indus script as the predecessor of the Brahmic family. However most scholars disagree, claiming instead that the Brahmi script derived from the Aramaic script.

Early Harappan: The script generally refers to that used in the mature Harappan phase, which perhaps evolved from a few signs found in early Harappa after 3500 BC. However, the early date and the interpretation given in the BBC report have been challenged by the long-term excavator of Harappa, Richard Meadow] The use of early pottery marks and incipient Indus signs was followed by the mature Harappan script.

Mature Harappan: The Harappan signs are most commonly associated with flat, rectangular stone tablets called seals, but they are also found on at least a dozen other materials.

Late Harappan: 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. [2] 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.

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 Mohenjodaro in the 1920s.

In 1960, B.B. Lal of the Archaeological Survey of India wrote a paper in the journal Ancient India. It carried a photograhic catalog of megalithic and chalcolithic pottery which Lal compares with the Ancient Indus script.

Ancient inscriptions that are claimed to bear a striking resemblance to those found in Indus Valley sites have been found in Sanur near Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu, Musiri in Kerala and Sulur near Coimbatore.

Script Characteristics

The writing system is intensely pictorial. The script is written from right to left, and sometimes follows a boustrophedonic style. Since the number of principal signs is about 400-600, midway between typical logographic and syllabic scripts, many scholars accept the script to be logo-syllabic (typically syllabic scripts have about 50-100 signs whereas logographic scripts have a very large number of principal signs). Several scholars maintain that structural analysis indicates an agglutinative language underneath the script. However, this is contradicted by the occurrence of signs supposedly representing prefixes and infixes.

Attempts at Decipherment

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.

Dravidian Hypothesis

The Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov, who has edited a multi-volumed corpus of the inscriptions, surmises that the symbols represent a logosyllabic script, with an underlying Dravidian language as the most likely linguistic substrate.[9] Knorozov is perhaps best known for his decisive contributions towards the decipherment of the Maya script, a pre-Columbian writing system of the Mesoamerican Maya civilization. Knorozov's investigations were the first to conclusively demonstrate that the Maya script was logosyllabic in character, an interpretation now confirmed in the subsequent decades of Mayanist epigraphic research.

The Finnish scholar Asko Parpola repeated several of these suggested Indus script readings. The discovery in Tamil Nadu of a late Neolithic (early 2nd millennium BC, i.e. post-dating Harappan decline) stone celt adorned with Indus script markings has been considered to be significant for this identification. However, their identification as Indus signs has been disputed.

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."

Script vs. Ideographical Symbols

If the Indus signs are purely ideographical, they may contain no information about the underlying language spoken by their creators, i.e., they would be just logographic script, or pictograms.

In 2004, Steve Farmer, an independent scholar, computational linguist Richard Sproat and Indologist Michael Witzel published an article asserting that the Indus Script symbols were not coupled to oral language. Witzel had earlier presented his "Para-Munda" Hypothesis, that the spoken language of the northern Indus civilization was distantly related to the Austro-Asiatic family, though not identical with Proto-Munda (Witzel 1999).

In their 2004 article, Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel present 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, critically reviewing the thesis in 2005, opines that these arguments "can be easily controverted".[17] 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". He notes that Sproat, "the computer linguist of the Farmer team" agreed in a personal communication that by plain statistical tests such as the distribution of sign frequencies and plain reoccurrences, it is not possible to prove or disprove that the signs represent writing. The latter point, however, was already clearly made in the original Farmer-Sproat-Witzel paper of 2004: "Statistical regularities in sign positions show up in nearly all symbol systems, not just those that encode speech." (cf. also Sproat and Farmer, in: CSLI Studies in Computational Linguistics, Stanford University, 2006, p.10)

Revisiting the question in a 2007 lecture [20], Parpola takes on each of what he considers the 10 main arguments of Farmer and his colleagues, presenting what he considers to be 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". He gives the example of "rebus-punning" in the protoliterate phase of Sumerian and Egyptian writing in the 32nd to 31st centuries BC, citing the Narmer Palette as a good example of what is "already a writing system even if the texts are on average shorter than the Indus texts!" However, at the Kyoto conference in May 2009 he said that he now regards the Indus signs as a proto-script, in part due to the Farmer et al. papers.

Joining the debate in a newspaper article, Iravatham Mahadevan has called the Indus "non-script" a non-issue, listing a variety of archaeological and linguistic arguments in support of his thesis.

In an article entitled "The collapse melts down: a reply to Farmer, Sproat and Witzel", Massimo Vidale opines, based a detailed evaluation of the archaeological context, why he thinks "their thesis is not acceptable."

However, Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel have responded to their critics in a paper entitled "The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis, Five Years Later: Massive Nonliterate Urban Civilizations of Ancient Eurasia," at a large Indus conference in Kyoto, Japan, on May 29-31, 2009; see pdf: .

They opine that Vidale's paper "like others in its class" is polemical in nature, badly distorted the long list of arguments in Farmer et al. 2004, and did not in fact discuss even a single Indus inscription -- despite the fact that the 2004 paper was based on detailed analysis of the Indus corpus.

The new Kyoto paper also promises that its final version will discuss all other critiques by "traditional script adherents" in detail and present a general FAQ on developments in the field in the past five years. As announced at Kyoto, this paper will be jointly published in full early in 2010 by Harvard Oriental Series (Opera Minora) and the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (Kyoto).

A computational study conducted by a joint Indo-US team led by Rajesh P N Rao of University of Washington, consisting of Iravatham Mahadevan and others from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, was published in April 2009 in Science.[25] They conclude that "given the prior evidence for syntactic structure in the Indus script, (their) results increase the probability that the script represents language".

At the Kyoto Indus conference of May 2009, new data presented by Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel, (and again by Sproat at a conference in Singapore in early August), suggest that the entire methodology of so-called conditional entropy cannot even identify languages in the same language family, let alone nonlinguistic from linguistic symbols; see pdf:

However, speaking on the issue of whether language families can be identified using conditional entropy, Rao and colleagues already state in their Science paper that answering the question of linguistic affinity of the Indus texts requires a more sophisticated approach, such as statistically inferring an underlying grammar for the Indus texts from available data and comparing the inferred rules with those of various known language families.

Additional Information

There are some major impediments to decipherment:

For instance, consider Champollion, who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs with all of these 3 important clues: there were very long Egyptian texts; he knew Coptic, a descendant of Egyptian; and the Rosetta Stone, a bilingual text between Greek and two written forms of Egyptian.

But the script isn't as bad as undecipherable. For one, even though scholars don't have long texts and bilingual texts, they can still theorize about the language underneath the writing system. There are several competing theories about the language that the Indus script represent:

The Dravidian family of languages is spoken in Southern Indian, but Brahui is spoken in modern Pakistan. So far this is the most promising model, as in the following points:

- There are many Dravidian influences visible in the Vedic texts. If the Aryan language gradually replaced the Dravidian, features from Dravidian would form a "substratum" in Aryan. One of these features is the appearance of retroflex consonants in Indian languages, both Indo-European and Dravidian. In contrast, retroflex consonants do not appear in any other Indo-European language, not even Iranian ones which are closest to Indic.

- Another possible indication of Dravidian in the Indus texts is from structural analysis of the texts which suggests that the language underneath is possibly agglutinative, from the fact that sign groups often have the same initial signs but different final signs. The number of these final signs range between 1 to 3. The final signs possibly represent grammatical suffixes that modify the word (represented by the initial signs). Each suffix would represent one specific modification, and the entire cluster of suffixes would therefore put the word through a series of modifications. This suffix system can be found in Dravidian, but not Indo-European. Indo-European tongues tend to change the final sounds to modify the meaning of a word (a process called inflection), but repeated addition of sounds to the end of word is extremely rare. Often many suffixes in an agglutinative language correspond to a single inflectional ending in an inflectional language.

The Dravidian model isn't just an unapplicable theory...But first we have to know what kind of writing system is the Indus script.

A count of the number of signs reveal a lot about the type of system being used. Alphabetic systems rarely have more than 40 symbols. Syllabic systems like Linear B or Cherokee typically have 40 to 100 or so symbols. The third ranges from logophonetic to logographic, running upwards of hundreds of signs (like 500 signs in Hieroglyphic Luwian, and 5000 symbols in modern Chinese).

It appears that the maximum number of Indus script symbols is 400, although there are 200 basic signs (ie signs that are not combined from others). This means that the Indus script is probably logophonetic, in that it has both signs used for their meanings, and signs used for their phonetic values.

Many signs start off as pictorial representation of a physical object, often misleadingly called pictograms. They really are should be called logograms because they represent words in the language. However, it's next to impossible to write out a word with abstract meaning pictorially. What all early writers figured out was to use a logogram not for the object or idea it was originally supposed to stand for, but for all words sounding similar to the original word for that object or idea. For example, in English to write "leave" we can use a picture of a "leaf". This is called rebus writing, and is a tremendously common pattern in all early writing systems. We could also then use the same "leaf" symbol to stand for the sound in "relief", adding another symbol in front of the "leaf" symbol in order to indicate the "re" sound. So the logogram gained a phonetic value as well.

Testing the theory - How can we take the theoretical framework so far and apply it to archaeological data?

Numerals seem to represented by vertical lines (represented by number of lines in the glyph), but they only go up to 7. Analysis reveal 4 more signs that appear in the same context as these numerals, and so they likely represent numbers higher than 7.

The fact that no vertical-line numeral sign denotes 8 very likely means the Harappan language is based 8. (For example, the Arabic numerals that we use has symbols from 0 to 9, and to write "ten" we have to combined the symbols 1 and 0, which identify our number system as based ten.)

Base 8 languages are rare in the world, but it does appear that early Dravidian is base 8, but later changed to base 10 (possibly under Indo-European influence). When translated, the count from 1 to 7 is familiar to us: "one", "two", "three", "four", "five", "six", "seven". However, above seven, the number's etymologies become non-numerical: 8 is "number", 9 is "many minus one", and 10 is "many". (Fairservis 1983)

But can we actually read (not interpret) any symbol on the seals? We should start with "pictograms", as this one:

Many scholars (Knorozov, Parpola, Mahadevan, etc) see this sign as a fish. Fish in reconstructed Proto-Dravidian is *mn. Coincidentally, *mn is also the word for star. On many pots from Mohenjo Daro, an Indus site, there are drawings of fish and stars together, and so affirming this linguistic association.

Going further, often the numeral six appears before the fish. Either it means 6 fish, or 6 stars. Old Tamil (a Dravidian language still spoken today) texts from just around the 1st century AD recorded the name of the Pleiades, a star cluster visible during autumn and winter just above Orion, as "Six-Stars", or aru-mn. Throughout the world, titles with celestial connotations are very common, and the clause Six Stars forming part or whole of a Harappan title is not unreasonable. (Parpola, 1986)

Sometimes symbols are added to the basic sign to make new signs. Of these, the one that looks like a circumflex accent placed on top of the fish is quite interesting. It is theorized to mean "roof", and in Proto-Dravidian it is *vy/my. This is phonetically similar to Proto-Dravidian word for "black", *may. Together with fish, it spells out mai-m-mn, or "black star", which in Old Tamil means the planet Saturn. In Sanskrit texts, Saturn is associate the color black. The god of death, Yama, is the presiding of this planet, and is usually depicted as riding on a dark buffalo.

But the "fish" reading isn't accepted by all scholars. William Fairservis saw it as a combination of a loom twist and a human sign, and form a honorific title pertaining to rulership.

Indus Script Wikipedia


Seal impression showing a typical "inscription" of five "characters".

Zebu Bull

This Indus seal depicts a nude male deity with three faces (tri-murti, Brahama god), seated in lotus position on a throne, perhaps wearing bangles on both arms and an elaborate headdress. Five symbols of the Indus script appear on either side of the headdress which is made of two outward projecting buffalo style curved horns, with two upward projecting points.

A single branch with three pipal (hindu/bhartiya pious tree) leaves rises from the middle of the headdress. The feet of the throne are carved with the hoof of a bovine as is seen on the bull and unicorn seals. The seal may not have been fired, but the stone is very hard. A grooved and perforated boss is present on the back of the seal. Material: tan steatite Dimensions: 2.65 x 2.7 cm, 0.83 to 0.86 thickness Mohenjo-daro, DK 12050 Islamabad Museum, NMP 50.296 Mackay 1938: 335, pl. LXXXVII, 222

In the News ...

Computers unlock more secrets of the mysterious Indus Valley script   PhysOrg - August 4, 2009

'Earliest writing' found BBC - May 4, 1999