Indus Script Question

As my long time readers know, I have had a long time interest in the Bronze Age and piecing together its prospective history. The Bronze Age lasted at least two thousand years and culminated with the late Bronze Age collapse around 1159 BCE. It continued on in a transitioning form for many more centuries as the methods were not lost. But until the collapse, bronze was the currency of a global palace based economy.

I say global because the hunt for copper was global and the impact on societies able to supply copper was visible and direct and clearly shows up in the archeological record. These were not independent emergents but copy cat developments in often inhospitable locales like Lake Superior and the Andes.

Copper shows up poorly in the archeological record at sites because it was rarely left behind for any reason. Even today, finding a lost penny is a bit of a challenge and the few in place are in numbers that utterly misrepresent the amount of copper in our society.

So let us turn to the problem of ancient script. This article captures the nature of a known script and the problems in attempting to understand it with limited evidence.

What I want to say though, is that the idea of writing information down on some media surely goes back to hunting band lifestyles as indicated by recovered art and the knowledge that story tellers used aids to remembrance. That evolved naturally into a system of abstract icons is obvious. That abstract icons found a home in the palace economy of the millennia long global Bronze Age is also certain. They communicated for trading copper. Records had to be kept.

Those records were surely kept in most cases of prepared skins and anything else that possibly worked. We have evidence to support the use of wood and bark and Sumer gave us clay. The initial system was obvious to create. A sketch of a bull’s head, a hide, a fish are all obvious. Sticks and bundles give us numbers.

The Celtiberian civilization of the time used ogam which was a script capable of been put on a slab of wood. I suspect that it provided the incentive to develop a phonetic alphabet because wood forces a short symbol list and the Phoenicians were, if not a successor to the Atlantean Celtiberians, were certainly their partners and copper salesmen. In short, it is probable that the modern alphabet is a natural successor to Atlantean script. (go back and read my posts on the 1159 BCE collapse of Atlantis and also the nature of the large Atlantean copper trade. It is all there.)

The nature of the trade and the demands of a large city state drove alphabet development and certainly, Atlantis was in the right place and right time to execute.

Of course, the real problem with the Indus script is that we only have the cylinder seals and that is like trying to reconstruct English from a telephone book. It simply cannot be accomplished.

Indus script mystery: Part II

By Diana Gainer

This is the second article I’ve written about the Indus script, discussing what may or may not be a real writing system used by people living in northwestern India and Pakistan back in the Bronze Age. Most scholars have assumed for a long time that this was a regular writing system but nobody has figured out to everybody’s satisfaction how to read it. Three academics, Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, recently made the claim that it’s not writing at all, getting a lot of linguists pretty excited. Still more recently, another linguist, a fellow by the name of Rao, countered their argument with a statistical study that purported to prove that it was so writing. Even more recently that that, Mr. Farmer has refuted this refutation, supposedly proving that the proof didn’t prove anything!

Now, when I was majoring in linguistics at Berkeley, way back in ancient times, it always amazed me that folks could get hot and bothered enough to shout and turn red in the face over topics like this, even though I was majoring in such arcane matters. But since I think obscure scripts are neater than sliced bread, I’m going to run on and on about this one a little more than usual. The three authors who made the original Big Splash object that although there are a large number of symbols in this so-called Indus script (about 400), too many for an alphabet, there are not enough for it to be pictographic writing, because the number of words would be too small for a language. That’s one of their arguments against it being real writing – or even proto-writing. See, Chinese, by comparison (supposedly a pictographic script) has a lot of words numbering in the thousands by anybody's count.

Leaving aside the rather odd description of Chinese as pictographic (an oversimplification), that’s one of their oddest assumptions to my way of thinking. That assumes that the Indus folk were writing about everything under the sun on those dinky, little seals. It’s almost as if the authors are assuming the content of those seals really was comparable to the newspaper headlines to which they compare this writing in their statistical measure. Statistics are great if you have too many items to shake a stick at, but I think they’ve made a completely unwarranted assumption.

You’re not going to write about everything on your jewelry, after all. There isn’t room for that, for one thing. How much history will fit on a gadget that’s only an inch or so long? There are things you don’t care enough about to mention, for another thing. How many modern-day news headlines mention the number of laundry loads I’ve washed in my washing machine each day? People around my house occasionally complain about the laundry, especially when something red gets in with their things and their underwear comes out pink. But I can’t imagine anybody putting that in the local newspaper, much less going to the bother to engrave something about it on a rock!

Then there may be things you mustn’t write about, things that it is forbidden to mention in polite society. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my time discussing life with two-year-olds and they’ll happily talk about their poo, for example. But you very seldom run across that topic in your average daily newspaper. I very much doubt that anybody bothered to inscribe anything on that subject on any seal stones either.

Let’s be realistic. During the whole extent of the Indus civilization, those folks probably didn’t make any lists of possible baby names or give diet advice on those little stony gadgets. They didn’t put down recipes for herb teas that would improve your sex appeal or create any rocky job ads, nor is there likely to have been much advice for the lovelorn inscribed upon those thingamabobs. The ancients in the Indus Valley probably only wrote about a very small semantic domain, which is a fancy way of saying it was all on one subject or some very small number of carefully selected subjects. Eventually our authors (Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel) get around to saying this, too, but by the time they do, they’ve forgotten their objection about the small number of words earlier. So the point is lost on them.

Well, I don’t blame them one bit for forgetting about a minor, little point like that. It was a very long paper with lots of technical points and it was really very good. I especially liked their colorful graphs. You see, they compared the Indus script with these other writing systems, and I thought that was extremely clever because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the heck the graph meant. It involved math though and everybody in linguistics loves math because they don't understand it.

BUT (and it’s a big but), there’s another piddly bit about statistics (by which I mean math) that I really ought to bring up. Before you do your fancy number crunching, before you even do your data gathering, you have to decide on your sampling frame. What’s a sampling frame? You can think of it as the universe out of which you’re taking your sample. You need to make sure you know how random your sample is (the tidbits you're taking out of your universe or possibilities) before you get started. That’s because if you pick all of your sample apples out of the bottom of sampling frame of a barrel, you’re going to end up with an unreliably large proportion of bad ones. When they’re all from the bottom, your sample will be all nasty and bruised and rotten more often than a similar group taken mainly from the ones at the top of the barrel. That’s what happens to apples at the bottom. They get squished and go bad. The moral is, you need to get a truly random sample. You must take your apples from every part of the barrel equally.

But how do you know if your sample is taken from all parts of your barrel equally? That’s what I’m on about, you see, when I ask about that sampling frame. If we look at the Indus inscriptions, we don’t really know for sure that we’re seeing the whole of a language, even when we look at the whole set of inscriptions that has been found so far. Our universe is totally obscure. That’s what the point is about there possibly being some missing inscriptions on perishable materials – materials that mysteriously perished. Well, whether something mysteriously disappeared or not, if those ancient folks didn’t leave us the whole of their language, we’re not going to see all of it on the seal stones, are we? So, sampling those seal stones – even if we look at all of the seal stones – is not going to show us accurately what their whole language was like, or even necessarily what their whole writing system looked like. And if we don't necessarily know what their whole writing system looked like, how can these authors say they've proved anything about its nature?

As a comparison, let’s wander off to China for a moment. If we looked only at the Chinese oracle bones and what's written on them, we would not be seeing the whole of the Chinese language, for example. Scholars are well aware of this because we have modern Chinese as a comparison. There are now huge amounts of Chinese records to look at from over a thousand years of writing. Nobody would only look at the oracle bones and say of Chinese, “That’s not writing.” Because we know it became modern Chinese!

If we looked only at the Linear B tablets and never at anything else that the Greeks wrote later, we would not be seeing the whole of the Greek language, either. Similarly, nobody suggests the Myceneans were illiterate, mainly because everybody knows the Greeks later wrote fluently and abundantly. However, they didn’t continue writing in Linear B. There was a gaping hole, known as the Dark Age. Then they borrowed an alphabet from the Phoenicians and started anew with a better system!

Still, those oracle bones were written to be read by somebody speaking Chinese. And those Linear B tablets were written to be read by somebody speaking Greek. So, suppose the Indus script does encode a language, just one that’s no longer spoken anywhere and that’s the reason nobody has managed to figure it out yet. If there isn’t a modern language for scholars to make a comparison with, that would make the job of cracking the code without a bilingual inscription incredibly difficult. But that doesn’t prove that the inscriptions don’t encode a language, only that we haven’t figured out how to crack that code!

That’s the problem with the statistical measures, I suggest. If we’re comparing Indus symbol frequencies with modern Chinese character frequencies in newspapers, that’s like comparing apples and oranges. Modern Chinese is not a comparable system. It’s systematic and it’s standardized. It’s not alphabetic or syllabic but it’s nowhere near as aggravatingly inconsistent as ancient Egyptian was. All the symbols are the same size in modern Chinese. They’re all written in the same direction in modern Chinese. People don’t leave symbols out willy-nilly or throw in extra pictures for good measure if they feel like it or substitute some other picture as a shorthand in modern Chinese. None of these things could be said of ancient Egyptian or ancient Sumerian. Modern Chinese is simply not a comparable system. We should not expect ancient Indus script to be like it.

If we’re comparing Indus symbol frequencies with modern alphabetic English, then we’re really off the mark because the alphabet wasn’t invented in the West for quite a long time after the Indus civilization ended. Let’s compare it to something comparable to what it’s likely to have been. Compare it to Egyptian hieroglyphs, to Sumerian cuneiform, to Linear A, to Linear B, or even to proto-writing systems like the name + date symbols used by the Aztecs to show names of characters in their pictorial mnemonics. When we get to these proto-writing systems, which is what the authors really think it is, it seems to me we run into a different type of problem. There are too many symbols in the Indus corpus now, not too few!

But let's assume that it is just proto-writing for a moment. The authors talk quite a lot about magico-religious symbols from the Near East, such as those found on boundary stones. These appear in a standard sequence and represent specific deities. Certain deities appear more than once in the same list though, in various guises. They give as an example Ea, the Akkadian (or Babylonian) god of the Deep, who appears as a turtle and as the precursor to the zodiacal symbol of Capricorn, what they call the goat-fish. They make an odd little boo-boo in discussing this list by identifying a certain Sir Storm with an “Akkadian” fellow called Asshur. Actually Mr. Asshur was Assyrian, as one might guess by his name. The Akkadians didn’t much care for him or his proteges since they marched roughshod over them, deposing their previous king (and their previous Sir Storm). Oops! But the various incarnations of Mr. Thunder and Lightning were very popular in countries that tended to have problems with dryness and needed wetness for their crops. So we’ll be broadminded and ignore that minor slip about his precise name.

The authors don’t mention my personal favorite among those archaic deities, Miss Planet Venus, having two incarnations. She’s at the front of the line-up with her little 8-pointy star. That’s what she has for a symbol as Miss Meany, the Morning Star, when she really is Venus and Miss War. But when she cools off and is Miss Evening Star, she changes character, becomes Miss Love, and shows up near the end of the list. Then she is a funny-looking, little curlicue. This represents a real thingy that the earlier Sumerians made out of tall reeds, since they happened to live where there were few trees but loads of reeds, namely, in the swamps by the Persian Gulf. Or maybe it’s the Arabian Gulf. It depends on who you’re talking to. Anyhow, they stuck this big, tall, reedy curlicue in front of Miss Evening Star’s temple, which was also built out of bundles of tall reeds. In that neck of the woods (or rather, the swamp) she wasn’t Ishtar, as she was known upriver. Down south she was Inanna. But she’s essentially the same goddess in both places. That, too, is a minor point.

Anyhow, the busy authors suggest that the Indus Valley civilization, like that of the Land between the Two Rivers (i.e., Mesopotamia) was multilingual. Well, that’s plausible. Those so-called inscriptions had to do with religion. That’s also plausible. And the little symbols weren’t real writing but were symbols for gods and goddesses, arranged according to rules that we’ll never be able to figure out, but which had more to do with notions of symmetry and divine hierarchies than with the structure of language. Well, maybe. But deciding ahead of time that you can’t possibly figure something out is one way to make sure you never will figure it out. You can’t if you don’t try.

Still, the proof is in the pudding. If some Tamil-speaking scholar goes and figures out how to read this stuff, demonstrating that it's proto-Dravidian and thus the ancestor of Tamil, I'm prepared to believe him despite all that statistical derring-do. Even if Mr. Tamil Speaker should turn out to live a good ways farther south than his ancestor, what does that prove? We now know that the original Proto-Indo-Europeans lived somewhere in the vicinity of southern Russia. On the other hand, I live in North America, which is a long way from Russia. That suggests that somebody in the intervening interval moved and hopped on a boat to boot. Folks do that sort of thing from time to time. So why couldn't the proto-Dravidians all move south?

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