"BMAC writing"

Yaroslav Vassilkov yavass at YV1041.SPB.EDU
Tue Jul 31 10:40:36 EDT 2001

Dear colleagues,
        I think it was on the old, unreformed Indology list that I
read (probably in selections) the article by John Noble Wilford "In Ruin,
Symbols on a Stone Hint on a Lost Asian Culture" (New York Times, May 13,
2001). As you remember, it was told there about the discovery made by
Dr.Fredrik T.Hiebert at the site of Annau in Turkmenia - "a small stone
object engraved with four or five red-colored symbols or letters that
apparently bear no resemblance to any other writing system of the time".
J.N.Wilford quotes Dr. Hiebert saying in connection with it: "You can say
we have discovered a new ancient civilization". From the rest of the
article one can understand that this "new" civilization is, in fact,
nothing but very well known BMAC. "C" in "BMAC" means not "Civilization"
but "complex" ("Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex"). So Dr. Hiebert's
message was probably that the discovery of this inscription gave us grounds
to raise BMAC up from the modest level of an "archaeological complex" to
the high level of a "civilization".
        But before we agree with such a revolutionary conclusion we must be sure
that the inscription in question really represents a previously unknown system
of writing and that this system of writing was invented and used by BMAC
people. Now, after I managed to have a look at the photo of the "stone
object" in "Expedition" 42/3, p. 48, I have some doubts that we can really
make such an assertion.
        The stone object is in fact a seal which has nothing in common with
BMAC seals (see now the complete corpus of them published by Victor Sarianidi:
"Myths of Ancient Bactria and Margiana on its seals and amulets", Moscow:
Pentagraphic, Ltd., 1998). It is a typical Indus "square seal with a perforated
boss at the back" (Parpola's description), though the material - "shiny black
jet stone" is unique or very rare, the majority of Indus seals are made of stone,
but of different kind: steatite (while the majority of BMAC seals are metallic).
        It is difficult to judge about the inscription, of which the photo gives
only a side view, but out of the three signs (I think there are only 3 signs on the
seal, not 4) two, which are seen better, look like Harappan. One is surely
identical with the Indus "drum" sign (Parpola, No. 224), another may be a variant
of the Indus "double comb" sign (Parpola, No. 95), with "combs" turned into opposite
directions for a decorative purpose. (I use the Sign list in: K.Koskenniemi, A.Parpola.
Corpus of Texts in the Indus Script. Helsinki, 1979, p. [19]-[20]).
        In his note ("Unique Bronze Age Stamp Seal Found in Central Asia",
Expedition 42/3) Dr. Hiebert says: "This object has parallels only at the Central Asian
site of Altyn depe". What is meant is probably a typically Indus seal with an inscription
found at Altyn depe by Professor V.M.Masson (published in: V.M.Masson. Altyn-Depe.
Translated by Henry N.Michael. Philadelphia, 1988 [University Museum Monographs.
Univ. of Pennsylvania: 55).
        So, maybe the mysterious stone object is just one more imported Indus seal
in the BMAC context? In any case, before including the news about a "new civilization"
into children's schoolbooks we should better check all the possibilities. At the
moment we can only wait for Dr. Hiebert to publish a better view of the seal and
details of its archaeological
context. What exactly does he mean mentioning that in the same building the excavators
found "pieces of clay used to seal vessels or parcels"? Were there any sealings found?
With any signs or images? What in particular gives ground to suggest that seals
similar to this one were used by BMAC people "in the administrative system of the
        It would be very interesting to hear also the opinions of the specialists in
the study of the Indus writing system. Is, for example, Asko Parpola here on the list?
If so, I gladly use this opportunity to congratulate him personally with his recent
        Best wishes to all,

Yaroslav Vassilkov (yavass at YV1041.spb.edu)
Institute of Oriental Studies
Tue, 31 Jul 101 15:11 +0300 MSK

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