review article Indian script

Thu Aug 22 22:05:28 UTC 1996

On 19 August Dominik Wujastyk wrote: 
Dear indologists,

With the kind permission of Prof Richard Salomon and of the American
Oriental Society, I have republished Prof Salomon's review 1995 review
article "On the Origin of the Early Indian Scripts" on the INDOLOGY web
page. See

and follow the links for "important position or review papers. 
On 20 August Vidhyanath K. Rao <vidynath at>

I scanned through the review article about Brahmi. I did not notice
any reference to the `recent' finds of potsherds from Sri Lanka which
are supposed to marked with Brahmi letters. Due to limited library
facilities, I do not have access to the primary literature. My only
reference is ``Archaeology of Early Historic India'' by Allchin et al.
On pp 176--177, there is a reference to these potsherds. 
Radiocarbon dating is said to put these in the period of 450BCE--350BCE,
with the original excavator dating them to 600BCE--500BCE, presumably
on archaeological grounds.

Elsewhere (p.165), it is said that the `radiometric determination' is
`unclear'. I wonder if further research has thrown any doubt on the
dates quoted in the book. If not, these finds raise serious questions
about the theory that Brahmi writing was invented during Maurya times.

On p. 176 of his recent book "The Archeology of Early Historic South Asia: The 
Emergence of Cities and States (Cambridge University Press: 1995),  F.R. 
Allchin writes: 
"As we have seen, the recent excavations at Anuradhapura have yielded a 
substantial body of important data relating to the rise of the city and its 
absolute chronology. They have also provided remarkable evidence for the 
appearance and use of early writing. The first report of this work was by 
Deraniyagala, to whom credit for the discovery must be given (Deraniyagala 
1990c). It has been confirmed by the current Sri Lankan British excavations. 
Inscriptions on pottery begin during the course of period J, which is dated by 
radiocarbon to between BC 450 and BC 350, if not earlier (as suggested by 
Deraniyagala 1992, 739-48). . . . This would indicate that the use of writing 
began some two centuries earlier than the first datable inscriptions currently 
known from any other part of South Asia." 
On p. 178 we read further: "The script in all cases appears to be an early 
stage of the Indian Brahmi alphabet, written from left to right. With one or 
two problematic exceptions the language, wherever enough letters are present to 
make identification possible, appears to be Prakrit, that is an early Middle 
Indo-Aryan language rather than a Dravidian or other language. Probably even 
the originally complete inscriptions were short and apparently often consisted 
of a single name, sometimes given in the dative case." 
The publications to which Allchin refers are:
Deraniyagala, S.U., "Radiocarbon dating of early Brahmi script in Sri Lanka," 
Ancient Ceylon 11 (1990):149-168; 
and: The Prehistory of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Department of Archaeological Survey, 
Government of Sri Lanka, 1992. 
The first publication of Deraniyagala has been mentioned by Falk in his 
bibliography (Schrift in alten Indien, Tuebingen 1993), but, as far as I could 
see, he did not take it into consideration in his conclusions regarding the 
date of origin of script in India. 
If Deraniyagala and Allchin are right - and I am not the person to decide in 
this matter - Salomon's review article (Journal AOS 115; Indology-home page) 
and the recent works discussed (Falk's, von Hinueber's, Fussmann's, Norman's) 
are already now outdated with regard to their main conclusion (to cite Salomon: 
the "later date of origin for the Indian scripts), although these works will 
remain valuable as collections and overviews of decades of research on this 

Jan E.M. Houben
Leiden University

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