R. Meadow's clarification of BBC news report

Michael Witzel witzel at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Tue May 25 20:57:53 UTC 1999

As the recent BBC report on the Indus script as "the oldest in the
world" has created a lot of interest  in this and other lists, I
transmit the following clarification by Dr. R. Meadow, Harvard
University & Director of the Harappa project.

Motto : <underline>always check your (news) sources
yourself</underline>! --- MW

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X-Sender: meadow at fas.harvard.edu (Unverified)

Date: Mon, 24 May 1999 23:17:18 -0400

To: Michael Witzel <<witzel at fas.harvard.edu>

From: "Richard H. Meadow" <<meadow at fas.harvard.edu>

Subject: clarification of BBC news report




Communique from Richard H. Meadow, Peabody Museum, Harvard University,
24 May 1999

On May 4, 1999, Dr. David Whitehouse of BBC Online released a story
titled "Earliest Writing Found" based on a telephone interview with Dr.
Richard H. Meadow, Project Director, Harappa Archaeological Research
Project and on materials contained in Omar Khan's website
http://www.harappa.com supplied by Drs. J.M. Kenoyer and R.H. Meadow
and others associated with the Harappa Archaeological Research Project.
 The URL of the BBC Online story is

On May 6, a follow-up story appeared in Newsweek Online. The URL is:



In addition, interviews were provided over the telephone from Harappa
to a number of print journalists and two interviews were recorded and
aired by different departments of the BBC. Upon review of the above
websites after returning to the USA from Harappa, I (Meadow) have the
following comments:

<excerpt>The Newsweek story is basically a good representation of what
was said.

The BBC story is somewhat sensationalized by the first and last
sentences but otherwise is basically sound.


<excerpt>It is important to note that the graphic that is displayed as
the lead item in the BBC Online story is not a 5500 year old sherd (Dr.
David Whitehouse was alerted to this fact on 19 May). It is a sherd
from the Harappan levels at Harappa dating to about 4300 years ago. The
correct sherd PROBABLY dating somewhere between 3500 and 3300 BC can be
found on Omar Khan's website as slide number 124. The URL is:

</excerpt>   This sherd comes from nearly the lowest level of the Ravi
Aspect of the Hakra Phase at   Harappa (Period 1A: hereafter shortened
to the "Ravi phase"). The date of 3300 to 3500 BC is an estimate based
on currently available radiocarbon dates that do NOT come from contexts
DIRECTLY associated with the sherd. 14C dates are in process for
directly associated deposits and so the date of this sherd and of the
beginning of the Ravi phase is subject to change.


As noted in the Newsweek article, the importance of the material from
Harappa lies not in it being the earliest anything. The importance lies
in the long and continuous sequence of archaeological deposits
including inscribed sherds that extends from the beginning of the Ravi
phase, through the Kot Dijian phase, and into the Harappan phase, i.e.,
from sometime in the second half of the fourth millennium to middle of
the third millennium BC. Additional Kot Dijian Phase inscribed material
was recovered during the 1999 season at Harappa; Ravi phase deposits
were not excavated in the 1999 season.


<excerpt>In examining inscribed sherds it is important to distinguish
between pre-firing and post-firing incisions. The former are often
called "potters' marks"; the latter are sometimes called "graffiti"
although that term is probably too informal for signs/symbols or series
of signs/symbols that were deliberately incised on finished vessels
after firing. Post-firing signs/symbols on pottery can be seen as
examples of "spontaneous" inscriptions, to be distinguished from the
inscriptions on Indus seals and "tablets" (sensu Parpola) that are
likely to have been cut by individuals given templates by other
(?"literate") individuals who commissioned the pieces. The
"spontaneous" inscriptions begin in the Ravi phase and continue through
the Kot Dijian into the Harappan. Examples can be seen on
www.harappa.com. The development of particular signs can be followed
even with the very small sample of material available to us today. A
priority for future research at Harappa is to clear significantly
larger areas of the Ravi, Kot Dijian, and earliest Harappan phase
deposits in order to investigate further the development of signing and
its transformation into the Indus script.

Of interest to readers of this statement may be the rather useful
article on early writing in the New York Times of 19 April by John
Noble Wilford. The URL is:

Also readers should be on the alert for an article on early writing to
appear in National Geographic Magazine in the August 1999 issue. A
principal consultant for that article is Prof. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer
(Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison), co-Director and Field Director of the
Harappa Archaeological Research Project and the person directly
responsible for the excavation of the Ravi and Kot Dijian inscribed
pieces. Further discussion and illustrations can be found in his
recently published book: <underline>Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley
Civilization</underline>, Oxford University Press, Karachi (and Oxford,
New York, Delhi), 1998. The reader is also referred to articles by
Meadow & Kenoyer and Kenoyer & Meadow scheduled to appear shortly in
<underline>South Asian Archaeology 1997</underline> (proceedings of the
meeting of the European Association for South Asian Art and Archaeology
held in Rome in 1997). These articles deal with aspects of writing at
Harappa and with the Ravi phase and will be published by the Instituto
Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente (IsIAO), via Merulana 248, 00185
Rome, Italy.

The Harappa Archaeological Research Project (HARP) is directed by
Richard H. Meadow (Project Director), J. Mark Kenoyer (co-Project and
Field Director), and Rita P. Wright (Assistant Project Director and
Director of the Beas Survey). HARP is carried out in collaboration with
the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan, with
the assistance of professionals and students from Pakistan and USA as
well as individuals from Japan, Canada, Sweden, and Italy. The project
is currently funded by grants to members of HARP from the National
Endowment for the Humanities, the Kress Foundation, the American School
of Prehistoric Research, the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, the
University of Wisconsin, New York University, and private donors. Past
support has come from the National Geographic Society, the National
Science Foundation, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.



Michael Witzel                          Elect. Journ. of Vedic Studies

Harvard University                  www1.shore.net/~india/ejvs


my direct line (also for messages) :  617- 496 2990

home page:     www.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/mwpage.htm
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