Harappan animal icons/inscriptions

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Sun Aug 6 08:30:53 UTC 2000

I'd like to note one small but interesting piece of
evidence on links between Harappan animal icons and
inscriptions that surfaced while researching the
"horse seal" fiasco last week.

Not long ago Ferenc Ruzsa (in Budapest) pointed me to
prima facie evidence in I. Mahadevan's 1977 concordance of
Harappan script that in rare cases -- contrary to claims
I made in earlier posts -- the same inscriptions are sometimes
associated with different animal icons. This issue is irrelevant
to the "horse seal" issue, since we now have hard evidence that
Mackay 453 (the broken seal Rajaram used to create his "horse")
and Parpola 772 (the seal M. Witzel found that carries the same
inscription as Mackay 453) are simply photos of the
same seal made decades apart. But before we knew that, it was
necessary to check on the "one inscription/different animal"
evidence that Dr. Ruzsa pointed to, and one piece of data that
turned up when Mahadevan's concordance was checked against the
originals turned out to be very interesting indeed.

A series of scanned images made by Prof. Witzel, forwarded
to Dr. Ruzsa, shows that in most cases Mahadevan's concordance
is in error on the "same inscription/different animals" issue.
Almost always, close inspection of the different animals that
Mahadevan says are linked to identical inscriptions
shows that they are simply iconographical variants
of the same animal. Witzel's scanned images underline the
importance of doublechecking claims in the concordances,
which further mask subtle but potentially key differences
in Harappan characters by using a standardized computer-generated

But the prima facie evidence that Dr. Ruzsa gleaned from
Mahadevan *has* turned up one clear case where the
same inscription *does* show up linked to different
animal icons. Mahadevan says that such cases are rare, but
I would assume that the one case that we've confirmed is
not unique. This one is signaled in the final footnote
(p. 27, n. 25) of the introduction of Mahadevan's work. It
refers back to photos of two seals found in John
Marshall, _Mohenjodaro and the Indus Civilization_,
1931, Vol. III, Plate CIX #252 and Plate CXII #378.

The photos of the these two seals in Marshall are tiny and of
poor quality, making it difficult to get good scans of them.
The quality of the rather dim scans that I've posted at
is about equal to that of Marshall's photos. It is difficult
to make out details, but the drooping tail of #252 contrasts
clearly with the perky tail of #378; distinctive differences
are also apparent in the heads of the animals. Mackay, writing in
Marshall, Vol. II (1931: p. 382), suggests that #252 is a garden
variety "unicorn" seal; on p. 389, Mackay tells us that #378 is
one of several examples of a composite beast he characterizes
as "a ram, with the horns of a bull, a human face, and the
trunk and tusks of an elephant." The scans show that #252 and
#378 both clearly carry the same two-character inscription.

One critical piece of evidence is not mentioned by
Mahadevan or Mackay. Examination of the tables in Vol. II,
pp. 403-4 of Marshall reveals that both seals were discovered at
*exactly* the same location (HR 2596) and same depth (3' 0") in

I think that these two seals throw into doubt the most common
interpretation of the relationship between animal icons and
one frequent type of "seal" inscription.

Since the majority of Harappan "seals" (including these two) have
round protuberances ("bosses") with holes at the back --
presumably for threading with a cord or string -- it
is widely supposed that this kind of "seal" was a personal
ID tag. This idea is supported by the fact that impressions
of "seals" equipped with "bosses" are exceedingly rare.
One further inference often made is that the inscriptions
on these "ID tags" are personal names. If this is true, one might
reasonably guess that the animal icons are quasi-totemic symbols
of some kind -- standing, perhaps, for clans or professions or
rank/class or place of origin of the owners.

This reasonable chain of hypotheses is weakened by the evidence
seen in Marshall #252 and #378. If the inscriptions of
this type were personal names, it would be difficult to explain
why two identical "ID tags" show up in the same place
inscribed with different animal icons.

This suggests the alternative hypothesis that the
*inscription* refers to a general classification --
that is, to a profession, rank, sub-clan, or other
social category -- but *not* to a personal name. The
discovery of two such "ID tags" in the same place
could, on this view, be easily explained by the presence
in that place of two members of the same rank or profession
(identified by the inscription) but from different clans or
places of origin (symbolized by the quasi-totemic animal icon).

This is, of course, only a good guess. What does seem
clear is that it is difficult to reconcile the evidence of
Marshall #252 and #378 with the common view that inscriptions
on these putative "ID tags" contain personal names. The fact
that we find a number of duplicates of the much more common
"same inscription/same animal" perforated seals also argues
against the inscription = personal name hypothesis.

Does this line of argument seem reasonable? Can anyone
suggest other plausible alternatives?

Steve Farmer

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