Indus signs on birch bark folio in Sultani Museum, Kabul: continuous or reinvented use?

Jan E.M. Houben j_e_m_houben at YAHOO.COM
Fri Nov 18 19:52:37 UTC 2011

Dear Steve, 

As we all know from Sherlock Holmes: no crime without motive. 

To the extent "forgeries" come under (artistic) crimes, I deduce that similar things apply here too. 

(The situation in ancient India tends to confirm this: see Richard Salomon's article "The Fine Art of Forgery" in G. Colas and G. Gerschheimer Ecrire et Transmettre, Paris: EFEO, an online accessible summary-reference in Sheldon Pollock's review of the book in JA 2011,'s%20Philology_.pdf).

To me the motive, either financial or "pious", for a forgery carelessly placed in an almost unknown museum in Kabul (Afghanistan), is far from obvious (note the apparent dissociation of the supposed "artefact" and the "artefact-creator", the absence of any claim by the museum owner regarding the nature of the script, and, consequently, the absence of immediately obvious financial profit and even more of ideological profit to the museum owner or to the "artefact-creator") . 

In defence of the student it should further be said that for her BA thesis she worked exclusively on the basis of photographs online available at the Western Himalaya Archive, Vienna. On p. 13 ff the student describes properties of the writing material which do not support anything close to the thesis of a "millennia-old" artefact, but which on the other hand do suggest oldness of the material (peeling off etc.).  

So could you briefly summarize your findings on this aspect of the object for me and other readers of this list?

(I am still not getting access to the messages to which you refer so please also instruct how to sign up to your Eurasian list).



 From: Steve Farmer <saf at SAFARMER.COM>
Sent: Friday, November 18, 2011 7:47 PM
Subject: Re: [INDOLOGY] Indus signs on birch bark folio in Sultani Museum, Kabul: continuous or reinvented use?
Dear Madhav,

It is an obvious and rather amateurish fake. We've discussed the reasons for this at length on the Indo-Eurasian Research List (IER) earlier this week, as explained to Jan Houben earlier today. You can find the relevant posts -- a long list of them now, starting with message 15562 here:

The girl who wrote the thesis (Lucy Zuberbuehler) herself has posted on the List, sending a note to me and Richard Sproat, saying that she knows it is a forgery and apologizing for all the trouble this has stirred up.

We even know where the fake comes from. See all the messages, including the note from Asko Parpola (posted via Naga Ganesan) the other day. Radiocarbon dating from around 2003 of longer fake manuscripts apparently written in the same hand show that the bark is modern.

Richard Sproat and I have also pointed to obvious internal evidence (anomalies in sign repetition rates and sign sequencing)  showing that it is a fake: you don't need radiocarbon evidence, but it exists.

I'm astonished that anyone could take it for being legitimate. The signs are based on modern redrawings or linearized/computerized "fonts" of the sort we find in modern studies from the time of Hunter 1929 to Mahadevan 1977 to Parpola 1994 to Wells, etc., and not on study of legitimate Indus artifacts. 

For full arguments from a long list of people, see IER above. There is no need to repeat those arguments here.]

Please note that claims that this is a real "Indus manuscript" are hitting the Web now only because of the efforts of the Hindutva propagandist (and serial pseudo-decipherer) S. Kalyanaraman. Even the author of the thesis doesn't think the manuscript is legitimate.

BTW, when Richard Sproat, Michael Witzel, and I published "Collapse of the Indus Script Thesis" in 2004, we predicted that there would be new Indus forgeries used in part to "refute" our argument. We made that prediction again at a Stanford University conference on our work in 2007. That prediction too has proven to be correct.


On Nov 18, 2011, at 10:11 AM, Deshpande, Madhav wrote:

> From: Deshpande, Madhav
> Sent: Friday, November 18, 2011 1:10 PM
> To: Jan E.M. Houben
> Subject: RE: [INDOLOGY] Indus signs on birch bark folio in Sultani Museum, Kabul: continuous or reinvented use?
> This appears to be an interesting find, though it is not completely clear what one can infer from it.  Just looking at the photographs provided in Zuberbuehler's paper, it appears to me that the chance of such material surviving from the Indus Valley period is remote, but the "manuscript" is most likely older than the modern archaeological discovery of the Indus Civilization, and perhaps similar in date to the box itself, namely 16th century A.D.  If that be the case, it is still astounding that the knowledge of the Indus characters in some form had continued in some remote corners till the 16th century.  Even if it be later than the 16th century, but older than the modern discovery of Indus, we still have the same amazement.  Unless it turns out, by modern dating methods, to be later than the modern discovery of Indus Seals, one still needs to explain who had preserved/discovered these signs before the modern archaeologists, and what was he
 attempting to encode.  As we are more or less familiar with the languages used in this area in the 16th century, it may be worth investigating whether someone could attempt to write a language like Pashto or Dari, using an inventory of Indus signs as replacements for the elements of a more contemporary Perso-Arabic script.  In any case, this looks like an important find, and if more of such finds become available from that area, our understanding of the history of these signs may move further.  The whole thing becomes worthless if, by modern methods of dating, the "manuscript" turns out to be far more modern, and thus representing a post-Indus-discovery attempt by someone to create an Indus manuscript to further some disputed modern arguments.  (How would it end up in the Kabul museum?)  Only time will tell the true nature of this "manuscript".
> Madhav M. Deshpande
> Professor of Sanskrit and Linguistics
> Department of Asian Languages and Cultures
> 202 South Thayer Street, Suite 6111
> The University of Michigan
> Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104-1608, USA
> _______

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