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

Deshpande, Madhav mmdesh at UMICH.EDU
Fri Nov 18 18:11:46 UTC 2011

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
From: Indology [INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk] on behalf of Jan E.M. Houben [jemhouben at GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Friday, November 18, 2011 11:53 AM
To: INDOLOGY at liverpool.ac.uk
Subject: [INDOLOGY] Indus signs on birch bark folio in Sultani Museum, Kabul: continuous or reinvented use?

A few questions regarding a recent thesis by Lucy Zuberbuehler (Univ. of Bern, Fac. of Lettres, Bachelor thesis prepared under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Roland Bielmeier) are too important not to be asked.
The author brilliantly compares the signs on a birch bark manuscript from a recently established private museum,  the Sultani Museum, in Kabul (on the basis of photographs available on the Western Himalaya Archive, Vienna), with the Indus signs as available on Indus seals etc. of ca. 2500 BCE.


In view of the observed properties of birch bark, it would seem reasonable to exclude the possibility that we have here a piece of writing from the time of the Indus civilization (C-dates are not available).
The folio is conserved in a box with perhaps 16th century C.E. paintings of horse riding and maybe polo playing men.
A close analysis of the writing leads Lucy Zuberbuehler to formulate (i.a.) the following important observation:
"The inability to locate any obvious ink failure could mean that the Kabul manuscript was written with a reservoir pen. This type of pen purportedly existed as early as the 10th century in the Islamic world" (p. 15).
Suppose the folio is 1/2 a millennium or even, somehow, 2 millennia old (as the oldest currently available birch bark mss fragments): the gap with the Indus civilization period is in either case still enormous.
If the signs on this folio do have a syllabic or alphabetic value and if they do represent a "living" script, their correspondence with the much older Indus signs is simply TOO exact, since in other living scripts, at least alphabetic and syllabic-alphabetic ones, significant cummulative modifications are observed every two centuries or so (unless printing intervenes).
Did someone copy the signs (perhaps several centuries ago) from some other object without knowing what the signs represented? Did the signs fail to evolve significantly as they had a non-alphabetic and non-syllabic function also for the one who wrote the signs on the folio? Finally, can any functional continuity be accepted between the use of signs in the Indus civilization and the use of similar signs on the Kabul manuscript, around two or rather three millennia later?
Jan Houben

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