Science Mag: "no Indus script"

John Huntington huntington.2 at OSU.EDU
Fri Dec 17 18:20:05 EST 2004

Dear Colleagues,

I have read with great interest the Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel
article and have a couple of questions.

Why has no one compared the to what is to me a very obvious
comparison, Chinese seals?
Seals range in date from Zhou times onto the present and had the
language not been a forerunner of modern Chinese through a process of
continuous development, would have presented very similar problems to
those of the Harappan seals. All inscriptions are very short, one to
maybe eight characters, extremely varied in content, with some 2000
or so recognized as early as the Shang dynasty.  Shang inscriptions,
mostly on oracle bones, are also short but there are thousands of
them sometimes as many as twenty or so on one ox scapula so we do
have longer texts and more diverse texts(in a sense).  However, these
are an artifact of a fortune telling tradition which as is well known
is unique to China. Bronze inscriptions from the Shang are equally
terse often only one or two characters.

If as seems to be the case Harappan civilization seals were intended
a marker of possessions, the very diversity of signifier type seems
to suggest that there were indeed individualized, they would parallel
the Chinese usage almost exactly.

As for ephemera and the lack there of for most ancient civilizations-
we know for example that the Shang had brushes, a few have been
found, and silk, impressions of which have been found on bronze
vessels which were originally wrapped in the material. Did they write
on silk or bamboo tallys or other such ephemera, as far as I am aware
none has come to light yet. But the assumption is that they probably
did, because their successors did. We simply do not know who the
successors of the Harappans were so there can be no such assumption.

While certain types of ephemera is predictable, detailed usage is not
so without the finding something such a palm-leaf manuscripts one
cannot say they did exist, but not finding them in an area in which
there virtually no ephemera is being found simply is not a case for
"proving" that longer texts did not exist.

As for the inscribed shards, it is well known that the Greeks used
pottery shards to mark with the names of persons to be ostracized
from society. Also short inscriptions but, of course, in a known

If the symbols are part of a symbolic notations system,  then there
should probably a comparison to a parallel system found on Indic
punch marked an tribal coins of the symbols on Sanchi stupa two
(which, by the way, will be on our website in just a few days) or the
auspicious markings on the Bharhut and Sanchi one Toranas.  There are
some survivals from Harappan symbology  on these sites tree chaityas,
for example.

It seems to me that Farmer, Sproat, and Witzel  have left a great
many unexplored comparisons in both languages and in symbol systems,
I know of more that dozen more that have proven to be very
challenging and bear some relationship to the problems that the raise.

Indeed the line between a symbol system and a written language is
itself a variety of shades of gray, think of the transition between
the Chinese pictorial glyph, to the logographic, to the ideographic.
How could one even imagine where draw a line?  Ho Ping-ti in his
Cradle of the East
found the clearly made potter's marks on the bottom of 6000 before
present Yang Shao culture to be at a  minimum "proto-writing." The
Chinese wrote with sharp tools just as the Harappans appear to have
done. Babylonians wrote with sharp sticks in wet clay. I for one will
continue to think of the Harappan seals as identifiers of belongings
and, "this belongs to Charlie," not much in the way of literature
whether it is said using pictorial glyphs, logographic glyphs,
ideographic glyphs, or alphabetic glyphs (even with ligatures).

Best of Holidays to all


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