Science Mag: "no Indus script"

Sat Dec 18 22:17:22 EST 2004

John Huntington wrote:

> However, these are an artifact of a fortune telling tradition
It is good to see that the recent Farmer et al article is generating
interest and debate from a wide range of scholars.  Nevertheless, it seems
somewhat trivializing to characterize one of the central aspects of Shang
state ritual in this manner.  Moreover, the divinatory purpose may not have
been quite as straightforward as popularly assumed -- see Sarah Allen's "The
Shape of the Turtle" (SUNY 1991) pp112-123.  She hypothesizes that the aim
of the divination was not to foretell the future as popularly supposed to
control it by influencing divine forces with quantified sacrifices.

> 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.
More than that, we know that the Shang people used the precursor characters
of *ce* (an assembled scroll of bamboo strips) and *dian* (a bamboo script
scroll placed on a table, later = a volume etc) and others which indicate
scribal activities.  Thus even if no samples have survived, we have
secondary evidence that writing was extensively, though perhaps not widely,
used.  These are the kind of secondary markers associated with writing that
are completely missing from the Harappan symbol system, which Farmer et al
claim proves the non-existence of any extensive "literature" in the IVC.

> 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
> alphabet.
If you re-read Farmer et al carefully, you will find that all the putative
ostraca were inscribed before the pot was broken (with one dubious
exception) contra the Greek etc practice.

> 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."
But many other scholars are more cautious -- as far as I know, the consensus
seems to be that they are merely identifying marks used by the potters.
Their form and number are very limited, around 100 only, and show no
development from their use c4700BCE down to the end of the Zhou period. On
the other hand, Shang pottery has been found with characters identical to
those on the oracle-bones.  It would therefore seem that the pottery marks
have no connection with the development of true writing in China.  Also see
John DeFrancis "Chinese Prehistoric Symbols and American Proofreaders
Marks", Journal of Chinese Linguistics 19.1 116-121 (1991).

Best wishes,
Stephen Hodge

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