Monday, December 14, 2015

Deciphering the Indus Script

by Salman Hameed

This is one of the few undeciphered languages left in the world. A few weeks ago, Nature had a nice overview of the status of decipherment:
The Indus civilization flourished for half a millennium from about 2600 bc to 1900 bc. Then it mysteriously declined and vanished from view. It remained invisible for almost 4,000 years until its ruins were discovered by accident in the 1920s by British and Indian archaeologists. Following almost a century of excavation, it is today regarded as a civilization worthy of comparison with those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as the beginning of Indian civilization and possibly as the origin of Hinduism. 
More than a thousand Indus settlements covered at least 800,000 square kilometres of what is now Pakistan and northwestern India. It was the most extensive urban culture of its period, with a population of perhaps 1 million and a vigorous maritime export trade to the Gulf and cities such as Ur in Mesopotamia, where objects inscribed with Indus signs have been discovered. Astonishingly, the culture has left no archaeological evidence of armies or warfare. 
Most Indus settlements were villages; some were towns, and at least five were substantial cities (see 'Where unicorns roamed'). The two largest, Mohenjo-daro — a World Heritage Site listed by the United Nations — located near the Indus river, and Harappa, by one of the tributaries, boasted street planning and house drainage worthy of the twentieth century ad. They hosted the world's first known toilets, along with complex stone weights, elaborately drilled gemstone necklaces and exquisitely carved seal stones featuring one of the world's stubbornly undeciphered scripts.
The Indus script is made up of partially pictographic signs and human and animal motifs including a puzzling 'unicorn'. These are inscribed on miniature steatite (soapstone) seal stones, terracotta tablets and occasionally on metal. The designs are “little masterpieces of controlled realism, with a monumental strength in one sense out of all proportion to their size and in another entirely related to it”, wrote the best-known excavator of the Indus civilization, Mortimer Wheeler, in 1968. 
Of course, contemporary politics is not too far from these conversation:
In the 1990s and after, many Indian authors — including some academics — have claimed that the Indus script can be read in a form of early Sanskrit, the ancestral language of most north Indian languages including Hindi. In doing so, they support the controversial views of India's Hindu nationalist politicians that there has been a continuous, Sanskrit-speaking, Indian identity since the third millennium bc. 
Whatever their differences, all Indus researchers agree that there is no consensus on the meaning of the script. There are three main problems. First, no firm information is available about its underlying language. Was this an ancestor of Sanskrit or Dravidian, or of some other Indian language family, such as Munda, or was it a language that has disappeared? Linear B was deciphered because the tablets turned out to be in an archaic form of Greek; Mayan glyphs because Mayan languages are still spoken. Second, no names of Indus rulers or personages are known from myths or historical records: no equivalents of Rameses or Ptolemy, who were known to hieroglyphic decipherers from records of ancient Egypt available in Greek. 
Third, there is, as yet, no Indus bilingual inscription comparable to the Rosetta Stone (written in Egyptian and Greek). It is conceivable that such a treasure may exist in Mesopotamia, given its trade links with the Indus civilization. The Mayan decipherment started in 1876 using a sixteenth-century Spanish manuscript that recorded a discussion in colonial Yucatan between a Spanish priest and a Yucatec Mayan-speaking elder about ancient Mayan writing.
But progress has been made:
Indus scholars have achieved much in recent decades. A superb three-volume photographic corpus3 of Indus inscriptions, edited by the indefatigable Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki, was published between 1987 and 2010 with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; a fourth and final volume is still to come. The direction of writing — chiefly right to left — has been established by analysis of the positioning of groups of characters in many differing inscriptions. The segmentation of texts containing repeated sequences of characters, syntactic structures, the numeral system and the measuring system are partly understood. 
Views vary on how many signs there are in the Indus script. In 1982, archaeologist Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao published a Sanskrit-based decipherment with just 62 signs4. Parpola put5 the number at about 425 in 1994 — an estimate supported by the leading Indus script researcher in India, Iravatham Mahadevan. At the other extreme is an implausibly high estimate6 of 958 signs, published this year by Bryan Wells, arising from his PhD at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
Nevertheless, almost every researcher accepts that the script contains too many signs to be either an alphabet or a syllabary (in which signs represent syllables), like Linear B. It is probably a logo-syllabic script — such as Sumerian cuneiform or Mayan glyphs — that is, a mixture of hundreds of logographic signs representing words and concepts, such as &, £ and %, and a much smaller subset representing syllables. 
As for the language, the balance of evidence favours a proto-Dravidian language, not Sanskrit. Many scholars have proposed plausible Dravidian meanings for a few groups of characters based on Old Tamil, although none of these 'translations' has gained universal acceptance.
I am also surprised that the pace of excavation has slowed down in the last few decades. This is really too bad. And I had not heard about Ganweriwala before reading this article:
On the ground in Pakistan and India, more inscriptions continue to be discovered — although not, as yet, any texts longer than 26 characters. Unfortunately, less than 10% of the known Indus sites have been excavated. The difficulty — apart from funding — is the politically troubled nature of the region. Many of the most promising unexcavated sites lie in the Pakistani desert region of Cholistan near the tense border with India. One such is the city of Ganweriwala, discovered in the 1970s and apparently comparable in size with Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. 
If these sites, and some others within Pakistan and India, were to be excavated, there seems a reasonable prospect of a widely accepted, if incomplete, decipherment of the Indus script. It took more than a century to decipher the less challenging Mayan script, following several false starts, hiatuses and extensive excavation throughout the twentieth century. Indus-script decipherers have been on the much barer trail — older by two millennia — for less than a century, and excavation of Indus sites in Pakistan has stagnated in recent decades.
Fascinating stuff. Read the full article here


Roshaan said...

I've always been fascinated by the fact that a civilization as old and as remarkable as Indus Valley Civilization is a part of this country I happen to live in. I've never been to Mohanjo Daro, but there was a time when its image was printed on a 10 Rupee note. I never paid much attention to that picture. But as time passed on, my interested in learning more about human civilizations sparked a curiosity in me to learn more about one sitting just south of Punjab. Interesting blog post no doubt.

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