'Singletons' in Unpublished Indus Seals
Early Support for 'Sproat's Smoking Gun'
Steve Farmer, Ph.D.
Go to Indus slide-lectures available online
(Illustrations of new seal inscriptions used as evidence are provided at the end of the page.)
One of many arguments that demonstrate that Indus symbols were not part of a 'writing system' revolves around the fact that as the size of the known corpus of Indus inscriptions expands it shows no signs of symbol 'saturation.' Put simply, all this means is that as the number of known inscriptions increases, the percentage of unique signs ('singletons') and other very low-frequency Indus signs keeps rising rather than falling — which is the opposite of the behavior expected from a true writing system. This finding leads to predictions concerning what we will find in Vol. 3 of the Corpus of Indus Signs and Inscriptions, whose imminent publication was announced at the May 2001 and May 2002 Harvard Roundtable meetings. (No such announcement was made at the May 2003 or May 2004 Roundtables.)
For predictions of this sort, go to http://www.safarmer.com/smokinggun.html, which is extracted from my lecture at the May 2003 Harvard Roundtable. For this and more recent slide-lectures and articles on the Indus seals, Go to Indus slide-lectures available online.
Depending on who is counting Indus symbols, current estimates of the number of 'singletons' in relation to all known Indus signs range from 27% - 50%, with much higher percentages consisting of very low frequency signs. Moreover, there are strong reasons to argue that these already implausibly high numbers are badly underestimated. For discussion, see page 16 of indusnotes.
The suggestion of this evidence is that a significant number of Indus signs were created 'on the fly' and were used only once or a handful of times before being abandoned. This is consistent with the behavior of many known nonlinguistic sign systems, but not with a fully enabled 'script.'
It is interesting to note that an unusually high percentage of 'singletons' and other low-frequency signs show up preferentially on the best-quality Indus seals. This strongly suggests that, for whatever reason, creation of new Indus symbols was apparently largely the prerogative of Indus elites. There are far-reaching implications to this finding that it is important to take up at another point.
While we're waiting for Vol. 3 to be released, we can take a look at some interesting seal inscriptions, none in the current volumes of the Corpus, that we know will show up in that volume. In the Schoyen Collection in Oslo, Norway, eight Indus seals can be found that carry the label: "To be published by Asko Parpola in: Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions, vol. 3."
For all eight Indus seals, their impressions, and (unfortunately often very badly misleading) catalog descriptions, consult (besides the annotated images that I include on this page below) http://www.nb.no/baser/schoyen/5/5.6/. Then scroll down to 16.4, Indus cylinder and stamp seals:
The catalog entry provides superb images of eight previously unpublished Indus seals due to be printed in Vol. 3 of the Corpus. Using the Schoyen Collection reference numbers, they are:
* MS 4602 Indus Valley, ca. 3000 BC
* MS 5062 Indus Valley, 2200-1800 BC
* MS 5065 Indus Valley, ca. 1800 BC
* MS 2645, Afghanistan, 23rd-21st c. BC
* MS 4617, Indus Valley, ca. 2200-2000 BC
* MS 4619, Mohenjo-Daro, ca. 2200-1800 BC
* MS 5059, Indus Valley, 2200-1800 BC
* MS 5061, Indus Valley, 2200-1800 BC
Seven of those eight seals carry inscriptions. It is a bit difficult to read a few of the signs, but there is no doubt that at least four of the eight seals carry new 'singletons' not seen in earlier inscriptions. All these seals are very high quality — the kind (one notes euphemistically) that invariably 'find their way' into 'private collections.' (Many of the best Indus pieces, still largely unpublished, unfortunately fall into this looted category.) The high quality of the inscriptions supports the general impression that, for whatever reason, the creation of new signs was largely the prerogative of Indus elites.
The upshot: the preliminary evidence from Vol. 3 confirms the prediction that the number of 'singletons' can be expected to continue to grow even larger as the number of known Indus inscriptions increases. Even though I have not seen Vol. 3, I have been able to gather enough data over the last few months from recently published sources that also confirms that prediction. From the preliminary data, it does not appear that the 130-year-old 'Indus script' myth will survive publication of Vol. 3 of the Corpus.
(Since this note was written, I have been given full access to the 500-odd unpublished inscriptions from Harappa in the Harappa Project data base at Harvard University; study of these unpublished inscriptions further confirms that prediction. Some of these unpublished inscriptions are shown in recent slide lectures found at my download page.)
Below are my annotations of the four (out of seven) inscribed seals illustrated in the Schoyen Collection that contain new 'singletons.' There are many other interesting anomalies in these seals that I won't try to discuss here.
For the original images, go to the Schoyen collection. The partial images used below with arrows added are cited under 'Fair Use' provisions of copyright law, which permits reproduction of this sort for scholarly purposes.
Modern seal impression of a previously unpublished Mohenjo-daro seal. (The animal in this impression is anomalously facing left, not right as usual.) At a minimum, the sign marked by the arrow is a 'singleton' — no other instances of the sign is known in any previous sign list.(The closest known sign is the multi-toothed object, sometimes referred to as a 'comb,' seen in the middle of inscription MS 5059, which is shown immediately below. The so-called comb in MS 5059 is often associated with farm instruments and plant signs, and, judging from context, most likely represented a harvesting tool.)
For a large image of the original seal and the seal impression seen on the right, go to the Schoyen Collection in Norway:
Scroll down to 16.4, click on MS 5065, and then click on the small image when it appears.
Another large and beautiful Indus seal from Mohenjo-daro, also previously unpublished, to the best of my knowledge. The photo of the seal is flipped horizontally to mimic the way it would look as a seal impression. The reptilian-looking (?) creature that is the third symbol from the left is an apparent 'singleton.' The sign is not given in any of the previously known sign lists.
For large image of the seal and an impression go to the Schoyen Collection:
Scroll down to 16.4, click on MS 5059, and then click on the small image when it appears.
Large beautiful Indus seal from Mohenjo-daro, also apparently previously unpublished. The photo of the seal is flipped horizontally to mimic the way it would look as an impression. The second symbol from the left (see the red arrow) is a 'singleton' — no other instances of the sign is known in any previous sign list.
For a large image of the seal and an impression go to the Schoyen Collection:
Scroll down to 16.4, click on MS 5062, and then click on the small image when it appears.
Impression of a rare Indus cylinder seal — a form more common to the Indus Valley's Mesopotamian trade partners than to Harappa itself. Found in this case in NW Afghanistan. As the Schoyen catalog description suggests, the iconography appears to be Old Akkadian, while the symbols are easily identified as being Indus. (The three rows of four strokes and the hoe or spear-like sign are familiar Indus symbols.) The two middle symbols or emblems, however (red arrows), are not found in any other inscription (out of a data base of perhaps by now 20,000+ [?] known instances of individual Indus emblem occurrences).
For a large image of the original seal and this impression, go to the Schoyen collection in Norway:
Scroll down to 16.4, click on MS 2645, and then click on the small image when it appears.