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date: 31 July 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Few things are more tantalizing to historians than an undeciphered script. Hundreds of broken and intact Harappan seals have been discovered in numerous sites throughout the Indus Valley, many that combine a line of symbols assumed to be text with an image of an animal. Denoting them seals, historians have determined that most were used to identify someone involved with an object (owner, craftsmen, or merchant). It is also possible that the seals, and other examples of the Indus script, were protective in nature, operating as a talisman. However, without the ability to read the symbols, how the seals and other objects with writing were used to convey information is a matter of speculation. It is hard to understand how a text is used if one cannot read the content. In the excerpt below, historian Thomas Trautmann, a leading specialist on ancient India, provides an overview of the mysterious Harappan seals.

The most intriguing artifacts of the Indus sites are rectangular steatitei seals, because of the writing on them. These seals, little more than an inch square, generally bear an incised image, beautifully carved, of which the humped bull is a common type. Other animals (tiger, elephant), composite mythological beasts, and the rare human form are figured on other seals. They also bear a short inscription across the top, in a script that has defied many attempts to decipher it. This script contains more than four hundred signs, too many to be purely alphabetic or syllabic because no language is known to have more than a hundred phonemes. Although many of the signs are obviously pictographic, other elements act as modifiers, perhaps as word endings, and others are clearly numerals. The seals were meant to be pressed into soft clay as a mark of ownership, in all likelihood. The inscriptions are short, presumably recording little more than the owner’s name. The language of the script is unknown; a Dravidian language would be our best guess because of islands of Dravidian language in the Indus and Ganga valleys, but other languages cannot be ruled out. We do not have a bilingual inscription, like the Rosetta Stone by which the Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered, or the Greek and Prakrit inscriptions on coins by which the inscriptions of Ashoka were read. However, because the Indus people were involved with seagoing trade with other literate people, especially the Elamites and perhaps the Mesopotamians, there is a chance that a bilingual inscription will be found one day…

From India: Brief History of a Civilization. Thomas R. Trautmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 22-27

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