The Indus Script is the writing system developed by the Indus Valley Civilization, an ancient civilization located in what today is eastern Pakistan and northwest India, on the fertile flood plain of the Indus River and its vicinity. The earliest use of the Indus Script dates back to 2500 BCE, and it has been found in pottery, amulets, carved stamp seals, and also in weights and copper tablets. Despite several attempts to decipher it, all efforts have so far failed, and the Indus Script's meaning still remains unknown, which is the main reason why the Indus Valley Civilization is one of the least known of the important early civilizations of antiquity.
Indus Script Overview
Thousands of inscribed objects have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization and nearly 90% of them were excavated from the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Among these objects we have seals, mostly carved on steatite, presenting different shapes, the most common one being the square/rectangular shape. Some of the seals include the image of an animal (real or imaginary) combined with a short inscription. The precise use of these items is still unclear.
Slightly over 400 basic signs have been identified as part of the Indus Script. Only 31 of these signs occur over 100 times, while the rest were not used regularly. This leads researchers to believe that a large amount of the Indus Script was actually written on perishable materials, such as palm leaves or birch, that did not survive the destruction of time. Some researchers have argued that the roughly 400 symbols can actually be reduced to 39 elementary signs, the rest being merely variations of styles and differences between scribes.
Decipherment Attempts of the Indus Script
There are a number of factors that prevent scholars from unlocking the mystery of the Indus Script. To begin with, some of the languages of ancient times, such as Egyptian, were deciphered thanks to the recovery of bilingual inscriptions, by comparing an unknown script with a known one. Unfortunately, no bilingual inscriptions have yet been found to allow the Indus Script to be compared to a known writing system.
Another obstacle for its decipherment relates to the fact that all of the inscriptions found so far are relatively short, less than 30 signs. This means that analysing recurring sign patterns, another technique that can help to unlock the meaning of a writing system, cannot be successfully performed for the Indus Script.
The last important reason why the Indus Script remains undeciphered, and possibly the most debated of all, is that the language (or languages) that the script represents is still unknown. Scholars have suggested a number of possibilities: Indo-European and Dravidian are the two language families most commonly favoured, but other options have been proposed as well, such as Austroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, or perhaps a language family that has been lost. On the basis of the material culture associated with the Indus Valley Civilization, it is highly likely that this civilization was not Indo-European.
What is it Known About the Indus Script?
Although decipherment of the Indus Script has not been possible yet, the majority of the scholars who studied it agree in a number of points.
- The Indus Script was generally written from right to left. This is the case in most examples found, but there are some exceptions where the writing is bidirectional, which means that the direction of the writing is in one direction on one line but in the opposite direction on the next.
- The representation of certain numerical values has been identified. A single unit was represented by a downward stroke, while semicircles were used for units of ten.
- The Indus Script combined both word signs and symbols with phonetic value. This type of writing system is known as "logo-syllabic", where some symbols express ideas or words while others represent sounds. This view is based on the fact that roughly 400 hundred signs have been identified, which makes it unlikely for the Indus Script to be solely phonetic. However, if the hypothesis that the hundreds of signs can be reduced to just 39 is true, that means that the Indus Script could be solely phonetic.
Decline of the Indus Script
By 1800 BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization saw the beginning of its decline. As part of this process, writing started to disappear. As the Indus Valley Civilization was dying, so did the script they invented. The Vedic culture that would dominate North India for the centuries to come did not have a writing system, nor did they adopt the Indus Script. India would have to wait more than 1,000 to see the return of writing.
About the Author
- Chakrabarti, D, The Oxford Companion to Indian Archaeology (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Fortson,B, Indo-European Language and Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
- Haywood, J, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Civilizations (Penguin Books, 2005).
- Scarre, C, The Human Past (Thames & Hudson, 2013).
c. 3000 BCE
c. 2500 BCEEarliest use of the Indus Script.
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