The enigma of the Indus Script

Indus Seals found in the Middle East could hold the key to the script's decipherment, writes Natasha Shahid

The enigma of the Indus Script
Over the past century, archaeologists working in the Middle East have time and again excavated seals bearing what they call “Indus-style inscriptions”, complete with the script and the usual unicorn or bull. However, such Indus- or Harappan-style seals discovered “overseas”, so to speak, displayed a different shape as well as craftsmanship, being shaped either as circles or cylinders which were “rolled over wet clay rather than pressed upon it.” At times, such seals have also been discovered from within the defined boundaries of the Indus Valley Civilization – or, shall we say, Meluhha, as most modern scholars agree the contemporarily-named Indus Valley Civilization was called at the time of its existence – such as the “Gulf seal” discovered from Lothal, Gujarat. All of these discoveries give rise to many questions: did the people from the-then Dilmun and Magan Civilizations – as the civilizations from the modern-day Bahrain and Oman were respectively known – produce those seals indigenously? If so, did they understand the Meluhhan language? Or did the Meluhhans themselves make different seals for trade-items being sent to different places? In which case, too, the question remains: could the people from neighbouring civilizations understand the script? If they could not, then why did the Meluhhans send them these seals? Or, if those civilizations produced them indigenously, why so? Answers to these questions might hold the key to the decipherment of the Indus Script, by aiding archaeologists in the discovery of a bilingual text: the Rosetta Stone of the Indus Valley Civilization.

What was the purpose of the Indus Seals?

Most scholars of the Indus Valley Civilization concur – and are almost appallingly certain on the hypothesis – that the seals in consideration were used as stamps, most likely by tradesmen exporting their trade-items. Their certainty can be judged by instances such as Kenoyer’s statement, “when the first inscribed seals were used to stamp bundles of goods, they ushered in an era of economic and political hegemony that would last 700 years” (Kenoyer, 1998, 69) and Parpola’s “about 30 Harappan seals come from the Gulf and Mesopotamia, left there by sea-faring Indus merchants” (Parpola, 2010, 6). The hypothesis – a hypothesis not a historical fact – that the seals were most likely used by tradesmen, does not guarantee the notion that they reached foreign soil along with Meluhhan tradesmen, alone. The seals could very well have been produced indigenously by local craftsmen, a hypothesis that can be backed by substantial evidence.

The Two Types of “Foreign” Harappan Seals

By observing the craftsmanship of Harappan style seals discovered in the Middle East, it can be judged that they are of two types: those made by the craftsmen of the respective foreign civilization and those made indigenously by Meluhhan craftsmen. A hypothesis can further be generated, that the Indus seals found in neighbouring areas which were made by foreign craftsmen were possibly for stamping goods being exported to Meluhha while those made by Meluhhan craftsmen possibly reached foreign land along with goods imported from Meluhha.

This conclusion relies firstly on the kind of material used in the seals and secondly on their craftsmanship. For example, Mesopotamian seals are typically made of stone and are cylindrical in shape. Therefore the seals of that shape and material dated from that era can safely be said to have been made in Mesopotamia – owing to the material used in their making – and by Mesopotamian craftsmen – owing to the style and craftsmanship of the inscriptions. Similarly, the “Gulf seal” discovered from Lothal also bears resemblance with the Gulf seals discovered from the Falaika Islands and Bahrain – or Dilmun of the time – in that they all have the typical markings of the three parallel lines and dots-in-circle on the backside. Thus, it is only the engravings on the face of these seals that make them “Indus style” so to speak; otherwise they are quite similar to other seals made for local use in the respective civilization.

Implications: Was the Indus Script Understood in Neighbouring Lands?

As already stated, the discovery of Indus seals – both native and foreign-made – from the Middle East has vast implications. The implications on trade are already widely accepted such as the notion that the Meluhhans exported a variety of goods to neighbouring lands and that they practiced maritime trade. However, the implications of this discovery on the language or script of Meluhha have not been explored that extensively. Yet, having said that, the work that has been conducted must be acknowledged.

The deepest insight on the mutual linguistic understanding of the people from the various civilizations of the time – Dilmun, Magan, Meluhha and Mesopotamia – comes from Dr. Asko Parpola’s paper, Indus Civilization (-1750 BCE)(2012) in which he states (p. 5)

Apparently these Harappan trade agents were bilingual and had local names, some adopting also the local cylinder type of seal. The Meluhhan language was not understood in Mesopotamia, for one Akkadian cylinder seal belonged to “Su-ilishu, interpreter of the Meluhhan language.”

This observation is supported well by the discovery of a variety of seals bearing the Indus script. If all neighbouring civilizations – and not just Mesopotamia, as the above-given passage states – had interpreters of the Meluhhan language, the presence of the “Indus” script on all foreign seals can be explained. But, if they did not, then the understanding of the Meluhhan language in their lands is still debatable – a debate which needs further archaeological evidence from the ex-civilizations of Dilmun and Magan for resolution.

However, evidence from Mesopotamia is sufficient to tackle with the Elamite theory – the theory that the Indus Script is linguistically closer to Elamite – since Elamite was a Mesopotamian language. If Dr. Parpola is right in judging that the Mesopotamian common men could not comprehend the Indus Script, then perhaps it does not have any substantial links with Elamite, despite their similarities such as a logo-syllabic base. Nevertheless, an important and hopeful implication of Dr. Parpola’s suggestion is that there is an increasing possibility that bilingual texts bearing the Indus script did exist in two possible lands: in Mesopotamia where there were local “interpreters of the Meluhhan language”, and in Meluhha itself, that had “bilingual trade agents”. However, this estimate relies entirely on the word of Asko Parpola.

Thus, we can conclude that the Indus seals excavated from the former lands of Magan, Dilmun and Mesopotamia are of immense archaeological importance and can help in solving many mysteries of the Meluhhan civilization. However, we are still in need of further evidence – at best a bilingual text – that could aid in resolving the greatest mystery of the civilization: its script.