Updated again March 16, 2008: Varnam.org includes this post in their History Carnival. Thanks a lot Varnam.org. We are honored.
Updated again March 9, 2008: Steve Farmer sent me an email and was kind enough to explain to me why my post was moderated out. I accepted his explanation. But i told Steve that attacking the person and attacking the argument are 2 different things and that untill the comments that attack me are removed from his group forum, i will keep my retort up over here.
Updated March 9, 2008: This post is being discussed by Witzel, Farmer and others. I have got some new labels from this group of highly accomplished academicians – I am now a Nationalist (read Hindutvavadi) and a Parpola Admirer/Deifier. My response to their discussion on their forum doesn’t seem to get posted possibly because they moderate it. I also didn’y store my post by mistake. I am rewriting my post on that forum here and hence some of the words may have changed but the essence is the same:
1. I am the author of the post all of you are discussing. I object to the nationalist label you assigned to me because that is a proxy for unscientific people. I am a proud Indian National, as proud of my nationality as much as you all are about yours. If you call me a Nationalist, i assume you will also carry that same label with the same negative connotations against your names as well. For the record, I am of the view that Aryans came from outside India and Aryanized the local people (its not Aryan Invasion). You will understand my position if you read post #6 of this series.
2. I find it amusing that you all picked one line in the report about Homer’s epics being in Linear B for your discussion and even setting bounties to be hunted for it. That might have been entirely my mistake in representing what Parpola said. Let me point out to you that this entire Parpola rebuttal disproves the Witzel/Farmer/Sproat beyond reasonable doubt. If you still want to stand by your research, please publish your rebuttal in an open forum like you have done with your original paper. Where is the need for obtaining a personal discussion with Parpola?
3. Witzel, i generally respect and admire your research and your arguments. I have read most of your papers available on the public Internet and also the spats you had with Frawley in the pages of the Hindu newspaper. But this paper of yours that tries to prove that IVC was illiterate is one that i don’t agree with at all. Now Parpola has disproved it.
4. I seem to have gotten another label – Parpola Admirer/Deifier. I think Parpola is extraordinary and I am an admirer, yes. He is a man who has spent 4 decades of his life on Indology in a time when what goes by the name of Indology is arguments around Aryan Invasion Theory. I believe that IVC was a great civilization and in some ways better than or at atleast at a par with Sumer and Egypt. IVC deserves its rightful place in the history of humankind. You can dismiss that as my axe to grind. Maybe. But you can easily make me abandon my position with scientific arguments that is accepted as valid by the general Indology community. Just setting bounty money on irrelevant parts of the argument doesn’t behove of an accomplished academic community that all of you represent.
I rest my case.
After covering the Aryan Invasion Theory debate, we get back to the IVC. Saturday, Feb 16, 2008 was a great day in my life. Thanks to Archana Raghuram’s tip off, myself and Priya Raju got to attend a lecture by Asko Parpola at the Indus Research Centre [Roja Muthiah Reference Library] on saturday from 10.30 AM to 12.30 PM. We had reached the venue at 10 am, so that there would be no scope for missing even one word of the great master. I also managed to get his autograph. After about 15 min, we saw Iravatham Mahadevan coming and sitting in the front seat. I got his autograph as well – he signed his name in the Indus Script! If you are really interested in understanding the IVC people and their script, this lecture notes may be a critically important one to read. I have tried my best to capture everything Parpola said. If you find this lecture difficult to grasp, you may want to first orient yourself to his thoughts by reading this recent interview of Parpola which appeared in the Hindu newspaper.
Welcome Address by V.C. Kulandaiswamy, former Vice Chancellor of Anna University, who chaired the meeting:
This center has been setup in Jan 2007 and is one of the newest centers for Indus Research. It is now operating under Iravatham Mahadevan’s tutelage. We have today Asko Parpola, Professor Emeritus of Indology from Univ of Helsinki today. There have been several Indus researchers but AP is unique. He has dedicated almost 4 decades, one could say, his entire life to Indus Research [Wow!]. Not just him, his brother, his wife and his daughter are all engaged in Indus Research. No other person on the planet can claim this sort of dedication to the cause of deciphering Indus – it is a rather unenviable task because many people think the script is undecipherable.
He got started as student of Sama Vedic rituals [is an expert in Sanskrit, Vedas and Upanishads] and later started working on the IVC Script. He started collecting material for his research in the 1960s and has accumulated a monumental amount of material which he has now published in 2 volumes the Indus Corpus [need the exact name] in 1987 and 1991. 2 more volumes are being worked upon.
I presented this paper in July 2007 at a Stanford Univ conference criticizing the Farmer/Witzel/Sproat paper that claimed that IVC was illiterate. I also presented this at a Japanese Conference. I am going to present the same paper with some more material to all of you today. This paper is not yet available in the public domain.
For the record, let me start by saying that the IVC script is a logo-syllabic script. I will present their arguments one by one and offer my rebuttal [starting with a “But” – My addition] for each one of them and then conclude with some more thoughts.
1. There are too few symbols compared to Chinese and other such pictographic scripts. At the same time there are signs repeated in the same seal.
a. they agree themselves in the paper that this point alone is not enough to prove that it is not a script.
b. Kimmo Koskienien, a colleague of mine sent an email to Sproat “does this mean you can’t prove or disprove” – Sproat replied “Yes”.
c. Shows the Narmer Inscription from Egypt showing how Cat Fish [Nr] + Awl [Mr] = Narmer.
d. Shows the famous Cleopatra and Ptolemy Cartouches which have repeating signs within a single cartouche. So repeating signs alone don’t prove or disprove anything.
2. Text is too short and there are too many rare signs (or very infrequently used signs)
a. Indus Seals have an average of 5 signs and that is more than sufficient to convey many things. Given the logo-syllabic nature and the fact these seals may represent religious rituals or trade transactions, we cannot expect long sentences.
b. Shows 2 Akkadian Seals from 2200 BC that shows “Adda the Scribe” and another showing a short poem about King of Akkad.
c. Not all signs are short – shows 2 seals having 14 signs each.
c. Sometimes even a single sign can convey a concept and shows the man + 2 concentric circles + tiger seal.
d. Compound signs that are composed of 2 or more individual signs are present. For examples shows the compound sign having a man carrying bow+arrow and also man and bow+arrow as individual signs.
3. Too many singletons
a. Only 25% of the signs occur only once and even that may change with more seal excavations.
b. All logo-syllabic scripts have many rare signs like Chinese for example.
4. No “random-looking” sign repetitions within any text.
a. points to the ptolemy & cleopatra cartouches with sign repetitions highlighted to show what a “random-looking” sign repitition is.
b. Indus also has this pattern and it occurs in the very same “bar seals” that they talk about. they missed it.
c. Shows many examples of sign repititions using seals M-682 A, M-682a, M-682 a bis; M-634-A, 93; K-10A, K-10a;
Also shows 1 sign repeated in 2 places in an 8-sign bar seal.
d. Then shows an example of a repeating sign that has 2 signs signifying “eye” and says that is “kann” [See in tamil] and “Kaan” [To See in Tamil] . So the repetition must be “KannKaani” meaning “Supervise”. [This is f***ing brilliant.]
5. “Lost” long texts never existed. We need text > 50 signs.
a. Maybe we need more excavations.
b. Rongo Rongo signs from Easter Island have greater than 50 signs. Is it writing?
c. Cites Possehl 2002, Cotton was cultivated and it was a main export of IVC. Yet we find only a few fibers of cotton attached to some vessels. Maybe they wrote text on persihable material like cotton.
d. Neachos, Greek, said that thickly woven cloth was being used for writing in India, he said it in 325 BC
e. Sanskrit sources also mention this.
f. Asoka was the first one to write in stone which is dated to 250 BC.
g. Panini mentions the word Lipi meaning script in 400-350BC so he must have known about writing.
h. There are evidences in Central Asia from 2nd cent A.D talking about palm leaf and birch bark manuscripts.
So they might have written their long texts in such perishable material which might have been lost.
6. No cursive variants found, so no possiblity of scribes, so not a script.
a. Egyptian hieroglyphics existed for 3000 years and their Heiratic cursive system doesn’t differ that much from the hieroglyphics.
b. AP’s sign list from 1994 shows 398 signs with quite a few variants of the same sign which means they had scribes.
7. No writing instrument found.
a. We know Tamils used Thin Metal Rods [Ezhuthaani in Tamil] to incise palm leaf. these might have gotten corroded.
b. they may have used a brush. There are evidences in North India to show they used brushes to paint the palm leaf.
8. Indus signs are non-linguistic
a. There are mesopotamian seals with signs that appear near Gods and also longer rows of signs appearing in limited contexts like their stelae and their boundary stones. Deities that protect their boundary stones were found on them. So it is common for ancients to have both linguistic and non-linguistic things in their writing.
9. Why didn’t they adopt writing from Mesopotamia because like the Celtic Druids and Vedic Brahamanas they wanted to keep their things a secret.
a. Adopting writing doesn’t oblige you to divulge secrets. You can always choose to not write down the secret stuff if that is what you want.
b. Literacy was restricted anyway. So just adopting writing doesn’t make everyone literate as we have seen in Egypt and elsewhere.
c. Incas developed a complex civilization without writing [they used some knotting system called Quipu]. So writing is not essential but at the sametime writing offers many advantages that can’t be denied.
At this point he says he is moving onto some additional thoughts:
1. The script must have been used mainly for administration of their trading system and for religious rituals much like the Ancient Sumerian Script.
2. The Neolithic Phase – 7000-4300BC, Chalcolithic Phase – 4300-3200BC.
3. Early Harappan phase – 3200 BC – 2500 BC due to some changes in flood patterns of the Indus, the common granaries dissappeared and they started using Large Urns but in each home. Irrigation systems started appearing because they couldn’t rely on the floods anymore. Cities with Grid patterns appear. Bullock Carts and Boat Trafficking emerge to enable them to have a cultural unification of a vast area. Harappan had one of the largest areas under its domain of its time.
4. Mid Harappan phase – 2800-2500 BC – Indus Script developed, standardized burnt brick of 1:2:4 standard started appearing everywhere.
5. Mature Harappan phase – 2500-1900 BC – the script is standardized across the board.
Standardized weights and measures created. Large building projects are started. In the city of Mohenjadaro, they build a citadel of 20 hectares size on a 12 meter tall artifical platform. One of the largest constructions of its kind for its time. There are 2 storied houses with individual baths that are unparalleled anywhere in the world at that time. They had 700 wells which have not collapsed even after 5000 years.
6. Shows Indus Tags from Umma in Mesopotamia. Almost 100 such clay tags were found in Kalibangan each of them having 4 0r more seals on them.
7. He said they started using Witnesses to record things [didn’t completely understand] and they started recording transactions in probably perishable material like cloth, leaves etc.
8. Many seals show a man kneeling in front of a Jar. I know a south indian village in Kerala where each village brings a jar of paddy to offer [i think this is there in Tamilnadu villages also].
okay, finally, is it a script or not?
Farmer/Witzel/Sproat are inconclusive. they couldn’t prove it is not a script. We also know that there were “potter marks” in the neighboring areas of baluchistan, turkmenistan, iranian plateau etc which clearly show what non-linguistic ones are. Indus is clearly a script.
there are 400 standardized signs and seals. most of them read right to left and most of them are arranged in a row neatly unless they had space constraints when they had to cram the signs like M-12A and M-66a
Shows examples of repeating signs that occur in seal endings as well as in the middle. Shows that such sequences were seen in seals collected from 9 different cities including sites as far away as Turkmenistan (Gonur) and Iraq (kish)
Then he shows examples of megalithic makings from Sanur in Tamilnadu where there are script like symbols. the problem is they have things like a 3 sign symbol which occur in different combinations and permutations, clearly indicating a non-linguistic thing.
The script was uniform everywhere – Sindh or Punjab used the same script.
Cites Godd 1932: No. 17 M – a round stamp seal which contains 5 different Indus signs in a unique combination. Concludes that it is a seal representing a foreign word for Indus people to read – perhaps by the traders.
then talks about Meluhha and that it is IVC very briefly.
Principle of Homophony or Puns or Rebus Principle
Shows a Sumerian Arrow sign standing for “Ti” that could mean one of 3 things – Arrow, Mistress of Life, Rib. It is this one that gave rise to the Biblical myth of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib because they mistook Mistress of Life as Rib because it is the same word! There are several such homophone examples in the IVC script – meen=star being a famous example.
Shows Witzel saying in a paper “IVC script may encode puns” and Farmer saying “It may not be a conventional speech-or-writing-encoding system”. He made a joke of their retraction.
Even short noun-phrases and incomplerte sentences qualify as full writing if it uses the Rebus principle.
Then he answered a few questions:
1. What about Mehrgarh? You didn’t mention that site.
It is an important site because it is one of the few that show the contiunuity from neolthic to chalcolithic to post-Indus covering all the developmental phases.
2. Why do we need to decipher the script?
a. Civilization’s definition includes writing.
b. It is one of the oldest writing systems in the world, so it is important for linguistics.
c. We need to know what religion it encodes because that is important to understand south asian religions.
Then he talked about how the Rig Veda was at first very creative but then when they switched to the mode of preserving it via the oral tradition they made it very rigid so that it can’t be changed at all. He said they same thing happened in Greece after Homerian Poems were written down using Linear B script.
He also mentioned that as the Vedic people moved in, the Brahmans from their society because of their knowledge would have immediately become important people in the IVC due to their knowledge of the Vedas. He said this is much similar to what happened when the British came and the Brahmins took to English quickly and became their key people for administering India.
There were a few more not-so-relevant points, and the meeting got over and we left. There was a mob around AP, thankfully i had gotten my autograph before the meeting.
On the whole it was a mind-blowing experience to listen to the grandmaster of IVC research. I was already in awe of Parpola’s work and after this lecture, i became even more convinced of the greatness of his work. Without knowing any of this, in my own small way, i had hypothesized that the IVC seals must have had a collating sequence . I did that entirely based on Farmer/Sproat/Witzel’s repeated insistence that the average length of the inscriptions on the seals was too small. Even though they said many things in their paper, that is the one assertion of theirs that bothered me the most.