Decoding the mysterious ancient Indus Valley script will shed light on powerful ancient civilization
Linguists have cracked many tough scripts, from Mesopotamian cuneiform to Egyptian hieroglyphic to Central American Mayan glyphs, but there are a few ancient, mysterious scripts still in the field today, including the Indus Valley Civilization script of over four millennia ago, that are yet to be deciphered.
The Indus Valley civilization was a Bronze Age civilization (3300–1300 BC) that extended from what is today northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India. It is one of the three oldest urban civilizations, along with Egypt and Mesopotamia, but it is the least understood. As well as its unknown script, the knowledge of social structures and life during that period is scant.
The undeciphered Indus script is carved in part with human and animal depictions and pictographic signs on soapstone seals, terracotta tablets and some on metal. Linguists do not know how many characters or syllables it has (estimates ranging from dozens to 958), they are not sure whether it is an alphabet (probably not), a syllabary (again, probably not) or a logographic-syllabic script that has words, concepts such as & and % and a small number of syllables (probably). Researchers are unsure which language was being written down in the Indus script, or even if it would be possible for such brief inscriptions to represent a complete language system.
An example of Indus Valley script with swastikas (World Imaging photo/Wikimedia Commons)
In an article on Nature.com, Andrew Robinson, an author on lost languages, writes: “As for the language, the balance of evidence favours a proto-Dravidian language, not Sanskrit. Many scholars have proposed plausible Dravidian meanings for a few groups of characters based on Old Tamil, although none of these 'translations' has gained universal acceptance.”
The carvings have an average of only five characters per set. The longest has 26. In 2004, a team of researchers compared the Indus script to a system of non-phonetic symbols like the Neolithic Vinča culture of southeast and central Europe and the heraldry of medieval Europe. Robinson said that theory is unlikely.
Other scripts that have yet to be deciphered include Linear A of ancient Greece, Etruscan from Italy, the signs on the Phaistos Disc from Crete and the Rongorongo script from Easter Island.
The brevity of the Indus writings, if they are that, may mean they express only small bits of the language of the Indus Valley civilization, Robinson writes, similar to early types of Mesopotamia’s cuneiform that recorded only officials’ names and calculations of products, including grain.
Researchers into the Indus script hope someday to find a thunderbolt similar to the Rosetta Stone, which had both previously undeciphered hieroglyphics and their translation into ancient Greek, which helped a great deal in unraveling the ancient Egyptian script. Trade is known to have happened between Indus and Mesopotamia, so it’s possible a dual-script seal will be found, making decipherment easier. (Photo by Matija Podhraški/Wikimedia Commons)
It is possible the script can be at least partly deciphered. Less than 10 percent of the known Indus Valley sites over 800,000 square miles in northwest India and Pakistan have been excavated, so there is still much to discover about the civilization and decoding its script may help unravel much of the mystery surrounding this large and powerful culture.
What the script could teach us about the Indus Valley civilization would be invaluable. Scholars say the apparent first Indian civilization left no evidence of having made war and compare the civilization to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in complexity. For some reason, the civilization flourished from just 2600 BC to 1900 BC and then declined and ended. It was not until almost 4,000 years later, when Indian and British archaeologists discovered ruins that it came to be known again. Hinduism possibly had its genesis in the Indus Valley of so many centuries ago.
A view of the ruins at Mohenjo-daro (Photo by Quratulain/Wikimedia Commons)
At least two of the Indus settlements were large, complex cities. Today we know them by the names Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, on the Indus River and one of its tributaries, respectively. These cities had planned streets and drainage systems. The people made fine jewelry and had a complex system of weights and measures. They also had toilets before any other known civilization in the world.
An electronic collection of Indus texts, though not complete, can be seen at www.archaeoastronomie.de.
Featured image: A collection of tablets displaying Indus Valley script. (Machimon)
By Mark Miller