‘Ancient civilization: Cracking the Indus script’ By Andrew Robinson



The Indus civilization flourished for half a millennium from about 2600 bc to 1900 bc. Then it mysteriously declined and vanished from view. It remained invisible for almost 4,000 years until its ruins were discovered by accident in the 1920s by British and Indian archaeologists. Following almost a century of excavation, it is today regarded as a civilization worthy of comparison with those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as the beginning of Indian civilization and possibly as the origin of Hinduism.

More than a thousand Indus settlements covered at least 800,000 square kilometres of what is now Pakistan and northwestern India. It was the most extensive urban culture of its period, with a population of perhaps 1 million and a vigorous maritime export trade to the Gulf and cities such as Ur in Mesopotamia, where objects inscribed with Indus signs have been discovered. Astonishingly, the culture has left no archaeological evidence of armies or warfare.

Most Indus settlements were villages; some were towns, and at least five were substantial cities (see ‘Where unicorns roamed’). The two largest, Mohenjo-daro — a World Heritage Site listed by the United Nations — located near the Indus river, and Harappa, by one of the tributaries, boasted street planning and house drainage worthy of the twentieth century ad. They hosted the world’s first known toilets, along with complex stone weights, elaborately drilled gemstone necklaces and exquisitely carved seal stones featuring one of the world’s stubbornly undeciphered scripts.

Follow the script

The Indus script is made up of partially pictographic signs and human and animal motifs including a puzzling ‘unicorn’. These are inscribed on miniature steatite (soapstone) seal stones, terracotta tablets and occasionally on metal. The designs are “little masterpieces of controlled realism, with a monumental strength in one sense out of all proportion to their size and in another entirely related to it”, wrote the best-known excavator of the Indus civilization, Mortimer Wheeler, in 19681.

Once seen, the seal stones are never forgotten. I became smitten in the late 1980s when tasked to research the Indus script by a leading documentary producer. He hoped to entice the world’s code-crackers with a substantial public prize. In the end, neither competition nor documentary got off the ground. But for me, important seeds were sown.Indus2

More than 100 attempts at decipherment have been published by professional scholars and others since the 1920s. Now — as a result of increased collaboration between archaeologists, linguists and experts in the digital humanities — it looks possible that the Indus script may yield some of its secrets.

Since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt in 1799, and the consequent decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs beginning in the 1820s, epigraphers have learnt how to read an encouraging number of once-enigmatic ancient scripts. For example, the Brahmi script from India was ‘cracked’ in the 1830s; cuneiform scripts (characterized by wedge-shaped impressions in clay) from Mesopotamia in the second half of the nineteenth century; the Linear B script from Greece in the 1950s; and the Mayan glyphs from Central America in the late twentieth century.

Several important scripts still have scholars scratching their heads: for example, Linear A, Etruscan from Italy, Rongorongo from Easter Island, the signs on the Phaistos Disc from the Greek island of Crete and, of course, the Indus script.

In 1932, Flinders Petrie — the most celebrated Egyptologist of his day — proposed an Indus decipherment on the basis of the supposed similarity of its pictographic principles to those of Egyptian hieroglyphs. In 1983, Indus excavator Walter Fairservis at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, claimed in Scientific American2 that he could read the signs in a form of ancient Dravidian: the language family from southern India that includes Tamil. In 1987, Assyriologist James Kinnier Wilson at the University of Cambridge, UK, published an ‘Indo-Sumerian’ decipherment, based on a comparison of the Indus signs with similar-looking ones in cuneiform accounting tablets from Mesopotamia.

Three problems

In the 1990s and after, many Indian authors — including some academics — have claimed that the Indus script can be read in a form of early Sanskrit, the ancestral language of most north Indian languages including Hindi. In doing so, they support the controversial views of India’s Hindu nationalist politicians that there has been a continuous, Sanskrit-speaking, Indian identity since the third millennium bc.


posted by f. sheikh