Inscribed Unicorn Seals from Bagasra, Gujarat: A Comparative Analysis of Morphology, Carving Styles, and Distribution Patterns

This substantial article examines seven inscribed unicorn steatite seals from the Indus site of Bagasra (Gola Dhoro), in Gujarat. These seals are important for understanding the craft industry of the Indus Civilization, and they are subject to in-depth analysis that shows how valuable such scrutiny can be for speculating around larger ancient Indus issues. The paper focuses on the morphology, carving styles, and distribution patterns of the seals, and pays special attention to the very rare compartmented seal [Image 1] found at this small, walled site which was also a shell working hub between 1995 and 2004.

The authors described their choice: "The uses and function of the script engraved on seals would have been diverse and included recording various economic transactions, administrative activities, important rituals, and personal identification and ownership (Kenoyer 1998, 2006; Meadow and Kenoyer 2000). Traditionally they have been interpreted as static, uniformly produced and consumed administrative artifacts (Mackay 1931; Rao 1985; Vats 1940), but recent investigations at Harappa have uncovered changes in the styles of seals over time, evidenced through controlled stratigraphic excavations (Kenoyer 2004; 2006). These discoveries indicate that the use of seals and writing at Harappan sites was not static and unchanging over a period of 700 years. Moreover, discoveries from the Early Harappan or Kot Dijian Phase (2800-2600 BC) levels at Harappa have also uncovered evidence of an early writing system and the production of seals during this phase, indicating that the technologies of both seal production and writing have antecedents before the Integration Era (Kenoyer 2006). In light of these recent discoveries the need to re-examine seals from multiple sites becomes clear, and the site of Gola Dhoro provides an excellent starting point to do so," (p. 5).

The seven seals varied in size, with no strong patterns in basic measurements like length, width, and thickness. Some seals showed fine details and decorations, while others lacked specific elements, indicating different levels of craftsmanship. Two seals (BSR 7197 & BSR 8288) demonstrated strong parallels in carving styles, suggesting they may have been produced by the same artisans or workshops [Image 2]. The stratigraphic associations varied, with seals recovered at depths ranging from 26 cm to 3 meters below datum. BSR 2037 is a small seal with a clear unicorn motif and two characters of the Indus script, showing significant damage. BSR 5555 is A fragmentary seal with part of the unicorn's body and standard, well-carved and detailed. BSR 6719 is intact and well-preserved, with detailed carving and an inscription of seven characters [Image 3]. BSR 6952 is a poorly carved fragment with a visible cross-section showing different hues, suggesting varied production techniques. BSR 7197is well-preserved with nine characters in the inscription, showing detailed engraving. BSR 7368, the smallest and lightest seal has a unique internal compartment and three hatched lateral faces with designs found nowhere else. Finally, BSR 8288 is well-carved with six characters in the inscription, demonstrating clear stylistic features.

Learning about these individual scenes is a delight, and makes one think about how significant they must have been as social, economic, political and artistic signifiers. The seals were found both inside and outside the fortification wall, often associated with craft production areas and gateways. Were they passports to get materials through gateways? Stamped on clay, tokens to carry goods through a wide range of transportation networks spanning great distances? There are no answers yet, but the details in this paper only reinforce the sense that they were part of a carefully controlled administrative system or policies. Seals could be manufactured in all corners of the region and express a wide range of individuality, but they all conformed to a set of standards and organization that seems exceptional for such distant times. Gregg Jamison has nicely isolated the elements of a unicorn seal [Image 4].

The authors conclude: "this study has uncovered patterned variation in carving styles that represent the products of distinct artisans and workshops that produced unicorn seals in the Indus. The fact that these patterns are present in a small collection of seals from a single site, and that at least a few of them demonstrate links with other sites and regions, provides directions for future research. Using a multi-faceted and detailed research program such as the one described here, it should be possible to gain greater insights into the scale and nature of variation in Indus seals, as well as insights into how production was organized and varied. These techniques can be used to create comparative data sets, facilitating future collaborative and comparative studies. We are confident that this research will increase our knowledge of these essential objects and their role within one of the world’s earliest and most important state-level societies," (p. 19). Indeed, this paper makes one wonder whether these unicorn seals did indeed function as the embodiment – if not tissue – of one of the world's first protostates, prescribing in their tiny bodies a host of rules, beliefs and transactions that could be effortlessly copied in clay.