Markers and agencies of anisotropy in the Indus sign system

Images: Top: M-717 and M-164. Bottom: M-850 and M-839. The featured seals are not to scale, but to relative proportion. The one on top right is a little bit smaller than the other three. Images courtesy of CISI.

"This paper reports a broad range of new observations about sign behaviour in relation to and independently of animal behaviour on Indus seal-impressions," writes the author M.V. Bhaskar near the start of this paper published in The Indian Journal of the History of Science. Specifically focusing on the behavior of signs in relation to animal symbols across 33 seal-impressions from the Indus Valley civilization, Bhaskar uses a methodical approach to analyze the orientation and sequencing of these signs, which he terms "frontality," where "a sign is in the direct gaze of an animal symbol," (p. 1). This alignment suggests a predefined order and direction in reading these signs, which the study seems to confirm through a detailed simulation process and a review of existing catalogues of Indus inscriptions.

The two key terms Bhaskar uses are anisotropy and its opposite, isotropy. Anisotropy is applied to the arrangement and interpretation of signs and symbols. The paper discusses how the order and orientation of signs can vary, impacting their meaning and reading. This variability, or anisotropic characteristic, is crucial for understanding the structure and communication method encoded in the Indus script, where different sign combinations and orientations may convey unique messages or meanings based on their specific arrangement. Isotropy in a sign system implies that the signs and their interpretations remain consistent and uniform regardless of their orientation or the direction in which they are read. Bhaskar proposes that the Indus sign system exhibits a minimal level of isotropy, indicating a structured and possibly standardized method of sign placement and interpretation, heavily reliant on the orientation and interaction between animal symbols and signs. Order matters. "How does a frontal sign relate with a dorsal sign [behind the animal]? How do they, together, relate to an aerial sign [above the animal]? How does a frontal sign become an aerial sign? The answers are attempted below," writes Bhaskar (p. 5), who is trying to understand the systematic relationships implied by the placement of select signs.

A good deal of attention is paid to Sign 99, or the two short line marker '', similar to two apostrophes [shown in the four seals above], highlighting its role in the Indus sign system, which fundamentally affects how the signs are read and interpreted. For him, it could be be a "transposition marker," signaling changes in the order of signs, a form of anisotropy. It can also have a functional role, denoting a specific relationship between signs, akin to grammatical indicators in written languages, hinting at a sophisticated level of abstraction and control over the writing, implying that with other signs can be used to create complex messages. These potential insights into Sign 99 and its role in sign transposition underscore the potential complexity of the Indus sign system. Bhaskar's analysis suggests that rather than being merely decorative or simplistic, the Indus script could represent a complex, rule-governed writing system with explicit markers for altering and interpreting sign sequences, much like the morphosyntactic rules found in contemporary written languages. He also uses his analysis of the sign to suggest that Sign 267, or the rhomboid with another small rhomboid inside it on the two left sealings above is different from, and not a variant of the similar oval sign on the two sealings on the right that also start the inscriptions shown above. In other words, even though the two top sealings have the same set of signs afterwards, the two initial signs are not the same in his analysis.

This question of how many unique signs actually comprise the Indus script remains a much-discussed topic, with the collections put together by Mahadevan (417) and Parpola (386 in latest revision) much smaller than that of Andreas Fuls, working with Bryan Wells, who have come up with nearly twice as many (713) in part by treating smaller differences as indicating a different sign as opposed to a variant of an older sign. (Parpola's 2023 response is covered in the video Signs of the Indus Script and Its Variants). Clearly a clearer number on the number of signs in the Indus script is important for any number of reasons; Bhaskar's "observation is that both corpora need to accept substantial corrections," (p. 7).

The paper’s robust methodology, including the use of simulations to test hypotheses about sign position and transposition, provides a foundation for the claims made. Introducing concepts like "frontality" and detailed classifications of markers and agencies offers a new lens to view ancient semiotics within the Indus script, contributing to the ongoing debate on whether the Indus script is linguistic or symbolic. On the other hand, the study's focus on a relatively small dataset of 33 seal-impressions suggests that further research encompassing a broader array of impressions could either strengthen or modify the current conclusions. But by framing the sign system within a context of directional and relational dynamics, the paper can lead to more effective translation efforts if similar patterns are observed consistently across other samples.

The paper is complex and at times hard to follow. Nonetheless, the depth of analysis suggests a sophisticated system of communication that aligns with other ancient scripts in complexity and methodical arrangement. Future studies should aim to expand the dataset and apply similar methodologies to confirm or refine these findings, potentially opening new pathways to fully deciphering the Indus script.

Note: The entire paper including the Supplementary Materials are only available here, links below.