Above: Terracotta sealing from Mohenjo-daro depicting a collection of animals and some script symbols. This sealing may have been used in specific rituals as a narrative token that tells the story of an important myth.
The Harappan phase of the Indus Tradition is well known for its planned cities, extensive trade networks, specialized technologies, inscribed seals and pottery, and a wide array of artistic depictions including abstract symbols, plants, humans, and animals (Kenoyer 2008; Possehl 2002a). Although symbols of hunters with horned headdresses and other abstract ideological symbols have been used since the Palaeolithic period, this paper focuses on those that emerged primarily on painted pottery and on carved seals in settled agro-pastoral communities and eventually urban societies.
Symbolic designs and motifs represent ideologies that were widely understood by the communities that produced them and the regional cultures in which they interacted. Symbols such as these were probably used to reinforce and legitimize the social order and the ideology of the community (Anderson 1989; Hodder 1982), and they were undoubtedly used in various contexts, publicly or privately, depending on the intended audience (Kenoyer 2000).
Many symbols may have been used in multiple contexts, but given the secondary nature of many archaeological deposits, it is not always possible to define the intended context of a symbol or an artifact.