Meeting the challenge of the Indus script
In 1920, excavations at Harappa brought to light the ruins of a large brick-laid city, and soon a whole unknown civilization was uncovered in and around the Indus valley (Figure 1)1. The Indus civilization, now dated to c. 2600-1800 BCE, collapsed some 500 years before the composition of most of the hymns collected in the Rgveda-Samhita, the oldest historical document of India.
No unambiguous information has been preserved to tell us the names of the Indus kings or their subjects, the names of the gods worshiped by them, or even what language they spoke.
The Indus (or Harappan) people used a pictographic script. Some 3500 specimens of this script survive in stamp seals carved in stone, in molded terracotta and faience amulets, in fragments of pottery, and in a few other categories of inscribed objects. In addition to the pictographic signs, the seals and amulets often contain iconographic motifs, mostly realistic pictures of animals apparently worshiped as sacred, and a few cultic scenes, including anthropomorphic deities and worshipers. This material is of key importance to the investigation of the Harappan language and religion, which continue to be among the most vexing problems of South Asian protohistory.
1. The Ancient Indus Valley Region
The Indus script is an unknown writing system, and the inscriptions discovered are very short, comprising no more than five signs on the average. With good reasons, the prospects of a successful decipherment have been considered meager at best. But great problems wield a power of attraction, and many attempts have been made to crack that posed by the Indus script. Most of the tries, however, have been quite uncritical and poorly informed.
Generally speaking, the standard of earlier research was rather low in 1964, when three young Finnish students entered the field. This encouraged us to believe that something worthwhile might be achieved in the study of the Indus script, especially as we could use the computer as an aid. After all, there were a fair number of texts. We were inspired by the phenomenal success of Michael Ventris' systematic decipherment of the Mycenaean syllabic script, which at that time started being universally accepted. Our Finnish team has collaborated in producing several research tools, in developing a methodology for the decipherment of the script and in putting this methodology into practice. While the participants in the project have changed in part from time to time, this work is still going on. The present article reflects my own work chiefly, but its basic ideas stem from collective work some two decades ago.
[Originally published as Parpola, Asko (1988) Religion reflected in the iconic signs of the Indus script: penetrating into long-forgotten picto+graphic messages. Visible Religion 6: pp. 114-135.]