5. Gharial eating fish on molded terra-cotta tablet from Mohenjo-daro
Consideration of the picture puzzle principle employed by the early scripts suggests a way to recognize the identity of the underlying language. We should try to find a specific context where a given, pictorially identifiable sign apparently has been used in a meaning different from the primary pictorial meaning, and more particularly a context that with fair accuracy enables us to determine what that intended phonetic meaning was. In the language underlying the script, the pictorial meaning and the intended meaning were expressed with words pronounced alike.
The function of the object on which a given Indus inscription occurs can be an important clue to the intended meaning of the signs. The Indus texts are mostly inscriptions on carved seal stones intended for stamping clay seals. More than a hundred clay tags with ancient seal impressions come from a burnt-down grain warehouse at the Harappan port town of Lothal. Many of these tags also bear impressions of woven cloth, reed matting or other packing material. This shows that the tags were once attached to bales of goods, and that the seals were used, as in ancient West Asia, for controlling economic transactions.
Indus seals coming from West Asian sites testify to trade relations entertained by the Indus civilisation with Mesopotamia. It seems most likely, therefore, that the contents of the Indus seal inscriptions are analogical to the contemporaneous Mesopotamian ones, which can be read and understood. These latter seals chiefly contain proper names, with or without attributes of various kinds, and titles of the priestly elite. Proper names were mostly theophoric, i.e. they contained names of divinities as their components. In priestly titles, too, the deity served by the priest is usually specified. In classical Indian civilization, too, proper names of human individuals usually mention divinities.
Names of divinities, therefore, can reasonably be expected to occur in the inscriptions of the Indus seals in great numbers and in definite positions suiting both proper names and priestly titles. A large group of signs meeting these conditions has the basic appearance of 'fish'.
This pictorial interpretation can hardly be questioned, for in the iconography of the Indus amulets a similarly drawn fish is shown in the mouth of the fish-eating gavial.
6. An amulet from Mohenjo-daro
If we assume the pictorial meaning to be 'fish' and the intended meaning to be 'god', are these meanings linked by a homonym in any historically plausible language? Before replying to this question we must first consider the language problem.
[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.]