The Seals of the Ancient Harappan People: Meaning, Importance, and Implication by Shobha Ranganath
Background on the Harappan Civilization
Along the border of modern day Pakistan and India, the remains of several ancient civilizations, perhaps in existence as early as 3500 BC, have only been discovered within the last 120 years. Collectively these cities are known by several different names, including the Harappan, Saraswati, and Indus Valley civilizations. These cities were culturally quite similar and relatively proximate to one another geographically, as seen on the map given in Appendix A. The northern and southern civilization clusters are referred to as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro respectively. However, in this report, in accordance with modern archaeological convention, I will refer to all of these ancient cities collectively as Harappa.
Situated at the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains, the Harappan people thrived in the fertile valleys fed by the tributaries that flowed from the tops of the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea. These waters were maintained and controlled by city wide, underground drainage and irrigation systems. The remains of these people also indicate an ease in ability to produce sailboats with one mast and to navigate ancient maritime routes, possibly for trade (Jha, 1996).These civilizations appear to have had a high level of sophistication and organization on land as well, as indicated by the aforementioned remains of municipally maintained water and sewage systems, and the deliberate layout of homes and cities according to a mathematical (grid like) structure (Jha, 1996). This enabled the Harappans to advance noticeably as agrarians. In fact, it seems that for several centuries, they were capable of supporting all citizens with ample supplies for food, clothing, shelter, and leisure. This apparently lasted until weather and climate became extremely inhospitable (Jha, 1996). There is also indication of development of industry and crafts production by the remains of manufactured artifacts including toys, makeup (including lipstick) and jewelry. The material composition of these artifacts also indicate that materials and goods not found locally may have been imported by the Harappans from various places, including the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and perhaps, even China and beyond (Jha, 1996).
A formal description of the seals and introduction to theories
Trade amongst the civilizations is also suggested by the finding of hundreds of small seals, supposedly produced by the Indus peoples, at the excavation sites of ancient Mesopotamian cities that were existent around the same time. These ancient seals generally are two (and occasionally three) sided and square shaped. The dimensions of the seals vary; however, most are less than two by two inches (Joshi, Parpola, 1987, vol.1). Generally, these seals are created using steatite and reliable curing methods. Occasionally though, silver and other materials were used for construction, and perhaps pigment (see Appendix B, Jha, 1996).
|They are mostly found in pairs of two square parts. Generally one piece shows a relief image and script and the other with the same image and script in a reversed molded appearance, suggesting that the two faces with images fit together. The script is very brief, perhaps only one word, and is generally incised clearly along the top third of the face of each seal that contains script. Most of the seals have identical layouts. Further written detail of the faces of these scripts is provided below. In the center of the side of the seal not bearing an image, there is usually a bilaterally symmetrical planar, square, or most frequently, rounded outcropping with a hole on the side of the shape that is tangent to the main slab. See Appendix B for further clarification. Several of these seals also include markings on the back or along the edge that are similar in appearance to Roman numerals.||Generally, the subject of the images on the various seals is a single local animal, e.g. zebu, bison, tiger, elephant…or a human in a yogic position. This dominant image is accompanied by an item that could be a fountain, an altar, or sometimes an accompanying totem animal. Curiously, many of these seals also depict a one horned animal, whose origins and remains cause a wide range of speculations as to the originators of these seals and their purpose. Some of the seals later seemed to have depicted just the script or just the image. Furthermore as these images evolved, some became more creative and abstract, melding and morphing humans with animal figures. Some even depicted figures or designs in a careful composition of distinct shapes, unified only by their organic curves and specific placement on the picture plane (see Appendix C).|
|Based on this basic formal and geographic information, some archaeologists suggest that these seals were traded as an early unit of commerce, or perhaps worn as a protective, spiritual amulet. In each case respectively, the hole on the back could be used to sequence the units on a thin rod or attach the seals as a pendant (Joshi, Parpola, 1987, vol 1). Others suggest that these seals were educational tools that were proliferated to educate the masses. This theory is heavily substantiated by the work of American mathematician, A. Seidenberg, and other scholars. In his work, he suggests that some of the seals contain mathematical formulas and associated numbers. For instance it has been deduced that pi was found or at least known by these people (perhaps off by two hundredths from the ancient Greek and modern calculations) and that it was used in formulas for circumference and area, as given on the seals (Appendix D, p 4-5, Jha, 1996).||
Although I have not found this theory directly suggested, based on this formal information and the information provided below, I believe it is possible that these seals may have even been used on a preconstructed board for the construction of stories or phrases. They may have even existed as an ancient form of mass production printing. This may be supported by the finding of small rectangular three sided tablets displaying some of the same script found on these seals (Appendix E).
My belief correlates well with the theory put forth by Dr. Natwar Jha. Understanding of his theory requires closer examination of the script and images on the seals. Aside from Dr. Jha’s findings, other respected Sanskrit and Vedic scholars have put forth this theory since the finding of the very first seals; although, this theory is not widely accepted by many Western Indologists. This is the theory I will concentrate on for the next portion of this report.
Possibility of Vedic Origins of the Harappan Seals
Upon initial observation of the two dimensional reproductions of the seals, I was amazed at the level of refinement and precision of the incision on the seals. Immediately the images and the script both reminded of the modern Tamil, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Greek script. I wondered if these seals had any bearing on the evolution of modern script and imagery. However, all of the initial reports I found pertaining to these civilizations stated emphatically that the inhabitants of these cities were a separate civilization, bearing no relation to modern Indian culture, and no notable relation to other modern cultures. These reports were written by well known western Indologists, who substantiated their claims with the assertion that an (unproven) Aryan invasion of India in 15th century BC brought the Vedic Era and all its accompanying culture to India. Thus, they are maintaining that all culture before this invasion must be strictly pre-Vedic and completely unrelated to modern Indian culture (Jha, 1996). Furthermore, applying their beliefs and assumptions to these artifacts, they have been unable to decode any of the script to this day.
So, as I was beginning to make my naive comparison of the formal qualities of these curious images and script to ancient Assyrian script, I stumbled onto the work of noted Sanskrit Scholar, Dr. Natwar Jha, who has studied these seals for over 20 years (IndiaStar Review of Books, Indus Valley Seals Deciphered!). Over ten years ago, with the help of N. Rajaram, an expert on the subject of Vedic Civilization, he used the images of humans found in yogic positions as clues to decipher over 70 of these ancient seals quite logically. Until this time, no one else had been able to decode these seals. So far, he has expanded this decoding and analysis to include a clear and detailed description of the transformation of these ancient alphabets into Brahmi (various scripts that serve as precursors to Tamil and other south Indian languages, as well as the Buddhist Language Scripts of the Sinhalese and Burmese) and Devanagri (the parent of Sanskrit, and various Northern Indian Languages). His work also shows a possible relation of Harappan script to the ancient Semitic and Greek script (Appendix D, Jha 1996) .
Jha’s work has been further supported by the published findings of noted American Mathematician A. Seidenberg. In his work, Seidenberg explains the probable migration of concepts and formulas, relating pi, circumference, radius, and various trigonometric relations from the Harappans to the Babylonians, and eventually to the ancient Greeks and the various modern Western cities. Jha shows that several of these seals clearly demonstrate formulas for the circumference and area of a circle, utilizing pi, which, in the Harappan script, began with the letter "p" and was simply abbreviated as "p," according to their notation (Appendix p 4-5, Jha, 1996).
The relation of the script to ancient Syria is furthered substantiated by the decoding of words, such as 'agni', found in the Syrian culture, as well as the Vedic culture. Used to describe fire, the word agni becomes ignis in Latin and ignition in modern English (Jha, 1996). This interrelation of culture is attested to in several of the vocabulary words uncovered thus far. Thus it seems that these seals also relay concepts central to the Rig Veda (pertaining to health sciences, astronomy, and other subtle sciences), in addition to the Sulba Sutra (pertaining to mathematics), as demonstrated above. This clearly implies the educational function of the seals.
The ramifications of Vedic origins
If in fact these seals are Vedic in nature, their mere existence could push dates of these ancient civilizations back from the current widely held belief of circa 2500 BC to at least 3500 BC. This means that they were contemporaries of the ancient Egyptian civilization and that the art and culture of these peoples may possibly have had as substantial bearing on consequential Semitic and Indian cultures.
This shifting of dates is also substantiated by a pottery excavation reported publicly on the BBC several years ago. This pottery, when originally announced, was dated at 3500 BC. Several days later the date was revoked by the archaeologists, due to the lack of reliability of the technology used to date the artifact. However, this does not necessarily change the likelihood that the pottery piece was indeed from that time period. In particular this pottery is relevant to the study of the seals, because the visual indications of culture and process on the remains indicate that it was created by the same seal makers (Jha, 1996).
Since the time of his initial reporting, several highly respected Sanskrit scholars have also substantiated the Vedic role of the seals through their separate research efforts. Dr. Madhusudan Mishra has also published his findings on the subject in a book detailing the origin of known Vedic culture as originating from the Harappan civilization. Based on these findings, we can now begin to speculate on the ramifications and relations of the markings on these seals on the art and culture in India and other locations.
Possible historic effects of the seals: influence on modern languages
Currently, it is still widely believed that the basis of most modern Western languages and Sanskrit originates from the ancient Semitic script of the Assyrians. However, this new historical information could indicate that many modern languages have been mutually influenced by both Semitic script and Harappan, unless one is actually a successor of the other along the same lineage. Or perhaps both languages have extended mutual evolutionary forces on each other.
The ancient Assyrian culture is most carefully preserved by the modern Assyrians today. Amazingly, their language, Aramaic, has a script that is uncannily similar to the script found on the Harappan seals (AncientScripts.com, Aramaic); whereas modern Urdu, the language utilized by most of the Islamic community in Pakistan, appears less related to the Harappan script. Although this script looks somewhat similar to that used by the Harappans, it is possible that it hails from a different lineage altogether. If this script can trace its roots back to the seals, it seems more likely that it has pulled its forms from the abstracted images found on later seals (Appendix C) than the actual Harappan script. Nonetheless, the roundness of this script, in contrast to the geometric forms found in the Harappan script, has also undoubtedly been heavily influenced by unique religious, moral, and environmental stimuli.
Comparing the ancient script to later forms of Brahmi, Devanagri, and Semitic script, many relations are still evident. Formally, the two basic Harappan strokes, a semicircle and clean perpendicular lines, are retained in most of the modern influenced scripts. However, in the scripts of the southern Indian people, which are derived from Brahmi, alphabets become more curvilinear. This is probably due to the greater malleability of the writing surface. Samples of these scripts are provided in the appendices for comparison (Appendix F).
It is especially interesting to note how far the influence of this script has reached. Although it is speculated that the Ashokan Brahmi script was also spread by Buddhist emissaries appointed by Ashoka in the 14th century BC (Ancient Sinhalese Civilizations, About Sinhalese), it is amazing to see the striking resemblance of these script forms in relation to the ancient Harappan script (Kannaiyan, V., 2000). This can provide proof that despite varying forces of evolution, the basic script is still Harappan-like, and thus could possibly be ascribed to the ancient Harappan civilizations.
It is also interesting to compare the resemblance of some of these Harappan characters to the basic forms of modern Chinese and Japanese script. An example of Chinese script is provided in Appendix G for comparison. Although I have not been able to find anything formal relating the two yet, the discovery of the cultural hub established later in Dunhuang, China, near modern Tibet, along the Silk Road (ChinaVista.com, Dunhuang), gives greater reason to speculate that peaceable trading and sharing of goods and ideas was not just an isolated occurrence, but quite prevalent amongst all of the ancient societies.
Suggestions on the purpose of the images and script
Although some of the images appear to be clearly yogic and serve to create a type of illuminated manuscript, the massive proliferation of bison, zebu, unicorn, etc. images has yet to be satisfactorily explained in conjunction with the accompanying text. Also noting the high level of stylization, the relative flatness of the images, and lack of indicated motion or study of the legs of the animals, indicates that these images served more as communicative graphics than mere accounting of occurrence. Their stylization also hints at the widespread use of symbology amongst the inhabitants of Harappa.
Let us assume for the moment that the seals are not Vedic. Perhaps if we reapply the theory that the seals are units of commerce, then the images on some of the seals can represent units of trade equal to the animal represented. Or perhaps, if these are part of a developing script, then these images may explain the origin, context, and usage of the script that no longer inherently contains clear pictographic information. Another possible explanation is that these symbols represent a group of people, and that there was a system of codification for the people of these civilizations determined by their geography or birth family. In fact, this is supported by the finding of certain seals in specific parts of each city. For example, the bison seals tend to be found closer to the centers of the various towns (Joshi, Parpola, 1987, vol. 1).
What can be observed from the seals clearly is that they tend to follow a prescribed pattern, perhaps laid out mathematically, as is typical of Vedic art, e.g. Indian Classical Dance Forms, Sculpture, Architecture, etc. If in fact they are related to Vedic Culture, then they most likely carry a meaning dictated by astronomy and mathematics, in addition to any other information. Perhaps then, these stylized images could easily be depictions of constellations. This correlates well with the theory that the Harappans had an understanding of various trigonometric functions and identities, and the fact that Vedic philosophy is tightly based on astronomic calculations. If these images are indications of constellations, then it seems very likely that they could have easily been shared for communicative purposes with other ancient civilizations.
In particular, these images cause me to suggest some different possible lineages for the assimilation of these markings into the visual arts "glossary" of the Harappans. For instance, perhaps these seal images even contain references to ancient runes, which contain images that are incredibly similar to the script on the seals (Arild Hauge, Germanic Runes). If so, the unicorn can then truly be substantiated as an early depiction of horses, and an indication of the presence of ancient Europeans in Ancient Harappa.
As indicated by the lack of pictographic script, these images and the script may be far from their evolutionary origins, so we may continue to theorize about the origin and the function of these seals. However, if the theory that substantiates their Vedic origins remains intact, it seems that great progress can be made in the piecing together of understanding pertaining to the ancient art and life that follows. Historically, they can also prove to be an invaluable tool for understanding the way in which man’s faculties have developed to deal with the world around him.
Conclusion and commentary
Certainly this report must also indicate what is fundamentally obvious. The progress of human kind is nonlinear, and thus understanding of subjects regarding man’s history should perhaps be considered more broadly. This point of view allows us to observe the undoubted level of connectedness between ancient civilizations and their abilities to develop in peace simultaneously.
As may be indicated by the seals’ presence in the excavation of ancient Mesopotamia, the influence of the seals on the development of arts and culture, and particularly writing, seems evident. Or perhaps many of these civilizations evolved parallel type art forms, such as relief, then craft, sculpture and jewelry making, due to mutually exerted influences, as suggested earlier.
Although the images used in the art of the different areas do not tend to rely on the same images of animals, due to obvious presence or lack of environmental stimuli, it seems that information, such as mathematics, commerce, maritime travel, and astronomy may have been of great universal importance to ancient people. Perhaps, then, these subjects facilitated communications and trade amongst ancient peoples, consequently allowing their languages and arts to evolve in kinship.
All of these speculations continue to peak interest in modern excavation of these sites, although the political strife between the modern countries occupying these lands undoubtedly casts shadows on the proper excavation and interpretation of these artifacts. Currently, these areas are solely under the jurisdiction of Pakistan, and are only available to Pakistani and American archaeologists. Furthermore, some of the remains of these cities are still being used as foundations for civilizations today. And although there is rumor that other related civilizations thrived slightly further inland along the Ganges River and perhaps elsewhere on the Indian mainland, no information is forthcoming since many of these civilizations’ remains also exist in areas constantly plagued by violence in modern times. It is a sad truth that for now, these digs will not be made in cooperation across various global communities, but I have great hope that this obstacle to uncovering an unbiased understanding can be overcome. Hopefully, one day these treasures will be available to all people.
Aramaic. Ancient Scripts.com. <http://www.ancientscripts.com/aramaic.html>
Dunhuang. ChinaVista.com. <http://www.chinavista.com/travel/dunhuang/hexi.html>
Mishra, Madhusudan. 1996. From Indus to Sanskrit. Delhi, India: Yugank Publishers.
Ancient Sinhalese Civilization <http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~sydney/sinhales.htm>
Parpola, Asko. 1994. Deciphering the Indus script. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
Arild Hauge. Germanic Runes. 2002. <http://www.arild-hauge.com/egruner.htm>. Arhus, Denmark.
Meadow, R. , Kenoyer, J. Around the Indus in 90 Slides. <http://www.harappa.com/indus/index.html>.
Meadow, R. , Kenoyer, J. Around the Indus in 90 Slides Part 2. <http://www.harappa.com/indus2/.html>.
Kannaiyan, V. 2000, Scripts, in and around India. Chennai, India: Commissioner of Museums, Govt. Museum.
Jha, N., Jha, Birendra Kumar. 1996. Vedic Glossary on Indus seals. Varnasi, India: Ganga Kaveri Publishing House.
Joshi, Jagat Pati, Parpola, Asko. 1987. Vol. 1. Corpus of Indus seals and inscriptions. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.
Appendix A: Map of Ancient World taken from World History Chart. <http://www.hyperhistory.com/online_n2/maptext_n2/start1.html>
Indus Valley Seals Deciphered! Alphabetic Writing Originated with the Ancient Hindus. IndiaStar Review of Books. <http://www.indiastar.com/jha.htm>
* appendices D - G on file with instructor
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