Posts Tagged ‘intaglio’

N.A. Baloch had once advised me to start my research from a clean slate. Hence, I had only three books on my list when I first visited Cornell’s Olin library. Authored by Sir John Marshall, Ernest Mackay and Madhu Sarap Vats, these were the earliest records which published the very first images of the seals discovered from Moen jo Daro and Harappa. In that large corpus of seals I spotted images of a small group labeled as the button seals. I must emphasize that I am used to viewing things from unconventional and unexpected angles, which helps me in spotting and highlighting what has been marginalized or ignored. In the case of button seals I came to understand that  they were never incorporated in the mainstream research  because the geometric patterns engraved on them were disregarded for being votive symbols and therefore, unrelated to the rows of signs and symbols which were thought to be a form of  writing representing an unknown ancient language. My research on button seals was therefore, a pioneering work as it was for the first time that this group of seals was considered for a serious research. It was an experience of working  in total isolation with no reference that I could depend on. 

Button seals formed the first part of my research project at Cornell. I focused on the computation of the line segments used in the composition of geometrical designs. I observed the designs were well calculated, and their numerical value remained constant. The  segments, no matter how they were arranged and rearranged to compose a design, their numbers in each design added to a common number 24. It was in this part of my research that I observed, what the ancient scribes may have observed thousands of years ago, that the lines could be manipulated to form angles. It was still much later to occur to me that the Sindhi word ‘angal’ might be the logical term used for angle. My paper on this subject is published in the Sindh Through the Centuries 2

The results of the first part of my research demonstrated that the geometric patterns also represent an early experimentation with the basic principles of geometry. Indus people are already known for their proportions and precision reflected in their weights and measures and for their sense of symmetry and calculation  evident in the grid plan of their cities and even in the standardized size of their bricks-maintaining a ratio of 4:2:1.  On a micro level this geometric sense is reflected in the designs of the button seals. The second part of the project including signs and symbols engraved on the larger group of seals revealed even more geometry.  Suffice to say here that where other researchers saw merely religious symbolism on the button seals I saw something beyond -the basic geometric rules used in the construction of each symbol.

The story of the seals is interwoven with the larger story of the Civilization and one can see their evolution as the Civilization evolved. Button seals are the oldest as they were made before the cities were made. Some of these, made of terracotta, were discovered from pre-urban sites of Balochistan dating back to 3300 BCE. As compared to the intaglio seals which are densely engraved with symbols and a variety of images, button seals are engraved with geometric designs and they are simple tablets without a boss on the reverse.  Also, whereas the intaglios appear in various shapes-squares, rectangled, rounded and even cylindrical-the earliest button seals are mostly square shaped tablets.  

Most common motifs found on button seals are swastikas, gammadions, stepped cross motifs and circles with a dot at the center.  Intaglios are the hallmark of the urban era and were manufactured in larger numbers, the largest percentage was unearthed from Mohen jo Daro. Most evolved iconography of Indus civlization’s scribes is found on the narrative seals made in the later period of the urban phase. It is on these seals that we see strange scenes- a man figure standing between two tigers; a woman figure standing in a tree; a deity surrounded by animals; seven women figures standing in a row; unicorns facing unidentifiable objects and much more. We still do not know whether these scenes are telling us a story or they are simply records of strange rituals. 

Interestingly, button seals being the oldest have lasted for the longest period of time and they continued to appear even after the collapse of Indus civilization’s urban phase. In fact, some of the designs of these seals are still painted by Hindu folks on their mud walls in rural Sindh. I have seen these and their versions in my village much before I saw them engraved on the seals. I have spent many days with the villagers enquiring about the significance of the designs they painted, but failed to receive a convincing answer. The explanations they gave are  immersed in superstition, mythology and even magic. 

In August of 1991 at a meeting of the Harappa Society hosted by Walter Fairservis Jr. in Sharon, Connecticut, I met George for the last time. He was diagnosed with cancer and had lost much weight. He and Barbara met with me very warmly, they had enjoyed the Amtrak journey from California to Connecticut.  I told them about my research which was in its preliminary stage. George was very keen to see its progress and I promised to send him the draft of the initial results. I also met Jonathan Mark Kenoyer after many years and for the first time I met Gregory Poessehl. It was nice to see B.B. Lal who was retired by now but still spoke at length about the Indus-Saraswati Civilization. Few months later Kenneth Kennedy called me one afternoon to give the sad news that George Dales had passed away. 

In August of 1992, when all of us met again at Walter’s house it was decided to contribute articles for a book dedicated to the memory of George Dales, the responsibility of coordination and editing was accepted by Mark Kenoyer. I think it was at this meeting that I met R.S Bisht who had just started with the excavations of Dholavira in Ran of Cutch. Spread over an area of more than hundred acres, it is one of the larger Harappan sites, for me it is special because the only specimen of large Indus symbols were discovered from the ruins of its gateway. The symbols are unusally large and arranged in a row, they are labeled as signboard.

In 1994 the book dedicated to George was published with the appropriate title From Sumer to Meluhha Wisconsin Archaeological Reports, Volume 3. In the acknowledgements of my article I had written, “Dr. George F. Dales gave me my first chance to work with an American Archaeological Mission.  As a friend and a guide he will always remain a source of inspiration.  My only regret is that death did not permit him to see my present work.” Later, in 1995, the updated version of button seals research along with the analysis of signs and symbols of the intaglio seals was published as a book by the Institute of Sindhology at the Sindh University, Jamshoro. The introduction was written by G.A. Allana professor of linguistics and a former vice chancellor of Sindh University,  the book was titled Evidence of Geometry in Indus Valley Civilization 2500-1500 B.C: Principles of Seal Designs and Signs

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