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Posts Tagged ‘Rosetta Stone’

‘I met a traveller from an antique land…’ wrote the rebel poet Percy B. Shelley in 1818. Even today how we dream to meet such a traveller who could tell us the tales that are lost in the mists of time. In the early days of my love for archaeology I hoped to write the story of Mohen jo Daro, but it lacks the basic required material-there is no record of its existence in later texts; it has a script which remains undeciphered. To make matters worse excavations of the site are banned since 1965 leaving no hope for the recovery of a Rosetta Stone. In such a hopeless situation with limited artifacts and ruins even a small piece of information bearing some relevance to the site becomes precious. And sometimes such information can come from unexpected sources.

Shelley’s sonnet so relevant to archaeology and yet so far removed ! being a poet’s imagination, nonetheless, it reminds me how the ancient travellers and traders in distant lands left behind some evidence which helped the archeologists to learn a few facts about Mohen jo Daro. The sonnet also invites to read the folk poetry of the Indus region which might be holding clues useful for reconstructing the story of the region’s past.

Mohen jo Daro was discovered in the first quarter of the twentieth century, its discovery coincided with the excavations of Ur of the Chaldeans ,the birthplace of Abraham and the famed Biblical city of Mesopotamia. Whereas Mohen jo daro had no reference in any later texts such as the Vedas or the Mahabharatha and was discovered accidentally under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa, the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities were located easily through the Biblical references. In the case of Ur even an Islamic tradition can be cited, perhaps, it was the city where Nimrod’s fire to burn Abraham alive had turned into flowers.

Initially, it may sound disappointing that the simultaneous excavations of Mohen jo Daro and Ur dwarfed the image of the Indus city as Ur stole the show. Its overwhelming architectural remains and the lavish artifacts unearthed from them even attracted celebrities. Ur caught my attention when I saw a picture of T.E. Lawrence standing in its ruins. In fact, I thought that he had excavated the site, later on, of course, I learned that it was Sir Leonard Woolley standing next to him had unearthed Ur. Both were great archaeologists of their times and together they had worked on the ancient Hittite sites on the borders of Syria. However, the archaeological career of T.E Lawrence is not much known today as he is more remembered through the portrayal of his political life by Peter O’Toole in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” Another interesting celebrity that I came to know through Ur was Agatha Christie who met her future husband in Ur. The site also inspired her to write a novel “Murder in Mesopotamia” which was later made into a movie with the same title.

However, we must remember that Mohen jo Daro, though marginalized in the media of those days, did benefit through excavations at Ur. Among the most known discoveries of Sir Leonard were the Great Ziggurat of Ur and the Royal Tombs laden with treasures and an overfill of skeletons – the remains of slaves who were buried alive to serve royalty in its afterlife. He even discovered the statuette of a ram and identified it with the Biblical ‘Ram caught in a thicket.’ And in between these spectacular discoveries came bits and pieces of evidence which suggested links between Mohen jo Daro and Mesopotamia- a few Indus beads scattered in Ur’s royal jewelry; the cylindrical seals engraved with Indus type inscriptions; trefoil pattern on Sumerian “Bulls of Heaven” that resembled the print on the robe of Mohen jo Daro’s “Priest King” even a small group of houses that bore semblance to Mohen jo Daro’s structures.

Later on, the discovery and decipherment of Sumerian texts indicated trade with the Indus regions. They referred to a few goods- timber, carnelian beads, ivory- which came from a place named Melluha located in the east of Sumer. Melluha was identified with the Makran Coast, but at the same time the Indus region was considered to be a colony of Sumer and hence the civilization was labelled Indo-Sumerian Civilization. It took some time for Sir John Marshall to change the label wisely to Indus Civilization.

The evidence of trade between the two civilizations also helped in the dating of the Indus civilization as it confirmed that indeed it was contemporaneous to the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian civilizations. According to Sir Mortimer Wheeler the trade between Sumer and Indus lasted from the period of Sargon of Akkad 2350 BCE until the decline of the Hammurabi dynasty in 1700 BCE.

Now we know that much before their contact with Mesopotamia ancient Indus cities had already a long history and experience of transporting wood. According to Alice Albinia, who in recent times journeyed through Indus, “The transport of wood down the Indus and its tributaries, between the Himalayas and the plains, is the oldest trade that we know of in the region.” At some point in prehistory that network of Indus’ trade reaching for the Arabian seacoast extended overseas to reach Mesopotamia.

This overseas trade, predating the trade on the Silk Road, was extensive and certainly a great means of income which must have boosted the agrarian economy of the region. Archaeological evidence suggests that there were busy port towns with dockyards. The Westernmost port was Sutkagen-Dor, close to the border of Iran it was located near the mouth of Dasht River, on the Makran coast. At the other end was the port town of Lothal which was active until 1900 BCE. It was located in Gujarat (in India) on the eastern periphery of Indus Civilization.

With the exception of a few inscribed seals discovered from Lothal, there is no written record describing the mercantile activities of such massive scale between the two civilizations. There must have been ships in and out of the harbor, sailors and merchants boarding them, laborers loading and unloading the cargo. Perhaps, we can trace these details in the folklore of the region. But sometimes poets can be the avatars of ancient scribes whose accounts are lost. As hazy as it may sound but apart from the ruins, folk poetry can be another repository that we can rummage to find the ancient past. For example, Shah Latif the beloved sufi saint poet of Sindh, has described in detail the sea trade in his ‘Raga Samoondi’ (Song of the Ocean) Latif laments in his poetry of abandoned cities he even accompanied jogis on their pilgrimages to ancient shrines. They shared with him knowledge, wisdom and many oral traditions transmitted to them through older generations. Latif polished and preserved those traditions and tales in his poetry. Apart from Sindhi Indus’ folklore is scattered in a variety of languages – Punjabi, Seraiki, Multani, Gujrati- these need to be explored. It will be hard to find even the mutilated remains of events that happened in the prehistoric past when Mohen jo Daro lived. But an attempt must be made before discarding region’s folklore as poets’ imagination

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Ever since the publication of my book ‘Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE)Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code’ I am often asked about the nature of the hurdles in the Indus seal research and about what has been my approach to decipherment of the enigmatic signs and symbols engraved on these seals. The answer is long and I have attempted to cover it in my book, however, for those who want a shorter version please read this blog.

Most cited difficulties in deciphering the seals are the brevity of the inscriptions and the absence of a bilingual dictionary such as the Rosetta Stone which helped in deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. An average Indus seal has only 5 signs while the longest Indus text is composed of 26 signs. However, we cannot wait for the discovery of large volumes of textual material. Bearing in mind that the brevity of text might be a unique feature which cannot be judged by the yardstick used for ancient writing systems discovered elsewhere, we must continue to reconstruct the other aspects of Indus civilization which will eventually provide a larger socio-cultural and ideological context to examine and understand the seals.

 

According to Asko Parpola, methodological weaknesses have been a cause of failure in deciphering the script. “The most common approach has been this: Indus signs are equated with similar-looking signs of other, readable ancient scripts and the phonetic values of the latter are transferred to the Indus signs. However, this method works only when the two scripts being compared are closely related … In contrast, the Indus script has no obvious genetic affinity with any other known script.”

N.A. Baloch classifies the method of decipherment used by the researchers into two groups. “The first method has been of concentration entirely on the internal structure of the Indus script which has reduced the entire corpus of the signs, marks, and pictorial representations into writing and enumerating so much so that each and every sign has an identification number now. The second method has directed the research towards proving some sort of relationship between the Indus script and other scripts and languages of the contemporary civilizations.”

Apart from these reasons, I strongly feel that there have been a few detours in the long journey of decipherment which has derailed the Indus seal research. These detours have proved futile as they have misled the scholars to seek clues in distant cultures and languages. Perhaps, for a better understanding of the Indus seals and their languages, I would like to draw the attention to the route suggested by Baloch. According to him, “For the language of the (Indus) script, the scholars will have to abandon their wild-goose chase of looking for the proto-type in Turan and South India and look for the evidence within the land where the seals were made and discovered… this lock of the Indus script had apparently been prepared by the great smiths of yore that is not likely to yield to such foreign-made keys so easily.” Baloch further suggests that, “In order to resolve this problem on a rather firm rational ground, a third hypothesis can be presented based on the assumption that the key to the decipherment of the Indus script may be found right in the land where it had been lost— Indus Valley. The decipherment could, perhaps, be worked out looking into the words and phrases of the language of the Indus Valley, the language of the land itself, Sindhi of the peasants, as it has remained unaffected throughout the centuries.”

And yet Sindhi is not the only language to be considered for Indus seal research. I have used the Sindhi model in my book because of my familiarity with that language and because it has retained a larger percentage of the ancient words. However, there are other languages spoken in the Indus region which can be explored for ancient words, adages and legends that can be identified on the seals. It must be emphasized that seals are not only engraved with rows of signs and symbols but they are also imbued with images of animals, humans, deities, trees and unidentifiable objects. Hence beyond the calligraphic, geometrical and linguistic facets of ancient writing , the Indus seals also depict an assortment of social, cultural and ideological content which requires a holistic approach for its interpretation. This approach will certainly extend the seal research and help in a better understanding of the Civilization in general.

Indus Civilization is recognized as the fourth ancient civilization of the World, the other three were discovered in China, Egypt and Iraq; the fifth was discovered in Central America after the discovery of Indus. Indus is also the largest ancient civilization but it remains to be the least understood.  It must be emphasized that the failure to decipher Indus symbols and signs has contributed a lot to this lack of understanding.

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