Today, we’re diving deep into the enigmatic world of the Indus Valley Script, a linguistic puzzle that has perplexed scholars, historians, and linguists for decades.
Buckle up, because this linguistic rollercoaster is about to take you on a wild ride through the ancient mysteries of the Indian subcontinent!
Imagine you’re an ancient scribe in the bustling streets of Mohenjo-daro or Harappa, scratching your head (or perhaps your stylus) over a series of symbols that are supposed to convey profound messages.
What are these symbols? A shopping list for the local bazaar?
From this culture, archaeologists have recovered several thousand short inscriptions, most with just 4 or 5 signs. There is no consensus on how to read them, although dozens of speculative decipherments have been proposed over the past century.
Complicating efforts, the underlying language the script is tied to is disputed, and there are complex modern-day political ramifications to the question. Rival ethnic groups claim to descend from this once-great civilization and knowing its language would help cement cultural ties. Hence the reported threats to scholars immersed in the matter.
First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room.
We still haven’t cracked the code of the Indus Valley Script.
Despite numerous attempts and scholarly brainpower thrown at it, the Indus Valley Script remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an ancient scroll.
The Indus Valley Civilization, one of the world’s oldest urban cultures, thrived around 3300–1300 BCE.
These folks weren’t just building sophisticated cities with advanced drainage systems for fun.
These people were also dabbling in the art of written communication.
The Indus Valley Script is a collection of symbols, or ‘Indus signs,’ found on seals, pottery, and various artifacts scattered across archaeological sites.
There is a strong disagreement among linguists and Indologists about the very nature of the script. Indologists claim that the Indus script may not have been linguistic at all, while Asko Parpola, professor emeritus University of Helsinki, Finland, who has been trying to decipher the script since 1968, and others say it was pretty much linguistic and may have belonged to the Dravidian family of languages.
Now, before you picture Indiana Jones dramatically deciphering ancient scripts while running away from boulders, let’s acknowledge the frustrating fact which we’re not even sure which language the script represents.
Scholars have thrown around ideas like Proto-Dravidian, Sanskrit etc.
The truth is, we’re all just guessing until someone finds the ancient Indus Valley equivalent of a Rosetta Stone.
Some symbols resemble animals, others seem like complex geometric shapes, and a few just look like the doodles you draw while pretending to take notes during a boring meeting.
Several thousand Indus texts have been discovered, mostly from Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, but also in far-flung lands of trading partners along the Persian Gulf and in Mesopotamia (and it’s probable the Indus were exposed to the idea of writing by these literate Mesopotamians).
The majority are engraved on small stone seals, about one inch squared, above the image of an animal, such as a bull, elephant or unicorn-like creature. Fewer inscriptions are found on clay tablets, pottery and metal objects.
The ancient scribes were basically the Picasso of their time – abstract, confusing, and possibly misunderstood.
One theory suggests that the script might be a logo for the ancient civilization – the world’s first attempt at branding.
Despite the linguistic dead-end, there’s no shortage of passion among researchers attempting to unravel the script’s secrets.
The Indus Valley Script remains a tantalizing mystery, an ancient puzzle waiting for its solution.
It’s the linguistic equivalent of a locked room in a murder mystery.
By 1800 BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization saw the beginning of its decline. As part of this process, writing started to disappear. As the Indus Valley Civilization was dying, so did the script they invented.
The Vedic culture that would dominate North India for the centuries to come did not have a writing system, nor did they adopt the Indus Script. In fact, India would have to wait more than 1,000 years to see the return of writing.