The mystery of Harappan script
Welcome back to 8metals. The Harappan script has always remained a mystery for the world. Despite the thousands of archaeological artefacts excavated from more than a thousand settlements, a wholesome perspective of the civilization still remains elusive. So let’s have a look at it.
Archaeology: The eminent scholars have managed to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mayan languages and many other lesser known scripts but the Harappan script refuses to unveil it’s secrets. It poses a challenge to the historians and scientists to uncover the mystery of this ancient script. In the 1920s, when the Harappan civilisation first came into limelight owing to the efforts of the then leading archaeologists of British and Indian origin, it was little expected that the civilisation would prove to be a mystery for a such a long time. One of the world’s oldest civilisations, the Harappan settlements were found scattered across widespread areas adjoining the Sindhu- Ghaggar river belts. The excavations from various sites revealed a highly advanced civilisation with large well-planned brick-laid fortified cities, advanced drainage system, houses with many rooms and sometimes double-storeyed, separate bathroom and toilets, and a sophisticated system of interconnected tanks and reservoirs for elaborate water management. However, despite the thousands of archaeological artefacts excavated from more than a thousand settlements, a wholesome perspective of the civilisation still remains elusive. The fact remains that the Harappan scripts are still undecipherable.
The script: The pre to proto historic culture of Harappa that once occupied a large part of North-Western India and modern-day Pakistan (approximate time range being 5,500 BCE to 1,500 BCE) have yielded many (in thousands, to be precise) short inscriptions, most of which have just 4 or 5 symbols. While there are many claims to have deciphered it, until now there has been no consensus on how to read the signs. Almost as many as 600 Harappan symbols have been identified from various tablets, seals, ceramic wares, metals objects, and various other artefacts, which includes a signboard like an object that perhaps once hung over the inner citadel gates of Dholavira. The majority symbols are seen engraved on small stone seals (one-inch square), above images of animals (such as bull, elephant, or unicorns) and humans. While typically most inscriptions are 4- 5 symbols long and tiny, there is one that is a 17 symbols long inscription on a surface less than 1 inch. It is also for this reason that some scholars contend that the symbols do not encode true writing. Most of the other ancient civilizations that have a true writing system show long writings, often with more than 100 characters. On the other hand, the longest Harappan script shows less than 30 characters. This has two meanings, the Harappan civilization can be literate or according to certain scholars the symbols might not mean anything. This line of thought instead believes that the symbols look more like the non-linguistic systems used in various cultures to symbolise their deities, sects, clans, religious codes, and family names. There is also a belief that the Harappan symbols were perhaps exclusively used for economic transactions, and the seals and tablets with the signs found at various sites are comparable to the structured messages found on tokens, currencies, and stamps; and were used for controlling commercial transactions with other contemporary civilizations of the world. Thus, the signs could also be more of a formula like texts encoding certain fixed data, instead being a free-flowing narrative. However, this theory fails to explain the presence of the symbols on objects used for various rituals. According to a study of 2009, Harappa Civilization codes could mean DNA values as well. The Harappan script represents spoken words thus making it non linguistic. Another approach, referred to as conditional entropy, concluded that Harrapan inscriptions are similar to patterns known in writing systems, which range between the disordered codes (such as DNA) and ordered sequences (such as computer codes) Other methods that are based on probability theories and statistics have also concluded that Harappan scripts depict characteristics of a true writing. However, the difficulties presented by Harrapan scripts are many. While each seal shows a distinct combination of signs, the messages are too short with only few examples of each sequence for a computer to decode or read them. The symbols that are seen with seen along with images also vary in each seal, thus making it impossible to understand what the symbols mean in the context of the associated images. While there are many interpretations made by various scholars, most of them lack clarity and are more often based on personal feelings and opinions instead of hard facts. In 1966, the well-known archaeologist B. B. Lal after extensive studies had concluded that the Harappan texts were to be read from right to left; and that conclusion remains as the well- known Harappan scholar Bryan Wells summed it up, just about the only thing Harappan researchers can agree on. Adding to the already complex scenario of scholarly disagreements, there are the distinct possibilities of unwanted political outcomes at the very hint of a possible deciphering that doesn’t suit the different narratives. Hence, it is not surprising that some scholars working on the subject have also faced threats. However, despite these hurdles, decipherment efforts have continued and progressed, largely owing to improved text databases and new computational methods to detect patterns among the Harrapan symbols.
So the Harappan script requires more research to decipher it as it lacks tangible source of reading unlike the Egyptian hieroglyphs. So hopefully we build a time machine soon and travel back to the ancient ages to decipher their language. Keep following us for more. Take care and stay safe.