Indus Valley Civilization Writing, Seals

Indus Valley Civilization writing sealsIndus Valley Civilization Writing, Seals

Over 1,000 Bronze Age settlements developed in the ancient Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) in the floodplain along the fertile Indus River, located in current-day Pakistan and northwest India.

Fed by snowmelt from the Himalayas, the region enjoyed two monsoon seasons per year, which allowed for growing abundant crops of wheat, barley, melons, beans, squash, cotton, and rice.  Livestock included humped cattle (zebu and aurochs), water buffalo, sheep, and goats.

Major cities were Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, and the west coast seaport of Lothal. The urban settlements were well-planned, indicating an organized government, with well-constructed homes, granaries and other buildings, a thick-walled citadel for defense, streets following a planned grid pattern, household wells, and a covered sewer system along major streets.

At its peak, the estimated population of the Indus Valley Civilization was over 1 million, compared to 300,000 in Mesopotamia.  Beginning around 1800 BC, the civilization began to decline and the cities were abandoned and forgotten, possibly due to drought, changes in the monsoon pattern or river course, or disease.  The former inhabitants moved east to the Ganges River.

The Saraswati River, parallel to and south of the Indus River, dried up due to a shift in the tectonic plates that disconnected its glacial water source.

Indus priest king Mohenjo-Daro

Few written records have survived, written in Indus script, but many seals with signs and images have been recovered.

The Vedic culture that arrived later did not have a writing system and did not use the Indus script.

After several thousand years, archaeologists began excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in the 1920s.  There are no great temples, palaces, or monuments of gods or kings.

Indus Script

Indus signboardThe earliest examples of Indus script, from 3500 to 2700 BC, only use a single sign and are found on pottery at Harappa, in the northeast.  Full script development occurred during the IVC Urban period, 2600 to 1900 BC. Thousands of longer inscriptions have been found at nearly 100 excavation sites, with an average length of five signs and none longer than 26 signs.

Over 400 basic signs have been found but only 30 were used frequently. The script is generally written from right to left, but some multi-line writings use alternating directions.

The Indus River is home to over 150 species of fish.  Variations of a fish symbol frequently found in Indus script may mean fish or stars or gods.

Scholars do not agree on the origin, language (maybe Dravidian), or decoding of the script.  No long or bilingual documents have been found to aid in decoding.  The reason may be that long documents were written by scribes on perishable organic material such as palm leaves that have decomposed.

Only some pottery, stoneware bangles, ivory engravings, small tablets made of steatite (soapstone), bronze, and copper, along with seals and many seal stamp impressions have survived.

Indus Valley Civilization Seals

Most Indus script is found in seal impressions made on clay.  Seal stamps discovered are mostly one-inch square, made of steatite, and also faience, calcite, and silver.  They display a short script at the top with a human, animal, mythological creature image, or story scene below.

Writing is mostly associated with educated scribes, notaries, officials, and elites for administration and recording transactions. Scribes also served as teachers. Seals were also used for religious or talisman purposes.

bullock cart India 1900Clay tags were also attached to goods traded by merchants, indicating they had basic writing and artisan skills to make merchant seals.  Indus clay tags have been found in Sumeria, indicating long-distance maritime trade.

The merchants may have been the first to use wheeled transportation, bullock carts pulled by oxen, which are still used in India and Pakistan today.

There were two land routes used for trade across ancient Persia to Mesopotamia.

Indus Valley Civilization to Mesopotamia sea route mapSea Trade with Sumeria

Sumerian writings mention the land of Meluhha, believed to be the Indus Valley Civilization.  The Indus seaport at Lothal had a dock used by ships sailing across the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf to Sumeria along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia.

There is also some evidence of trade with Egypt, Crete, Afghanistan (then known as Bactria), and China.

Indus seal boat with land-seeking birds

One Indus seal depicts a trade ship using land-seeking birds. If the ship got lost at sea and became disoriented, with no land in sight, the birds were released and they would fly toward land. The ship would follow the birds.

Scholars continue to study and debate the Indus script, attempting to decode the signs and unlock many mysteries of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization.

Image Credits:
1. Indus Valley seals, British Museum, Wikimedia Commons
2. Indus Priest/King Statue, 17.5 cm high, carved from steatite aka soapstone, found in Mohenjo-Daro in 1927, on display in the National Museum, Karachi, Pakistan, Wikimedia Commons
3. Indus script signboard found near the north gate of the citadel in Dholavira, Wikimedia Commons
4. bullock cart, India, circa 1900, whatsthatpicture, London, Wikimedia Commons
5. map Mesopotamia-Indus sea route, Natural Earth, Wikimedia Commons
6. Disha Kaka Boat with Direction Finding Birds, model of Mohenjo-Daro seal, 3000 BCE. Maritime Heritage Gallery, India National Museum, New Delhi, Wikimedia Commons

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