Here it is, folks: the Dholavira Signboard, all ten symbols of it. What the heck is it trying to tell us?
The mystery surrounding the inscription, if that’s what it is, seems to RT to characterize the Harappan Civilization (mature phase, 2700-1800 B.C.) that produced it. Here we have an ancient polity larger than Mesopotamia, characterized by mud-brick cities, an emphasis on cleanliness and ritual baths, and wide-spread urban planning. It conducting trade with Sumer and presumably Sargon’s Empire, but nonetheless has offered up only a few tantalizing examples of its writing system and pretty much disappeared after centuries of existence, leaving no successor civilization behind. What happened?
RT first got interested in this puzzle because he’s convinced that the Indus River valley represents the sharpest, most significant cultural boundary in the ancient world. East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet got its start here. And sure enough, stark differences can be seen right at the beginnings of recorded history, starting with the fact that Mesopotamia produced a civilization devoted to its writing system, one that was practically drowning in written words and that continued to use cuneiform for a couple of millennia, while the Indus valley evidently possessed some kind of writing system, but one which faded away with the civilization that produced it. Following the disappearance of Harrapan society, writing did not reappear in the Indian subcontinent until the 6th or 5th centuries B.C. We must confront an astonishing fact: India went without a written script for more than a thousand years.
Or did it? We know that the Bramhi script used to record the Rig Veda and other early surviving Sanskrit manuscripts was written on highly perishable materials such as tree bark, so it conceivable that the same was true of the Harrapan writing. But why would the Indus valley adopt such perishable media when it knew of cuneiform written on clay tablets? RT confesses himself flabbergasted. Why were the Harappans so transitory?
Here is RT’s speculation about the Signboard. The Harappan writing system clocks in at about 400 characters, which indicates it probably was an ideograph-syllable script, like cuneiform. The graphic quality of the letters suggests a compromise between a script designed to be carved on stone and written on bark–that is, the characters are constructed of angular shapes softened by slight curves. The letterforms themselves evidently have little relationship to proto-cuneiform. This writing system appears to have developed independently of other scripts.
Then there is the matter of the “wheel-form” symbol which appears four times in the signboard. Forty percent of the inscription relies on a single concept, and not just any concept, but one which might well be connected to the wheel of Rebirth, that powerful concept in Indian religion, which today appears on the Indian Republic’s flag. Could this sign be the symbol for Harappan civilization? Could its concurrent star-like shape suggest the gods or heaven? How does it relate to the fifth symbol, the open diamond/ellipse?
We will have to wait to find out. With so few examples of the script to work from, linguists have not yet deciphered Harrapan writing or been able to identify the language that it recorded. We may never know, or a Harappan Rosetta Stone may turn up. In the meantime, excavation continues.
No way, you’re thinking: what’s RT up to now? Well, this is what: RT wants to take us through the evolution of an alphabet, the Russian (or Cyrillic) alphabet, as it turns out. And if that’s what you want to do, this is the place to start. With Glagolitic, the precursor writing system of the Slavs, going back to the 9th century. Beautiful, isn’t it? And we have Saints Cyril and Methodius to thank for it. More on this later.
Beautiful, and more than beautiful. RT
some very useful information…RT
(reposted from hannahchungdesign)
To finish RT’s early post about the evolution of writing in ancient Greece, he picks up the thread of the post at the discussion of Linear A, the precursor to Linear B–both more primitive writing systems than the Greek Alphabet that eventually replaced them.
Linear A consisted of hundreds of signs–syllabic, ideographic, and semantic symbols, which were incised into clay tablets, as was the case with Linear B. While Linear B tablets have been found on Crete and the Greek mainland, Linear A materials have been recovered from several Aegean islands (for instance, Milos) and on the Greek mainland at Laconia. Though Linear A and B share many symbols in common, about 80 percent of Linear A’s logograms are unique.
As was explained in the first half of this post, when the deciphered values for Linear B characters are used for their LA counterparts, nonsense words emerge; this suggests that Linear A was used to record a non-Greek language. Close study of the script has indicated that this language was an isolate (though connections with Anatolia and Phoenicia have been suggested.
Linear A was in use from the 18th century to 1450 BC.
And last, but not least, Linear A appears to have been used in parallel with Cretan hieroglyphs, which first appear in the archaeological record about a century before LA.
Wow, Greece produced four writing systems over a period stretching from the 17oo to 800 BC. What may be most noticeable, though is the continuity of the systems: the hieroglyphs being the parent of both Linear A and B. Over that period writing was steadily simplified into a syllable script that was not significantly harder than the Greek alphabet to learn and use. And yet the appearance of the GA represents the most significant break with its predecessor, in system (a true alphabet), time (appearing 400 years after Linear B), and medium (pen on papyrus).
RT thinks that we are looking at two periods of development in writing: 1) the early character systems, typically written on clay tablets or painted on stone and 2) the alphabet revolution, apparently occurring from about 1250 to 700 BC. The earlier systems (Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cretan hieroglyphs, and cuneiform) underwent a steady process of simplification, in the case of cuneiform reducing the number of characters from 1000 to 400. The true breakthrough came, though, with the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet (about 1100 BC), the Greek alphabet (about 750 BC), and the demotic script (in Egypt, about 700 BC).
But what is most interesting, from RT’s perspective, is that a single alphabet did not replace the grand-daddy of writing systems, the cuneiform characters. From the beginning, Egypt produced a rival writing system, followed by Crete in the early second millennium. It was the Phoenician alphabet, though, that triumphed in the end, serving as the model for the Greek, Aramaic, and Latin alphabets.
Still, there is something restless about alphabets, attuned as they are to the spoken word. The early characters all had a tendency to use fewer and fewer symbols; can a new universal alphabet emerge that is inclusive enough to represent all human vocal sounds and at the same time be visually attractive and easy to write and learn? RT
Image: top: Uppercase and lowercase numeric symbol Koppa. (Design approximately follows 18th-cent type designs.) Author: Future Perfect at Sunrise; WikiCmns; Public Domain. bottom: WikiCmns, Public Domain.
RT was feeling a little down after publishing his first installment of Gilgamesh on Lulu (all that work, and where are the millions in royalties?), so he followed his own advice for such situations and learned something new.
This is one way to think about the Greek alphabet: the alphabet, which is clearly based on the earlier Phoenician alphabet, dates to the early 8th century BC. Within a few decades, its use had spread across Greece, becoming so strongly established that it influenced the creation of other alphabets and continues in use in Greece today.
End of story, right? Nope! It turns out that the Greeks used another writing system before the current Greek alphabet, and that this system has one if not more precursors. The writing system in question is Linear B, a syllable script that was in use from about 1450 to 1200 BC. Notably, LB was not written with pen on papyrus or parchment, but with a stylus on clay tablets–a method that originated with cuneiform. The script had about 200 characters, more or less evenly divided between syllable sounds and ideograms. It was used to record commercial transactions, and thus makes reference to the gods of the time. None of the tablets record literature (though phonetic changes between LB and its successor Greek alphabet have helped date the origins of Homer’s poetry). The language recorded in LB is archaic Greek.
A final and fateful point: the use of Linear B came to an end during the Dorian invasion of Greece (about 1000 B.C.–and which may or may not have taken place).
Wow! A ton to think about! But there’s still more.
Namely, Linear A, the precursor of Linear B. The first thing to know about LA is that it has only been found on the island of Crete. The second thing to know is that it shares many symbols with Linear B. The third thing to know is that when the deciphered values for LB symbols are used to transcribe Linear A, only a mishmash of sounds emerges. Conclusion? Linear A was not used to write a Greek language.
and what do you know… the school bell is ringing and RT’s lunch hour is over…the second installment of this post will appear shortly… RT
So, to take the process of advertising the script one step further, RT offers the Quikscript sample to the left, two phrases taken from a famous work. Readers are encouraged to transliterate the sample into the Roman alphabet.
Here is a link to the Wikipedia Quikscript alphabet chart. Readers are also encouraged to leave their transliterations in this post’s comments section. Good luck! RT