Indus script designed with care, say TIFR researchers

While the Indus script is yet to be deciphered, a paper by researchers at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, says that a lot of time and effort went into the designing of the script. According to the authors of the study, it was "an intellectual exercise of great significance". The researchers say that the script was uniform across all sites of the civilisation—which included Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan, Chanhudaro, other Harappan sites and West Asia—indicating detailed planning.

"Writing is an important window to the intellectual creativity of a civilisation. Our analysis reveals that people who designed the Indus script were intellectually creative and considerable time and effort went into designing it. The manner in which the signs were modified shows that it was acceptable across all the sites of the civilisation and was not intended for a small group of people," said Nisha Yadav from TIFR, the principal author of the study.

The Indus script is found on objects such as seals, copper tablets, ivory sticks, bronze implements and pottery from almost all sites of the civilisation. "The Indus civilisation was spread over an area of about a million square kilometres and yet, the sign list over the entire civilisation seems to be the same indicating that the signs, their meaning and their usage were agreed upon by people with large physical separation. A lot of thought, planning and utility issues must have been taken into consideration while designing these signs," says the TIFR paper, published in the Korean journal, Scripta.

The paper also indicates that the script may have a connection with scripts from India or even China. The authors say that the signs of the Indus script seem to incorporate techniques in their design that were used in several ancient writing systems to make optimum use of a limited number of signs.

The scientists undertook a comprehensive analysis of the design of 417 Indus signs. They identified 154 basic signs (which cannot be decomposed further into simpler signs) and 263 composite signs (which are made up of two or more signs and can be further simplified).

"Out of the 263 signs that have been identified as composite signs, 149 signs are of compound type, that is, they are made up of two or more of the 154 basic signs. Also, 114 signs have been modified. Our results suggest that composite signs were not shorthand and that the signs have been designed with care. They were not meant for brevity or for saving writing space but seem to have some other function. They generated a new meaning altogether. Combining signs with other signs or modifiers seems to have been a practice known to all sites," said Yadav.

The paper says that the designers of the Indus signs also placed special emphasis on symmetry with over 60 per cent of the signs showing some form of symmetry. "There seems to be an underlying effort to retain the overall aesthetic value of Indus signs. This arrangement worked satisfactorily for about 700 years. Hence the understanding of Indus signs and their meaning must have been robust and yet versatile," concludes the paper.

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