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Early Indus Script Volume 52 Number 5, September/October 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Seal with unicorn motif and script signs (Courtesy J.M. Kenoyer and Department of Archaeology and Museums, Pakistan) [LARGER IMAGE]

Workers at the Indus Valley site of Harappa in northern Pakistan were plied with sweets and entertained by local drummers this past spring following the discovery of inscribed sherds dating to ca. 2800-2600 B.C. These sherds confirm dates for 1998 discoveries of Early Indus script on pottery and in the impression of a square seal on a lump of clay. Punjabi custom calls for sweets and drummers to celebrate good fortune, and the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, led by Richard H. Meadow of Harvard University and J. Mark Kenoyer of University of Wisconsin, Madison, considered themselves doubly fortunate: they also recovered a cubical limestone weight from an early period that conforms to later, standardized weights.

The excavators say these discoveries indicate that the development of a writing system, the use of inscribed seals impressed into clay for marking ownership, and the standardization of weights for trade or taxation occurred many decades, if not centuries, earlier than previously believed. This confirms that the Harappan culture, which flourished between 2600 and 1900 B.C., evolved at the site and was not introduced from Mesopotamia or Central Asia (see "Birth of a Civilization," January/February, 1998).

A main objective of this year's excavations, conducted in collaboration with Pakistan's Department of Archaeology and Museums, was to find evidence for the origins and development of the enigmatic and as yet undeciphered Indus script. In previous excavation seasons most inscribed pottery, seals, and other forms of script were recovered from occupation levels dating to between 2600 and 1900 B.C., the so-called Harappan Phase. This year's discovery of inscribed sherds comes in the wake of even earlier examples of script discovered in March 1998 from occupation levels dating to between 3500 and 3300 B.C., possibly the earliest known writing in the Indus Valley.

Kenoyer and Meadow also revealed that the so-called circular working platforms and granary excavated in the 1930s do not appear to have been used for storing or processing grain. Instead, these platforms may have been used for processing some other commodity, possibly indigo dye. Nearby excavations have also yielded some noteworthy finds: a terra-cotta house model probably used as a bird cage and a two-by-two-inch steatite Harappan Phase seal carved with a unicorn motif and 13 script signs. The seal is in perfect condition and is one of the largest found so far at Harappa. For more information on Harappa see

Support for the 1999 season was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of Harvard University, as well as by the American School of Prehistoric Research, the University of Wisconsin, New York University, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kress Foundation, and private donors.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America