Friday, December 17, 2004

Scholar claims Indus script only symbols

Science : "The Indus civilization has intrigued and puzzled researchers for more than 130 years, with their sophisticated sewers, huge numbers of wells, and a notable lack of monumental architecture or other signs of an elite class. Most intriguing of all is the mysterious system of symbols, left on small tablets, pots, and stamp seals. But without translations into a known script--the 'Rosetta stones' that led to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform in the 19th century--hundreds of attempts to understand the symbols have so far failed. And what language the system might have expressed--such as a Dravidian language similar to tongues of today's southern India, or a Vedic language of northern India--is also a hot topic. This is no dry discussion: Powerful Indian nationalists of the Hindutva movement see the Indus civilization as the direct ancestor to Hindu tradition and Vedic culture.

Now academic outsider Steve Farmer (see sidebar on p. 2028) and two established Indus scholars argue that the signs are not writing at all but rather a collection of religious-political symbols that held together a diverse and multilingual society. The brevity of most inscriptions, the relative frequencies of symbols, and the lack of archaeological evidence of a manuscript tradition add up to a sign system that does not encode language, argue historian Farmer and his co-authors, Harvard University linguist Michael Witzel and computational theorist Richard Sproat of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Instead, they say the signs may have more in common with European medieval heraldry, the Christian cross, or a bevy of magical symbols used by prehistoric peoples."