In 1875, a Major-General Clark, who was the Commissioner of Awadh, discovered a seal in Harappa which had the engraving of a hump-less bull and six signs above it. 134 years and many seals later we still don’t know what is written on those seals; there are many decipherments, but no consensus. While papers are being published, applying various statistical methods to find out if the Indus seals encode a linguistic system, there is another debate over whether the inscriptions on these small palm-sized steatite seals represent Indo-European, proto-Dravidian, Munda or some other language.
Why is decoding the Indus script and language hard when Egyptian hieroglyphics, Myceneaen Linear B and Sumerian cuneiform have been deciphered? In the case of hieroglyphics and cuneiform there were artefacts with bilingual encoding like the Rosetta stone. However when it comes to the Indus, which is an unknown script representing an unknown language, we don’t have that luxury. Linear B was deciphered without bilingual text which gives hope, but then Indus seals are short. The average length of a seal is five symbols; the longest single-sided inscription has seventeen signs. With such data, deciphering the seal is hard.
The attempts to decipher the Indus seals has yielded results which appear contradictory. For example in 1968, Yuri Knorozov, a Russian linguist who had decoded the Mayan script found internal structures in the Indus seals using software analysis. Based on that he read the text as proto-Dravidian. In 1934, G R Hunter concluded that Brahmi was derived from Indus script. John E Mitchiner looked at the one particular feature of the Indus script—the case endings—and concluded that it could not be Elamite or Dravidian, but only Indo-European.
The discovery of seals with longer texts can end this debate. But is there a possibility of finding such objects? Consider this: Much of the region of Harappa—which is much bigger than any of the ancient civilisations—has not been excavated. There were some excavations during the 1930s and again from 1986 onwards. There is a lot to be unearthed.
Another discovery which can end this debate is the discovery of a bilingual seal. Since Harappans were trading with the hubs of the ancient world like Mesopotamia and Bactria and spoke a different language, there is the possibility of finding such a seal. Such a Rosetta stone could be found not just in India but also in Iran or Iraq or Bahrain. Indeed, the area around modern day Basra could be the key to deciphering the Indus script.
Off to Mesopotamia
After World War 1, the British and the Penn Museums decided to conduct archaeological digs in Iraq. The country was then under the British mandate and sites were easily accessible.
The expedition started work in 1922 and one of their major discoveries was the Royal Cemetery of Ur which belonged to the First Dynasty. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated more than a thousand graves that dated between 2600-2400 BCE. Of these, seventeen were royal tombs and in one he found a forty year old, five foot tall woman who was given an elaborate burial. We know this woman as Queen Puabi from one of the three cylinder seals found on her body. She was accompanied in her death by handmaidens and warriors, who were put to death, not by poisoning, but by driving a pike into their heads.
An interesting item from her tomb was a cloak made from carnelian beads, which come from the Indus region. Queen Puabi’s time, around 4500 years ago, when there were many city-states ruled by individual kings wealthy enough to import luxury goods from around the world, is a good starting point in understanding the Indus influence in Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia became divided into Sumer and Akkad, which were not political entities, but collections of city-states speaking two different languages. Sumerian is unrelated to any other language while Akkadian is the ancestor of languages like Assyrian and thus related to Hebrew and Arabic. The Akkadians and Sumerians remained in close contact, borrowing words from each other. The Akkadians also adopted the Sumerian script; sometimes with short inscriptions it is hard to tell if the language is Akkadian or Sumerian. In 2270 BCE Sargon combined the region to create the Akkadian Empire.
It is in Sargon’s time that we hear about the Meluhhans—identified as people from the Indus region—for the first time. He boasted about ships from Dilmun (Bahrain), Magan (Oman) and Meluhha docking in the quay of Akkad. There is also a tablet dating to 2200 BCE which mentions an Akkadian who was the holder of Meluhhan ships: large boats that were transporting precious metals and gem stones.
There is also a text dating to this period which mentions that Lu-Sunzida, a man of Meluhha, paid 10 shekels of silver to Urur, son of Amar-luku, as a payment for a broken tooth. This law seems to be an earlier version of the code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), which states that “if one knocks out the tooth of a freeman, he shall pay one-third mana of silver.”
When the name Lu-Sunzida is translated into Sumerian it means “man of just buffalo-cow” which is meaningless; the Sumerians don’t have any cultural context for using the buffalo. But the people of India definitely did: the water buffalo is an important concept in the Rig Veda (1.164: 41-42)
This link between Lu-Sunzida and the earliest layers of the Rig Veda was noted by the Finnish Indologist Asko Parpola, who suggested that the name could have been a direct translation from Indus to Sumerian. Does this mean that the Vedic people were contemporaries of the Akkadians violating the lakshman rekha of 2000 BCE, when Indo-Aryans supposedly migrated to the Indus region?
Not so fast. According to one explanation, two Indo-Aryan groups—the Dasas and Panis—arrived around 2100 BCE from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them. If the Indo-Aryans arrived earlier, can the date of the Rig Veda be pushed to before 2100 BCE? The theory says that the migrants of 2100 BCE were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later. So according to Parpola, the name Lu-Sunzida could refer to the culture of those early arrivals—the Dasas, Vratyas, Mlecchas—who occupied the Indus region before the composers of Vedas. Thus Meluhha could be an adaptation of the Sanskrit word Mleccha.
Following the decline of Sargon’s Akkadian dynasty, city states like Lagash in the south gained independence and in 2144 BCE, Gudea became the town-king or governor. Direct sea trade, which had been active during Sargon’s time between Meluhha and Mesopotamia continued: Meluhhans supplied wood and raw materials for the construction of the main temple of Gudea’s capital, as well as red stones and luxury goods.
Following the Akkadian period (2300-2150 BCE), there was a Sumerian renaissance resulting in the Third Dynasty of Ur, usually mentioned as Ur III Empire. Various city states like Gudea’s Lagash ended with the emergence of Ur III, but these political changes did not affect trade with Meluhha, which continued as usual with one difference.
The direct trade by Meluhhans declined and instead, goods were bought by the middlemen in Dilmun. One reason is that by the time of Ur III, the de-urbanisation of Harappa had started. While trade from Harappa declined, trade from ports in Gujarat boomed via middlemen bringing in various kinds of Meluhhan wood, some of which were used to make special thrones with ivory inlays.
The Indus Colony
Even though direct trade declined, a large number of foreigners stayed back, adopted local customs, and played an important role in Sumerian economy. These foreigners stayed in a village—a Meluhhan village—from 2062 BCE; we have documents from this period. This village was located in Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had a port city called Guabba hosting the temple of Nin-mar. The Meluhhan village was in Guabba and was associated with this temple.
Guabba was probably a harbour town under the jurisdiction of the Girsu/Lagas but by the time of Ur III, it was not near the sea but could only be reached by inland waterways. A large number of granaries existed in Guabba where the temple was located. The granaries had to deliver barley and the Meluhhan village granary was one of them.
Thanks to the meticulous record keeping by the Sumerians we have a good idea of what the Meluhhans did. In 2062 BCE, a scribe of the builders received barley from the Meluhhan village. In 2057 BCE, there is account of grain delivery, the details of which are mentioned against a tablet of an Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha; the inventory of barley deposits in 2047 BCE mentions the quantity from the Meluhhan village. By 2046 BCE, there is a debt note:Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha has to recompense some wool. In 2045 BCE, the list of grain rations mentions the son of Meluhha, who was the serf of the Nanse temple from the delta.
During the Akkadian times, the Meluhhans were considered as foreigners, but by the Ur III period they were part of society, paying tax and distributing grain, like other Sumerian villages. Compared to other towns and villages, the amount of grain delivered by the Meluhhan village was quite high. Between 1981-1973 BCE, Ur was ruled by Amar-Sin and between 1972-1964 BCE by his brother Shu-Sin. During the sixth year of the former and eighth year of the latter, barley was delivered only by the Meluhhan granary—either the Meluhhan granaries were bigger or there was a third millennium poll tax.
Apart from the granary, a few people of Guabba—4272 women and 1800 children—worked in the weaving sector. The Indus region was famous for cotton since 4000 BCE: one of the earliest evidence for exports from the subcontinent is Baluchistan cotton which was found in Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site in Jordan. It is quite likely that the skilled weavers of of Guabba were from the Indus region.
Besides weavers, the village also had shepherds; the Ur III texts also mention a Meluhhan goat. The temple of Nin-mar had two gardens one of which was Meluhhan. This was probably a garden planted with fruit trees from Meluhha and provided fruits for the goddess. By the Ur III period, the Meluhhans had adopted Sumerian names and Sumerian religious traditions.
The Language Turner
Few years back, Gregory L Possehl, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was reading Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, when he discovered a reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan translator—Shu-ilishu—who lived in Mesopotamia. The seal was dated from Late Akkadian (2200-2113 BCE) to Ur III (2113–2004 BCE).
Think about this: Around 4000 years ago, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He probably could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages.
This suggests that there is probably a bilingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery on the language of the Harappans forever.
While no bilingual seal has been found so far, various Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia. Hunter observed that square Indus seals could be in Indus language while the circular ones, though in Indus script, could be encoding a non-Indus language. He has a reason for suggesting this: there is one particular circular Mesopotamian seal which has five Indus signs in a sequence not seen before; a square seal found in Kish was similar to the Indus ones.
That has not helped in decipherment. The number of Indus seals found in Mesopotamia are not too many. Around thirty seals have been found of which only ten can be dated with certainty. With trade relations lasting centuries this is a disappointing count. Hence, the hope of finding a bilingual tablet depends on finding a Sumerian cuneiform tablet. That is a possibility since in January 2010, Iraqi archaeologists found walls and cornerstones carrying Sumerian writings dating to the time of Amar-Sin. Hopefully future excavations will find Indus related artifacts.
Another clue could come from the translations of Ur III texts. Mesopotamians were prolific writers: we know what Sargon of Akkad wrote; we can read the seal of Queen Puabi; there are numerous texts which describe in detail how much tax was paid, debt was kept and who broke whose tooth. Due to this meticulous record-keeping we can reconstruct the history of people from the Indian subcontinent in Mesopotamia.
The news about the Meluhhan village came in a paper published in 1977 based on ten Ur III texts from Lagash/Girsu. Last year there was another update based on the translations of 44 texts which has 48 references to Meluhha. The text which connects the Meluhhan village with Guabba is located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and was first published in 1912; no one noticed the connection till recently. With interest revived in this topic, scholars will keep an eye for such clues which could help solve this puzzle.