Saturday, 11 February 2017

Indus Valley

The Indus is the second great river of India after Mother Ganges. It is also the home of a very ancient civilisation that has vanished almost entirely except for a bunch of buried ruins at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro and a number of small settlements scattered over an area about twice the size of modern Pakistan. The Indus Valley civilisation is much loved by archaeologists from the left because the streetscapes of the cities look remarkably uniform. There are no pyramids or palaces to suggest that there was a big-headed ruler of all he surveyed including an extensive underclass or slaves/peasants. There is a case to be made that there was no need for weapons of any sort of destruction. In  piece about rich bastards owning much prime real estate in London, Frank Jacobs refers to the recent announcement that the 8 richest men own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest " . . . you would only need to go back a few decades to reach Equalhalla, that fabled past of fellowship and sharing. And possibly a fairly-distributed number of unicorns." That's the pinch of salt necessary when extrapolating from some streets and gardens how the Indus Valley really ticked 4,000 years ago.

The other object of fascination is the dancing girl of Mohejo-Daro; a tiny [10cm high] statuette of a naked young woman who doesn't look like she is oppressed or exploited [R]. This delightful bronze artifact was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Ernest Mackay and is now behind bullet proof glass in a museum in Delhi.
The other source of information, or enigma, about the Indus Valley people is an extensive collection of seals: small knuckles of stone carved with images of animals and some people superimposed by a handful of characters that look like letters or hieroglyphs.
They were made 4000 years ago but many of them look daisy-fresh today. The problem is that, far from having a Rosetta stone, there are only fragments of the script in any one place; so it is hard to get a run at some data and look for patterns. Another problem is that there are several hundred different glyphs, so that most of the combinations are vanishingly rare if not unique. This hasn't stopped puzzlists, classicists, scientists and lots of amateurists from having a go at deciphering the language. Some claim that it is absurd that these marks were ever enunciated, even as proper names; according to this theory the signs were sort of heraldic symbols about as meaningful as lyon rampant gules party per chevron argent.

As with many things that don't matter much in the line of feeding the starving or cooling the planet - think Manchester United, Dawn Run or Pokemon - the Indus Valley script is quite highly charged in some quarters of politics and academia. Other ancient scripts - Mayan, Linear B - have been deciphered because somebody had a punt at matching the letter combos to a known language. Attempts have been made to shoe-horn the script into Dravidian or Sanskrit languages from the South and North of the sub-continent respectively. It is hugely important to some politicians whether the darker Indians or the paler ones can claim to be direct descendants of this ancient civilisation.

The conundrum of the meaning of the many fragments of script surfaced in The Verge at the end of January. Much the same material was gone over in Nature in 2015. It turns out that the script follows a Zipf distribution [bloboprev] with a few symbols used a helluva lot and most of them hardly at all. All known languages follow this rule but so does a lot of other non-linguistic data, so Zipf is necessary but not sufficient for calling the IV script a language. Go to, younger, smarter, people, my puzzling days are over.

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