Walter Fairservis and Indus Symbols

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In the last 20 years of his life, Walter Fairservis joined the ranks of a long line of distinguished researchers who concluded their careers in quixotic attempts to decipher the ‘Indus script.’ Fairservis’ instincts as an archaeologist were too acute to lead him to mistake the Harappans for a truly literate people: he was nearly alone in his period in rejecting fantasies of Indus ‘scribes’ producing books on perishable materials. By the end of his life he adopted the strange compromise that the Harappans possessed a full syllabary but restricted it almost exclusively to making short inscriptions on seals.

Interestingly, in a stray paragraph in an early survey of ancient India, Fairservis came close to being the first major researcher to break with linguistic views of the signs. The remarkable passage cited below from one of the great archaeologists of the twentieth century has been forgotten, and it is a pleasure to quote it in full. It was apparently written in the late 1960s, but did not make it to print until several years later:

Seal writing is not necessarily writing derived from the oral language. It has its own meanings and in effect need not have verb, adjective, or adverb. Rather it may be simply a kind of label specifying the individual or his god, house, or belongings, much as a heraldic device uses iconographic elements limited in number in countless ways to name the individual or an institution. Except for the numbers, which suggest bookkeeping and thus more mundane motivations one cannot help but feel that the Harappan script is of this character. It appears to be a script a full step above the potters’ marks of pre-Harappan times but below the complexity of early hieroglyphic Egyptian or Sumerian which was already ideographic. The script has little preamble except possibly in the potters’ marks. Throughout its known history it shows little or no change and disappears with the Harappans and their seals. Though it is writing in one sense, it does not appear to have been much more meaningful to the Indus people than the repeated motifs that appear on their pottery. However, tomorrow’s shoveling may reveal a room full of tablets and change this so limited interpretation (The Roots of Ancient India, New York 1971: 282).

Leaving aside Fairservis’ remarks on bookkeeping, which can now be disproven, and his odd comments on how the Harappans viewed their symbols, there is much that is prescient in this passage. Peculiarly, however, the passage is surrounded by others that claim that Indus inscriptions were syllabic in nature, suggesting that the passage was written shortly before Fairservis reverted to older linguistic models of the inscriptions. As suggested in a paragraph he eventually placed right before this one, what changed his mind were not finds of rooms filled with tablets — none were forthcoming — but the spectacular public announcement of a breakthrough by the Finnish group led by Asko Parpola, who in 1969 announced that his group had harnessed the infant field of computer science to prove that the ‘language’ of the inscriptions was proto-Dravidian. The fact that the Soviet team made similar claims in roughly the same period reinforced Fairservis’ about face — sending him on his twenty-year odd quest to ‘decipher’ what his own archaeological instincts suggested and much evidence today can confirm wasn’t a script in the first place.

The story of Indus inscriptions over the past 130 years provides a cautionary tale of how early failures to test historical assumptions can lead research down dead ends for many decades. The initial Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, Alexander Cunningham, published the first Indus seal in the mid 1870s; within two years, on the basis of one mutilated six-sign inscription, he declared the ‘script’ on the seal to be an early form of Brahmi. Five years later, the first of many forgeries that play a role in the Indus story was foisted on the public by the famed comparative linguist and Sinologist Terrien de Lacouperie, who plugged for a Chinese or Indo-Chinese tribal origins for the new-found ‘script’ (on Cunningham’s seal and this first forgery, see the PDF file [1 Meg] at firstforgery.pdf)

The result was that by 1882 the long Indus ‘decipherment’ comedy was already in full swing. It is interesting to speculate about how the field would have evolved if from the start anyone had asked one simple and obvious question: “Are these really linguistic signs? And, if so, how can we tell?” It is sobering to realize that if that question had been posed even once by one influential early researcher, much of our current understanding of ancient history — and even Indian political discourse, in which the myth of a literate Indus Valley plays a significant part — might be radically different.

©2003, 2004 Steve Farmer

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