Indus script on a SEA pottery sherd?

There is an interesting news article making the rounds today raising the question about some graffiti-like symbols on a piece of pottery, found at the peninsular Thai site of Phu Khao Thong, being related to the Indus script.  The image below is taken from the article,  which you can read here.

“The discovery of a Tamil-Brahmi pottery inscription of about the second century CE at the same site was reported earlier ( The Hindu, July 16, 2006). One can presume that the present inscription is also from the Tamil country and belongs approximately to the same period. The two characters incised on the pottery now reported are not in the Brahmi script. They appear to be graffiti symbols of the type seen on the South Indian megalithic pottery of the Iron Age-Early Historical Period (second century BCE to third century CE).”

It isn’t unusual (but definitely cool and exciting) to find evidence of contact with South Indian cultures at this site in Thailand. However, I think the claim that these might be Indus symbols is a bit premature. The Indus script fell out of use around 1900 BC, almost two-thousand years earlier than the pottery sherd in question.  There hasn’t been any strong archaeological evidence showing the the Indus script was still in use anywhere in South Asia during that time.  My advisor is one of the leading scholars of the Indus and as a result I’m surrounded by lots of smart graduate students who study in South Asia. I sent the article to some of my colleagues and one of my friends, Heather, who is studying  Ashokan rock edicts written in the Brahmi script, responded with the following:

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Tamil-Brahmi lately though…I’d say those are definitely Brahmi characters (Lal has an often-refuted 1960 article that says otherwise, looking for continuity between the two scripts as well as the megalithic pottery graffiti of South India).  The “diamond” is clearly a square and is the Brahmi letter [ba].  As for the other one, if we are looking at the sherd upside down (hard to tell orientation) then it is a [ga] perhaps with a vowel diacritic. But if right side up (as presented) I would argue for [la] written in an angular form due to the difficulty of using a stylus to inscribe pottery in a curve. So, a reading of bala (name??) would be consistent with other graffiti on bowl rims in Brahmi from this time…not a lost fragment of the Indus script.

That said, I’m working on my paper about continuity of symbols over time  and it’s certainly possible that some common megalithic signs and symbols were incorporated into early Brahmi scripts.

The author of the article, Iravatham Mahadevan, does briefly mention “the possibility that the languages of the Indus Civilisation and South India belong to the same family, namely Dravidian.”  I don’t know how much research has been done on this topic (anyone else have any ideas?).  Mahadevan has found other evidence in India connecting the Indus script with South India (see here).  There was also a rather famous discovery of a Neolithic adze with supposedly Indus script carvings on it found in Tamil Nadu (article here).  Although the adze was dated to 2000-1500 BC, a bit closer in time to when the Indus script was actually used.

The bottom line is that it is hard to draw such big conclusions based on two not-very-clear symbols on a pottery sherd.   At the same time, the archaeology of Southeast Asia (and South India for that matter) is still so new and there is still so much work to be done that sometimes all it takes is a single find to totally change our ideas about what was happening in the past.  But, these kinds of finds need to be evaluated carefully before we start rewriting the history books.

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4 responses to “Indus script on a SEA pottery sherd?

  1. I think a lot of times, lay people look at the evidence and the conclusions presented and think, really? Is it that clear cut? I really enjoy clear presentation of scientific evidence with stuff like this.

  2. Pingback: Evidence for Indus script in Southeast Asia? | SEAArch - The Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog

  3. I removed some comments from this thread because they were quickly turning into personal attacks and no real discussion of the issue was being provided. This seemed especially silly as all parties agreed with one another that this is not Indus script on that pottery sherd. My blog, my comment policy.

  4. Pingback: Sounding on Archaeology for June 21, 2010 « imagining the real world