Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions: Volume 3.3

Review by Andrew Robinson

The Indus civilisation – which flourished c.2500-1900 BC – was about twice the size of its equivalent in Egypt or neighbouring Mesopotamia. In its own way, it was as extraordinary as those civilisations, with its technically sophisticated cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, utopian absence of warfare, and long-distance trade with Mesopotamia. But it left no direct legacy in the Indian subcontinent. Neither Alexander the Great, who invaded India via the Indus in the 4th century BC, nor Asoka Maurya, who ruled most of the subcontinent in the 3rd century BC, was even dimly aware of the Indus civilisation; nor were the Arab, Mughal, and European colonial rulers of India during the next two millennia. Indeed, the civilisation remained altogether invisible until its almost accidental rediscovery at Harappa by British and Indian archaeologists in the early 1920s. Since then, scholars from all over the world have been trying to elucidate its mysteries, including the information recorded in its stubbornly undeciphered writing system.

In the 1960s, Indus archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler enthused, without exaggeration, that the tantalising miniature Indus seal stones and terracotta tablets – including their famous ‘unicorn’ motifs – were ‘little masterpieces of controlled realism, with a monumental strength in one sense out of all proportion to their size and in another entirely related to it.’ Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki, became fascinated. In 1987, with the support of UNESCO, Parpola and others launched the highly illustrated Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions (CISI), to catalogue all inscriptions associated with the Indus civilisation – ranging from fully engraved seals to simple potters’ marks – found in both the Indus area and historically linked regions such as Mesopotamia. Volumes 1-3.1 covered collections from the Indus region kept in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere (including the British Museum). Volume 3.2 broadened the scope to inscriptions from neighbouring areas, notably Baluchistan.

This massive new volume, 3.3, is the penultimate in the project, to be followed by the final volume, 3.4. Subtitled ‘Indo-Iranian Borderlands’, it catalogues, with the help of numerous specialists, inscriptions from more distant regions: the highlands of western Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. They were ‘the source of repeated eastward migrations that culminate in the evolution of the Indus civilisation’, argues Parpola. Although 3.3 contains hardly any ‘Indus-type’ seals, those that do exist ‘document the participation of the Indus civilisation in the trade and interaction between the different cultural partners of the “Middle Asian Interaction Sphere”.’

Yet, for all the devoted investigation by Parpola and many others during the past century – discussed in his pioneering Deciphering the Indus Script (1994), updated in 2009 – we are no nearer a widely agreed decipherment. No Indus ‘Rosetta Stone’ has been found. But the CISI will undoubtedly be an incomparable and beautiful resource for future generations intrigued by this unique intellectual challenge.

Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions: Volume 3.3 
Edited by Asko Parpola and Petteri Koskikallio 
Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, €220
Hardback ISBN 978-9514111532