Indus Script: A Trade Sign

Image: © J.M. Kenoyer/
Image: © J.M. Kenoyer/

This example (left) of a seal device from Harappa illustrates how an animal motif may represent both text and a trade sign.

Image: © J.M. Kenoyer/
Image: © J.M. Kenoyer/

On the right, I have flipped the image of the seal device to get a picture that resembles an impression of the seal.

This particular seal carries the image of a zebu bull. He is the means of transport.

According to the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, the same zebu motif is found at both Mohenjo-daro and Harappa¹. The accompanying glyphs vary, but the image of the zebu stays pretty much the same. I therefore think that he may have been a trade sign for someone plying the route between Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.

The zebu’s picture can be analysed as follows:

Firstly, there is a series of arrows going up his dewlap. The arrows are combined with a line. Together they denote movement. The large number of arrows gives me the impression of a long distance.

Image: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool
Image: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool

What is really interesting is that there may be another connotation to this aspect of the image. The bull’s body on the left of the motif and the arrows on the right of the motif bring to mind the Chinese character wěi . Wěi can mean to tail, or to trail, which is of course what the zebu’s job would have been. Alternatively, it can be a noun meaning a train or a caravan.

Secondly, the bull's horns are turned towards the viewer, so that they resemble the container symbol kǎn .

Hence, the message that is repeated on each of the zebu seals, in other words the trade sign, is something like: ‘Zebu Caravan Haulage’.

Image: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool
Image: Shuowen Jiezi: research tool

On this specific seal, the zebu is accompanied by two further symbols. There is a count of three, which gives us sān , the number three, and a glyph which resembles the small seal script form of the Chinese character chè , which Xu Shen explains is a pictograph of a branch². It was used as a classifier (counter or measure word) for shafts. The zebu would be attached to the shaft in teams.

My interpretation of the seal is therefore: 'Zebu Caravan Haulage: Three Teams.'

Author's Note

The foreigner and the zebu seal devices were selected for translation because I recognised most of the symbols. I now want to show you some of the work that has been done on analysing patterns within the script to demonstrate how scholars will be able to decipher less familiar symbols.


Image Credits:

Seal device:
Courtesy: Jonathan Mark Kenoyer/

Small seal script characters: wěi and chè: Shuowenjiezi: research tool in Chinese traditional philology: Accessed: 1 September 2014


1. Around the Indus in 90 Slides: Harappa Archaeological Research Project: Note to slide number 27: Accessed: 2 September 2014

2. Xu Shen, 121: Radical number 11; Character number 233: Shuowen Jiezi (Explaining and Analyzing Characters): Source: Accessed: 1 September 2014