Indus Script: Escort for Many Days

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

The image on the left is of a steatite seal device from Harappa. It is thought to be around 3,900 years old. Some of the symbols in this example look like Chinese radicals. It was this inscription that gave me the first link between Indus script and the Cave script family of scripts.

Image: © J.M. Kenoyer/ Annotation: Lynn Fawcett
Image: © J.M. Kenoyer/ Annotation: Lynn Fawcett

On the right, I have flipped the image of the seal device to get a picture which resembles an impression of the seal, and numbered the symbols to aid analysis.

Following Cave Script convention, the script reads from right to left.

Symbol Number Translation Indus Sign Number¹
1. Escort 17
2. Days 293
3. 12/Many 121
4. Spot/Location/Place 98
5. Foreigner 28
6. Sunrise 293
7. Container 328
8. Books/Registers ? (new sign)
9. Large 1

I will now explain how I arrived at this translation.

Image: Iravatham Mahadevan: Compilation: Lynn Fawcett

I don’t have a Chinese equivalent for the first symbol. After careful consideration, I have based my translation on Indus Script sign number 17 (see above). Sign number 17 looks like a man dressed in a cape, and wearing a back quiver. I have therefore interpreted the symbol as escort. When more examples of this symbol have been studied in context, someone might decide that a different translation is more appropriate.

The second symbol represents the dawn [the Grotte des Trois Frères article explains how I derived the meaning for this symbol]. In this instance, I have translated it as days.

The third symbol is a pictograph of 12 counting rods, which gives me 12 days. However, this symbol is often used as the indefinite quantifier many. Hence, a better translation is many days.

The fourth symbol is similar to, but larger than the glyphs at 3. It is variant number 4001 of Mahadevan’s Indus sign number 98, a single line in the centre of the character area. This sign means spot, location or place. It shares the same root as Shuowen Jiezi radical number 174 zhǔ.

The fifth symbol is a man with a bow and arrow. In Chinese, it is the character , which in modern Chinese means foreigner. The origin of the word is likely to have been a proper name. That is the usage which we see here. The place name follows Mahadevan's sign number 4001.

The sixth symbol is another dawn, but in this instance it is the second component of the place name. I have therefore translated it as sunrise.

The seventh symbol is kǎn , meaning container.

The eighth symbol is , meaning books or registers. The character is derived from a pictograph of bamboo or bark strips bound together. In modern Chinese, it is the classifier (counter or measure word) for books, and means volume.

The ninth symbol is , meaning large.

In summary, the seal device reads: Escort [a] container [of] large registers [for] many days [to the] place [known as] ‘Foreign Sunrise’ [Please see more about the place name below].

Author's Note

When I originally published this page in 2014, I took the journey time to be 12 days, and speculated that the destination might have been Rupar. The decipherment of the Indus script is a process of continuous feedback. As a result of three years more work, I now (September 2017) think that the journey time should be read as many days. I also think that the destination was named. The words foreigner and sunrise appear to refer to the destination. This brings to mind Yúyí 嵎夷 from the Canon of Yao. In the Canon, Yúyi was associated with the sunrise. It was one of four centres of scientific research that existed at different points in the Northern Hemisphere. This Indus inscription refers to a shipment of books or registers, which is the kind of thing that might be sent to a research centre. Hence, I speculate that Yúyí was the placed referred to in the Indus inscription. Sadly, Yúyí is not on any modern map, and has been relegated to the status of legend.



Steatite seal reference number H98-3491/8322-21 from Mound AB, Period 3C.: Late Harappa Phase Occupation: circa 1900 BCE: Jonathan Mark Kenoyer: Recent Discoveries and Highlights from Excavations at Harappa: 1998 - 2000: Harappa Phase Occupation: Figure 4: Harappan Seal Styles: Number 8: Accessed: 23 August 2014

Indus Script Sign Number 17: Image extracted from Sign List of the Indus Script: Iravatham Mahadevan, 1977: The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables: The Director General Archaeological Survey of India


1. The Indus sign numbers are taken from: Sign List of the Indus Script: Iravatham Mahadevan, 1977: The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables: The Director General Archaeological Survey of India. Please note that I do not have numbers for signs discovered after 1977.