Indus Script: The Unicorn

Pattern analysis may also help with interpretation of the animal motif known as the unicorn.

This example (below) is a broken unicorn seal from Harappa. I don’t yet know what the 'stand' signifies, so it is quite fortuitous that the corner with the 'stand' has been broken off. Once again, I have flipped the seal (below right) to obtain an image that resembles the sealing.

Images: ©
Images: ©

In the trade sign article, I explained that the bull’s horns represented a container. With this animal, the ear and the horn form the shape of a plough. The animal’s neck and face are covered in lines which may represent furrows.

On the animal’s shoulder there is a double heart shape. In this example, the artist has only rendered one of the hearts clearly, but in other examples of the unicorn motif there are two, or occasionally three clear heart shapes incorporating indentations that resemble arrows. Once again, the arrows and the animal’s body [see the trade sign article] give me the Chinese character wěi , meaning a train or a caravan.

The heart shape is found in Indus inscriptions as sign number 323. Sign number 323 may be equivalent to the Chinese character xīn . Xīn has many possible meanings a few of which are heart, mind, feelings, and centre or middle. In the context of a trail animal, I take xīn to mean cautious. The repetition may mean that the animal is very careful.

In conclusion, the picture puzzle suggests to me an animal, with distinctive ears, that can be used for ploughing, but which also makes a very good pack animal. Hence, my interpretation is a mule.

If the animal is a mule, then other pieces of information are of interest.

Firstly, in the Himalayas, the lead mule in a pack string sometimes wears a plume. This is positioned just behind the ears. In my opinion the unicorn’s horn is too far forward to be a plume. However, this lack of conformation may be deliberate. It makes the image more memorable. Does it represent a plume or a plough, or both? The mule could have been trained to carry out both packing and ploughing: perhaps in different seasons.

Image: © Modification: Lynn Fawcett
Image: © Modification: Lynn Fawcett

Secondly, the angle of the mule’s head is interesting. It is an angle that the mule might adopt when using its voice in greeting or warning. Moreover, if the head is rotated 90 degrees to a more relaxed position (right), it is obvious that the position of the horn would make normal life impossible for any animal.

Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett

I find it fascinating that something resembling the unicorn motif appears in the Shuowen Jiezi. It is the Chinese character qí (see left).

Xu Shen tells us that the qí was a benevolent animal that could be used as a pack animal in caravans, like an ox. He also tells us that the qí had one horn¹.

The right hand side of the character qí depicts a small table and what may be a winnowing basket.

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

Moving on to the Indus signs and reading from right to left, sign number 41 equates to the Chinese character wāng , meaning lame.

Next there is Indus sign number 104, which I interpret as the numeral four.

The text ends with Indus sign number 169. I don’t have a match for this sign in Chinese. However, pattern analysis reveals that the behaviour of sign number 169 resembles that of sign number 162². Sign number 162 is used as a classifier (counter or measure word) for bovines. It therefore seems logical that 169 will be a classifier for equines. Mahadevan documented several variants for sign 169³. I think that it may depict a string of animals with each segment marked on the string representing a mule.

My initial translation is therefore: ‘Mule Train Haulage: String of Four Lame Animals.’

Author's Note

As in the trade sign example, the animal motif probably represents an organisation. Therefore, when I have a clearer idea of what the 'stand' represents, I will need to revise the translation. One possibility is that the organisation is a tax authority. Mules would certainly be useful for collecting taxes paid in kind.

I have shown you some examples of steatite seal devices. Now let's look at a different type of object: the signboard.



Broken unicorn seal from Harappa (reference H2000-4500/10007-01) found in trench 43, room 603: Accessed: 8 December 2014

Small seal script character: qí: Lynn Fawcett, January 2015

Small seal script character: wāng: Shuowenjiezi: research tool in Chinese traditional philology: Accessed: 9 December 2014


1. Xu Shen, 121: Radical number 372; Character number 6235: Shuowen Jiezi (Explaining and Analyzing Characters): Source: Accessed: January 2015

2. Nisha Yadav; Mayank Vahia; Iravatham Mahadevan and Hrishikesh Joglekar, 2008a: A Statistical Approach for Pattern Search in Indus Writing, p.13: International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics vol XXXVII (1): 39-52: Source: Accessed: 28 January 2015

3. List of Sign Variants: Iravatham Mahadevan, 1977: The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables, Appendix I, p.788: The Director General Archaeological Survey of India.