A script open to interpretation - because no one can read it

Deciphering the Indus Script
July 13, 2001

The Indus Valley civilisation, which flourished for many centuries from 2500 BC, was one of the great pre-classical civilisations, along with those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete and China. It has been a fertile source of study ever since its discovery in the early 1920s and excavation by archaeologists, working first under John Marshall, then Mortimer Wheeler and today under the auspices of American universities. During the past half-decade alone, the civilisation has been the subject of a major exhibition in the United States with a superb catalogue by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, a fine website www.harappa.com, and an acrimonious controversy in the Indian press. This began when a Harvard University professor accused an Indian researcher of falsifying epigraphic evidence in support of a controversial thesis: that the Indus civilisation was the ancestor of the far later Hindu civilisation - a politically charged idea in modern India.

The researcher's claim enjoyed a superficial plausibility mainly because the Indus script - unlike the cuneiform scripts of Mesopotamia, the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Linear B script of Crete and Greece, and the Chinese oracle-bone script - remains stubbornly undeciphered. Despite the persistent and often imaginative efforts of an international congeries of scholars, the exquisite sealstones and other inscriptions still cannot be read. The Indus script is the world's most mysterious and provoking undeciphered script.

Asko Parpola is the leading authority on the subject, having devoted most of his scholarly career to it and to the study of South Asian culture and religion. In 1994, he published Deciphering the Indus Script , and the book was immediately accepted as a cutting-edge tool by all serious scholars hoping to make progress in the field. In a THES review, the late John Chadwick, renowned for his work with Michael Ventris in deciphering Linear B, called Parpola's study "a fascinating insight into the mentality of a people very far distant in time and in culture". This paperback edition is therefore greatly to be welcomed, especially as its price is much more affordable than the hardback's, which should enable the book to be bought all over the world in addition to being a library purchase.

A new preface covers all significant recent work on the Indus script. Sadly, Parpola is unable to report major recent discoveries of inscriptions in India or Pakistan. But we live in hope. If and when such finds occur, Parpola's magnificently illustrated monograph will be (as it is now) the essential starting point for all future interpretations of the Indus script.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES , is the author of The Story of Writing and a forthcoming study of the world's undeciphered scripts.

Deciphering the Indus Script

Author - Asko Parpola
ISBN - 0 521 79566 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - 895 rupees (£13.45)
Pages - 374

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