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A Case for the Rebus: The ‘Fish’ Signs of the Seal Texts The function of an inscribed artifact provides one of the most important clues to the general meaning of its text. The vast majority of the Indus texts are seals or sealings. Impressions of cloth, strings and other packing material on the reverse of tags with seal impressions indicate that the Harappan seals were used to control economic administration and trade.36) One such clay tag stamped with an Indus seal has been found in Mesopotamia, where seals were used in the same way. The historical contact with the Near East makes it highly probable that the Indus seal inscriptions also chiefly contain proper names of persons with or without their occupational or official titles and descent, as do the contemporaneous readable Mesopotamian seal inscriptions.

That the signs looking like a ‘fish’ have this pictorial meaning is certified by the Indus iconography, in which fish (both more naturalistic fish and fish looking exactly like the Indus sign) is placed in the mouth of a fish-eating alligator. The plain fish sign probably has the intended meaning ‘fish’ on Indus tablets that seem to mention offerings of one to four pots of fish. But although Mesopotamian economic texts often speak of fish, fish is never mentioned in Mesopotamian seal inscriptions. The ‘fish’ sign, both plain and modified with various diacritic additions, occurs so frequently on Indus seals that almost every tenth sign belongs to this group. This suggests that they denote something else than fish on the seals. A reasonable guess for the “intended meaning” is ‘god’, for names of gods are used to form Mesopotamian as well as later Hindu proper names of persons.

The most commonly used word for ‘fish’ in Dravidian languages is m¥$ n, and this word was pronounced in Proto-Dravidian like the word m¥$ n meaning ‘star’. This homophonic meaning suits the expected meaning ‘god’, for in the Mesopotamian cuneiform script every name of a deity is marked as such by a prefixed sign depicting ‘star’ but meaning ‘god’.

Astronomy, including the use of a star calendar, played an important ______________________________

36) Cf. Parpola 1986: 401–402; 1994: 113–114. My analyses are now being updated by Dennys Frenez (see Frenez and Tosi, in press).


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