Indus Valley Seal

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An Indus Valley Seal from the Mature Harappan Period

Square soapstone seals account for the majority of inscribed materials found in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization. This Bronze Age civilization began crystallizing in the Neolithic period and matured in 2600 BCE, and covered the western part of India, mostly what is now Pakistan. The seals, each bearing a picture and an accompanying short inscription, have been found from along the main roads, in workshops and houses, but never in burials or places of safety, and from as far West as Sumerian and Mesopotamian cities (McIntosh, 2008). What these seals really said is a matter of of great speculation because the Indus Valley script is as yet undeciphered. But the distribution of the seals and the coherence in the inscriptions (Wright, 2010) shows that their role was not narrative but official. Whether they were used by accountants tracking production, storage and trade of goods; or by bureaucrats recording census data for humans, plants and animals; or priests bestowing amulets to acknowledge tributes to deities, or by businessmen impressing brand names – the seals were essentially lists, representing what Cornelia Vismann (2008) calls “the emergence of writing from administration”.


The Bronze Age of mechanical reproduction

Urbanization in the Indus Valley town of Harappa - ca 2500 BCE

As civilizations grow, administration becomes more demanding, and writing needs to be mechanized. As an innovation in the mature period of the Indus Valley Civilization, the seals provided a cake-mix solution - solid rock carved in a way that it could be used to print the same information over and over again, on perishable storage media. “Economy and durability informed new modes of descriptive duplication...” just like they did in the 19th century according to Lisa Gitelman (1999), “which allowed bureaucrats to have their copy and send one too.” Some scholars (eg Hirst, 2010) believe the seals bear names and titles of officials and allowed face-to-face authorization more often than distant communication. But the majority of population was illiterate and may not have been able to read the inscriptions, especially because being on a seal, they must have been inscribed in the opposite direction. In that sense, the the improvised use of the seal, originally meant to create impressions on perishable storage media, for personal identification – would only be considered a hack.

Chief, because he writes

Mechanization comes simultaneously with standardization – thus as media reach out to people, so do linguistic, cultural and economic standards. Power and authority lie not in what is written on the seal, but in the very capacity to bear a standard – to participate as a bureaucrat in the standardization project, “the drama of suppression by the power of writing” (Vismann, 2008). The formal prohibition in the medium and its use is that it is uni-directional. Only the official can write using the seal, and the citizens and subordinate officials can only receive and comply. The power remains with those who write – “He writes because he is the chief,” in the words of Vismann (2008), “and he is the chief because he writes.” The functioning of the medium is visible and obvious (it has no 'guts' per se), but how it was produced was not and this is how the medium is fetishized. A research by Rissman (1989) shows that the seals were produced in only certain parts of the town by certain workers under “rigid bureaucratic control”. The seals were therefore not mere business cards, but predecessors to government documents, records and databases that implement standards. They are comparable to the printing press not only in terms of how they work, but also in how the printing press led to “print capitalism” that enabled the linguistic standardization in Europe that became basis of the nation state (Anderson, 1991).

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

More seals from Harappa

Mechanization and standardization lead to quantization and digitization – standardization because it requires something to be this and not that, mechanization because “clicking is more easily mechanized than sliding” (Flusser, 1999). Encoding on the Indus seal is dual - a combination of digital and analogue. It bears a picture that represents a real or imaginary animal or scene, but in addition could also stand for a concept that the animal would symbolize. It also bears the script that goes from right to left. Attempts at 'interpretation' have been in vain. The script and the image may or may not provide a context for a meaningful reading of each other. The script may be phonographic or logographic. The number of symbols and if they occur in patterns is debatable (McIntosh, 2008). The same symbol could be written in different ways by different scribes – both ways being considered acceptable. Since the seals occur over thousands of years, the same symbol could change its meaning over time. What needs to considered is that the overall the system of inscription is in any case arbitrary – its meaning is agreed upon by those who use it to communicate, and beyond that it means nothing. The seals are almost-exclusive bearers of the Indus script, and therefore the meaning of the script is limited to its function. In that way, for us it is functional nonsense. Like the wavy horizontal lines drawn by the Brazilian native chief in his encounter with Levi Strauss (cited in Vissman, 2008). In a comment on the encounter, Lacan (ibid) explains that a symbol only points towards a “contract”. Its “function consists solely in delayed transfer” (Goody, 1986).

Bad weather, bad climate, bad luck

The geographic boundaries of any sense that the seal makes will depend on the area under the influence of those who exercise the power to implement the standards – through trades and through raids. But the very core of this influence began to be eroded by around 1800 BCE as the Indus Valley Civilization began to decline, either because of a supposed Aryan invasion, or because of eventual migration as the river Indus changed course and the river Saraswati got spent in the desert of Thar because of tectonic movement and global climate changes (Wright, 2010). The decline in the civilization's influence left the seals less and less functional. While stealite was soft enough to carve but hard enough to survive boring and rigorous use, the script on the seals all but became meaningless because of changes in external factors. So much so that it does not seem to connect to any known scripts that emerged in India later. After 80 years of thankless attempts by many to decipher the script or connect it to a linguistic family, some scholars (Farmer et al, 2004) were frustrated enough to declare that it was not a language at all. The meaning that appears to be just behind the surface inscriptions of the Indus seal, is perhaps only in the physicality of the medium. The medium itself is the message.

Remediating itself

One surviving writing medium from the Indus Valley Civilization is Takhti - a rectangular wooden writing board on which schoolchildren practice writing. It is covered with wet clay, which is written on when dry. For each new lesson, the previous one is erased as the clay is washed off. Like a magic writing pad, it is permanently perishable. But with mechanization and standardization comes permanence. It makes the Indus seals capable of being dug up and thought about five millenniums later - seen in retrospect as part of a bigger picture of history. They simulate their own historical existence, but also modify their own meaning. They essentially remediate themselves. The old form conveyed meaning only through being witnessed, the new one needs highly specialized interpretation. Because in the new forms, the symbols do not imply a contract. They were, being lists, intended for “the sole task of controlling transactions” (Vismann, 2008). “Beyond the administrative usage, there is no need to preserve them for the future.”


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso.

Farmer, S. et al. (2004) The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan Civilization. EJVS, vol. 11 (2004), issue 2.

Flusser, V. (1999). The shape of things: a philosophy of design. Reaktion Books.

Gitelman, L. (1999). Scripts, grooves, and writing machines. Stanford University Press.

Goody, J. (1986). The logic of writing and the organization of society. Cambridge University Press.

Hirst, K. K. (2010). Indus seals and the Indus Civilization script. Retrieved March 20, 2010 from

McIntosh, J. (2008). The ancient Indus Valley. ABC-CLIO.

Rissman, P. C. (1989). The Organization of Seal Production in the Harappan Civilization. Old problems and new perspectives in the archeology of South Asia. pp. 159-70, no. 2, Wisconsin Archeological Reports, Madison.

Vismann, C. (2008). Files. Stanford University Press.

Wright, R. P. (2009). The Ancient Indus. Cambridge University Press.

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