First time Indus script found engraved on natural stone

An inscription on stone, with three big Indus signs and possibly a fourth, has been found on the Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat.

The discovery is significant because this is the first time that the Indus script has been found engraved on a natural stone in the Indus Valley. The Indus script has so far been found on seals made of steatite, terracotta tablets, ceramics and so on. Dholavira also enjoys the distinction of yielding a spectacularly large Indus script with 10 big signs on wood. This inscription was three-metre long.

Both the discoveries were made by a team led by R.S. Bisht, who retired as Joint Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India in 2004. While the stone inscription was discovered in 1999, the script with 10 large signs was found in 1991.

“The inscription on stone is unique because it is the first of its kind [in the Indus civilisation area]. It is the first inscription on a stone slab. But only part of it was found,” said Dr. Bisht, who led 14 field excavation seasons at Dholavira from 1989 to 2001. “It was a natural limy sandstone cut into shape and then engraved with an inscription,” he said.

The signs are seven cm tall and 6-10 cm wide.

The script has three large Indus signs, running from right to left, and there appears to be a fourth sign too. Dr. Bisht said: “The inscription must have run longer, but the stone was broken into pieces. The stone was used as ordinary building material for making an underground chamber in the bailey area of the citadel during stage five of the seven stages documenting the rise and fall of the Indus civilisation at Dholavira. It was placed in such a manner that it was facing us when we found it.”

He was sure that there must be more stone pieces with the Indus script there. He surmised that the stone with the script must have been used as a lintel of the doorway of the underground chamber so that people could notice it. The inscription could have stood for the name of the house, its owner or an incantation. “It is a closed book,” he said. (The Indus script has not been deciphered yet).

Michel Danino, independent researcher in the Harappan civilisation, called it “an unprecedented discovery because there is no stone inscription in the Indus civilisation.” Stone was a rare material on the Indus plains. “This is the first time we have come across a stone inscription, but it has not attracted the attention it deserves,” Mr. Danino said.

Dholavira in Kachch district is a major Indus site. It attracted wide attention in the 1990s for yielding what Dr. Bisht calls “a spectacularly large inscription made of 10 unusually big Indus signs” which were inlaid on a wooden board which had, however, decayed. The signs were made of thoroughly baked gypsum. It must have been sported right above the north gate of the castle, and “it must have been visible from afar with its white brilliance,” Dr. Bisht said.

Highly literate society

He argued that it was a highly literate Harappan society that must have existed at Dholavira because seals, tablets, pottery, bangles and even copper tools with Indus signs were found everywhere in the citadel, the middle town, the lower town and the annexe of the site.

Besides, the same seals, beads, pottery and ornaments were found everywhere as if the entire population had wealth. “It appears to have been an egalitarian society. On the basis of material culture, you cannot draw a distinction among the city's inhabitants,” he said.