How I deciphered the Indus script

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Back in the 1970s, my family lived in southern California. The infamous smog there often caused school closings in summer. I can recall walking home through the caustic, murky air, choking, eyes streaming with tears. Much of the time we couldn’t go to the beach, go hiking, fishing, or picnicking.

My way of coping with summer vacation was to check out five or more hardback books, usually non-fiction, from the local library. I would hole up in my bedroom and just read. One week I brought home John Chadwick’s The Decipherment of Linear B.

This book was an account of amateur epigrapher Michael Ventris and his successful efforts to decipher the unknown writing system on clay tablets found in an ancient ruined palace on the island of Crete. The book was very inspiring and reading it changed my life forever. How? At the back of the book, there was a section describing other undeciphered writing systems, with a few photos of Indus seals.

I resolved to decipher Indus script, and at once made a failed attempt and annoyed the family by talking about it. They had no interest in India or ancient writing.

Skipping the last two years of high school, I got into UCLA by virtue of high SAT scores. Anthropology was the major I settled upon, with a minor in linguistics, but instead of taking linguistic theory classes, I learned languages. After graduation I had to go find work, there was no money for graduate school. A variety of jobs followed, and marriage, and a child. I didn’t forget about Indus script, but it was on the back burner, and Indus script study materials were hard to find.

Decades later, searching for topics of interest on-line, I decided to look into Indus script once more. Surely someone had deciphered it after all this time? What I found was that aside from publication of the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions books by the University of Helsinki, no progress had been made. The year was 2010. I began reading articles at harappa.com and sites of would-be Indus script decipherers, hoping to find some sound advice from experts and authorities.

One article advised hopeful decipherers to compare Indus Script signs to Brahmi script and Linear Elamite script:

Brahmi inscriptions in both north and South India had already been dated from the Iron Age and deciphered, they were later than the Bronze Age Indus script examples.

Linear Elamite was a writing system from ancient Persia, contemporary with Indus script, and resembling it strongly. There was a bilingual monument called the Table of the Lion in the Louvre museum, in Akkadian, a known writing system, and with the same text in Linear Elamite, still undeciphered.

Because of this bilingual monument, scholars gained knowledge of the sound values for a handful of Linear Elamite signs. Already having compiled a list of Indus script signs from examples of Indus seal photos at the website of Dr. Srinivasan Kalyanaraman, I compared Indus signs to Linear Elamite, and found matches; a broken line (na) and a triple S (shu). Then I compared Brahmi script to my Indus sign list, and was shocked to find more than a dozen similar or identical signs; a, o, ka, ga, da, dha, ja, nya, tha, ta, tha, pa, ba, ma, la, ya, and sa.

This gave me quite a few tentative sound values to work with. There were some Indus seals with the same inscription; fish, arrow. I knew that the Indus fish sign probably had the value of meen or ma, based on Dravidian or Indo-Iranian words for fish. Assuming I was looking at some Old Tamil sort of name, I went to babynology.com and looked for two-syllable names beginning with meen/ma, in the Tamil section.

There I found the name Mani, (which means jewel), and was also in the Sanskrit name section.

So I found the sound value for the arrow sign, a very common Indus script symbol.

Another set of seals had a three sign inscription; broken line, fish, broken line.

After looking up the word namana online, I found that it meant greetings. The only problem was that namana was Sanskrit, and the experts agreed that Indus script probably encoded a Dravidian language, with Indo-Iranian languages not a possibility.

Time passed. After about three weeks of eyestrain and butt pain from sitting for many hours gazing at the screen, I had the majority of the more common Indus signs assigned sound values. The sign list looked something like this:

I wanted to share my findings with the world, so I started an Indus script page at Piczo, which got vandalized and abandoned. More Indus seal photos became available as I got a copy of volume one of the Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions and scanned them into my files.

The two other volumes followed as they became available to me. I posted on Facebook and Wikipedia asking for help with the translations. An online friend, Uschi Ringleb, directed me to Cologne University’s online Sanskrit/English dictionary.

The manuscript became a book called Indus Script Dictionary. I gave away and sold copies of this book, hoping for feedback. I made it into a CD, to reduce the cost of mailing it to India, where most of the interest lay.

But you’re probably wondering whether any of this has anything to do with you, personally. It does. If you have a common Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Prakrit) name, you may find that it is on an Indus seal, encoded in Indus script. Here are some examples:

Suzanne Sullivan graduated from UCLA in 1976 with a bachelors’ degree in anthropology. She lives in California and has a blog about undeciphered writing systems at Quora.

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5 Likes

Great work! :slight_smile:
I came across your article. Very interesting.
I don’t have much knowledge about signs but just wanted to say the “an” symbol could be “a” with a dash on top sounding more like “aa” cause aanandaa is a delight. Cheers!!

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My hearty congrats! Your work is a great accomplishment and a start to deciphering the Indus script. Am sure many would be very skeptical about this. Some so-called scholars have even given prizes for cracking it claiming it is nothing but nonsense. What you have done is an excellent job and whether it is the right decipher or not, paves the way for further research, work and focus on the Indus script.

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I find your article interesting. However, as late as October 2015, the Indus script is considered undeciphered and cracking the script will be considered a major landmark in Anthropology.
See here: http://www.nature.com/news/ancient-civilization-cracking-the-indus-script-1.18587

I am curious to know why your work has not been published in any peer-reviewed journal. In fact, I looked very hard to find a proper scholarly report of your work, and only came up with an amateurish Google site and a news report from 2014.

I also find it strange that if there are indeed as many similarities as you claim between the Brahmic and Indus valley scripts, why have others who have studied both these scripts in detail not spotted such a clear solution? See: Kak, Subhash (1994), “The evolution of early writing in India” (PDF), Indian Journal of History of Science 28: 375–388

Could you please point me to your paper/thesis/treatise on the Indus Valley script?

I wanted to provide the reader with a massive amount of evidence to support the Indus sign list, so I went with publishing a book (Indus Script Dictionary) rather than an article. It’s past time for me to write a proper scholarly report, is it? Better late than never.

I’m not the first researcher to find similarities between Indus script and Brahmi script; MVN Krishna Rao, an Indian archaeologist and museum director, wrote in Indus Script Deciphered that he found similarities between Brahmi script, Indus script and pre-cuniform Sumerian writing. Working independently, I found the same things.
If you want to read my book, go to the Indus Script Dictionary page on Facebook and click on the link to the book posted by Haresh Gala in the page’s forum.

Thanks for reverting back Suzanne. I found your page at https://www.facebook.com/Indus-Script-Dictionary-152454471503106 but could not find the link by Haresh Gala to your book. Let us know if you have a pdf copy / ebook to buy or give away.

Found a version of your book on Amazon and read through the reviews which all say it is excellent work by you. Kudos to the work accomplished.

Quite honestly, this is beginning to feel like a hoax. The Facebook page you mention is a blank, the Amazon link posted by Admin is for a ‘Currently unavailable’ book with no publisher other than yourself under (possibly) a pseudonym “Suzanne Redalia”.

This is most odd. There are legitimate channels of putting out scholarly studies. Script deciphering should involve correlative analyses of grammar, symbology and phonetics. At least some form of a formal semantic model is expected. This is missing, and I am genuinely surprised by your reluctance to make your work known to experts in your field. You attempt to educate the public is apprieciated, but peer-review is the minimum step of scientific verification.

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What is your real name, and why are you here?
What ‘reluctance to make my work known to experts’ are you talking about? I’ve been trying to get IVC experts to look at my work for 7 years now. If there’s any reluctance, it is not mine.
Redalia in my maiden name, not a pseudonym, like DrVortex.
My Facebook Indus Script Dictionary page is not a blank and has more than 7000 likes. Someone did set up a fake one that has no content, though.

Admin,

Please try this link it get a readable copy of my Indus Script Dictionary book on google;

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B6jR88LVnUUEODA2bzVZC2JyRDA&usp=sharing

@smsullivan I have tried my best to get some information about your book but it has been difficult. The link you have posted here presents a 404 not found as well. It would be good if you can post a link to a copy for sale or an ebook. Am interested to read more on your work. I think DrVortex is having a genuine concern with regards to why your work is not accessible and also why not peer reviewed or published in any journal. Request you not to take it personally.

@DrVortex I do not have much knowledge with scripts or deciphering. And certainly cannot comment on the process used by Suzanne here. But I do know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the decipherment of Indus symbols. While there are experts who claim to have made good progress and even deciphered it, there are other experts who claim the Indus symbols were not a script at all. There is still no consensus.

Exactly, there is no consensus. Which is why the claim made by Ms. Sullivan is a very tall-order. In the field of anthropology, her claim is equivalent to saying “I have found the cure for cancer”. Unfortunately, she has not even made her basic treatise available. It is trivial to publish to a scholarly community in the days of the internet. For example: http://www.ssrn.com/en/ here , where social scientists can put up their manuscripts.

If indeed her work was submitted to peer-reviewed journals and rejected due to ‘reluctance that is not hers’, then the response of the editors, reviewers etc. can also be made public. By her own admission, even the book was self-published, and not published by any academic publisher. Instead, she has resorted to ad hominem and broken links. I am going to call this the end of the story and look elsewhere.

Please use this link to Indus Script Dictionary instead;

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B6jR88LVnUUEODA2bzVZc2JyRDA&usp=sharing3

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Again, thanks for posting this Susan. I understand the hard work you must have put into this. While I also understand the skepticism and mistrust people will have on this because you may be unheard of in this field, are not a heavy weight, or have peer reviwed published articles, I am of the opinion sometimes some works need not have all these behind them to be considered good and appreciable.

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This link is alive and I have downloaded a pdf copy of your book.

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