Write or Die


In previous classes, we’ve covered two Old World Civilizations Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, but have yet to touch on the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). Although we were given a brief overview of what life was like in those civilizations, language and writing were only briefly touched on.

Through our research, we realized language and writing played a big role in a country’s prosperity and progress as it enabled them to trade with other major civilizations of that time. In particular, Mesopotamia and the IVC found the development of scripts a necessity in order to bridge verbal barriers during trade. The differences in the way these two civilizations developed their languages piqued our interest for it led to two drastically different outcomes. Read on to find out more! (Spoiler: one civilization didn’t have a happy ending.)

When both civilizations started inscribing pictures on soft clay, it was for the purpose of narratives and trade. While the IVC’s writing system (aka the Indus Script), specifically the inscriptions found on pottery, bones and ivory had more unknown purposes, inch-long square-shaped seals for trade bore its main form of writing. The earliest of these were accompanied by animal inscriptions such as elephants and bulls, followed by the inclusion of other animals and non-animal seals.

Trade was an important part of the IVC. Seals (as seen above) were commonly used, probably arising out of a need to identify the owners and contents of goods for trade. Initially, we imagined the seal impressions on clay to be tied to the goods with ropes, but we were wrong (of course). Seal impressions were stamped on much larger chunks of wet clay than we thought, and were simply placed on the respective goods, much like an ancient era wax seal. With writing being essential to the IVC’s trade, could the Indus Script have been developed alongside the IVC’s trade and declined as trade did?

Similarly, the Mesopotamian writing system consisted of clay inscriptions and seal impressions. It was only with the later development of their writing system that information about royalty, businesses, military, religion, education and many others were conveyed on different types of objects.

While the IVC had square-shaped seals, the Mesopotamian ones were cylindrical and rolled onto nearly-dried clay to produce what was effectively a personalized signature. However, not everyone could afford a seal back then. Instead, common people who were not well off used their fingernails to leave their signature. Imagine how wealthy we would be if we were living in a time where forgery was that easy!

Both civilizations employed the use of pictograms initially as a form of written communication to express the most rudimentary of ideas. Pictograms were used to convey information about crops and taxes but later evolved into the more commonly recognised cuneiform when they realised a need to record more complex information. The Mesopotamian writing system was a clear example of this development. The IVC however, halted at pictographs, which explains the difficulties faced in deciphering their scripts. (Fun fact: There are indications that the IVC’s pictographs may have been further used to depict ritualistic motifs for they were mass produced through moulds.

Coming from people who had to google how many letters our alphabet has (26, FYI), it’s amazing to find out that these ancient languages employed the use of hundreds of characters! The Indus Script had a minimum of 400 characters while the Mesopotamians weeded their character count from more than 1000 to a mere 600 in order to make writing easier.

The Mesopotamians were pioneers in language for they were the first to identify the need for descriptions of concepts instead of just tangible objects. This motivated them to advance their inscriptions from solely visual representations of their surroundings to “wedge-like impressions” (these were put together to form “words”) which enabled them to demonstrate more significance in the items they were trying to transcribe. These “wedges” were referred to as cuneiform, which was developed in c. 3200 BCE. (Fun fact: Though commonly misunderstood to be a language, cuneiform is actually a method of writing.)


This allowed the Mesopotamians an opportunity to record emotions, sounds and a whole bunch of other intangible ideas which in turn ensured the continuity of their language. (Food for thought: Would we be inherently more creative if our minds were left to imagine these ideas for ourselves instead of them being explicitly described to us?) Every Mesopotamian culture employed cuneiform, though they each refined it to their specifications. On the other hand, the Indus Script didn’t experience much development beyond pictograms and the symbols they used have largely been undeciphered. Hence, we are only able to look into the manner in which they wrote. They mostly wrote from right to left with “specialized bronze graving tools”, though there were exceptions where they wrote lines of alternating directions. In fact, due to the lack of decipherability, some scholars declared a decade ago that the IVC was functionally illiterate!

Unfortunately, around 1800 BCE, the IVC began to dwindle, leading to the disappearance of their language. Additionally, the new cultures that dominated the area after them abandoned the use of their script and adopted a language of their own. Therefore, we are extremely limited in our abilities to decipher their script for the structure of their language differs from any known language system. Additionally, transcribing on materials that easily decayed such as leaves led to the degeneration of records which further reduces the number of sources we have at our disposal.