Stamp Seal Mysterycontinued
implications of the Anau seal inscription are vexing. I have lost a lot
of sleep over this pretty little piece of black stone and will undoubtedly
lose a lot more.
Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.
stamp seal is shiny now, liberated from the Central Asian dirt that had
hidden it for millennia. Carved from jeta kind of jeweler-quality coal,
also known as ligniteits less than an inch cubed, with a perforated
sort of handle on the back that could be hung from a string. For now,
it sits in a Turkmen safe, awaiting the judgments of scholars.
On the business
side, its three carefully carved symbols are still highlighted by a reddish
pigment, and no one knows for sure which end is up. One character, in
the bottom left corner, is in the shape of a bow tie standing on end.
Another, above it, resembles a digital 2 or reversed S.
The third, which takes up the length of the right side, looks like a double-ended
trident; alongside it is a straight linewith a spike at one endthat
may have been attached to the double-trident before the top right-hand
corner was damaged.
after Hiebert got back from his other high-profile archaeological
investigationin and around the Black Sea [Gazetteer, November/December
2000] he showed a photo of the seal to several colleagues: Victor Mair;
Dr. Holly Pittman, professor of art history, curator in the Near East
section of the University Museum, and author of Art of the Bronze Age:
Southeastern Iran, Western Central Asia, and the Indus Valley; and
Dr. Gregory Possehl, professor and chair of anthropology and curator of
South Asian archaeology. They were fascinated, puzzledand cautious. In
Hieberts approving phrase: They really gave me the third degree.
It wasnt Harappan;
Possehl was sure of that. Nor was it the cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia.
To Mair, it looked surprisingly like ancient Chinese, but that was impossibleChina
was thousands of miles away, and the earliest known Chinese script didnt
emerge until around 1200 B.C. In 2300 B.C., he pointed out, China had
only isolated pot marks, not a fully developed script with connected writing.
Nor did it have stamp seals.
Two other questions
were raised. One had to do with the archaeological context. Since technically,
the stamp seal wasnt found in situ, could it have fallen down
a gopher hole or a root hole or otherwise been misplaced by history? Oras
Mair delicately suggestedeven been planted by someone? Hiebert argued
adamantly that it was in context, documenting his stratigraphy and pointing
to the presence of the clay lumps, which could have been used for sealing,
in the room.
one, was not entirely convinced. There are any number of ways in which
it could be out of context that are not a reflection of his abilities
as an archaeologist, she says. Things get out of context all the time,
even in the most careful excavations. One of the basic rules of archaeology
is that you never make an argument from one thing.
And even if the
seal was not an archaeological anachronism, she wondered, did its inscription
represent real writing? Or was it just a cruder form of symbolinga local
signing system, in her words, that lasted for some years but never developed
into a real written language? Writing is a vague term, she points
out, so you must define precisely what you mean. What I mean by writing
is a signing system that has, as one component, signs that refer to sounds
in natural language. And so you have representations, either through a
rebus or through a mark whose meaning, through convention, denotes sound.
have a writing system in Mesopotamia at this time, she adds. I think
that weve got enough data already, through all the excavations, that
if in fact there was a full-blown writing system in Bronze Age Central
Asia, wed have other evidence of it. But thats not to say we cant be
surprised, and I look forward to the results of more excavation.
that it might just be a local form of symboling. But it also might be
If it did represent
writing from an established script, then our still-sketchy map of the
ancient world would have to be reassessed. Because writing is one of the
key elements of our definition of civilization, and there wasnt
supposed to have been a civilization that advanced in Central Asia by
archaeologists had uncovered large-scale ruins of some sort of ancient
civilization out in the Kara Kum Desert in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Hiebert himself had spent a year with one such expedition 13 years ago,
and had found evidence of social stratification, large buildings, monumental
arches, vivid artwork, irrigationall elements of civilization. But not
writing. Especially not one whose writing system looks so remarkably like
that of ancient Chinese. Hence the astonishment of Victor Mair.
When I saw that
spike, recalls Mair, for a couple of hours I just kept saying, My god,
my god, my god! Because you get the same little spike on these very archaic
Chinese signs for grain.
concluded that the bow-tie figure represented the number 5. The
reversed S probably meant record, regulate, or annals. His best
guess at this point is that the whole seal meant something like grain:
record five [units]a plausible reading for something found in an
administrative or storage area.
In terms of content,
its not exactly the Dead Sea Scrolls. But its implications for the spread
of civilization could be profound.
I think its
a fairly advanced kind of writing, says Mair, and that its not just
symbols or record-keeping. Its part of a whole scriptjudging from the
complexity of the characters, the fact that theyre very well formed,
and that there are three of them together. Usually with signing systems
or symbol systems, theres just oneand theyre not linked up.
else, including Hiebert, Mair urges caution.
We have three
characters, he points out. I wouldnt make any big claims about anything
based on that.
he wrote a note to Hiebert last November describing the seal as very
exciting and potentially of enormous consequences. Four days later, he
sent out a letter to about a hundred colleagues in the field of ancient
scripts. It contained a hand-drawn sketch of the seals symbols, and the
message: I am not at liberty to tell you exactly where the seal-signet
was found nor its date. All that I can say is that it is from somewhere
in Central Asia and dates to before 1000 B.C.E. He then asked
for an opinion.
Nov/Dec Contents | Gazette
a view of Turkmenistan from Pumpelly's expedition. Below, left: the Anau