The Stamp Seal Mysterycontinued

The 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.

—Dr. Victor Mair,
of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

The stamp seal is shiny now, liberated from the Central Asian dirt that had hidden it for millennia. Carved from jet—a kind of jeweler-quality coal, also known as lignite—it’s 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 line—with a spike at one end—that may have been attached to the double-trident before the top right-hand corner was damaged.
      Last October, after Hiebert got back from his other high-profile archaeological investigation—in 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, puzzled—and cautious. In Hiebert’s approving phrase: “They really gave me the third degree.”
      It wasn’t 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 impossible—China was thousands of miles away, and the earliest known Chinese script didn’t 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 wasn’t found in situ, could it have fallen down a gopher hole or a root hole or otherwise been misplaced by history? Or—as Mair delicately suggested—even 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.
      Pittman, for 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 symboling—a “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.
      “We certainly have a writing system in Mesopotamia at this time,” she adds. “I think that we’ve got enough data already, through all the excavations, that if in fact there was a full-blown writing system in Bronze Age Central Asia, we’d have other evidence of it. But that’s not to say we can’t be surprised, and I look forward to the results of more excavation.”
      Hiebert agreed that it might just be a local form of symboling. But it also might be something more.
      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 wasn’t supposed to have been a civilization that advanced in Central Asia by 2300 B.C.
      True, Soviet 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, irrigation—all 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.”
      Mair gradually 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, it’s not exactly the Dead Sea Scrolls. But its implications for the spread of civilization could be profound.
      “I think it’s a fairly advanced kind of writing,” says Mair, “and that it’s not just symbols or record-keeping. It’s part of a whole script—judging from the complexity of the characters, the fact that they’re very well formed, and that there are three of them together. Usually with signing systems or symbol systems, there’s just one—and they’re not linked up.”
      Like everyone else, including Hiebert, Mair urges caution.
      “We have three characters,” he points out. “I wouldn’t make any big claims about anything based on that.”
      Nonetheless, 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 seal’s 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.

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Left: a view of Turkmenistan from Pumpelly's expedition. Below, left: the Anau stamp seal.



Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/1/01