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Reviewed by:
  • Indus Age: The Writing System
  • Richard Salomon
Indus Age: The Writing System. Gregory L. Possehl. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. xvi + 244 pp.; 76 figures, 16 plates, 14 tables, bibliography, glossary, detailed table of contents, index. Hardcover, $49.95. ISBN: 0-8122-3345-X.

The Writing System is the first of a projected four volumes in Possehl's Indus Age series. The main purpose of the volume is to "review the corpus of glyptic material and attempt to assess the present state of knowledge of the script" ( p. vii). The effort is justified on the grounds that "there is nowhere one can turn for an in-depth overview on the Indus writing system" (p. 1), and that "[f ]or the most part the corpus of writing on the Indus script emerges as individual works with a distinct bias, vying for a particular decipherment or perspective on the script" ( p. 2). Possehl therefore presents this volume as the first comprehensive and objective review of the subject.

Possehl approaches the subject through a general overview (Chapters 1 through 4) of the Indus script and its archaeological context, followed by the longest and most important chapter, "Decipherments and Other Research on the Indus Script," and a brief concluding chapter on "The State of Research on the Indus Script." In Chapter 5, he summarizes and evaluates thirty-five published claims or proposed approaches to decipherment of the Indus script, which is widely agreed to be the most important remaining problem in the decipherment of ancient scripts worldwide. Possehl's evaluations are generally sensible, realistic, and as tactful as is possible. Although Possehl does not say so in so many words, his presentation and evaluations confirm that decipherment efforts to date can be divided into the serious or at least well informed, and the rank amateur or crackpot. Among the former, the efforts of G. H. Hunter, the Russian team of Yu. V. Knozorov et al., the Finnish team of A. Parpola et al., I. Mahadevan, and W. Fairservis receive deserved, if qualified praise from Possehl. Of most of the others, the less said the better, and indeed, one wonders whether a review of many of these is even worth the effort. Still, some of this makes interesting reading, if only by way of cautionary tales, as in Possehl's summary (pp. 90-100) of the theories of a connection between Indus script and the rongorongo of Rapanui (Easter Island), in which some highly reputed scholars got involved to their discredit.

However, I found Possehl's agnostic attitude towards some proposed decipherments to be excessively cautious. It is theoretically true that "there is the logical possibility that one of them is correct, we just cannot prove it!" ( p. 1) or that "one of them might be right, but how will we know for sure?" (p. 151), but as a practical matter, it is obvious enough that none of them is correct. If they were, they would have led us to some consensus of understanding at least about the rudiments of the script and its language, and this, as Possehl's summary in Chapter 6 shows, has not happened. Here he summarizes the points on which there is some general agreement (pp. 164-165), and they are few indeed and mostly of a very general nature, such as "[t]he script is to be read from right to left." He also offers some methodological suggestions for future attempts at decipherment, for example, "a detailed study of individual signs" and emphasizes the importance of "contextualization of the script," by which he means that "efforts should not be directed at the script as a general, undifferentiated writing system, but as one delivering messages within a context of different media" (p. 166). This is all reasonable, but there is little if anything new in it, and all in all one ends, as usual, with a sense of frustration and discouragement with this intractable problem.

Decrying the lack of "team spirit" in the efforts to date, Possehl concludes that [End Page 201] "[s]ince there is little basic research on the script and so little sharing of programmatic visions, it is scarcely a wonder that the writing...


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