The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Printing at the Dawn of Writing

The Age’s Andi Horvath has written an article on a new text allegedly from the Indus Valley:

Dr Rick Willis acquired and studied a set of small copper printing plates from the Indus valley, in modern day Pakistan. Using his scientific research capabilities he studied these plates and investigated archeological evidence related to this region and era.

His conclusion is that these Indus valley copper printing plates are circa 2300 BCE which means they predate what is commonly thought of as the advent of printing using Chinese woodblocks developed around 600 to 700 BCE.

I’m skeptical, for several reasons. The article adumbrates the problems with drawing conclusions from unprovenienced artifacts, which these most definitely are, even if the source claims that they have an Indus Valley provenance. Effectively, the “chain of custody” is broken when you deal with artifacts from the antiquities market. This evidence wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law, so why should scholars hold it to any different standard?

That brings me to the next concern: these artifacts are, by the Dr. Willis’ own admission, undatable because they were modified to make them more saleable  (through immersion in an acid bath). Who knows how else they were modified? The Indian antiquities market is flooded with texts on copper plates from later periods, but a plate with an inscription in the Indus Valley script would be unique and therefore uniquely valuable. There is absolutely no way to know when the writing was added. It could have been added last Tuesday.

Finally, the evidence that these copper plates were used for printing (as opposed to simply being documents in themselves like the copper plates from later periods) is thin indeed. The article claims that the writing is “reversed,” but with a lack of extended texts in  Indus Valley script or any way to interpret what the text actually says, how can one tell what the directionality of the script was? Ancient scripts, and particularly those at the dawn of writing, were notoriously noncommittal when it comes to direction. They went left to right, right to left, top to bottom, bottom to top, and even boustrophedon (as the ox plows). Any argument that depends on the directionality of a text that may not even be an original part of the artifact  is baseless conjecture, and extraordinary arguments such as this one require extraordinary evidence.


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9 thoughts on “Printing at the Dawn of Writing

  1. Pingback: [LINK] “A step toward unraveling the mystery of Indus Valley script, and printing” | A Bit More Detail

  2. Rick Willis on said:

    In Indus script, there is a small number of characters that are asymmetric, and this differentiates ordinary script from “reversed” script. The same is true for Indus steatite seals, which are acknowledged to bear reversed script. The argument has nothing to do with reading script right-to-left or left-to-right.
    The plates were NOT acquired on the “antiquities market” – they were sourced directly from an important private collection in Pakistan. The name of the person, a very notable political figure (now deceased) who acquired many important antiquities during a lifetime, commonly as gifts, from regional sites, unfortunately because of political sensitivity in Pakistan cannot be revealed. The plates have also been authenticated in Pakistan as authentic.
    People are quite right to be sceptical of the find, but should also read the detail, especially regarding details of patina and corrosion

    • Rick, do you have a link to a published source on the artifact? I only ask because the article from The Age didn’t include any reference to one.

      It sounds to me as if the symbols you’re describing are mirrored rather than simply “reversed.” I have to admit that the explanation that you’ve given, namely that these plates were used for printing, doesn’t seem terribly likely to me (“printed” on what, exactly? To what end?), but an alternate suggestion does present itself: that the characters were transferred onto the copper plates from a sketch or drawing and then subsequently engraved.

      You see this all the time with tattoos, especially of non-Latin characters. If someone is unfamiliar with the script in question, they have a 50/50 chance of transferring the sketch backwards, with the result that the script is not infrequently mirrored (resulting in a lot of bad or incomprehensible Chinese tattoos).

      • Rick Willis on said:

        Here is the link:
        We experimented with printing onto native silk cloth, and that worked very well. You are correct when you say “mirrored” characters. If I follow your argument, characters would have to be traced onto the copper plate, which implies that a medium like paper (which did not exist) or silk existed. If something is simply copied, then mirroring does not occur. In any case, my thoughts are in paper.

  3. Precisely, I am suggesting that the use of transfer papers (as in tattoos) gives us a better idea of when the inscriptions were added to the copper plates.

    Thanks for the link.

    • Rick Willis on said:

      The thing about Indus script and Indus Valley artifacts is that they were essentially unknown prior to the 1920’s. Thus one can conclude that any artifact that is more than 100 years old must be genuine. In the case of the 34 character inscription, how can one argue that someone has recently traced a copy of some unknown pre-existing inscription onto an ancient piece of blank metal. I believe the metallography shows with little question that at least the metal is ancient. If someone wanted to add a brand new inscription, then surely tracing would not be required. More than one plate shows this mirroring of asymmetric characters – so it is not a on-off accident. Examination under the microscope shows that that there is corrosion within the engraved lines, which suggests that these were not made yesterday. Believe me, all of these issues have played on my mind, and I still find that the most simple and credible explanation for the plates is that they are somehow genuine. I am very open to someone providing a testable method of suggesting that they have been faked. I am aware that the linguists are hot under the collar about this and want to claim that some of the character sequences do not conform to those seen on seals, but given the differing functions and materials, this is not too surprising.

      • My objections aren’t at all linguistic–it would be extremely premature to object to an inscription on linguistic grounds if no correspondence has been made between its symbols and any human language. My objections are purely archaeological.

        I have no objections to your observation that the plates themselves are ancient (although your analysis does not indicate just *how* ancient, which is unfortunate). My chief concern is that these plates were clearly not recovered from an archaeological excavation. I have no idea when they were recovered, where they were recovered, whether they were found in association with other artifacts that might aid in their dating—all of this potential data has been lost. Furthermore, I have no idea where the plates have been since they were recovered, in whose hands, and only the slightest idea of how they have been treated or altered during this time.

        I can’t say that I’m swayed by the argument that the engravings must be as old as the tablets themselves (however old that may be) on the grounds of the patina. Similar arguments were adduced on behalf of obvious forgeries like the James ossuary and the Jordanian codices. Even if it were possible to date the tablets themselves, it is impossible to date the engravings on them. You are of course correct that the presence of oxidation within the engraved lines indicates that they were (likely) not engraved yesterday, but I have no idea how long they were in private hands and what conditions they were subject to during that period.

        Is your explanation the simplest and most credible? It requires us to accept that these artifacts are genuine, without any corroborating evidence (such as a findspot and detailed provenance from the moment they were removed from the ground, or even an assemblage of similar artifacts recovered from controlled excavations). As the tablets themselves are apparently unique, we cannot establish an industry of them, in the archaeological sense of the word. They are sui generis. Your explanation also requires us to accept an obvious anachronism: printing appearing ex nihilo several thousand years before it is attested anywhere else. If they are indeed genuine, why do they appear to be the only exemplars of the use of this extremely useful technology within this region and during this time period, and why did this technology completely disappear, in South Asia and elsewhere, for thousands of years after its advent? Your explanation is only simple because it neglects all of these complex concerns, which detract from its credibility.

  4. Rick Willis on said:

    I cannot disagree with what you say. The plates clearly lack provenance, but there is nothing that I can do about that. I am hopeful that at least epigraphers can have a crack at sensibly deciphering the long inscriptions, which may help legitimise these objects. As far as I know the plates have lain in storage in two private collection for the last 30-40 years, and were essentially ignored. I acquired them innocently as “seals” or “tablets” but as I am familiar with 18th C copper plate prints, I recognised the strangeness of these objects.
    Every once in a while strange thing do come to light. Also in my collection, I have two pieces of Indus pottery which are likely unique. One is decorated with a birdman deity, for which I can find no record in Indus Valley iconography. In this case, the pot has been dated with thermoluminescence to 2900 BC, and I am guessing people will tell me the pot is old but the painting has been added later. What can I say?

  5. David Marjanović on said:

    Printing in the Indus Valley civilization wouldn’t be much stranger than the Phaistos Disc and a few other Minoan inscriptions that were stamped rather than drawn by hand.

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