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.