Flavin’s Corner
8-10-01

Know-It-Alls

And I didn't mind
It's not my kind
Not my time to wonder why
From "Glycerine," by G. Rossdale. 

Recently, The New York Times ran a story about a stamp seal discovered in Turkmenistan, tentatively dated to c. 2300-1900 BCE. [Note: the story is free and may be read here, but you’ll have to register.  It takes about two minutes or less.]  Experts quoted in the story are at odds over whether or not the characters on the stamp seal represent “writing.”  The discoverer believes the marks represent “symboling” and not any known or unknown script.  A week after The New York Times' story was published, a web-page appeared online announcing the marks were related to the Indus Valley script and could be read.  Some know-it-alls are content to tyrannize friends and family, while others attempt to rewrite every bit of science and history the rest of us have come to know and appreciate.  And there seem to be more know-it-alls (especially online) everyday. 

Stamp seal from Turkmenistan, c.2300 BCE; RDF.

In the online article, “Dravidian Writing in Central Asia By Dr. Clyde A. Winters, Ph.D. [sic],” Winters writes: “There were Proto-Dravidian/Harappan colonies in Central Asia, established in Eastern Bactria,” and “Back in the 1980's I deciphered the Indus Valley writing.”  He then states: “I will use the Dravidian language to read the Harappan signs on the Anau tablet, to test this hypothesis.  The Indus Valley writing is read from right to left, top to bottom.  Below is a decipherment of the Anau tablet.”  Winters proposes:

Winters' "Transliteration" of the marks on the Anau stamp seal.

"Transliteration
Papa ka tutu I
Papa: distribute God’s mercy
Ka: balance, to preserve, shelter, watch, guard; protector
Tutu: abundant virtue; abundant purity; purity and immaculateness
I: thou, you; permit it; to let; give (it).
Translation
(1) Distribute God’s Mercy (and) (2) protection [to your servant], (3-4) Purity and immaculateness give (it) [also]." [Note: my bold and italics; RDF.]

Winters then lists some fifteen references.  All the references are to articles he’s previously published and there isn’t a single one by another author or scholar to back up his claims.  Citing yourself as the only authority about a controversial subject (the deciphering of the Indus Valley script) over a twenty year period without peer comment or support may not seem unusual to the general reader, but it’s almost unheard of in academia.  However, some know-it-alls believe that if they keep repeating that they and they alone have discovered the truth about something, that it might be accepted one day.  This is folly.  And folly compounded by repetition gets annoying real fast.

The so-called Indus Valley script consists of between 300 and 400 signs, thought to be logosyllabic in structure, and is found on many seals, artworks, and jewelry, throughout the area of Harappan influence in southern India, c. 3000-1500 BCE.  Diringer points to 1875 as the first publication of seals bearing the Indus Valley script, and goes on to list a claim of decipherment in 1925, and further claims connecting the symbols with the rongo-rongo script of Easter Island in 1933 and 1934. [Note: See The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, by David Diringer, New York: Philosophical Library, 1948, pp. 81-88.]  The Indus Valley script was abandoned before 1500 BCE and India was without writing for over a thousand years, until the invention of the Brahmi script, c. 500-350 BCE.  Greece experienced a similar period between the use of Linear B (c. 1380-1200 BCE) and the emergence of the Greek alphabet (adapted from the Phoenician) c. 900-800 BCE.  While the Indus Valley script may preserve an early Dravidian language which could someday be understood (like the relationship between the archaic Greek of Linear B to later “Classical” Greek), no such approach, model, theory, suggestion, hypothesis, or oft repeated claim, has warranted discussion in the academic community concerning a possible reading of the Indus Valley script.  The script remains undeciphered.  Well, sure; every season brings another bold claim at decipherment.  The claim then gets added to that special shelf in the back, the one with the answers to everything, and the one seldom used in serious research.  It’s a big shelf. 


"Dr. Clyde A. Winters, Ph.D."

I know just about nothing regarding Dravidian linguistics.  However, Winters has claimed to “read” the marks on the Anau stamp seal (not a “tablet,” as Winters misleads), he picks and chooses as to what marks have meaning (leaving out the hour-glass figure in the upper right), repeats a sign through photographic distortion which he then claims to hold a different value (this could be a mistake; right), and then gives a “Translation” about “God” and “purity.”  This is a classic know-it-all pronouncement.  Something is because someone claims it is.  It’s like driving too fast; sometimes you get a ticket, sometimes you get into an accident, but it’s always a motivation of self-importance–the person believes it’s okay to speed (or publish) recklessly.  I don’t need to be familiar with Dravidian linguistics to skip past Winters’ claims.  Unfortunately, he’s prolific and persistent.

A couple of weeks ago the UseNet newsgroup, sci.archaeology.moderated, put up a post by someone claiming to be a young Greek man, interested in ancient scripts, and looking for help with books, research, and such.  The folks that run sci.archaeology.moderated perhaps forgot an earlier post (2-12-01) in which he directed “Usenet Users” to his web-site.  Hey, spamming a moderated newsgroup every now and then is allowed; I may have done such in the past.  The last post wasn’t really spam, as no website was pointed to, however this kid has been around for years and this wasn't just another "please help me" post.  I remember when he was 17 or so, allegedly only able to get e-mail and newsgroup replies through some complicated system, and asking people to snail-mail him research material.  He’s changed his e-mail address a few times, but the kid (now, a young man, perhaps) seems determined to market himself to the best of his ability.


French mag featuring J. Faucounau.

Things got weird with sci.archaeology.moderated.  The moderators added a response from this quack cheerleader of a mathematician and historien du fantastique, Jean Faucounau (claims to have deciphered the Phaistos Disk).  More know-it-all spam.  Then followed a serious reply to the original post which recommended a book on ancient decipherments.  A few days ago, Winters joined in with the notice of a “short paper on the art of archaeological decipherment.”  Art?  Oh, and he’s arguing for Africans in pre-Columbian Iowa. 

Winters believes that rock art in Iowa was made by the Mande of West Africa (who use the Vai language) and claims a point of contact (a thousand or three) years ago.  The rock art in question was discovered and is currently controlled by a small group of amateur archaeologists and diffusion activists who seem to encounter problems whenever they try to get professional help about the site and its markings.  They contacted me a few years ago, I asked them about their state archaeologist, didn’t care for their responses, and most of their subsequent efforts are more than a little suspect in my opinion.  Maybe they’re doing their best, but they’ve got to do better.  Though I grin at Winters’ claim, I’m still disappointed this “Coopna Cave” remains essentially uninvestigated and the keys to its protection are in the hands of a group comfortable representing themselves as anti-establishment.

Well, I shouldn’t be grinning at Winters’ claims.  That’s wrong of me.  This know-it-all is either running a confusion/diffusion campaign, basks daily when God shines down upon him (in which case I ask him to pray for me and mine), or just types a lot and is often wrong.  It’s tough to call.  I don't believe his claims should get into the classroom, but perhaps they're already there.  When he mentions “Paleo-Africans” and “roundhead blacks” a couple of sentences apart, I’m uncomfortable with his terminology.  Winters is an Afrocentrist and propounds a view that ancient Africans should be given credit for such things as Egyptian civilization, Greek philosophy, significantly influencing Indian and Chinese culture (if not directly inspiring them), and sailing over to Mesoamerica and helping out the Olmecs, as well.  You go, Clyde!  But, decide on Dr. or Ph.D., as using both together looks silly.  It’s to sci.archaeology.moderated I turn my attention, though I’m unsure if I’m angry the moderators let one slip, didn’t care, needed something to put up, or were trying for open discussion.  Maybe it was open discussion.  We’ll see.

Last week, shortly after I read the New York Times’ story on the Anau stamp seal, I forwarded it to a few friends, with the suggestion they consider Philistine Linear.  One got back to me and shared how Victor Mair had asked his opinion previously, how he “took” the characters to be readable ancient Chinese script, and was doubtful the stamp seal was as old as claimed.  The Anau stamp seal at c. 2300 BCE is way too early for even the suggestion of a stylized Chinese script.  Okay; an opinion.  And one that should be considered.  However, as long as we’re guessing, what if an influence can be demonstrated in the opposite direction as most are leaning toward?  This is cross-roads stuff and, I offer, matters could go many ways.  Hey; it’s just a guess.  And, needless to add, I was disappointed no mention was made of Philistine Linear.  Kidding.  Sort of. 

The Philistines have long fascinated me.  Okay, maybe it started with Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, doing that ‘Golden Calf’ thing, in Cecil B. de Mille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.  Maybe it was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinians. [Note: Philistine = Hebrew Pelesheth (Exod. 15:14) > Greek Palaistine > Roman Palaestina > English Palestine].  The Philistines lived next to the Hebrews for more than a thousand years and received some of the worst press several biblical accounts had to offer.  Some have speculated they took part in the Trojan War, joined the “Sea People” and attacked Egypt (see the Medinet Habu reliefs), and ran a profitable ironworking business.  Their connection to Cyprus and Crete seems well established, but their ultimate origin (Black Sea area?) remains unknown.  Anyway, I’m reminded of ancient Troy as a prosperous port (see: The Flood From Heaven: Deciphering the Atlantis Legend, by Ebergard Zangger, New York: Morrow & Co., 1992), but the only evidence of tabulation or writing are some marks on spindle whorls, not that dissimilar from Old European examples, c. 6000-3500 BCE.  If Troy was making money, how did they keep track of it?  Likewise, if the Philistines were around for a thousand years, engaged in weird cultic practices, and exploited their ironworking technology, how is it that everyone around them had a script, but they didn’t?  Well, maybe they did.


Inscribed cylinder seal, c.1200 BCE; possibly Philistine Linear.

Digging in the Philistine city of Ashdod, Moshe Dothan discovered what appears to be examples of Philistine writing (see: “Ashdod–Seven Seasons of Excavation,” by M. Dothan, Qadmonitor V, 1972, p. 6ff, in Hebrew; and People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines, by Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan, New York: Macmillan, 1992, pp. 166-167).  Dothan sees three seated “rectilinear” figures on an inscribed cylinder seal, perhaps seven or eight “signs,” and compares the style to the Cypro-Minoan script.


Inscribed stamp seal, c.1200-1100 BCE; possibly Philistine Linear.

A second example, an inscribed stamp seal from a different (and perhaps later) level, shows six or seven “signs.”  With just these two examples to go on, no one has been able to “read” anything yet, or even demonstrate that there’s anything there to “read” in the first place.  They could just be symboling, art, or ownership marks.  It was the above stamp seal, with its bold vertical line next to some three pronged “signs,” that came to mind when I first saw the Anau stamp seal.  And, it’s just as far from Philistia to Turkmenistan as it is from Turkmenistan to Harappan India.  Oh, well! 


Bactrian ax with bird-headed demon, boar and dragon, c.2300-1900 BCE.

The Anau stamp seal is just the latest of many interesting artifacts which have been discovered in the areas of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan known as Bactria, or Bronze Age Bactria, to date the period.  This area of research has been plagued by dishonesty (locals looted archaeological sites and sold spectacular pieces on the black-market in the 60s and 70s), politics (the collapse of the Soviet Union), war (Operation: Desert Storm), and religion (problems in Iran and Afghanistan).  Scholars have long predicted an important outside influence on the Sumerians (as Anau reveals levels which go back to the Copper Age, c. 4500 BCE), and many see the Bronze Age Bactrians as eventually contributing to the Harappan Indus Valley civilization, though whether through trade, conquest, or some unremarkable and unknown process, is not yet clear.  Fine; stem cell research is more important, but I look forward to learning more about Bronze Age Bactria.  Not from know-it-alls like Winters, mind you, but from serious researchers who ask questions again and again, do field work, share with their peers, ask more questions, and repeat the process until something starts to make sense.  Ah, it’s an exciting time to wonder why!

Always asking,
Rick

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