The ancient Harappan civilization that occupied what is today parts of modern India and Pakistan is comparable in many ways to the more well-known state societies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, including its highly urbanized society and its vital situation in a rich riverine environment. But unlike these later societies, one important piece of the Harappan puzzle has, up to this point, denied the best efforts of archaeologists to decipher it; the Harappan language known as the Indus script.
The Harappan state society collapsed sometime around 1500 BCE, leaving behind no surviving records to tell us the names of their gods, kings, cities, or even their language. What we do know of the Indus script comes to us from thousands of artifacts including various objects such as pottery, amulets, and stone seals. The script depicts what appear to be animals, rituals, and anthropomorphized gods and people, as well as more abstract symbols. Surviving examples of the Indus script tend to be short, made up of no more than a few symbols which read from right to left. On average, a given piece of the Harappan script contains five glyphs; the longest known sequence contains only fifteen. For these reasons, the Harappan language has resisted all scholarly attempts to decode it.
Of course, this has not discouraged many people from trying. One important interpretation by Yuri Knorozov states that the underlying root language behind the Indus script is the Dravidian family of languages, which are found mainly in southern India and parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Nepal. This hypothesis has been supported by the independent studies of a team of Finish researchers, who agree with Knorozov’s Dravidian conclusion, but disagree on the particulars of translation. Another hypothesis proposed by Indian archaeologist Shikaripura Ranganatha Rao compares the structure of the Indus script to that of the Phoenician alphabet. The result is a “Sanskritic” reading, the approach of which many experts agree with, if not the details.
Despite claims of decipherment by Rao, the Indus script is still generally considered to be untranslated. Who knows when this will change, or how? For now, all archaeologists can do is keep digging, searching for further clues.