The Harappan Volumetric System

One of the functions of ancient scribes was to record economic activity, which would mean keeping count of various trade items; for example, 5 cows, 17 bangles. Hence one of the obvious things to look for in Indus seals are signs which represent numbers.
According to one study based on statistical analysis, “U” is the symbol for 5. The number 6 was written either as “UI” or with six vertical strokes; ten was “UU”. What is interesting is that in Nagari, the sign for 5 is “U” with a tail added to it; “U” in Brahmi denotes pa, the first syllable of panca[1]. The fish symbol, it is proposed, represents a higher number – 10 – and the trident sign, a multiplicative higher number[2].
That was a decade back. Now, based on an analysis of inscriptions on bas-relief tablets, incised tablet texts, and ceramics (pic), there are new proposals.

… indicating that the sign ‘V’ stood for a measure, a long linear stroke equalled 10, two long strokes stood for 20 and a short stroke represented one, according to Bryan Wells, who has been researching the Indus script for more than 20 years.Dr. Wells has proposed that “these sign sequences [sign ‘V’ plus numerals] are various values in the Indus volumetric system. The bas-relief tablets might have been used as ration chits or a form of pseudo-money with the repetitive use of ‘V’ paired with ||, |||, |||| relating to various values in the Indus volumetric system. The larger the ceramic vessel, the more strokes it has. This postulation can be tested by detailed measurements of whole ceramic vessels with clear inscriptions.” [Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

So what is the basic measure here represented by “V” ?

When he measured their volumes, Dr. Wells found that the pot with three long strokes had an estimated volume of 27.30 litres, the vessel with six long strokes 55.56 litres and the one with seven 65.89 litres. Thus, the calculated value of one long stroke was 9.24 or approximately 10 litres.[Indus civilisation reveals its volumetric system]

This means that “V” stands for a specific volume and  one though n long strokes are used to specify the exact values. The most common combinations are VII, VIII and VIIII making it a three tiered system, like the Tall, Grande and Venti at Starbucks. One theory is that this was a measure of grain paid as wages from the granary.
Besides this volumetric system, there is a unit of counting as well. When one long stroke is combined with seven short strokes, it represents 17 (10 + 7) as in 17 bangles. There is a rake sign which is read as 100 and a double rake as 200. Another important point is that, this system is used only in Harappa; bas-relief tablets are common in Harappa than other locations.
Since there are clues that some Indus seals were used in economic activity —  seals found in Lothal warehouse had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse  — this find that the tablets were used as ration chits or pseudo-money is not surprising. It would be interesting if this discovery is a key which can unlock other secrets held in the seals and tablets.

  1. Subhash C. Kak, “A FREQUENCY – ANALYSIS – OF – THE – INDUS – SCRIPT – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 12, no. 3 (1988): 129.
  2. Subhash C. Kak, “INDUS – AND – BRAHMI – FURTHER – CONNECTIONS – PB – Taylor & Francis,” Cryptologia 14, no. 2 (1990): 169.

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