Ancient Tax Tokens, Trade Licenses and Metrological Records?: Making Sense of Indus Inscribed Objects Through Script-Internal, Contextual, Linguistic, and Ethnohistorical Lenses.

60 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2018 Last revised: 14 Jul 2019

Date Written: June 2, 2018

Abstract

This article argues that most of the inscribed objects of ancient Indus valley (seals, tablets, etc.) were administrative tools (tax-tokens, trade-licenses, metrological records, etc.) used for controlling the complex trading economy widespread across the Indus settlements. It is also argued that the inscriptions logographically encoded a commercial sublanguage to convey information about what kind of taxes/tithes were paid to which entities, using which rates and modes, and which activities (e.g. cultivating, manufacturing and trading specific commodities) were licensed through such tax payments. These conclusions are drawn based on an extensive contextualization of the inscriptions, considering various archaeological evidence (the types, provenances, spatial distributions, and structures of inscribed artifacts), historical evidence, linguistic evidence, and script-internal evidence (combinatorial and graphemic features of the sign-classes identified in the author's previous structural study). For example, the combinatorial and graphemic features of the stroked-jar signs ( ), and their occurrences as pottery tally marks, strongly suggest that they had some metrological functionality. This leads to investigating why the tax-related Indus inscriptions used the rimmed-jar-like sign, as the most frequent sign, occurring mostly in their terminal positions. The answer is obtained from various ancient Indian texts (early Vedic texts, Jātaka scriptures, Arthaśāstra, etc.), which reveal that certain ancient words meaning jar/pitcher (kalaśa, droṇa, etc.) were used as metrological nouns, and metrological nouns (droṇa, rajju, ṣadbhāga, etc.) were often used as revenue-based metonyms (droṇa-māpaka, rajjugāhaka, ṣadbhāgin etc.) due to the close relationship between standardized metrological equipment and revenue collection in ancient barter-based economies. Analysing the related lexical roots used for the traded commodities of Indus valley (e.g. ivory ("piru"), lapis lazuli stone whose colour gets compared to the blue iridescent pigeon necks ("kāsaka hya kapautaka") and apotropaic "eye-beads" (maṇi)) in Mesopotamian lexicons, Amarna letters, ancient texts written in Old-Persian, Sanskrit, Pali and BMAC languages, this study claims that many of such words that had originated in Indus valley, got spread in the languages of other civilizations through the thriving ancient trade networks. It is also suggested that the fish-like and bird-like Indus logograms possibly signified such traded commodities, such as fish-eye-beads, lapis lazuli and other precious stones.

Suggested Citation

Ansumali Mukhopadhyay, Bahata, Ancient Tax Tokens, Trade Licenses and Metrological Records?: Making Sense of Indus Inscribed Objects Through Script-Internal, Contextual, Linguistic, and Ethnohistorical Lenses. (June 2, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3189473 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3189473

Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay (Contact Author)

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