A step toward unraveling the mystery of Indus Valley script, and printing
Andi Horvath reports on a discovery in the Indus Valley of ancient copper plates which could potentially date the advent of printing to more than 1500 years before what is commonly believed to be the first known printing, in China around 700 BCE.
Today’s researchers are often organised into centres of excellence, virtual institutes or faculty-preferred disciplines harnessing the value of related expertise.
But what if a significant research problem emerged that didn’t fit with current trends or a single department, and spans multiple disciplines of the arts and sciences, yet has the potential to rewrite textbooks?
This is the extraordinary position in which academic Dr Rick Willis, a former senior lecturer in Botany and honorary associate with University of Melbourne, found himself, as he unearthed the facts behind some curious copper printing plates that suggest they are the oldest known plates for true printing.
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.
Dr Willis and his co-author Professor Vasant Shinde, a well-known archaeologist from Deccan College, in Pune India, have written an extensive account that is due to be published very shortly online in the e-journal Ancient Asia.
Dr Willis’ journey to finally publish these results is a remarkable tale of setbacks and persistence to get evidence supporting the importance of this find.
Dr Willis is a botanist but has always had an interest in antiques and antiquities. As well as being involved with botanical studies, one of his early papers announced his discovery of a painting of the rainbow lorikeet, dated 1772, that was quite realistic and lively looking, unlike most early colonial zoological artworks. This artwork proved to be of a live pet bird that had travelled back to England after Cook’s First Voyage.
This is the earliest European painting of an Australian native bird, and was recently acquired by the National Library of Australia.
As a collector of archeological artifacts, Dr Willis purchased a set of nine unusual copper plates, each no larger than a credit card, from the Indus valley. His purchase was from a validated private source that was keen for these artifacts to be studied.
Dr Willis reflects on the hurdles of studying Indus Valley artifacts.
“Developing nations, like India and Pakistan, have difficulty controlling the trade and study of ancient artifacts, so the provenance of items is very important,” he says.
“Many items are also irrevocably damaged through inappropriate handling. This makes the study of ancient history of this region very challenging. It is more difficult than in other regions, as regulations are commonly ignored, especially where there is great political and tribal unrest, and looting is rife, as the sale of a small artifact may feed a poor family.
“Mention the Indus Valley, and many people have not heard of this ancient civilisation. They were a very peaceful society and less flamboyant than other civilisations, and did not become a popular area of academic study such as the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Mayan societies.
“One of the major scientific hurdles was to date the copper plates to pre-2000 BCE to ensure these were not fakes. In fact, as Indus Valley civilisation was not really discovered until the 1920s, any recognisable artifact that could be reliably dated prior to the 20th century would have to be genuine.
“I was hopeful of being innovative and using carbon dating with the plates. Metal artifacts are notoriously difficult to date, as isotopic dating methods are rarely appropriate. However, the copper plates had quite extensive corrosion on the backs, and ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation) has agreed to attempt to carbon date any copper carbonates. The sad news was that whoever had unearthed the plates in Pakistan had cleaned them with acid, likely to separate the plates that had become fused together as they reacted to soil and water over 4000 years in the ground. We found that all the carbonates had been destroyed by the acid.
“So with the kind help of the Bio 21 institute we used a scanning electron microscope with a microprobe to look at the ‘micro’ features like pitting that is a feature of ancient metals. They were consistent with existing metallurgical items of that era. We also investigated the metal composition and impurities of the copper plates, using x-ray fluorescence, and they were totally also consistent with the variable levels of that era.”
Dr Willis also set about investigating existing archeological evidence to complement the scientific data.
“I compared these to other artifacts like clay seals of the Indus Valley era, and the images and scripts were very similar. Indus script remains as one of the world’s few well-documented languages that has defied being deciphered. Scholars generally accept that the script and images on seals are not related, but I believe the copper plates are quite different, and were possibly meant to produce instructive images. One of the copper plates has the longest known inscription in Indus script, twice as long as any other known.
“The plates have all the attributes of printing plates: fine engraving and reversed writing. It became clear to me that copper plates are the earliest printed form of art, possible printed on silk, leather or bark at the time, as paper did not exist then. We have actually produced quite acceptable images onto native silk cloth.
“This has been years of work and academic diligence, and I hope this fascinating Indus Valley story will take its rightful place in our knowledge of the history of printing, and help unravel the mystery of Indus script.”