Mysterious signs or pictographic inscriptions in the Oxus civilisation?

Writing, which is considered the most advanced product of the development of human thought, was invented by the Sumerians in the 4th millennium B.C. Sumerian pictographic writing originally appeared as images. They expressed the existing situations in nature and the objects and ideas they encountered through pictures. In this process, images of flora and fauna, natural objects, the moon and stars are often drawn. Similar pictographic inscriptions have been found in other parts of the Ancient East, including India, Iran, China, and the southern regions of Central Asia.

First pictographic inscriptions in Central Asia

The Bronze Age Oxus civilization (dated to c. 2250–1500 BC) of Central Asia presents the peculiarity among the great oriental civilizations of not having known writing. Writing is considered one of the main symbols of the early civilizations: some researchers consider the appearance of cities, with the emergence of writing and temples as signs of civilization (Kluckhohn 1960). As for Central Asia, according to Shapulat Shaydullaev (2009) “the first cities, the first states that were formed in the same historical process like cities, could not have emerged without the primary method of writing, which is the expression of mankind. The increase in wealth made necessity for counting, and the complexity of the management process did for writing”.

Fig. 1 : Surkhandarya region map with major Late Bronze Age sites
(base map: NASA SRTM GL 1)

Illustration of such a primary method of writing has perhaps been found during archaeological excavations in southern Uzbekistan. Archaeologists have found pictographic inscriptions on the sites of Sapallitepa, Djarkutan and Tillabulak, which are located in present Sherabad and Muzrabat districts of the Surkhandarya region, Uzbekistan (Fig.1). For instance, at theSapallitepa site, in 1973, Akhmadali Askarov discovered 29 pictographic signs during archaeological excavations and in 2009, Shapulat Shaydullaev discovered 46 pictographic inscriptions at Djarkutan (Fig. 2) and 17 at Tillabulak (Fig.3). Similar inscriptions are found in the modern regions of Southern Turkmenistan, Northern Afghanistan, and Southern Tajikistan.

Fig. 2 : Pictographic signs on pottery of southern Uzbekistan (after Shaydullaev Sh. 2009).

These signs were mostly inscribed on the most visible parts of vessels such as jars and jugs. They were incised with sharp-edged tools on the clay during the manufacturing process, before the vessel was fired. It is clear that among the population of the Oxus civilization, the traditional methods of transmitting information by means of objects were developed considerably (Avanesova 1997). Although the method of subject writing, which developed in Central Asia during the Bronze Age, persisted into later periods, the method of pictographic writing based on symbols was used along with material writing. (Shaydullaev 2009).

Fig. 3: Pottery from Tillabulak (after Kaniuth 2007. Fig. 14, 15)
Symbols or writing?

The pictographic symbols found in the sites of the Oxus civilization have been compared with the inscriptions of Mesopotamia, Harappa, Lunshan, Shahdad, and it has been suggested that they constitute the oldest type of writing in Central Asia (Askarov 2013). The simplicity of the inscriptions, with some zoological charactersб evokes Sumerian and Ancient Iranian pictographic inscriptions.

However, the function of the signs inscribed on the pottery is still a matter of debate: are they the first writing or did they perform another function? Three theories coexist on this subject.

The first point of view considers that these inscriptions are a mark of ceramic artists. But they are found only on vessels of a certain shape such as jugs and vases. For instance, the site of Sapallitepa has been fully excavated and thousands of pottery vessels have been found there, but only 29 inscribed vessels were recovered, which indicates that the potters did not have a tradition of marking the pots they made.

In the second theory, pictographic symbols are the totemic symbol of communities. According to A. Askarov, who completely excavated the site of Sapallitepa, there were 8 neighbourhoods (quarters) inside the fortified area (Askarov 1977). During his study, a total of 29 signs were found on pottery. Askarov divided these signs into 8 types according to their shapes, which might suggest that the eight neighbourhoods had own totemic symbol. Evidence to refute this view lies in the fact that such symbols have also been found on pottery in several other sites of the Bronze Age of Central Asia, indicating that they are not totemic symbols of the patriarchal families of Sapallitepa.

The third theory considers that symbols drawn on pottery are pictographic inscriptions. The writing system went through several stages before the appearance of letters. The oldest records are in the form of pictures, where people expressed their thoughts through pictures and symbols. This could apply to the symbols found on pottery in southern Uzbekistan. Archaeological evidence suggests that, firstly, they are extremely rare, and secondly, their distribution is quite wide, both characteristic features of areas where early writing developed among other early urban cultures of the Ancient Near East.

Among the pictographic inscriptions found on the pottery from southern Uzbekistan, an evolution can be noticed, especially between Djarkutan and Sapallitepa, which are located close to each other, although Djarkutan was occupied slightly later. In the earliest stage, represented at Sapallitepa (can be dated to XXII-XX centuries B.C.), a single sign was expressed separately; in the later stage, represented at Djarkutan (can be dated to XIX-XVII centuries B.C.), different signs were expressed together, and the co-representation of these pictographic signs is one of the factors indicating the process of periodic complexification of writing. As for Djarkutan, the pictographic symbols can be divided into the following types depending on their shape and meaning: cross, plough, wheel, stairs, geometric symbols, flora, swastika, animal world, cosmogony signs (Fig.4).

Fig. 4: Table of pictographic signs on pottery of southern Uzbekistan (after Sh. Shaydullaev 2009).

Ancient Iranian pictographic inscriptions and their development are extremely well studied, through the example of the ceramics of Shahdad (Hakemi 1976). There are 333 signs represented separately, and 273 pictographic inscriptions made by a combination of signs. All the symbols found in Djarkutan, including the cross, the plough, the wheel, the ladder, the geometric symbols, the swastika, the flora, the fauna, and the cosmogonic symbols, were also characteristic of Shahdad (Shajdullaev 2009). The style of the Oxus and Shahdad pictographs is extremely similar. The process of harmonization of characters, as well as the separate expression of them characterizes both schools of pictography. This situation makes it possible to draw conclusions about the parallels in the pictographic inscriptions of Central Asia and Iran (Hakemi 1997).

It is noteworthy that Harappean culture also had a special influence on the formation of pictographic inscriptions of the Oxus civilization, as can be inferred from the following considerations. First, contacts are attested, especially thanks to inscribed seals, found in the sites of Altyn-depe and Gonur-depe. Secondly, when comparing the two writing methods, Harrapan script is characterized by the fact that it is extremely advanced, i.e., various signs are expressed together, and are rich in content and form. Thirdly, when comparing the two different pictographic symbols, it is clear that the influence of the local nature, fauna, and flora is strongly felt in the expression of the inscriptions. For instance, in the case of the animal kingdom, the image of an elephant is characteristic of Harappa, while the representation of a camel is characteristic of the inscriptions of the Oxus civilization (Sarianidi 2002). Fourthly, while the Oxus pictography is represented in simple characters, the degree of similarity with the Harappa pictography is extremely close. For example, figures found and classified into 8 groups by A.A. Askarovin Sapallitepa including crescent-shaped, parallel-line, N-shaped, cross-shaped, and expressions reminiscent of the letter ‘A’ are fully reflected in Harappa’s pictography (Askarov 1973; Rao 1963; Mackay 1948; Gupta 1979).

A later illustration of the development of pictographic writing in southern Uzbekistan might be found at the village of Ghoz, which is attributed to the Iron Age, where a stone keli (mortar, for grinding) was found (Fig.5). Contrary to simple – Bronze Age pictographic inscriptions, the surface of the keli from Ghoz bears an inscription composed of 13 signs grouped together.

Fig. 5. A stone mortar from Ghoz  (after Shaydullaev 2009)

To conclude, during the Bronze Age, the people of the Oxus civilisation, especially in southern Uzbekistan, were communicating through pictographic symbols and inscriptions. Long and close cultural ties were established with the neighbouring civilisation through these writings.


Askarov A. A. 1973. Sapallitepa, Tashkent, FAN.

Askarov A. A. 2013. Bylo li piktograficheskaya pis’mennost v kul’ture Sapalli (nakhodki, gipotezy, predpolojeniya), Sogdiyskiy sbornik, 43-58.

Askarov A.A. 1977. Drevnezemledel’cheskaya kul’tura epokhi bronzy Yuga Uzbekistana, Tashkent, FAN.

Avanesova N.A. 1997. Spätbronzezeitliche Kulturkontakte in der baktrischen Flusoase nach den Befunden der Nekropole Bustan 6, Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan 29, 47-178.

Gupta S.P. 1979. Archaeology of Soviet Central Asia and the Indian Borderlands, Vol. II, Delhi, BR Publishing corporation.

Hakemi A.1976. Ecriture pictographique découverte dans les fouilles de Shahdad, Permanent Bureau of the International Congresses of Iranian Art and Archaeology, 3-46.

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Kaniuth K. 2007. Tilla Bulak 2007 – Vorbericht zur ersten Kampagne, Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan 39, 31-47.

Kluckhohn C. 1960. The moral order in the expanding society, in: C. H. Kraeling, R. M. Adams (eds.), The City Invincible, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 391-404.

Mackay E. 1948. Early Indus civilizations. London.

Rao S.R. 1963. Excavations at Rangpur and Other Explorations in Gujarat, Ancient India 18-19, 5-207.

Sarianidi V.I. 2002. Margush. Drevnevostochnoye tsarstvo v staroy del’te reki Murgab, Ashgabat, Türkmen dövlet habarlary.

Shaydullaev Sh. B. 2009. O’zbekiston hududida davlatchilikning paydo bolishi va rivojlanish bosqichlari, Unpublished Habilitation Thesis, Samarkand.


Alisher Shaydullaev is Acting Associate Professor at the Department of Archaeology of the National University of Uzbekistan in Tashkent. He specializes in Bronze Age archaeology.

Pour citer ce billet : Alisher Shaydullaev. Mysterious signs or pictographic inscriptions in the Oxus civilisation?, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 8 janvier 2021, [En ligne]

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