Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Discussion on Kosambi's work on Numismatics

Kosambi's book Indian Numismatics can be downloaded from here.

Indo-Eurasian_research : Message: Re: [Indo-Eurasia] The Abrus precatorius seed as an Indian weight unit
Re: [Indo-Eurasia] The Abrus precatorius seed as an Indian weight unit

Francesco writes in his post on seeds (proposed by Allen speculatively) being used as an Indus weight standard:

/> Any comments, anyone?

Allen's idea (and Kosambi's) is interesting, Francesco -- but how could it be tested? What evidence of such use would remain in the artifactual record? And seed weights vary, so the hyperbole about perfectly standardized Indus weights in any event would still go out the window.

There are also genetic issues to consider. As I know from visits to Steve Weber's lab and talks with Steve and Dorian Fuller, we can't assume that modern seeds and those found in the Indus Valley are identical in size or weight. That needs to be taken in consideration in statements like this:

/> Contrary to what you, Allen, suggest in your post, the rattI has an
/> *average* (but not certainly a fixed) weight of 0.106 to 0.109 grams.
/> It was the smallest unit of weight measurement for ancient Indian coins.

On the calculations you point to in Kosambi, you write:

/> This subject was magistrally discussed by D.D. Kosambi in _Indian
/> Numismatics_ (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1981), where he provides a
/> severe critique of the interpretation of the data on Indus weights
/> offered by A.S. Hemmy (whose work has been cited by Steve in some
/> earlier posts in this thread). Kosambi thought it plausible that
/> the seed of the gunja plant could have been the basis of the Indus
/> weight system:

It is important to note that Kosambi is not predominantly talking about Hemmy's work that I cited but his work on the weights of Indian coins from nearly two millennia after the fall of the Indus.

Moreover, he doesn't criticize Hemmy's RAW measurements, which is all I referred to. He instead criticizes a part of Hemmy's work that I didn't refer to: Hemmy's fudging to find standard proportions in the data, which led him to conclude (after his fudging) that the Indus mixed up binary and decimal systems (invented to explain all the anomalies in weight proportions: this is ultimately what lies behind many of the later myths about perfectly proportioned weights).

Since the raw data from the 20s and 30s from Mohenjo Daro (in Hemmy) and the raw data from modern Harappan excavations (sent to me by Richard Meadow) don't suggest that there were precise standards, you can ONLY get these neat proportions by fudging the data.

But if you read Kosambi carefully, you'll see that he does the same thing that Hemmy does: he starts from the assumption that there is a single weight standard, just like Hemmy. He only disagrees with Hemmy's work by replacing Hemmy's imagined standard with a seed standard -- basing his calculations on *modern* seed weights. (Sorry, it can't work.) There are a lot of mathematical manipulations in this chapter, but given all the unknowns the equations he gives just add smoke to his mirrors.

(Note also all the strange assumptions he makes about supposed links between Mohenjo Daro finds and "Indo-Aryan Linguistic survivals of the dual system rise to 8 units" [p. 29. It would take a lot of space to analyze what he's talking about here, but it is all irrelevant to our discussion, so I won't bother.)

In any event

(1) we don't know seed weights from the Indus era and can't know them: the seeds that researchers like Weber count are preserved by being carbonized in hearths; it takes a lot of expertise even to tell different carbonized plant seeds apart, and of course the data preserve no information on weight; moreover, there are no reasons for supposing that Indus seeds would be genetically identical
to modern seeds.

(2) we have no evidence that the Indus used seeds this way in the first place. What we DO know is that the weights that have survived in the Indus Valley aren't standardized precisely either within individual sites or across multiple sites.

So the seed idea that Allen proposed is interesting and possible, but it is difficult to see how it could be tested. If some direct evidence of some sort showed up that supported it (iconographical? Possible but unlikelky), it wouldn't have any pertinence to the "standardized weight" myth.

Still an interesting idea, however. But beads of particular sizes might work just as well, really.

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