Look back in anger, or a history lesson before its time

Good morning, class. Last week we examined how the rich trove of artifacts from ancient Egypt still presents serious problems of individual interpretation and overall meaning. We turn now to the equally puzzling case of Kannada. We have no shortage of objects from this late second millennium civilization. But we face grave difficulty developing a comprehensive understanding of it. Slide 1 shows a typical early 21st-century plastic bag of a sort that persists in extraordinary quantities, though how so much of it wound up in landfills on the other side of the world has yet to be explained. It is clearly the product of a technologically advanced civilization, both from the materials and the lettering on the attached tab, in Roman script, known from excavations of the Cro-soft culture to indicate a rudimentary but serviceable portable computing device with communications capabilities. So why is the bag itself prominently stamped with primitive hieroglyphics?

The first, a triangle composed of three arrows, suggests a religious doctrine of a closed, harmoniously cyclical cosmos. The number "04" within it, in the more advanced script, may indicate a mystery cult in which a trinity was set before the masses, but acolytes were told of a fourth, central truth. Perhaps that, despite the Great Circle of death and rebirth, this particular item would probably end up in a Chinese landfill. We're not sure.

The next two emblems may depict sacred child-rearing practices. A young child and an infant wear what appears to be ritual headgear while a diagonal bar, presumably indicating disapproval, superimposed over the baby but behind the child may suggest an age limit. An eccentric alternative hypothesis is that they convey some sort of warning.

It is hardly credible that persons sufficiently advanced to be able to use such computing devices would need non-verbal safety instructions as elementary as "Do not suffocate your own child with this sack like a dunce." But the accompanying script does appear to suggest either that the commoners were in the habit of doing such things or at least that the priestly caste supposed that they were.

(Slide 2, a related paper artifact, non-verbally depicts a Kannadian baffled by assembly of a simple item using a fixed-position communication device to receive enlightenment from a temple of home furnishing.)

We use the term priestly caste functionally, of course. It means not all persons devoted to advocating a religion, let alone one necessarily involving a deity, a fixed moral law and reward or punishment in an afterlife, but those persons widely acknowledged to hold the secret key to the central myths of the civilization and invested with ceremonial garments appropriate to public rulings on them. In Kannadian society, at least in the Plastibagean Era, the dominant cosmology seems to have been the cult of Char-Tur, a jealous God.

Some data suggest the cult of Char-Tur was long unknown but then spread rapidly. But others argue for geographical diversity, noting persistent regional millennial expectations that an Easter Island-like icon, "The Khlyne," was about to perform some mighty feat of defiance of Char-Tur. Some Char-Tur ceremonial objects bear so many features suggesting marriage rituals that many scholars deny they could have any other meaning. Yet they do not depict a man and a woman, while certain oracular pronouncements relating to Char-Tur justified xenophobia toward the Bouch people as so backward they still married men to women. Of course, not all religious dogma is to be taken literally. But what is to be done with this contention remains unclear.

Some archeologists even insist there were two "McLellans" and only a dating error led to identifying one upholding traditional marriage with one taking the opposite view just five years later. Others believe that, despite egalitarian rhetoric, Kannadian leaders ruled like Pharaohs, noting that the supposed hieroglyph for accountability, "Shapiro," faded quickly. They also point to the official, treated with some outward respect, whose function was to persuade the people that being fit and healthy was better than being a sickly bladder of lard. We cannot be certain whether either officialdom or the masses really thought the latter dim enough to need such advice yet wise enough to follow it.

We aren't even sure why these people apparently celebrated two opposed national days yet, on the latter, performed a hymn originally composed for the former.

In short, the Sphinx is not the only puzzle out there and Kannada is not yet in the bag.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson