A Bill Poser post at the Log shows a nice color photograph of “a pot used for collecting toddy (palm sap, modern Tamil கள்ளு) made about 1800 years ago” and links to an article from The Hindu:

The writing on the pot is in Tamil Brahmi, a writing system that only fairly recently has come to be well understood. It says: n̪a:kan uɾal, Old Tamil for “Naakan’s (pot with) toddy-sap”. In modern Tamil writing this would be: நாகன் உறல். As the article points out, the fact that a poor toddy-tapper would write his name on a pot is indicative of mass literacy at the time.

As Doc Rock points out in the comments, the pot does not prove mass literacy, but it’s certainly indicative of it, and it makes me curious to learn more about the society. Other interesting points: the article “is not by reporters; it is right from the horse’s mouth. The authors are S. Rajagopal, retired senior archaeologist with the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology and Iravatham Mahadevan, an eminent student of early Indian writing and leading authority on Tamil Brahmi… This is like having a newspaper article on physics written by Stephen Hawking.” And one of the commenters in the thread is a native speaker of Tamil; not quite as unusual as the speaker of Circassian/Kabardian who turned up in my Chakobsa thread, but an indication of the worldwide reach of the internet.


  1. I agree that it a very intriguing artifact and suggestive of a number of possibilities–perhaps it was Naakan’s [brand name] toddy-sap! ;-}

  2. Drink Naakan’s! It’ll Naak you out!

  3. I continue to deny that this proves anything about mass literacy. Societies without mass literacy do have scribes, and having one’s name put on one’s property serves as evidence that it is one’s own.

  4. Again, nobody said it proved anything. But do you have an example of a basically illiterate society in which people had pots that said “This is X’s pot”?

  5. Etienne says:

    VERY interesting! But the article itself seems to indicate that literacy was the exception rather than the rule in third century AD Tamil Nadu, inasmuch as the fact that the pot is now in a museum rather than in a storage facility with other pieces of broken pottery is due to its having writing on it: plainly most pots didn’t. The fact that the language contains a possible colloquial feature (short /u/) seems to indicate that, if the pot’s owner (rather than some scribe) indeed was the writer of the inscription, his knowledge of writing must have been limited. Hat: many ordinary objects in Ancient Rome (cups, mirrors and the like) had inscriptions on them (owners’ names, witticisms…), even though it is quite clear that only a small minority of the population of Ancient Rome was ever literate.

  6. I’m supposed to know Tamil fluently — I can understand it, but I can’t read it — because that’s one of my family’s native tongues (the other is Kannada). I wish I could be of some help 🙁

  7. John Emerson says:

    Off-topic: I just got this book in the mail. Allow me to quote my own Amazon review:

    “The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War And Faith” is the best book of its kind I’ve ever seen. It looks like a coffee-table book, with a lot of fascinating pictures of Silk Road manuscripts, artifacts, archaeological sites, and landscapes, but unlike most coffee table books the text is meaty and up-to-date. It’s centered on early-Twentieth Century explorations (especially by Aurel Stein) in Uzbekistan, the Turkish republics, and the Chinese province of Xinjiang, with excellent brief chapters on methodological questions, the Stein expedition, sites at Samarkand, Khotan, Miran, Kroriana, Dunhang, and Gaochang, and a number of other topics of great interest. (However, the previous reviewer is probably right that it isn’t an especially good book for someone relatively new to the subject.)
    Especially interesting to me were the photos of manuscripts (mostly Buddhist, Manichaean, or Zoroastrian) in fifteen or so languages and twelve or thirteen different scripts: Sogdian, Uighur, Mongol, Manichaean, Pahlavi, Tibetan, Chinese, Turkish Runic, Brahmi, Kharosthi, Judeo-Persian, early modern Persian, and possibly Greek (on Kushan coins). But there’s something for everyone: graphic art, sculpture, architecture, household items, and knicknacks.
    This book belongs in the library of everyone interested in the history of the Silk Road.

    Amazon isn’t stocking it, apparently. I got it from here for about $60. I’m tremendously happy with this book.
    Caveat: There’s a much cheaper condensed book with the same title and author. It’s OK, but nothing like the big book.

  8. _The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War And Faith_ is, I believe, based on the catalogue of an exhibit that was at the British Museum.

  9. only a small minority of the population of Ancient Rome was ever literate
    Quite true, and I guess I was mentally translating “mass literacy” into “literacy of a more substantial minority than one might have thought.”

  10. David Marjanović says:

    “Nec nare nec litteras novisti”?

  11. Dan Milton says:

    Go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Indo-Eurasian_research/messages
    and search “Mahadevan” for a number of scornful references to supposed discoveries of ancient inscriptions.
    Would some reader of Old Tamil comment on what appears to me the exceedingly fortunate accident that the the pot broke so that the complete inscription neatly fits on the preserved shard?

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Who says that the inscription is complete? perhaps there were more words around the pot.

  13. I fail to comprehend the argument that because this pot is stored in a museum it must be of extreme rarity. Ancient artifacts are typically stored stored in museums unless they are extremely common, and even then, some of them are stored in museums.
    Even if it is true that most pots did not have such inscriptions, that hardly suggests that literacy was rare. The average piece of pottery doesn’t need identification, does it? In any case, the illogic of such inferences aside, the fact is that several hundred such inscribed potsherds are known.

  14. “Go to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Indo-Eurasian_research/messages
    and search “Mahadevan” for a number of scornful references to supposed discoveries of ancient inscriptions.”
    The scornful references that I see have to do with an entirely different issue, namely Mahadevan’s views regarding the Indus script and its continuity with later forms of Indian writing. Mahadevan is in fact a leading scholar of the Indus script, but views on its nature, interpretation, and continuation, if any, are diverse and heated. Several of the messages are by Steve Farmer, a proponent of the extremely controversial claim that the Indus script is not actually a writing system at all.

  15. This is all far too highbrow for a humble language school teacher like me to follow, but can I just say that this is the first blog I’ve ever come across that’s being going continuously since 2002. Congratulations!

  16. Thanks! I would have faltered long ago if it weren’t for the feedback I get from all these diverse commenters.

  17. it is quite clear that only a small minority of the population of Ancient Rome was ever literate.
    How is this clear? I’ve seen estimates that as much as 15% of the Roman population could read at least at a rudimentary level. And the evidence of Vindolanda and Pompeii suggest that basic literacy had certainly spread well beyond the elite by the end of the 1st century AD. I suppose 15% is a very small minority by today’s standards, but since the denominator includes women and slaves it would appear that a fairly large proportion of Roman citizens had basic reading skills. Or to put it another way, a majority of the pot owning Roman households probably contained at least one literate member. I suppose then the pot could be evidence that literacy in Tamil Nadu was an uncommon but widely dispersed skill as in Rome, and unlike, say, ancient Egypt where literacy was much more narrowly concentrated in a certain class. Of course China was also an illiterate society if you’re going to use over 10-15% of the population as the benchmark, and the Chinese produced thousands (millions?) of pots with inscriptions on them.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Literacy in a language with a writing system that has a straightforward sound-symbol correspondence (i.e. each sound [or syllable] has a symbol, each symbol has one sound) is not very difficult to achieve. Even in a language like English which has masses of exceptions to this principle, there are many documented cases of people teaching themselves to read (eg some slaves in the US). Many children learn to read before going to school, often initially by following the text of stories read and re-read to them as they sit in an adult’s lap, lookind at the book while hearing the words – common words soon become recognizable, and the children start building on this foundation. English-speaking adults in many cases learned by recognizing Biblical texts they had heard before. So it is likely that in ancient societies with alphabetic or syllabic writing systems, basic literacy (which for instance allowed people in Pompeii to write graffiti on the walls) was within the reach of many people who desired it. Also, just because not everyone was writing on walls (or on pots) does not mean that most people could not read the writing.

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