Saturday, 30 January 2010

NatGeo Indus Feature

This is just a little piece on the Indus that National Geographic did a while ago. I'm linking to it for two reasons: Firstly, the Indus is not a hot topic in archaeology, compared to Egypt, Mesopotamia etc, so it tends not to get featured in popular media, which cuts me real deep. So I like to take advantage when it happens. And secondly, this being NatGeo, they've spoken to two excellent Indus archaeologists, among the biggest names today (both are American), and it's good to hear what they have to say about this stuff.

The second link is a wonderful photo of the Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro. It's interesting because it's one of the few monumental structures found in the city, and in the wider Indus. If you compare the Indus to its contemporaries, and everyone inevitably does, this is pretty damn weird. They had the resources, labour and technology to construct big temples or palaces if they wanted to, but these monuments are noticeably absent when you study the cities. This makes Mohenjo-daro unusual among Indus cities, and may mean it was a religious centre of some sort. The Great Bath was made of bricks and lined with bitumen (bit like tar) to prevent leaking. Bathing in it may have been of religious significance, as some kind of ritual cleansing. Many archaeologists believe that there was an element of reverence towards water, perhaps even water-worship, in the Indus religion.

Mohenjo-daro has also been described as a city of wells because of the stunning density of domestic wells throughout the city. No matter what the house size, nearly all structures had access to wells and drains; clearly it was an important part of their way of life.

This post is without a central theme, because I'm still working on the main pieces on the Indus. I did my Master's dissertation on Mohenjo-daro, so always get a bit carried away. The topics of religion and water at Mohenjo-daro will pop up again. Hopefully it'll whet (haha) your appetites for the Indus-tastic posts to come.

Oh, and under the photo it says 'Mohenjo-daro and its sister city, Harappa', which is total rubbish. They were the first big ones discovered, and the only ones for a long time, so everyone thought they were 'twin capitals' or 'sister cities', but we now know that there are five large Indus cities, spread out over a very large area. They are Mohenjo-daro (Sindh, Pakistan), Harappa (Punjab, Pakistan), Ganweriwala (Punjab, Pakistan), Rakhigarhi (Haryana, India) and Dholavira (Gujarat, India).

For more photos of Mohenjo-daro, use the link on the right hand side of the page for the website.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Conference: South Asian Archaeology

The conference of conferences, for South Asian archaeologists anyway, is coming up. The European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Art usually have a biennial conference, but it's a little late this time. The waiting's over though- the 2010 conference will be held in Vienna this July.

The proceedings of the conferences are published with all the papers, and the volumes are usually invaluable updates on all of the research on the archaeology of South Asia.

Only for those with a very hardcore academic interest! The deadline to submit abstracts has passed, but you can register to attend until February 28th.

Image is the EASAA logo. No, really.

Trowel and Error

Not so much an error on the part of the tourism authority...more the tourists who had the bright idea enough times to necessitate a sign.

Photo my own, taken at Saqqara, Egypt. Saqqara is the site of Djoser's (or Zoser) Step Pyramid, which is one of (if not the) oldest pyramid known. Built around 2600 BC, and thus more or less contemporaneous with the beginning of the Mature Harappan!

Not suitable for climbing.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Archaeological Review from Cambridge: Call for Papers

Note: The Archaeological Review from Cambridge is a great journal that I worked for when I was at Cambridge. It's run entirely by students, who work for free, and put together a journal that is regarded as fairly respectable in academic circles. They also give graduate students a place where they can talk about their research, and publish to an audience. This is a call for papers for the next issue- read on if you're interested! Journals can also be bought from the website

Archaeological Review from Cambridge – Volume 26.1, April 2011
Call for Papers: Archaeology and Economic Crises

The economy is at the forefront of many minds due to the current global situation. Governments, organisations and individuals world-wide have been forced to make numerous changes in order to deal withthe current economic downturn and a number of lives have been drastically affected. With the financial world in turmoil, constant stories of crisis in the media, and the impact on individuals, it seems fitting that archaeological enquiries into economic crises should be made at this time. Economy and change are popular themes in archaeology which can be explored through numerous avenues of study. Investigation into multiple aspects of economic crisis allows the interaction between economy, environment, and importantly, society, to be studied. In investigating the occurrence of economic crises in the past, archaeologists can better understand the mechanisms of these changes and their social implications. The notion of economic crisis, however, is not a simple one; it is complex and multifaceted, raising a number of questions through archaeological enquiry. ARC invites contributions on the theme of
Economic Crisis. Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:
- What constitutes an economic crisis? How do we identify and define the occurrence of economic crisis in the archaeological record using artefactual, environmental and societal markers? How do we assess its impact?
- How do human groups with differing social structures respond to economic crisis? Does the definition of a crisis change with the degree of social complexity?
- How is the concept of economic crisis approached using zooarchaeological, archaeobotanical, and other archaeological science techniques?
- What is the relationship between both contract and academic archaeology and the economy? How has the economic downturn affected, and how will it continue to affect, employment and dynamics within these sectors?

Please send abstracts of not more than 500 words to Suzanne Pilaar Birch ( or Rosalind Wallduck ( by 31st January 2010. The full article should not exceed 4000 words. Deadline for first drafts will be in early May 2010, for publication in April 2011. Style guidelines and notes for contributors can be found at

Archaeological Review from Cambridge is a journal of archaeology managed and published on a voluntary basis by postgraduate research students at the University of Cambridge. Issues are released twice a year. ARC is a non-profit making organisation. Although primarily rooted in archaeological theory and practice, ARC increasingly accommodates a wide range of perspectives with the aim of establishing a strong, inter-disciplinary journal which will be of interest to those engaged in a range of fields.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Indus Civilisation: An Introduction

Now, in case you read the last post and were wondering why you should care, that's what this post is about. The Indus, like Nelson Mandela, Will Shakespeare, and Martin Scorsese shouldn't need an introduction, but I watched the Golden Globes last night and they gave Scorsese one that went on for about ten minutes. So in that spirit, here you go.

Named for the River Indus, the Indus Civilisation is the third oldest in the world; the others being Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. Its geographic span is considerable, and has been estimated at 680,000 square kilometers, which is twice the size of its contemporaries Egypt and Mesopotamia [1]. Its area is admittedly difficult to assess as there are sites such as Shortughai in Afghanistan which is most definitely an Indus site, but happens to be the only one for several hundred kilometers. We do know for sure the Indus culture travelled great distances: the civilization extends to the Pakistani Makran Coast in the west, and beyond Delhi in the east; Shortughai marks its northern extreme, and Gujarat its southern boundary.

The chronology for the Indus looks something like this [2]:

Early Harappan: 3200 BC - 2600 BC
Mature Harappan: 2600 BC - 1900 BC
Late Harappan: 1900 - 1300 BC

The sites of the Indus Civilisation share many material characteristics despite the great distances between them. This has led to many theories about enforced homogeneity, and rigid centralised control, which have recently begun to be disputed (more on this soon). There is an incredible material culture associated with the civilisation: beads and jewellery, standardised weights and seals, figurines, toys, pottery- the list goes on. The Harappans (people of the Indus Civ., named for the site of Harappa) used materials like lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, shells from the sea side, and carnelian from Gujarat. As I mentioned in the last post, their trade networks extended as far west as Mesopotamia.

They had a sophisticated way of life with wonderful levels of technological adeptness, urban planning, craftsmanship (/womanship?), and social organisation. Cities such as Mohenjo-Daro were enormous, with streets, underground sewage systems, and covered drains. Their territory covered hundreds of thousands of kilometers. They had a written script. They marshalled labour resources, traded with far away lands, developed technologies for processing raw materials and creating finished products, and produced seals and weights that hint at complex social organisation.

Unfortunately so little is known about the Harappans today, especially if you compare it to contemporary ancient civilisations. The script, often found on the seals, has never been translated. Cuneiform (used in Mesopotamia) and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and language have been understood for decades now! The Indus social, religious, political and economic systems, amazing as they must have been, are something archaeologists have to painstakingly piece together now using the material remains. And you thought it was all just fun and games!

Pictured above: Fun and games

The next few blog posts will deal with the crafts, trade networks, and socio-economic and political organisation of the Indus Civilisation. Hopefully this post will have shown you why the Indus is simultaneously so fascinating for archaeologists, and such a challenge.

1 Kenoyer, J. M. 1998. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi: Oxford University Press.
2 Possehl, G.L. and Rissman, P.C. 1992. The Chronology of Prehistoric India: From Earliest Times to teh Iron Age. In R.W. Ehrich (ed.) Chronologies in Old World Archaeology, 3rd edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. V. I: 465-490, V. II: 425-446.

Image is 'The Royal Game of Ur' (Ur is a site in southern Iraq), dated 2600-2400 BC. Made of wood, shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli. An extract from the description reads:

'One of the most popular games of the ancient world... Examples of this 'Game of Twenty Squares' date from about 3000 BC to the first millennium AD and are found widely from the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt to India. A version of the Mesopotamian game survived within the Jewish community at Cochin, South India until modern times.'

From the British Museum website. Click on the link and have a look!

The Discovery of the Indus

'Not often has it been given to archaeologists, as it was given to Schliemann at Tiryns and Mycenae, or to Stein in the deserts of Turkestan, to light upon the remains of a long-forgotten civilisation. It looks, however, at this moment, as if we were on the threshold of such a discovery in the plains of the Indus.'

- John H. Marshall in 1924, in the Illustrated London News.

The story of the discovery of the Indus is an exciting one. Marshall, a young man, educated at Cambridge, was sent to India to be Director-General of the Archaeological Survey. Discovery is a tricky word to use here, as people had been aware for a long time that there were ruins or urban remains on the sites of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa; travellers in the 19th century such as Charles Masson had recorded this fact. However, there was no understanding of what they were, who built them, or how old they were. A stupa-like structure on Mohenjo-Daro perhaps gave the impression that they were more recent remains, dating to the historical period. They were certainly not protected or revered as the incredible archaeological sites they were; large parts of Harappa had been dismantled, and the mud bricks used to the line the tracks for the Lahore-Multan railway (and yes, it hurts me to even type the words).

Under Marshall and an organised Archaeological Survey in the 1920s, artefacts from the surface scatter were collected and brought to him, at which point he noticed a curious thing. Despite coming from mounds about 400 miles/644 km apart, the artefacts undoubtedly were of the same class, and one that was previously unknown before. Excavations proceeded, and Marshall realised that the height of the mounds, which were artificial, was the result of the accumulated debris of many many years of occupation. Absolutely nothing was known about the people who shared a common culture, and a common material culture, across this vast geographical area. The 'once flourishing cities' were not just fascinating to archaeologists. Marshall published the news in an English newspaper in 1924, where presumably English society, high and otherwise, had its world rocked. These were people almost obsessed with ancient civilisations; going through the issues for 1924 alone, there were 2-4 archaeological bulletins in almost every issue. No joke. Tutankhamun's tomb had been excavated only two years previously, and this was the kind of news that they just ate up. Presumably, anyone who was anyone was talking about it.

Marshall also published images of Indus seals, figurines, pottery, and jewellery. The wonderful thing about this was that the following week, a noted Assyriologist named Professor A.H. Sayce published a piece in the ILN about how the Indus seals, with animals and the Indus script, had long been found at sites such as Susa in the Near (or Middle, if you prefer) East. He wrote that 'The remarkable discoveries in the Panjab [sic] and Sind...are even more remarkable than [Marshall] supposes', and dropped the bombshell that the tablets belonged 'to the third millennium BC' and thus were not only of considerable antiquity, but also established trade between Babylon and India in that period.

A week later, two archaeologists named C.J. Gadd and Sidney Smith of the British Museum, published a third piece (still in the ILN, because why stop a good thing when it's rolling) showing similarities between the material cultures of the Indus and Babylon.

There you have it...almost unknown for millennia, and then in the space of a couple of years, and a couple of weeks, the Indus Civilisation was established in our collective consciousness as what it is today.

Image is the header for Marshall's incredible news, in the Illustrated London News, September 20th, 1924. From the British Library Newspaper Library.
Click on the thumbnail for a bigger picture.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Happy (Belated) New Year!

I hope you all have a wonderful 2010!

Abstracts, proposals, and funding applications (so many funding applications...) for my PhD have been taking up my time, so I'm late with the next posts. However, I've been scouring the London libraries putting together some interesting stuff, so in the next few weeks there should be a lot of exciting new pieces up! Keep an eye open!