Monday, 18 January 2010

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.

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