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!


  1. What a thrilling account of the Indus Civilization! Can't wait for the next parts. Hope you have a special section about their pottery.

  2. Great suggestion! I'll add it to the list.

  3. Very interesting account. I wonder though, what the current status is on any of these sites? Also, as you mentioned, if several of these sites are spread across countries, how would various studies be coordinated?

  4. Mohenjo-daro is in very bad condition due to environmental degradation, and further excavations have been banned so it's going to be almost impossible to get new data. Harappa is also in bad condition, more due to human activity. Rakhigarhi, in Haryana, is actually under a modern village, so people live right on the site! These are all very large city sites though, and are now more protected. I've worked on smaller village sites in Haryana that are all under cultivation, and being systematically (if unknowingly) destroyed. The larger sites are the ones that tend to be excavated.

    Coordinating studies is a problem, of course. If Afghanistan were safer, I'd love to poke around and see what material I could find! The most interesting thing, I think, is how material is interpreted differently in India and Pakistan. For example, it can be given a religious slant to demonstrate early Hinduism in the Indus. The large size of the civilisation is certainly a detrimental factor in terms of cohesive research across the entire area. There are foreign teams who work with Indian/Pakistani archaeologists in India/Pakistan, but off the top of my head I can't think of any projects where Indian and Pakistani archaeologists excavate together.