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Revealing India and Pakistan’s Ancient Art and Inventions

(Leer en Español) The three-day “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala is bringing together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can be a part of the conversation as well, tweeting your questions using #5Civilizations. China, Egypt, Mesopotamia,...

(Leer en Español)

The three-day “Dialogue of Civilizations” conference in Guatemala is bringing together archaeologists studying five ancient cultures to discuss their similarities and differences and what they can tell us about human society as a whole. You can be a part of the conversation as well, tweeting your questions using #5Civilizations.

China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Maya–these are ancient civilizations people tend to know something about.

Harappa, on the other hand, is maybe less well known.

That is because almost nothing of it had remained visible or been discovered or recognized until the 1920s. Since then it has been heralded as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Identifying the remains of the Harappan culture, the first great civilization in the Indus Valley of India and Pakistan, pushed back the dates of the dawn of cities and writing in South Asia by 2000 years, and has shattered old notions of what was done first where and by whom.

This is how National Geographic explorer Vasant Shinde of Deccan College opened his talk at the Dialogue of Civilizations in Guatemala on Monday.

The most iconic images from Harappan civilization are the animals, people, and still undeciphered script found on small flat stones used to stamp clay seals. (Image courtesy Vasant Shinde)
The most iconic images from Harappan civilization are the animals, people, and still undeciphered script found on small flat stones used to stamp clay seals. (Image courtesy Vasant Shinde)

 

Harappa Unveiled

Shinde then gave a basic time line for the rise and fall of Harappan civilization:

7000-5000 BC, people have begun food production, instead of just food gathering.

5000-2600 BC, you start to see regional similarities in artifacts.

2600-1900 BC is the mature period of Harappan civilization. Distant cities are integrated into one civilization and there appears to be an empire that arose through peaceful means.

1900-1300 BC, whatever held the culture together has declined and the area breaks into many more localized styles.

Discoveries at sites like Bhirrana and Girawad in India showed such early farming communities that it forced scholars to rethink how farming in the Indus Valley began. “The old model of people moving in from the west, bringing agriculture and technology has been discarded,” Shinde said.

After the rise of agriculture, the development of cities gradually developed in the core of the region and then spread out. Major features of sites from this time match closely, but in the details there was much regional variety.

Shinde then made a point that has a lot of resonance for city planners today. Harappan cities “don’t have large monumental buildings [like those in Mesopotamia or Egypt],” he said, “but that doesn’t mean they were not prosperous…[these were] very clean and well planned, hygienic cities.”

Remarkably, cities represent only 5 out of some 2,000 Harappan sites that have been identified. The biggest and most spoken about in Shinde’s presentation were Harappa itself and Mohenjo Daro (a name I have loved since hearing it in my first Archaeology class).

An artist's reconstruction shows the gates and houses of ancient Harappa. (Illustration from National Geographic)
An artist’s reconstruction shows the gates and houses of ancient Harappa. (Illustration from National Geographic)

 

Harappan Contributions

Because Harappan sites date back so far, many of their distinct features are the oldest known examples of whatever they are. While it’s difficult to say for certain whether these ideas began in India and spread, began elsewhere and spread to India, or began elsewhere independently, the Harappan discoveries show that south Asia was a far more innovative and advanced center of civilization than people knew before just a few decades ago. In the spirit of the Dialogue of Civilizations conference then, Shinde connected the past and the present by showing just how many “modern conveniences” the Harappans brought to the world:

Grid-planned cities and towns, with a wide main street and smaller side streets all oriented to the cardinal directions.

Latrines in each house with a water pot for washing. Private wells in houses, public wells for visitors and traders.

No evidence of slavery, but indications of cooperative corporate rule.

Developments in rainwater collection, wells, and drain maintenance.

Long-distance trade and contact as far as Mesopotamia, while importing regional raw materials and exporting finished goods.

Use of crop rotation and pioneering techniques in metallurgy and ceramics.

Art that may show the earliest practice of yoga, or belief in “power through meditation.”

There are many theories and aspects to the eventual decline of Harappan civilization, said Shinde, but he added that the “tradition and legacy continue till today.”

Most excitingly, there’s all that writing still to be deciphered.

 

Origins and Legacy of Indus Valley Art

Next up, with more than 40 years of archaeological experience in India and Pakistan was Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In search not only of ancient objects, but of how they were made and used, Kenoyer has engaged in countless projects in experimental archaeology, making jewelry, decorating pottery, and more. His work has been supported by National Geographic grants, and reported in the pages of the magazine.

Kenoyer sparked interest early on, presenting seals like those seen above, with their undeciphered script, and following them with two examples of similar seals found with Akkadian script from Mesopotamia–symbols that are now well understood.

The first is in the British Museum, and is an “Akkadian seal with an Indus animal.” The letters seem to read “Ka lu Sig,” which Kenoyer said can be interpreted as “May the affair be favorable” or maybe that someone by the name of “Kaku” “is favorable.”

A drawing of the Indus-style seal with Akkadian writing reading "The devotee of Nin-Ildum, Son of Dog." (Image courtesy Mark Kenoyer)
A drawing of the Indus-style seal with Akkadian writing reading “The devotee of Nin-Ildum, Son of Dog.” (Image courtesy Mark Kenoyer)

The second example was from a private collection, and he gave credit to fellow Harappan scholar Massimo Vidale for its presentation and translation: “The devotee of Nin-Ildum, Son of Dog.” Now “son of a dog” isn’t exactly a term of endearment around the world today, he said, so perhaps it had a meaning more like “son of a servant.” While that specific part of the translation is pretty theoretical, it’s the general format that is most important.

Text on any other Mesopotamian seals from the period follows a completely different formula, so these unusual inscriptions may very well represent translations of whatever is on the Harappan seals, a first clue at decoding this ancient script.

Kenoyer then brought the seals into the context of the city of Harappa as a whole. “Writing and seal making appear to be highly controlled,” he said, given the fact that workshops were restricted by huge walls. They are now even beginning to recognize the work of specific seal makers on artifacts found throughout the city. He now has a grad student using a scanning electron microscope to examine the seals in excruciating detail, identifying “distinct crafting techniques and different tool types.”

They are even able now to identify the handwriting style of different scribes on different tablets.

 

Where Are the Temples?

One of the biggest mysteries for many people concerning Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley is the lack of monumental temples, as are seen in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The solution may be in the smallest of artifacts. Several seals and tablets show images of a person in a tree, being brought offerings.

This matches well with later documented beliefs that the most sacred places were natural, such as an esteemed pipal tree. Buddha himself famously sat under the bodhi tree in his quest for enlightenment, and that tree is held sacred to this day. So perhaps these cities had just as much ceremony and religion as any other, they were simply practiced in the open air, without need of massive architecture.

Harappan traders with their weights and balances. (Illustration courtesy National Geographic)

The People

Finally, Kenoyer helped reveal who the people of this civilization were, and how they lived.

Analysis of a cemetery in Harappa showed that the bodies seemed to all be from more well-to-do people. The vast majority of Harappans were not buried there at all. Analysis of chemical signatures in teeth and bones showed “strong genetic relationship” of the people found there, but that not all of them were originally from Harappa. Kenoyer thinks this may be evidence of local people who were married away to people in other cities who then later returned to Harappa.

This fits in well with the idea that the cemetery is for higher levels of society. “Farmers marry people from within 30km,” he said. “Traders marry people from other cities. Rulers marry other rulers.”

Lest you think rulers means kings, Kenoyer had one more revelation about life in this civilization. “Monarchy and republican rule leave different imprints on a city,” he said. “Dholavira looks like a monarchy. The rest of the cities of Harappa are republican.”

Many people still look at the development of the ancient world as a violent and formulaic process, where tribal chiefs become powerful despots who use religion to force people into doing their will and building their self-indulgent monuments. Looking deeper into the actual evidence, we see how inaccurate such a vision is. The presentations on the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley give at least one very clear illustration of a very different path, and one that may provide lots of inspiration and meaningful comparison with modern civilizations around the world.

 

What do you think? Post your comments below and on Twitter at #5Civilizations.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at andrewjhowley.com.