Revealing India and Pakistan’s Ancient Art and Inventions

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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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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. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. 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.
  • s davod imdad

    my people moved there 2500-3000 yrs back from north east central Asia(they were the so called aryans folks who conquered the Native Sindhi( so called Indus people) and started their aryan civilizations . i believe they inter married with the local native people while keep them in lower cast systems. thats how the stories are told by elders .

  • miller galo

    It’s very interesting! how the culture started.

  • J Bharwada

    Great article. The Indus valley civilization was much advanced than what has been assumed/published previously.

  • Rajesh Uppal

    There is little evidence to back the theory of Aryan migration. A lot of water has gone done the Indus and this theory just persists. It was a perfect way to divide India into a north and south, and it did appeal to the British archeologists (most of them were from the army) about the word “invasion”. Invaders will think about invasion! So were many more terms- citadel, fortification- used liberally by the British archeologists,

  • tapash sarkar

    art of town & buildings i thnk more beautiful than it was

  • Luke Mendes

    I think the Article should be titled ‘Revealing India’s Ancient Art, since PAkistan was only Pakistan in 1948. India existed a few hundred years before and ‘Ophir’ 2000 years ago. the author is ignorant. probably Western, oblivious to the world around them:)

  • M Balakrishnan

    The article speaks nothing extraordinary about IVC. However, playing identity politics by dividing the IVC heritage between India and till 1947 unknown Pakistan, the write has done great disservice to National Geographic. The people of India – when pakistan was not borne, shared the same heritage and ancestry, but such authors would always like to play identity politics even when it is about heritage. The reason is they have not inherited such rich heritage?

  • Imtiaz

    The Indus Valley Civilization was identified between 3300-1300 BC. The decline of Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) started in 1900 BC and gradually the references to Melluha (People of Indus Valley Civilization) in Mesopotamian writings diminished no IVC seals are found in Mesopotamia with which the Melluha conducted a bustling trade.Even after the fading out of IVC, it’s people continued live in places like Harappa and Mohenjodaro long after that. Vedic culture, however,was identified after 1500 BC when the IVC had faded out.

    Some of the aspects that Pakistan cans till trace their IVC legacy to are the commerce routes they developed. Traders from the highlands of Pakistan’s Balochistan and Northern Afghanistan brought in copper, tin and lapis lazuli. The Makran and Southern coasts of Pakistan provided decorative shells. Timber was floated down the rivers from the Himalayas and gold from Southern Central Asia. Skilled IVC artisans and specialized craftsmen turned such raw materials into useful and beautiful products for regional distribution and – as finds elsewherehave shown- for export by land and sea to Mesopotamia, Persia and Central Asia.

    The southern parts of IVC controlls the sea trade just as Karachi does today. Ships from Melluha regularly sailed from ports near modern-day Karachi, Pakistan for the ports of Babylon. And they evidently made stops all along the way as the IVC seals have been found in Oman, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain etc as well.

    The modern city of Peshawar lies on what is thought to have been one of the IVC’s main overland trade routes. That route is now a major highway that constitutes the eastern approach to the Khyber Pass and links the North Western Indus Plain to the highlands of Afghanistan and Central Asia. An old branch of the route runs from Peshawar South into rugged tribal territory, through the modern towns of Pakistan’s Kohat and Bannu and the foothills of the Pakistan’s Suleiman Mountains, and on down across the Gomal Plain to the early IVC side of Rehman Dheri, where an important excavation was conducted from 1976 to 1980.

    Vedic Hindu culture was distinctly different than the culture of IVC, who followed monotheism.

    The IVC was most restricted to the Indus Valley and its adjoining plains- however at the tail end of civilization some of it dispersed into areas beyond the IVC.

    The three major IVC cities Mehrgargh, Harappa and Mohenjodaro are all located in Pakistan provinces. One in Balochistan, one in Punjab and the last one in Sindh and there have been numerous linked sites that have been discovered. Recently, grave sites as old as 3000 years old were discovered near Swat as well.

    Current day India did not exist during IVC, and the religion had nothing to do with IVC,and major IVC settlements are not even located in India. However, Indians still refer to India as the “home of IVC” and Indian Civilization, which is indeed surprising and a wrong representation.

    Indus Valley Civilization’s legacy is linked to Pakistan and it can not be denied, bacause various peoples after their decline ruled or invaded the area.

    Therefore, we the people of Pakistan rightly claim ourselves to be the scions of and holders of Indus Valley Civilization.

    A very interesting article written by Khan A. Sufyan, titled “Pakistan: The True Heir Of Indus Valley Civilization” is also worth reading and is far more revealing about Indus Valley Civilization. The article is placed here:


  • Imtiaz Khan

    This is in response to Mr. M Balakrishnan, who states that, the people of India – when Pakistan was not borne, shared the same heritage and ancestry, but such authors would always like to play identity politics even when it is about heritage”. This is a farce which Indians have propounded since long and is far from reality. Indians quote Hindu Mythology to justify certain aspects, least realizing that it is a myth and does not relate to any truth or fact.

    Sir, I would like to remind you that the Republic of India was also born in 1947 as was Pakistan. Before 1947, it was British India and before British India, it were the Muslims who conquered many independent states in South Asia and created India as there was no India that existed before the Muslim invasion. And most of all, there certainly was no India during the period this civilization existed from its existence at Mehrgarh over 9000 years ago.

    As the excavations at Harappa began in 1920s, during the era of British Indian Empire, merely 20 odd years before independence of both India and Pakistan, India can not claim the Indus Valley Civilization which mainly remained centered around the Indus River Valley, which entirely lay in Pakistan.

    Therefore, please do not twist history in such brazen manner disregarding the existing facts.

  • H.M.regenbogen

    According to Zacharia Sitchin inhis many books on ancient civilizations…different areas of the East were given to family rulers of the Annunaki . Astarte or esther was given the rule of Ancient India and so it certaily suggests that similarities in ancient Akadian script, animals and certainly trade developed through the Mesopotamian influences . She was an absentee ruler and maybe that was even better for the Harrapan civilization to develop in more peaceful and less warlike culture.

  • Shivachetan S Nittekar

    We should treat these discovery as changes brought among humans in evolutions.And not divide it to some specific religion cast or creed.Mankind itself is a big religion.Follow what you like but don’t force any one to yours. The Indus Valley region was a place where every type of people who came to trade and earn some money.Fortunately the place was in then India and Pakistan then undivided .People were happier then for there was no boundary or division for specific cast .Well now every cast is trying to be greater than other.There were Kings then who respected others cast and all equally.True India Is invention ground before and will be after also.for India respect all Religion and love all human being.Go any where in India you will find various religion together. Now there is political interference in vote politics.But we know whats what. Lets be together and follow Human religion greater than all.When you yourself are in distress you will come to know the importance of Human religion.

  • yuva

    Yaaaaa correct i always tell people when they talk of caste. Varna or brahmina or arya what ever is just a priest. Kshatriya is just a ruling party just like emperors or king or mordern parties vaishya are the merchants, even business man or the employer also may come under then shudras. Shudras are workers this may apply for all the employees. Even if u compare these 4 types in mordern world u can get an idea. U see all the employees who work for another people thats from business employes to govt employees to the cleaners. All r same who work for another people. Thats y i always say that vedas r mistaken for caste. Vedas dont talk about slaves. Its just a rule for the city or kingdom what so ever. Later when time pass it has mistaken. Higher class n lower class differentiating is common throughout the world. The best example is titanic and romeo juliet. Now u may figure it out what am i talking about. Its ju

  • yuva

    Its just about rich and poor nayakas, rao, chettiar, nair, mudhalyar etc all have upper lower n backward classes. If u
    talk about caste these r not in vedas. They were later formed. Its
    not for sure the lower ones were miss treated during the empire times but marrages may not be allowed as u see even now arround the world businesswomen will not marry the lower workers n viseversa unless its love or what so ever. I doubt laterin 18th century or 19th century there maybe because of aryan invasion theory or before not so sure.

  • life

    my life is such a life

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