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Volume 50, Number 5September/October 1999

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Traders of the Plain

Written by Graham Chandler
Photographs courtesy of Pakistan, Governmnet of, Department of Archeology and Museums

Dr. Mohammad Rafique Mughal leans back in a squeaky rattan armchair at Falletti's, the once-sweated under a ceiling fan during the muggy hot summer of 1947, drawing up the borders of a new Pakistan. The dry smell of dust raised by a sweeper outside mingles with the scents of cumin and coriander from the hotel kitchen. Mughal reminisces about his early days searching for archeological sites in the dry hills of Cholistan near that very border, across from what is now the Indian Punjab.

"Cholistan was a natural opportunity," says Pakistan’s retired director-general of archeology and museums. "Because of changes in river courses, the area had been undisturbed by agriculture for millennia.

Recently published as Ancient Cholistan: Archaeology and Architecture (Rawalpindi, Ferozsons, ISBN 9-690-01350-5), the account of his team's exhaustive three-year exploration of that desert region in the early 1970's revealed a telling pattern of abandoned settlements. The locations of the sites they found strongly suggested that the Hakra River, a tributary of the Indus, had changed its course many times before it eventually dried up about 4000 years ago. When it disappeared, it took with it most of the social and economic fabric of one of the world’s greatest and oldest, but least known, civilization, today called the Harappan or Indus Valley civilization.

Evidence uncovered to date delineates a peaceful, artistic, disciplined and materially successful civilization that arose in the fertile Indus River floodplain of present-contemporary with the Mesopotamian civilizations of the Tigris and Euphrates River extensively. The Harappan culture dominated the subcontinent for almost a thousand years before it mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind few direct traces of what happened, or where its large population went.

At its height, archeologists believe, the Indus civilization included more than a thousand villages, towns and cities scattered throughout 725,000 square kilometers (280,000 sq mi) of territory—an area larger than Texas and smaller than Turkey—that stretched from what is now northern Afghanistan south to Gujarat in India and as far west as the headwaters of the Ganges River. The Harappan domain was twice the size of the Egyptian or Mesopotamian territory of the time, yet the Harappans appear to have had neither conquering emperors nor standing armies to enlarge or defend their homeland. As far as archeological evidence shows, they enjoyed excellent health and freedom from both violence and extremes of wealth or poverty. They developed one of the earliest written languages and built some of the world's first planned cities, complete with individual household water supplies and sophisticated public drainage systems. And, as highly skilled craftspeople and enterprising merchants, they were one of the first major mercantile civilizations to trade far beyond the borders of their own territories.

Yet, though everyone has heard of the great civilizations of the Middle East, most of the world has never heard of the Harappans. "They didn't leave behind grand temples and monuments or rich burials that fired people's imaginations, as the Egyptians did," says Mughal. "Rather, they seem to have been utterly content with their egalitarian, religious society, with its high standard of order and ethics, and kept themselves busy with agriculture, craft production and trade."

The civilization's first discovery by modern Europeans was in 1826 at the site of ancient Harappa, near the modern village of the same name, in the Punjab of British India. The discoverer was a deserter from the British Army named James Lewis. The newly formed Archaeological Survey of India undertook initial excavations between 1856 and 1872, but intensive work didn't get underway until the 1920's and 30's. The discovery of this unknown ancient civilization was announced to the world in The Illustrated London News of September 20,1924.

Large-scale digs teeming with hundreds of turbaned local workers, hot dusty scenes worthy of an Indiana Jones production, were the order of those days. Work focused on what are still the two largest sites, Harappa and, 600 kilometers (375 mi) to the southwest, Mohenjo-Daro. Though this century's high water tables have prevented researchers at Mohenjo-Daro from digging down to the lower levels that might put a date to the site's beginnings, their excavations soon revealed well-planned street layouts and water systems. Scholars of Mesopotamian history quickly recognized that numerous seals found at Mesopotamian cities such as Ur matched designs being discovered in the Indus Valley, attesting to long-distance contacts between the two empires.

But the Indus Valley civilization began neither in Mohenjo-Daro nor Harappa. Because it was first thought to have diffused from civilizations to the west, archeologists in the 1960's sought clues to the Harappan genesis at Mehrgarh, a site at the foot of the Bolan Pass, east of the mountain city of Quetta. They found early indications of Harappan styles, such as pottery designs, but no discernable signs of outside influence: The Harappans, it appeared, were truly an indigenous civilization.

"Discoveries at Mehrgarh changed the entire concept of the Indus civilization," says Ahmad Hasan Dani, professor emeritus of Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University and author of several books on South Asian civilizations. "There we have the whole sequence, right from the beginning of settled village life."

The excavations of Mehrgarh revealed that, as early as 7000 BC, its inhabitants were herding sheep, goats and zebus and planting fields of wheat and barley in small farming communities that they inhabited year-round. "They subsisted on a combination of domesticated and wild resources," says Richard Meadow, Harvard archeo-botanist and director of the Harappa Archeological Research Project, based in the modern village of Harappa. "They first depended more on wild game such as rhinoceros, elephant and wild buffalo. That gradually gave way to raising their own animals and crops." The Harappans have even been credited with the earliest known domestication of the jungle fowl that is the ancestor of today's chickens.

By about 5500 BC, Mehrgarh's citizens started to make and use pottery and ceramic figurines, and with these began an increasingly sophisticated craft industry. Manufacture of decorated ceramics and jewelry blossomed, and by 3500 BC Mehrgarh had grown into an important regional craft center, and settlements in other parts of the Indus Valley had developed parallel industries of their own. A few hundred years later, these villages and regions were trading technological innovations and products. The resulting social intercourse had a unifying tendency throughout the Indus Valley. Together with these industrial arts, the Harappans' social hierarchies, their writing system, their large planned cities and their long-distance trade mark them to archeologists as a full-fledged "civilization."

Indeed, commerce and trade appear to be the foundation on which the Harappans built far-reaching influence. Traders from the highlands of Baluchistan and northern Afghanistan brought in copper, tin and lapis lazuli. The Makran and southern coasts of today's Pakistan provided decorative shells. Timber was floated down the rivers from the Himalayas. Carnelian and agate came from Gujarat, and gold from southern Central Asia. Skilled Harappan artisans and specialized craftsmen turned such raw materials into useful and beautiful products for regional distribution and—as finds elsewhere have shown—for export by land and sea to Mesopotamia, Persia and Central Asia.

"It was an environment of economic symbiosis," says Farzand Ali Durrani, a Pathan archeologist and past vice-chancellor of the University of Peshawar, speaking over chapli kebabs at a Pashtun restaurant in Peshawar. "The southern states controlled the sea trade, just as Karachi does today. Ships from Meluhha [the Mesopotamian name for the Harappan nation] regularly sailed from Lothal, 400 kilometers [250 mi] up the coast from present-day Bombay, for the ports of Babylon." And they evidently made stops all along the way: Indus seals have been found in Oman, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

The modern city of Peshawar lies on what is thought to have been one of the Harappans' main overland trade routes. That route is now a major highway that constitutes the eastern approach to the fabled Khyber Pass and links the northwestern 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 Kohat and Bannu and the foothills of the Sulaiman Mountains, and on down across the Gomal Plain to the early Harappan site of Rehman Dheri, where Durrani conducted an important excavation from 1976 to 1980.

"Our discoveries there clearly showed that the Harappans meticulously designed and laid out streets prior to 2800 BC," he says. "They outclassed the Egyptians and Mesopotamians in terms of planned cities."

Harappan city planners were indeed far ahead of their time. Unlike most settlements of the ancient world, whose winding streets and randomly placed buildings suggest haphazard growth, all Harappan municipalities expanded by design—indeed, by the same design: A west-facing citadel in the city center, and a north-south and east-west grid of streets. Municipal drainage systems included covered "manholes" for clearing out debris, and all construction used standard-sized fired or mud bricks, depending on the structure. Neighborhoods were individually zoned for residences, shops, markets and manufacturing activities.

Mohenjo-Daro, the largest of the ancient Indus Valley cities, lies 575 kilometers (350 mi) south of Rehman Dheri on an old course of the Indus River. Where its citadel once stood, there is now a Buddhist stupa, but the old city plan is clear. "It is evident that Harappan cities like Mohenjo-Daro were largely governed by strong civic discipline," says Durrani. "And the streets and houses were purposely arranged to let the prevailing winds keep them clear and ventilated. It's the earliest example of civic environmental planning."

That planning included management of water and waste. Researchers have found that nearly every Harappan home had a bathing platform, with a brick drain and a sloping floor made of fired bricks and waterproofed with gypsum plaster. At Mohenjo-Daro there was at least one well supplying water to each housing block, and many houses had their own wells. Many also had private latrines, with individual drains that connected to covered or underground conduits that carried waste water, as well as excess rain from the streets, down to the river. And there is even a water-related structure archeologists have dubbed the Great Bath. Steps lead down into the swimming pool-sized complex lined with tightly fitted brick, sealed with a bitumen under-layer, and served by a massive drain with a corbeled vaulted ceiling, big enough to walk through. It has been interpreted as a public bath or ritual bathing area.

Whether in the workshops that were part of some houses in Mohenjo-Daro, in separate shops or in the fields, the Harappans' working lives and their commerce were regulated by well-established standards: Archeologists have found standardized cubical stone weights, for example, in ratios of one, two, four, eight and 16 units. Accounting may have been done using a complex and still-undeciphered script. (See sidebar, page 40.) The Harappans also left behind tiny seals, up to two or three centimeters (1") square, elaborately carved in soft stone such as steatite and used to make impressions in wet clay, probably to signify ownership of goods or shipments. Depicted in detail on these miniature works of art are animals such as "unicorns," hump-shouldered zebu bulls, elephants, hairy-eared rhinoceroses and crocodiles, as well as symbols in the puzzling Harappan script. Archeologists surmise the motifs may have served to identify individuals or clans of merchants, or organizations holding interests in commercial activities.

Excavated skeletons show evidence of industrious work and healthy diets that led to soundness of body. Apart from some evidence of trauma to Harappan women's spines, caused by carrying heavy loads on the head, there are few signs of disease or malnourishment. The high-carbohydrate diet typical of early sedentary societies contributed to some tooth decay, but most Harappans whose graves have been excavated apparently died of natural causes.

A two-hour bus ride down another ancient trade route, now part of the Grand Trunk Road, leads from the acrid blue cacophony of downtown Lahore to a pit where archeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer is sweating over a large clipboard, shaded from the burning sun by a woven mat. He's drawing a stratigraphic cross-section of an excavation here at the site of ancient Harappa. A helper periodically sprays water on the sides of the pit to highlight its features. "There's only about a two-hour period each morning when we can work, while the light is just right and before it gets unbearable down there," says Kenoyer.

A professor of archeology at the University of Wisconsin, Kenoyer is field director of the Harappa Archeological Research Project. It's early May and already getting much too hot for fieldwork. But Kenoyer has stayed longer than the rest of his crew this year because he's pretty excited about this excavation in the so-called Great Granary. In 1924, the area was of special interest to John Marshall, director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, who called the puzzling structure a granary because of its similarity to Mesopotamian finds. But Kenoyer thinks the "granary" has nothing to do with agriculture—it has no parallels to other structures in the South Asian grain-storage tradition, he points out.

Kenoyer and other scholars hypothesize that it may have been a public building used as a gathering place for government officials. In such an organized culture, there must have been public officials, the argument goes, and they must have met somewhere, at intervals, to coordinate the many aspects of Harappan culture that have been found to be similar or identical in widely separated sites. Among the handful of digs active in the Indus Valley, these "granaries" have been found only at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, and Kenoyer hopes that his investigations and those of others will lead to understanding of Harappan political systems.

Kenoyer takes a break and we sit under the shade of a spreading pipal tree, often depicted on Harappan pottery. We're overlooking the granary excavation. Colorful kingfishers sing overhead and a light breeze from the wheat fields freshens the spot—probably one where Harappans also sat, discussing their day's work just this way, more than 4000 years before. "We're finding a lot of continuity in the archeological record here," says Kenoyer, author of the recent book Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization (Karachi, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-577940-1). "It's what Mughal theorized in his thesis back in 1971: Elements of this culture—writing, cubical weights—were around much earlier than we had first figured."

I ask him about the Harappans' demise. "It never happened," he responds. "The cities shrank in the second millennium BC, yes, but people still lived in places like Harappa long after that. The continuing prosperity of the bigger cities, like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, may have made them grow too large and unwieldy to administer, and so groups may have split off into smaller settlements. But those settlements were held together by their common culture," he says. Perhaps the dispersal was a way of providing flexibility to deal with the oft-changing and unpredictable rivers, he adds.

There is, in fact, overwhelming evidence that the Indus Valley civilization underwent a large-scale transformation early in the second millennium, when it ceased its commercial activities and long-distance trading. After 1900 BC there are no longer references to Meluhha in Mesopotamian writings, and no Indus seals are found in Mesopotamia after that date. All other remnants of the great Harappan commercial enterprises, including the factors-of-16 weights and use of the script, simply vanish from the record.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the British archeologist of military background who first dated the Indus Valley civilization, also proposed the first popular hypothesis to explain its demise: an invasion by Aryan armies from southern Central Asia. But no evidence of warfare or violent attacks has ever been uncovered at any Indus site. Another theory was that the Harappans succumbed to disease—but their skeletons show no indications of that.

The general consensus among scholars is now that the decline was gradual, the result of a combination of factors in which both incoming Aryans and changes in river courses played a leading part. "The Aryans were a rural, nomadic tribal people with no written language, unlike the Harappans," explains Dani. The social and commercial upheaval caused by their migration into the subcontinent, he suggests, "may have choked off much of the supply of raw materials from south Central Asia around 2000 BC."

Upheaval of a different kind may have been another factor. The Indus Valley is a seismically active zone, and even minor changes in land levels can cause large shifts in river courses, especially on a broad, flat alluvial plain. Mughal's evidence, supported by more recent Landsat imagery, has shown there were in fact major shifts in the courses of the Indus and some of its tributaries, such as the Hakra and the Ghaggar, around this time. The Cholistan region surveyed by Mughal, in particular, had been an important breadbasket for the larger Harappan cities, supplying wheat and other grain. When the flow or the course of the Hakra River changed, Cholistan might no longer have been able to meet that demand, and traditional riverine trade routes would have been severely disrupted as well.

The Rig Veda, an account of the earliest Aryan oral traditions written between 1500 and 1000 BC, states that the Aryans first entered the Harappans' territory about 1800 BC, which is about the same time that the Harappans were trying to cope with the impact of the river shifts. Thus both their industry and their food supplies had become uncertain.

Under these circumstances, the Harappans would have found it difficult to maintain civic order, for, to the bafflement of scholars, they appear never to have developed any sort of standing army; neither has any evidence been found of militarism, battle damage, or even defensive fortifications in the Harappan domains. Instead, Kenoyer and others believe, the elite seems to have kept order by controlling and promoting trade, commerce and religion. Once the civilization had begun to break down, maintenance of civil order by military coercion would have been an unavailable option; many Harappans began to abandon their large cities.

Kenoyer has made an observation that, with further study, may prove to be a key element in tracking the course of the Harappans after the collapse: the "unicorn" motif on the seals. He says that 64 percent of seals found carry this creature—probably an ox depicted in profile, thus appearing to have a single horn—and were probably used by the most affluent of the trading merchants. But what's intriguing, he notes, is that the "unicorn" motif first appears in Harappan sites around 2600 BC, when the civilization had reached its apogee, and disappears about 1900 BC, just when it starts a rapid decline. "Other motifs continue, but the 'unicorn' is expunged completely from all South Asian iconography after that: It seems to lose its value," he says.

Yet the "unicorn" motif continued to be used in Mesopotamia well after the Harappan collapse. This raises the possibility that the richer and more powerful Harappan merchants and traders, familiar with Mesopotamia, moved there when the basis of their economic power and influence began to fade. "We have modern analogies right next door," says Farzand Ali Durrani. "When Afghanistan was invaded in 1979, families with means had no problem leaving and finding a new country in which to live."

Well-off residents of Hong Kong also flooded into Canada, Britain and the United States in the last years before that territory reverted to Chinese control.

Without the urban elite, who held the reins of the civilization's mercantile system, Harappan craftspeople and workers may have had little option but to embrace the simpler Aryan way of life and the Aryan religion. There was no longer a need for commercial support systems like accurate weights and financial accounting records. And, as the Aryan's Vedic language was strictly oral at the time, Harappan writing might have been forgotten within a few generations. Says Dani, "Once you destroy the basis of industrialization, you destroy a civilization."

Thus the Harappans' model urban society ultimately broke down. But their legacy endures. Dani holds that the Harappan commoners, in their integration with the Aryans, may well have become that culture's lower caste, and still later the modernday Untouchables or Shudras of the Hindu religion. "India is the only Aryan culture with a strict caste system," he points out. And the sanctity of water and rivers to today's Hindus might even be a cultural leftover of the importance that the baths of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro appear to have had.

Indeed, the British historian V. Gordon Childe stated flatly that the Indus civilization "has endured; it is already specifically Indian and forms the basis of modern [subcontinental] culture." Today, in the bustling markets of Lahore, Punjabi craftsmen shape and drill long beads with drills very like those used by the Harappans of 4000 years ago, and make pottery using similar kick-wheels. Artisans in Bengal make conch-shell bracelets almost identical to those excavated at Harappa. Plow designs, bullock carts, fishing techniques and boats have all continued unchanged from those depicted in Harappan art. And, although the unicorn's origins as a symbol are still obscure, one of the earliest known words for the creature, in Hebrew, refers to it as a "wild ox"—not a horse—which may point to its first appearance in the Indus Valley in bovine form.

What does study of the Harappans mean for the larger understanding of human civilization? For an answer to that question, I turned again to Mohammad Mughal. "For over a century," he replied, "it was thought that civilization began in Western Asia, in Mesopotamia and Egypt. I would say that the most important contribution of Harappan study is that it shows conclusively, for the first time, that this just wasn't so. We have proof right here."

Dr. Graham Chandler is an archcologist and free-lance writer based in Calgary, Alberta. He specialized in early Harappan ceramics in his studies at the University of London.

The Indus Enigma

It's the greatest single mystery of the Indus Valley civilization," says Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, field director of the Harappa Archeological Research Project. He's talking about the Harappans' still-undeciphered script, an example of which may be what's inscribed on two pottery shards found at Kenoyer's dig, at a level that dates to 3200 BC. The three groups of symbols on the shards look like matchsticks and tiny forks attached at the handles.

The marks may simply have indicated ownership, and perhaps had no meaning in themselves, but they bear a close resemblance to, and may be precursors of, elements of the writing system that came into regular use in the Indus Valley around 2700 BC, and disappeared completely, along with the rest of Harappan civilization, between 1900 and 1700 BC.

Depending on whether one interprets similar-looking signs as variants or separate symbols, the Indus Valley script apparently consisted of about 400 characters that depict human and animal figures, and additional geometric shapes and symbols. By analyzing overlapping strokes and observing crowding toward the left ends of lines, archeologists have gathered that the symbols were almost always written from right to left.

More than 4200 objects bearing the script have been found, including seals, bangles, pottery, tools, utensils and small tablets of copper, steatite or clay—but these are only objects that have survived the millennia: The Harappans may have written prolifically on less durable materials like papyrus or cloth that are unlikely to be excavated. About 80 percent of the inscriptions are on seals or seal impressions, suggesting that the symbols may have been used primarily for commercial purposes, such as stamping bales of goods with an identifying mark.

Despite nearly 50 independent attempts to decipher the Harappan script in the past 80 years, including some recent ones using computers, it remains stubbornly enigmatic. It is distinctively different from the scripts of Mesopotamia or Egypt, and it bears no resemblance to writing systems, such as those used in Sanskrit or other Indo-Aryan languages, that later appeared in the region. Some scholars believe that the script's closest link is with writing of the Dravidian languages of southern India, such as Tamil and Malayalam, but there are no traces of other aspects of the Indus Valley civilization in that part of the subcontinent, and it seems unlikely that, if the Harappan script migrated there, no other aspect of the culture should have accompanied it.

Part of the decoding problem is that no bi- or multilingual inscription, like the famous Rosetta Stone, has ever been found. And the Harappan texts are short: None is longer than 26 signs, and the average length is only five, which does not give much opportunity for the development of recurring patterns of signs that might be discerned. Furthermore, the script may have served to express more than one language, as Roman, Arabic and many other forms of writing still do.

The undecoded script continues to lock up most of the secrets of the Indus civilization and of the Harappans' social and religious lives—the second great mystery, says Kenoyer. If the inscriptions could be read, scholars surmise, we'd be much closer to knowing how and what the Harappans worshiped, who their leaders were, what role religion played in their lives, and what the source was of their far-reaching organization and cultural uniformity.

This article appeared on pages 34-42 of the September/October 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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