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The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives

Jane McIntosh

McIntosh, Jane;

The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives

ABC-CLIO, 2008, 441 pages

ISBN 1576079074, 9781576079072

topics: |  history | indus-valley |

Among the most readable books I have come across on the Indus valley civilization.

Presents a balanced, scholarly, yet very readable overview. Highlights the main the debates in the layered history of the harappan excavations, and holds the readers' interest.

What I found particularly arresting is the observation that the architecture does not bear the signs of an unequal society - no particular buildings are particularly extravagant, no "royal" burial sites, and no major fortifications. Most of the civic architecture goes into storing wheat, roads, baths providing clean water and organized sanitation.

Possible project?: Gini index computation

I wonder if economists have looked at the Harappan civilization. A number that measures the inequality in the distribution of wealth is the Gini index. The idea is to add up the wealth of everyone, and then rank them in terms of increasing wealth. The Gini index is 1 minus the ratio of the area under this curve from the 45 degree line (fully equal); it is 0 if wealth is completely equitably distributed; in most industrial economies it is around 30; Brazil has one of the largest iniquities (~ 60).

Farming had developed at Mehrgarh around the same time as in much of West Asia.

Now one may measure how much of the total share of wealth is owned by the poorest x% of the people. Based on whatever fragmentary evidence we have, one could assess the wealth of each of the households in a given town, and attempt to measure the gini index for a town. The hypothesis would be that for households in the Harappan civilization, the Gini index may be lower than those in the kingdoms of Egypt or Assyria, where the nobles and rulers owned a much greater share of the wealth as is clear from the archaeological evidence. Some cites of the Indus valley civilization lasted from about 7000BC to 2500 BC, but even if we consider a 2000 year span, it is equivalent to a hundred generations. Usually, stable lifestyles over many generations tend to amplify income differences, and so an equitable Gini index would be surprising, and deserves further explanation.


In 1861, Alexander Cunningham, was made archaeological surveyor and
in 1871 was appointed director-general of the newly established Archaeological
Survey of India, a post he held until 1885.

In the 1850s, he visited the ruins of Harappa. Although he recognized that the
mounds as the ruins of a vast accumulation of brick structures, he was far
from suspecting their great antiquity, instead accepting the view expressed by
other visitors that the site was a fortress less than fifteen hundred years
old.  However, he noticed and published a number of curious remains from the
site, including an inscribed Indus seal that he believed was an import,
because he knew of nothing comparable from India.

Sadly by the 1870s Harappa had suffered massive destruction at the hands of
railway contractors who plundered it for bricks.

Mortimer Wheeler : Derivative of Sumerian civilization

In 1944, Mortimer Wheeler was seconded to India as director-general of the
Archaeological Survey.

On his first visit to Harappa, Wheeler was struck by the AB mound at Harappa,
which he immediately interpreted as a fortified citadel, evidence that the
Indus civilization was not unwarlike, as had previously been supposed. His
impression was confirmed by excavation at several points around its perimeter,
which revealed the remains of a massive mud brick wall with towers and
impressive gateways.

These excavations included a deep trench cut down to natural soil, providing
a stratigraphic record of the history of the city's occupation that was of key
importance. The first occupation here included sherds resembling the pottery
found in northern Baluchistan at sites such as Rana Ghundai...

Aryan invaders theory

Wheeler saw the Cemetery H culture as intrusive and enthusiastically
adopted a suggestion made by Childe that its makers may have been the Aryan
invaders of India, thought by then to have arrived around 1500 BCE.  With
characteristic vigor, he developed a theory (already suggested by
V. S. Agrawala of the Archaeological Survey) that the Indo-Aryans were
largely responsible for the demise of the Indus cities, quoting Vedic
descriptions of the sack of Dasa fortresses and arguing that "[it] may be
no mere chance that at a late period of Mohenjo-daro men, women and
children appear to have been massacred there . . . On circumstantial
evidence, Indra [the Aryan god of war] stands accused" (Wheeler 1947).

Urban planning

A highly efficient and well maintained system of drains and sanitation was a
standard feature of Indus cities.  Standardization was also apparent in the
Indus artifacts, such as the bead necklaces, stone and metal tools, and finely
made pottery. Piggott thought these artifacts showed "competent dullness
. . . a dead level of bourgeois mediocrity in almost every branch of the
visual arts and crafts" (Piggott 1950, 200), though Wheeler commented
favorably on the technical skills and aesthetic qualities apparent in some
objects, such as the steatite [soapstone] seals  with their lively depictions of
animals. The overall picture was of a civilization in which considerable
technical competence and a high standard of living were offset by cultural
stagnation and the stifling effects of rigid bureaucracy and an authoritarian
regime, continuing apparently unchanged for nearly a millennium.

Wheeler expected to find and looked for features that were familiar from
other civilizations and that were thought to be among their defining
characteristics: monumental public architecture such as temples; defensive
works and weaponry; royal burials and palaces. The structures on the
citadel mounds, such as the Granary and Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro, could
reasonably be interpreted as public and religious buildings. The massive
brick-walled citadels and their impressive gateways matched the expected
defenses and fortifications.  Metal objects, such as spearheads, daggers,
arrowheads, and axes, were potentially weapons, though Wheeler noted that
"a majority may have been used equally by the soldier, the huntsman, the
craftsman, or even by the ordinary householder" (Wheeler 1968, 73).

Other features that were characteristic of the early civilizations of Egypt
and Mesopotamia were absent, however: No palaces or royal graves had been
discovered, for example, and no obvious temples. Despite these differences,
Wheeler argued that the Indus people had adopted the idea of civilization from
the Sumerians, along with key features such as writing.

Lothal and Kalibangan

Independence spurred Indian investigations in the areas remaining on Indian soil.
This resulted in the discovery of many sites in Gujarat and the northern
Ganges-Yamuna region...

Of particular importance was the "port" town of Lothal in Gujarat,
excavated by S. R. Rao, which had a concentration of craft workshops,
producing many typical Indus objects such as beads and metalwork, and
substantial storehouses.  An enigmatic large brick basin on the east side
of the town was initially interpreted as a dock and is still not

A third cemetery was uncovered at Kalibangan, another town discovered during
the explorations in India and excavated during the 1960s. Here B. B. Lal and
B. K. Thapar, both of whom had worked with Wheeler, revealed not only an Indus
provincial town with characteristic citadel and planned lower town, but also
the unplanned Early Indus settlement that it had replaced. The earlier town
was surrounded by a substantial mud brick rampart. An unusual discovery
associated with the town was a field plowed in two directions, strikingly
similar to modern practice.

Farming developed at the same time as West Asia

In 1949, Willard Libby invented radiocarbon dating (Nobel Prize) ... By the
late 1950s, India had established a radiocarbon laboratory under
D. P. Agrawal, first at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay
(Mumbai), moving later to the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad.

It now became apparent that farming settlements had existed by the fifth
millennium BCE in the Indo-Iranian borderlands. In the 1970s, excavations began
on a large settlement area at Mehrgarh on the Bolan River from which
fourth-millennium material had been collected. The river had cut down
through deposits accumulated over thousands of years, and in the section thus
exposed an area with earlier levels of settlement was observed. These proved
to date back to the seventh or eighth millennium BCE, showing that farming
had developed in this area at around the same time as in much of West Asia.

see also The city in South Asia by James
     Excavations at Mehrgarh in Baluchistan provided convincing proof that
     the rise of agriculture and village life, evolving into more
     complicated forms of urbanization, was not the result of diffusion
     from the west but originated in South Asia...


   Map from the mature harappan period (after 2600BCE).

from proposed book by Jagat Pati Joshi
(ex-ASI director.  book title "Harappan Architecture and Civil Engineering")

Pre-Harappan/Early Harappan and Harappan sites are mostly located on major
rivers.  Late Harappan sites however, are found along tributaries, and in the
upper reaches of these rivers.

Geographic distribution of the Indus civilization

The area covered by Indus Civilization can now be divided into six zones:

	(1) Punjab (type site: Harappa);
	(2) Rajasthan, Haryana (type site: Kalibangan)
	(3) Bahawalpur (type site: Ganweriwala)
	(4) Sind (type site: Mohenjo-daro);
	(5) Baluchistan (type site: Kulli Harappan phase) ;
	(6) Gujarat (type sites: Dholavira, Lothal).

Rajasthan / Haryana / east Punjab, excavated sites:
	- Ropar and Bara (1953-55)
	- Kalibangan (1960-69)
	- Mitathal(1968-73 and 1980-86),
	- Siswal (1970),
	- Banawali (1975-83),
	- Bhagwanpura (1975-76),
	- Manda (1976-77),
	- Hulas (1978-83),
	- Rohira (1982-83),
	- Rakhigarhi (1997-98) and
	- Dhalewan 2000 & 2001.

Gujarat region sites:
	- Rangpur (1935, 1937, 1947 and 1953-56)
	- Rojdi (1951-52, 1977-78, and 1983-84)
	- Bhagatrav (1953-55)
	- Lothal (1955-62)
	- Prabhas (1972-75)
	- Daimabad (1974-78)
	- Dholavira (1990-98)
	- Kuntasi (1988-90)
	- Padri (1991-93).

"Well" columns at Mohenjo-daro

More than seven hundred wells were sunk at Mohenjo-daro when
the city was built. Over the centuries street levels rose;
new courses of bricks were then added to the wells. After
excavation, many wells can be standing like towers high above
the exposed remains of earlier streets.

wells were raised by adding new layers of brick, as the ground level rose
over the millennia.

Mehrgarh : 7000-2500 BCE

Early layer from Mehrgarh, c.7000 BCE. walls are built with mud bricks. [source:wiki-commons]

Mehrgarh, with parts dating from 7000 BCE, is the oldest site showing a a farming culture in the Indo-Iranian borderland. However, its isolated status poses a mystery.

Excavations over eleven years by many specialists have resulted in Mehrgarh's becoming one of the best studied villages in South Asia.

The villagers lived in rectangular houses built of mud bricks, divided internally into two or four rooms, and there were also doorless, compartmented buildings for storage. They used stone blades, grindstones, bone tools, and baskets lined with bitumen, and they produced a few unfired clay figurines though they did not make pottery. The dead were interred between the houses, accompanied by grave goods, including stone tools, jewelry made of shell, steatite, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and calcite, and sometimes by young goats. p.57

At the time of the earliest settlement, the people of the village hunted
gazelle, blackbuck, water buffalo, various deer, onager, wild sheep, wild
cattle, and other game, and they gathered plants such as dates and jujube
(Zizyphus); they also raised domestic goats and grew barley and some emmer
and einkorn wheat. During the summer months, when temperatures in the area
were often above 38 degrees Centigrade (100 degrees Fahrenheit) during the
coolest part of day, the villagers may have retreated to the cooler uplands
of Baluchistan.  At least some, if not all, members of the community must
have moved, taking their goats into Baluchistan to find summer grazing
(probably in the Quetta region where modern pastoralists from the Kachi plain
take their animals during the summer) and following the wild animals that
also migrated in search of summer pasture.

sculpture of pet dog with collar. figurines depicting
several dog breeds have been found.

[debates on whether the animals domesticated and the species farmed were
local or were disseminated from the Near east. the site's first domesticates
may have been introduced from the Near East, not locally domesticated. 59]

Fruits, Vegetables, and herbs

Grapes were being grown in the Kachi plain by the early third millennium, as
well as in adjacent Baluchistan and Seistan. Grape pips were found at
Mehrgarh and Nausharo and later at Pirak I; they were also common at
Shortugai, the Indus outpost in northern Afghanistan.

Herbs and spices, such as garlic, turmeric, ginger, cumin, and cinnamon, are
likely to have been grown or collected too, but the only trace yet identified
is of coriander at Miri Qalat in Baluchistan.

Sesame, native to South Asia, was probably the principal plant grown for its
oil: It is known from a number of Harappan sites, including Chanhu-daro and
Harappa, and contemporary sites in the Indo-Iranian borderlands such as Miri
Qalat. By 2250–2200 BCE, sesame was under cultivation in Mesopotamia,
presumably first brought there by Harappan traders. Castor, another Indian
oilseed, was cultivated at Late Harappan Hulas. 114

Burial of a woman at Harappa. Shell bangles on the left arm
were quite typical. p.247

there is broad evidence of cotton textiles being widely used, and
locally available plants, such as indigo and turmeric, were probably
used as dyes; indigo is among the plants recovered from Rojdi, and the use
of madder root is attested to by the presence at Mohenjo-daro of cloth dyed
red with madder.

   large indoor brick circles where indigo dye
   may have been manufactured. (p. 238)

Weights and Measures

Remarkably accurate weights and measuring rules give some insight into the
Harappans’ numerical system. Four examples of graduated rules have been
found: made of terra-cotta, ivory, copper, and shell, they came respectively
from Kalibangan, Lothal, Harappa, and Mohenjo-daro. These were marked
into divisions of about 1.7 millimeters, the largest unit marked on the
Mohenjo-daro rule being 67.056 millimeters and others on the Lothal scale including
33.46 and 17 millimeters. The latter closely approximates the traditional
unit of 17.7 millimeters known from the fourth-century BCE text

The system of stone weights was similarly standardized throughout the
Indus realms, and was also used overseas where it was known to the Mesopotamians
as the standard of Dilmun, adopted as far away as Ebla. The weights
were generally cubical, though truncated spheres also occur. The most common
weight was equivalent to about 13.65 grams. Taking this as the basic unit,
the Indus people also used smaller weights that were a half, a quarter, an
eighth, and a sixteenth of this basic unit and larger ones that were multiples of
2, 4, 10, 12.5, 20, 40, 100, 200, 400, 500, and 800 times the basic unit.

	A series of graduated cubical weights from Harappa. The smallest
	weighs 0.865 grams. At this part of the weight scale, each unit is
	double the weight of the one before.  [cite: J.M. Kenoyer]

It has been suggested that the basis for the weight system was the ratti,
the weight of a seed of the gunja creeper (Abrus precatorius) [red-and-black
beads used in jewellery], equivalent to a 128th part of the Harappan basic
unit, just over 0.1 grams. This is still used in India as a jeweler's
weight and was the basis, among other things, for the weight standards of
the first Indian coins in the seventh century BCE. The use of the ratti
seed as the basis for the weight system may explain the endurance of the
weight system through the period after the decline of the Indus
civilization, when weights themselves disappeared.

Note: ratti (rati, রতি)

ratti = traditional weight used by jewellers.  The seeds of the gunja
	creeper is thought to have been a fairly uniform weight.  The
	traditional weight was 0.122grams, about the same as the harappan
	measure given here.

colourful ratti seeds (wikicommons)

sansad dictionary:
রতি [ rati ] n the smallest measure of weight in India (=1.875 grains);
	[15.4 grains = 1gram -> 8.23 rati = 1 gram]

[traditional measure used by jewelers:
	8 ratti = 1 mAshA; 96 ratti = 1 bhari
		= 11.7 gm; so 1 ratti ~= 1/8th of a gram.

Number system

The weight and linear measurement systems and the probable numerals in the
Harappan script seem to suggest that the Harappans used both a base-8
(octonary) and a base-10 (decimal) system in counting.  Aspects of both have
survived in later Indian mathematics and general use.  For example, in the
predecimal Indian coinage, the rupee was 64 paise or 16 annas, each divided
into 4 paise; and the whole system of Arabic numerals, base-10 positional
notation, and the use of zero derives ultimately from India.

Asko Parpola (1994) notes that a Proto-Dravidian root *en means both "eight"
and "to count," a significant pointer to an octonary system if the Harappans
spoke a Dravidian language.


A star calendar based on an intimate knowledge of the movements of the
heavens is recorded in later Indian literature. The relative position of the asterisms
that compose this nakshatra calendar most closely match the arrangement
of the heavens that was visible around the twenty-fourth century BCE, during
the Harappan period, demonstrating that the calendar was devised by the
Harappans. At this date, the North Star was not Polaris but Thubron (Alpha
Draconis). The nakshatra calendar was composed originally of twenty-four asterisms,
later increased to twenty-seven and then twenty-eight, selected from
the fixed stars and constellations that appeared in the night sky during the
course of one year. The sidereal year (the time taken for the stars to return to

City design and astronomical knowledge

The extent of Harappan astronomical knowledge is revealed by the cardinal
orientation of the streets of later Harappan towns. This knowledge may have
been developed in response to the need for ways to determine the timing of
the seasons and the natural cycles dependent on them.  The nakshatra star
calendar appears to go back at least to the late fourth millennium, when the
heliacal rising of the star Aldebaran marked the beginning of the year at the
vernal equinox. Aldebaran became progressively less satisfactory as a marker,
and, from around 2700 BCE, the Pleiades became the constellation whose
heliacal rising came closest to the spring equinox.

During the Transition period most Early Harappan settlements were abandoned
and some were destroyed by fire, perhaps to ritually purify the site.
New settlements were constructed that followed certain principles, such as
cardinal orientation and the provision of systems for removing wastewater,
suggesting the widespread adoption of a new ideology

It is tempting to associate this with the major calendric change from
Aldebaran to the Pleiades as the marker of the spring equinox, some time in
the period 2700–2500 BCE: such a change, relating as it did to the
organization of the agricultural year, was likely to have been made within a
strong ideological setting.

It is still not clear exactly what happened in the Transition period (ca.
2600–2500 BCE) to transform the regional traditions of the Early Harappan
period into the unified Mature Harappan state and to cause the majority of
Early Harappan settlements to be abandoned or destroyed and new settlements
built in their place or in other locations.

Data gathered at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa still dominate what is known of the
Indus civilization.Though this is partly because these two cities are the
most intensively investigated of Indus sites, it probably also genuinely
reflects their preeminence in the Indus state.

Causes of decline: Summary

The decline of Harappan urbanism probably had many contributing factors.
The shift to a concentration on kharif cultivation in the outer regions of the state
may have seriously disrupted established schedules for craft production, civic
flood defense, building and drain maintenance, and other publicly organized
works on which the smooth running of the state depended. The reduction in
the waters of the Saraswati and the response of its farmers by migrating into
regions to the east tore apart the previous unity of the Harappan state, disrupting
its cohesion and its ability to control the internal distribution network. At
the same time, Gujarat may have been asserting its independence. The poor
state of health of Mohenjo-daro's citizens can have done nothing to improve
the situation: decline there would have seriously affected the management of
the internal communications networks, particularly along the Indus. The state
organization crumbled away, leaving behind a series of flourishing regional
communities in Gujarat, the Kachi plain, and the Punjab/eastern region, but
undermining the infrastructure that had held together the urban way of life.

author bio

Jane McIntosh is a native of Scotland. She studied archaeology at the
University of Cambridge, from which she also received her doctorate and
where she taught for a number of years. She has traveled widely, taking
part in excavations and other fieldwork in Iraq, Cyprus, India, and
Britain. Since 1995, she has worked full-time as a writer of books,
articles, and multimedia on a range of archaeological subjects. She is a
widow with one son.

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This article last updated on : 2013 Oct 01