Indus Civilization: Clues to an Ancient Puzzle



even o’clock on a May morning in Pakistan. The sun arcs across a cloudless sky and the temperature climbs; by noon it will reach 110°F. On all fours in a pit, archaeologist Richard Meadow probes secrets hidden for some 40 centuries, deposited by the builders of southern Asia's first cities.

            A few feet below him in the excavation, Meadow's colleague Mark Kenoyer uncovers a tracery of bricks. All around, turbaned laborers shovel and scrape. A bucket brigade passes earth to other laborers, who sift it in fine-mesh screens, occasionally retrieving potsherds and other small objects.

            I climb to the top of a mound and gaze out at the tawny plain of Punjab province. Men and women toil with sickles, felling ripened wheat. Water buffalo amble into a pond. The mound beneath me and other mounds nearby are starkly incongruous in this bucolic setting. They rise like a clutch of low hills, and though their height is only 50 feet, they command the level countryside. Their earth is almost naked, relieved occasionally by copses of acacia and tamarisk trees. It is hard to imagine this raw place as a city of 20,000 or more people.

            Harappa we call it, borrowing the name of a modern town; we don't know its name in antiquity. Nearly 400 acres in size, it was one of the largest cities of a civilization that flourished from 2600 to 1900 B.C. along the Indus and other rivers in Pakistan and India. Harappa was probably one of many urban centers linked by trade and kinship that made up what is usually known today as the Indus civilization. The Indus territory was a Texas-size quarter million square miles, reaching from the Arabian Sea north to the Himalayan foothills and east to New Delhi.

            The Indus people employed the wheel for transport as well as to turn pottery, and they were the first to make large-scale use of fire- hardened bricks in construction. Like the people of Mesopotamia, whose cities rose a few centuries before Harappa, they also had a writing system; archaeologists have unearthed thousands of examples of the script. Despite the efforts of many scholars, however, the symbols have yet to yield a credible sentence-a major reason that the Indus culture, surely one of the greatest of the ancient world, has remained vexingly obscure.

            Still, years of work by Meadow, of Harvard University, and Kenoyer, from the University of Wisconsin, have produced a picture of Harappa that broadens and deepens our knowledge of the Indus culture, and demolishes old theories about it. To archaeologists who dug in the first half of the 20th century, “the Indus civilization appears to spring into being fully grown,” as one wrote.  He thought it might have been inspired by Mesopotamia, 1500 miles to the west.  But recent excavations prove that a village stood at Harappa’s site in 3300 B.C., or 700 years before the advent of the cities great era, 2600 B.C.  Moreover, several potsherds bear symbols that may prefigure the Indus script; they suggest that the people were inscribing symbols far earlier than archaeologists thought- at about the time the Mesopotamians developed what is believed to be the world’s first writing system. 

            In the pit Meadow picked his way to the core of an earth encrusted lump, which proved to be a large bone.  A specialist in Zoo archaeology, he recognized it as an elephant’s mandible at which I expressed surprise.  “There were elephants around here,” he said, “and the people hunted them to get ivory to make ornaments.”  Harappans may also have tamed elephants for heavy labor.  In another excavation the archaeologist found a small terra-cotta elephants head painted white and red, colors that Indian mahouts still daub on working pachyderms.

              Kenoyer regarded the row of half a dozen bricks cleared by his trowel- a “ghost wall” he called it.  “There was a building here,” he assured me, “but when we dug in, there were just these few bricks and a big void with earth and trash washed in.”  Harappa's kilns turned out millions of bricks, a feat that led, in modern times, to a woeful scrambling of archaeological evidence. Needing ballast for a new track, British railroad builders in the 1850s sent laborers into the ruins to root out the bricks and cart them away. Afterward archaeologists who dug at Harappa concluded the earth was too disturbed to yield a coherent account of the city. In fact, no one had excavated at this chaotic site for 20 years when, in 1986, a team arrived from the University of California at Berkeley, led by George Dales and Kenoyer. Meadow joined them in 1987 and became co-director with Kenoyer after Dales' death in 1992. Their Pakistani partner is that nation's Department of Archaeology and Museums.

            Though disheveled, Harappa's earth is yielding artifacts that greatly amplify what is known about the life of the people. The most intriguing artifacts are postage-stamp-size seals, usually of stone, that bear writing and carved figures that may be deities. Other seals depict animals, such as the humped zebu bull, still common in the Indian subcontinent.

            Many of these pieces were used to stamp impressions on clay rectangles, probably for attaching to trade goods to show ownership. Others may have been identification badges of a sort, proclaiming the wearer's membership in a particular community.

            Also significant are things not found: no remains of great temples such as Mesopotamia's or sumptuous tombs such as ushered Egypt's pharaohs to the next world. In other words, no evidence of an overweening kingship or theocracy. "Rather, what we see in Harappa is an elaborate middle-class society:' Meadow said. The archaeologists wonder if Harappa even had an army. Although a few weapons have been unearthed, no carved pieces depict war scenes like those in the sculpture and texts of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

            Other finds testify that Harappa was a city of craftsmen and traders. Its merchants probably sent goods to other Indus urban centers-five cities have been discovered-and also to Oman and the Persian Gulf region. Working several kinds of stone, gold, and silver, artisans turned out exquisite jewelry. Traders supplied them with raw materials such as lapis lazuli from what is now Afghanistan. From the Arabian Sea, 500 miles to the south, came conch shells to be sawed into bangles.

            Perhaps the finest examples of Indus craftsmanship were long beads of carnelian, a grayish yellow agate that changes to an orange-red color when baked in a kiln. The artisans not only knew how to achieve this prized hue but also used drills of copper alloy or hard stone to bore string holes through four-inch carnelian cylinders. Archaeologists have found Indus carnelian in Mesopotamian tombs.


ARAPPA'S five large mounds grew over the centuries, for the people were continually raising houses and laying streets over the constructions of their ancestors.

            Thus far the archaeologists haven't found the remains of a wall surrounding the city; perhaps there wasn't one. "But what's peculiar is that each mound had a wall,” Kenoyer said as we climbed one of these hill-like elevations. "They weren't built for defense. Look,” he added, pointing to a neighboring mound, "you could shoot an arrow from here across to that one." Reckoned to have been about 20 feet high, the walls may have been constructed to prevent flooding by the Ravi River, an Indus tributary that once flowed near the city. Kenoyer thinks the walls may also have defined areas occupied by particular groups of artisans or merchants. That settlement pattern is still followed in the subcontinent, with several members of, say, a metalworking family setting up their shops in one bazaar.

            "We learn a lot about Harappa by just looking around us,” Kenoyer said. He looks with discerning eyes, having grown up in India, the son of American missionaries.

            Indeed, the people around Harappa may live and work much as the ancients did. Some local people believe Harappa's builders were their ancestors, although that proposition is difficult to test scientifically, and in any case the subcontinent has witnessed much migration over the centuries.

            By Kenoyer's estimate ancient Harappa controlled a region of 50,000 square miles, as large as New York State, and from this sprawl of plain drew its sustenance. "Skeletons show that the population was probably well nourished,” Meadow told me. "Meat seems to have been generally available, to judge by the animal bones we've found." The people had cattle, sheep, goats, and water buffalo-all common in the countryside today-and also dogs and chickens. Charred kernels found by hearths and in trash deposits prove that they also had wheat and barley, still important crops.

            Sometimes I went into the countryside with Nasir Ali Dhillon, a schoolteacher who lives in Harappa town. Nasir provided the transport- his motorcycle. I'd climb on behind, and off we'd go. Sometimes we didn't see an automobile for miles.

            One day we came upon a farmer plowing with a team of zebu bulls like those carved on Indus seals 4,500 years ago. On their necks were strings of blue beads and small brass bells. "That's to make them look beautiful,” the plowman said affectionately. Another farmer, Naseer Ahmad Tullah, assured me that the zebu is far smarter than the water buffalo, which also is used for farm- work. "Zebus are geniuses," he said. "They understand my language. When I say hethan, hethan, they go left, and when I say uttan, uttan, they go right.”

            While we sat in his yard, shaded by an acacia, a barber arrived to trim my host's dark beard and also the beards of his two sons. No money changed hands; instead, after the wheat harvest, the barber would be paid in grain for his occasional visits.

            Many workers in traditional occupations are compensated in this way. When Nasir and I stopped in Harappa town to watch a potter at work, he did not rise from his wheel to welcome us. With the wheat harvest in full swing, Fateh Mohammad was busily shaping pots to take to farm families-cooking vessels, churns, urns. In return Fateh's storeroom would soon brim with wheat, which he would sell to townsfolk. Fateh supplies pots to families that were his father's clients, for this barter-like system is hereditary. Kenoyer believes a similar relationship existed between worker communities in ancient Harappa.             While no potter's wheel has been found, Kenoyer is certain that artisans used it to produce their perfectly rounded vessels. Fateh believes his foot-powered wheel is different in only one regard. "Where the spindle turns, potters used to use a strip of oiled leather for a bearing;' he said. "I use a bearing from an old car:'

            His hands coaxed a clay lump into the shape of a large bowl. Another lump, another bowl. Presently he would pack 200 vessels into a kiln and surround them with enough dried animal dung to smolder for three days-just as firing was done 45 centuries ago in the Indus Valley.


INNER at the archaeologists' camp, a collection of simple buildings, brought together Meadow, Kenoyer, and several U.S. and Pakistani graduate students. At the meal's end Kenoyer rose and reminded the students, "Tabbing tonight." Presently they drifted to a laboratory to tabulate the day's finds. A pile of plastic bags contained objects sifted from excavated earth. One held two stoneware bangle fragments bearing a delicate clover-like design in red and white. Another item was a black stone about the size of a thumbnail. Puzzled, Kenoyer held it to a light, then exclaimed, "Boy, this is the most interesting thing we've found in a long time!" It was a tiny carved headdress or wig, made for a statue perhaps six inches tall.

            Carved stone statuary of any size is rare at Harappa, and obviously this statue was a work of art; the wig ~ sculpted that 1 could mal There were sockets for attaching the piece to a head. Kenoyer speculated created by a Harappan art ever, pointed out that small made of different stones 2000 B.C. in Bactria in the region of northern Afghanistan. "I think it shows the connections between Harappa in central Asia,” he said, “the statue could have come in trade.”

               Whatever its origin, the piece underscores how Harappa's elites–landowners, religious leaders, and, perhaps, a ruler–appreciated small treasures. "If you were a rich merchant, you didn't have to build a huge palace to impress the other elites,” Kenoyer said. "You had a beautiful little sculpture that people saw when they came over for dinner.”

            The bags opened at tabbing sessions sometimes contained diminutive terra-cotta figures, which seem as plentiful at Harappa as stone statues are scarce. I spent an afternoon with Sharri Clark, a Harvard doctoral candidate who was studying them. To judge by the detail on some of the figures, Harappan women fairly dripped jewelry. "Look–three necklaces:' said Clark, handing me a sculpture. Three strands of clay draped the formidable bosom of this four-inch-tall example. Other females were adorned with chokers, belts, and pendants.

            "Mother goddess" is a term that some archaeologists apply to such figures, assuming they were meant to be worshiped. "I would agree if we had found these in a temple or some other ritual context:' Clark said. "But most of these pieces were found in trash, as if they'd been thrown away." Some scholars have suggested that the figures were toys-the Barbie dolls of the third millennium B.C. While acknowledging that possibility, and that some pieces may represent supernatural beings, Clark suggests that others may represent real people who were wealthy or powerful. The Indus culture was devoted to small things. More than 60 sites have yielded seals and tokens of stone, copper, silver, bone, terra-cotta, or ivory. Still others were made of faience, powdered quartz that was molded, then fired to a glassy finish.

            These bear a trove of information. One terra-cotta token, for example, shows a boat with sharply rising prow and stern, much like vessels plying the Indus today. And numerous artifacts depict bizarre figures-humans with horns like a bull's or a water buffalo's-that the archaeologists believe also represent deities or supernatural power. "When I was a kid growing up in Assam, I had a friend whose mother was in a tiger clan," Kenoyer said. "I heard stories about her turning into a tiger at night and roaming the jungle. So when I saw figures here with a human face on a tiger's body or a bull's body, it was something I could understand.

            On one token, what appears to be a human head is being set before a horned figure like an offering. Some scenes are embellished with the heart-shaped leaves of the pipal tree. Humans bow before the tree, and figures that may be deities stand under arches of pipal leaves. This is one of many examples of Indus symbolism that survive, for the pipal is a symbol of fertility and protection in Hindu mythology. Among the animals carved on seals and depicted on tokens are the rhinoceros, crocodile, and elephant. But the one most often depicted is imaginary: a unicorn. Pieces with one-horned animals have been found throughout the Indus realm, leading Kenoyer to believe the unicorn was the symbol of a powerful community, perhaps a ruling one. Some seals had a boss on the back, pierced as if the piece was to be worn on a string.

            Many bear the Indus script, perhaps giving the owner's name or group name. Some of the graphemes look like familiar objects-a fish, for example, or a bull's horns.

            Archaeologists have counted more than 400 different symbols, inscribed on seals, potsherds, and other surfaces. The longest inscription contains 26 symbols, but the average is just five-not much for a decipherer to work with. Some linguists believe the language belongs in the Dravidian family, which includes Tamil and about 25 others still spoken in the subcontinent. But the script is unlike any known writing system, and some archaeologists despair that it will ever be understood.

            One possible clue to the script's origins is a potsherd found in an excavation near the base of one of Harappa's mounds. Charcoal recovered at that level and dated by the carbon-14 method shows that people lived there about 3300 B.C., or 700 years before Harappa flowered into a city. The sherd was inscribed with three symbols that look like tridents. Were the Harappans writing as early as 3300 B.C., or were these marks idle graffiti? "I don't think we can call it writing:' Meadow said. "It's a sign or a symbol"-but an intriguing symbol, for the trident frequently appears in later Indus script.

            Nearby excavations revealed much about the earliest occupation of Harappa's site. "Can you see the slight changes in the color of the soil, those circles?" asked Muhammad Afzal Khan, a Pakistani archaeologist who was digging there. I picked out several circles slightly darker than the buff-colored surrounding soil. "Probably postholes for huts:' he said. No bricks were being fired for house building in 3300 B.C. "But that dark red streak:' he continued, pointing to a corner of the excavation, "may have been where there was a kiln."

            Perhaps that kiln fired the bead of faience discovered close by. Even at this early stage artisans possessed the technology to transform a paste of powdered quartz into a glassy bauble. Sifted earth also yielded beads of lapis lazuli, probably from Afghanistan; green amazonite, perhaps from Gujarat state in India; and bangles made from Arabian Sea shells. Even some 53 centuries ago the people were linked in a vast trade network.


UCH of Harappa’s trade undoubtedly traveled on the Ravi River, eventually reaching the Indus. And some of it surely went by that mainstream river to Mohenjo Daro, Harappa's sister city some 400 miles to the south.

            Harappa's neighborhoods must have resembled those I walked through in Mohenjo Daro, along streets tenement-dense with brick buildings ten feet tall. It is a lonely place, standing solitary in a landscape of grainfields. The Indus is a streak of silver in the distance. Excavations exposing more ruins were halted in the 1960s because the bricks unearthed by digging began to crumble.

            The problem is salt, mortal enemy of bricks. Under a blanket of eroded sediment Mohenjo Daro's bricks survived very well. But when the earth was removed in excavations, the hot sun and wind dried the surfaces of the walls, thus wicking out the salt-laden moisture in the bricks, causing them to disintegrate. Some of those walls have now been re-covered.

            Archaeologists guess that the city occupied about a square mile, though only a small part has been excavated. Among the 300 visible structures is one called the Chief's House, since it is the largest dwelling found. From its spacious foyer I walked into a courtyard surrounded by rooms. Counting the court- yard, the house covers more than 8,600 square feet, four times as big as the average American home. And it may have had a second story.

            The smallest houses that archaeologists uncovered had two rooms. Actually, two rooms with bath. Brick bath platforms, a yard or so square, are ubiquitous in Indus cities, suggesting that the people made bathing a ritual, as many still do in southern Asia.

            Toilets also have been found, with brick sup- ports for seats. Effluent sluiced to a brick-lined sewer or to a buried urn. "The Indus people were quite advanced in their toilet arrangements:' Meadow had said in Harappa. Their devotion to plumbing far exceeded that of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians.

            About 2200 B.C. Mohenjo Daro's people built what archaeologists regard as the most spectacular feature yet discovered-a pool 39 feet long, 23 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. The brick walls were sealed with bitumen, and the floor was slanted toward a corner drain. I descended one of the two flights of steps into this commodious tank, as people presumably had done 4,000 years before.

            As with Harappa, we don't know the true name of this city; Mohenjo Daro is a modern appellation that an archaeologist translated as: "Mound of the Dead." Early archaeologists certainly thought of it that way, concluding that the city's end-and the end of the Indus civilization-came at the hands of invaders sweeping down from Central Asia.

            Prompted by the discovery of some 30 skeletons in the ruins, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, dean of subcontinent archaeology in the 1940s and 1950s, wrote that "men, women, and children were massacred in the streets and houses, and were left lying there or, at the best, crudely covered without last rites.” To Wheeler the "massacre" tracked with verses in the Rig-Veda, a collection of ancient Hindu hymns that recounts the destruction of cities by the fierce and warlike god Indra.

            Today archaeologists point out that no weapons or other evidence of an attack were found at Mohenjo Daro. Some believe the skeletons were of persons who died of disease. And many archaeologists doubt that there was an invasion. Examination of skeletons from Indus cemeteries has failed to show that the original people were supplanted by newcomers with different characteristics.

            No one can say with certainty why the sub- continent's long-lived civilization came to an end, but Kenoyer suspects unruly rivers. "I think the fluctuations of the Indus had a major impact on Mohenjo Daro:' he said. "It whipped back and forth across the plains, causing floods that destroyed the agricultural base of the city. Trade and the economy were disrupted:' That may have happened at Harappa too. Hundreds of villages may have been destroyed by floods or by rivers carving new channels. Other villages were abandoned after the Saraswati River, a major stream flowing parallel to the Indus, went dry, its main tributaries having shifted into other river systems.


poitical gulf separates the archaeologist of Pakistan and India.  Though they met in international conferences few have seen one another’s sights.  The red tape involved in official visits between these hostile nations is formidable, even for scientists.  Dholavira, India’s most spectacular Indus civilization site, happens to be particularly sensitive.  It’s in an area 30 miles from the border and patrolled by the military.

              From it’s rooms I looked out and salt pans gleaming like snow.  Dholavira was a walled city occupying about 120 acres on an island stippled with thorn brush and cactus in the Rann of Kutch, a desiccated marsh periodically flooded by the Arabian Sea.

            "Maybe salt was a commodity they sold;' said R. S. Bisht, of the Archaeological Survey of India, who is the chief investigator at Oholavira. That is one theory for the presence of such a large city in this harsh place. Some scholars think Oholavira might have been a port or a fort protecting sea trade with Oman and the Persian Gulf. Today no navigable channel joins Dholavira with the sea, but one might have existed when the city arose, about 2500 B.C.

            Bisht is an enthusiastic, bookish man behind thick glasses. "Look at it!" he exclaimed as we walked on a wide street flanked by walls of sandstone and limestone. "They produced so much building material-it's amazing!" These dwellings were colorful. Walls and floors were coated with clay-white, buff, pink, red, purple. In one floor excavators dug through a foot-thick clay layer consisting of 37 coats.

            On another day I watched crews excavate a huge stone-lined cistern. Men dug, and women (often laborers in India) bore away the debris, walking gracefully with laden pans upon their heads. Their saris and veils–red, orange, yellow–lit up the sere countryside.

            Numerous reservoirs were scattered about Dholavira, and some may have been used for ritual bathing. But mainly, Bisht said, "The people were thinking not to let a single drop of water escape." No freshwater river flowed into the salty coastal regions; hence Dholavira must have relied heavily on the monsoon rains. Two gullies near the city were dammed to catch water when it came; ditches diverted it into reservoirs.

            Dholavira's primary mound, rising some 50 feet with massive stone walls, looks like a fortress. This is where the ruler lived, Bisht believes. "He was displaying his pomp and show. Otherwise, why were these enormously thick walls here?"

            Bisht does not disagree with Kenoyer and others who view the Indus civilization as a kind of economic empire composed of city-states with a shared culture. Indeed, Dholavira has yielded artifacts identical to those found at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, such as the unicorn tokens. But while Kenoyer speaks of power shared by a coterie of landlords, religious leaders, and traders, Bisht views Dholavira as the creation of a strong monarch. "He had to have vast resources to build such a city:' he said. And, judging by the quantity of labor necessary to construct the citadel, cisterns, and city walls, Bisht believes there must have been slaves.

            One of the gates leading into the citadel was surely monumental. Bisht found limestone slabs two feet thick and eleven and a half feet long, expertly squared and smoothed. In the earth by this gate he also found what seems to have been the remains of a signboard. Ten 15-inch tall symbols, made of gypsum paste in such shapes as a spoked wheel and a diamond, were still visible. Perhaps this was a legend pro- claiming the might of Oholavira's lord.

            In about 2000 B.C. the quality of stone masonry became haphazard at Dholavira, indicating that the city was in decline.  "This coincides with a time of war and turmoil in Mesopotamia;' Bisht said. "The transportation system was disrupted. Trade must have fallen off. The easy wealth was no longer coming in:' Eventually Oholavira was abandoned.

            The Indus script might confirm such theories, if only it could be unlocked. Many other riddles must be solved before we can chart the odyssey of the industrious, orderly people of this civilization. Why, for example, did the unicorn vanish as a symbol in the subcontinent after the civilization's collapse? Why did the script vanish? Kenoyer suggests that these trappings of auth6rity came to be associated with terrible events. "The land is flooded, the economic system fails, and so the people who ruled lose their power," he theorizes. "The next rulers don't want to be associated with bad things, so the old symbols are expunged."

            Perhaps the Indus civilization will never come into clear focus. "To try to solve all the riddles is like picking up pebbles on a seashore,” Bisht said one day. Still, there are not quite as many pebbles to pick up as before.


Edwards, Mike. (editor) Indus Civilization: Clues to an Ancient Puzzle. National Geographic, V197.6