A phenomenon in phases

The Indus Civilisation - A Peaceful Realm
August 1, 2003

The Indus civilisation, with its two major cities at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, was one of the four great civilisations of the ancient world, alongside Egypt, Mesopotamia and Shang China, which flourished in the 3rd millennium BC. There are comparatively few books that summarise the civilisation and still fewer that are accessible to the general public.

Both Jane McIntosh and Gregory Possehl go some way to correct this, presenting a clear overview of the civilisation and the legacy that it left behind. Both books aim to give the reader an overview of the culture, although McIntosh's book provides an accessible introduction while Possehl's is clearly aimed at a more academic audience.

A Peaceful Realm is divided into an introduction and 13 chapters illustrated with colour and black-and-white photographs. In the introduction and the first chapter, McIntosh describes the history of research on the Indus civilisation, while the next two chapters give a short introduction to the prehistory of South Asia. Not until chapter four does the book really start to deal with the Indus civilisation itself, with an excellent synthesis of the material culture produced by the Indus civilisation, describing the variety of specific material groups and discussing in some detail their method of manufacture.

Chapter five describes the basic and uniform layout of Indus settlements and any variations. In particular, the section describing what daily life for the inhabitants of these settlements must have been like is illuminating. It is at this point that McIntosh introduces the submerged site of Dwarka, found recently off the coast of Gujarat. Not much is known about it, but future research and excavation will likely tell us more. It is not to be confused with the possible structures and artefacts identified off the coast of India further to the south by the Indian Geological Survey. Some have argued that they are evidence of an earlier civilisation in South Asia, long predating the Indus civilisation, but this is unlikely given our understanding of the period prior to the development of the Indus civilisation.

Chapters six and seven about the likely Indus religion and its role in society are more speculative, principally due to a lack of evidence.

McIntosh draws many parallels with modern-day India, particularly in relation to the importance of water and fire in ritual activities. Her idea of goods offered as a form of taxation through religious ceremonies is original and intriguing. Chapter eight, on the Indus script and its decipherment, deals with a topic that has historically been couched in academic jargon and inaccessible to the public. However, McIntosh covers all of the pertinent points in easy-to-understand terminology and provides a clear and concise overview.

After this, she discusses the role of trade in the Indus civilisation.

Unfortunately there is too much discussion of Mesopotamia and its history, which serves only to blur the picture of the importance of trade to the Indus civilisation. As an export market, Mesopotamia was no doubt important, but it is unclear if exports flowed the other way, from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley.

Eventually, the book reaches one of the least-researched or understood aspects of this society: its decline. Various theories have been suggested, but what seems far more likely is that a number of factors, including disease, flood, trade, ideological rejection and changes in the hydrology, all contributed to a decline over several hundred years as opposed to one specific event. Finally, McIntosh looks more generally at possible links between Indus iconography and Hindu religion, a topic that is highly speculative, though not unworthy.

Possehl's The Indus Civilisation has 14 chapters and each topic is covered in more detail than in McIntosh's book. But where McIntosh uses illustrations and photographs, Possehl favours descriptive text. Chapter one acts as an introduction and poses a series of questions regarding the geography of the civilisation and its name. Possehl proposes a valuable geographical model that divides the Indus civilisation into domains according to the nature of material culture and architecture present at each site, moving away from the notion of a homogeneous material culture, ubiquitous through northwestern South Asia at this time.

He goes on to define the chronological stages of the civilisation, building on the geographical domains in chapter one. Unfortunately, the initial stages that lead to the development of the civilisation are divided into very broad cultural phases, in part due to the history of research in northwestern South Asia, while the latter stages of the model are defined by more localised cultural entities. But this broad overview of the earlier stages is being more clearly defined through current research in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province.

Chapter two also discusses the transition from the Early to Mature Harappan. Possehl develops the notion of the Indus civilisation as a new phenomenon. But while this appears to have been true in some instances, it was not new everywhere. He believes the "look" of the Mature Harappan is new, with new ceramic styles, metal forms, architecture, beads, seals and other aspects of the material culture, notably terracotta carts and cakes.

But many of the aspects of the material culture he cites were also present in the proceeding Kot Diji phase, in particular many of the ceramic forms, beads, terracotta carts and stamp seals. Terracotta cakes with stamp seal impressions have been found at Jhandi Babar A, Northwest Frontier Province, in a Tochi-Gomal context, dating to the late 4th millennium BC. Given Possehl's long history of research in this subject, one is surprised not to see a more cautious hypothesis for change, focused on the idea of cultural development over a longer period of time, culminating in the Indus civilisation, which clearly took the technology of the previous cultural phase to new heights.

In chapter three we are introduced to the Mature Harappan phase, and the principal archaeological sites are listed along with the elements of the culture that differentiated it from previous cultures. The next six chapters develop aspects of the civilisation in more detail. Each summarises aspects of it, from technology through to art, architecture and religion. Possehl draws on a number of varied sources and provides a good balance between summary and detail. One of the most valuable and interesting chapters is chapter 11, in which he discusses the site of Mohenjo-daro and generates a detailed impression of Indus life here.

Chapter 12, "The Middle Asian interaction sphere", is another example of Possehl's ability to assemble disparate pieces of information into a meaningful whole. He discusses not only the relationship of the Indus civilisation with Mesopotamia, but also its links more broadly with Central Asia, citing numerous examples of artefacts that suggest contact and trade.

Finally, he draws together all of the theories regarding the decline of the civilisation and concludes that a rejection of Indus ideology by the population was fundamental to its downfall.

Both McIntosh and Possehl are informative and imaginative. McIntosh has the clearer style and her book is a valuable introduction. Possehl's book is more detailed, and in particular highlights his ability to synthesise information into a coherent whole. In addition he offers a number of hypotheses that will serve as catalysts for academic debate.

Justin Morris is curator of South Asian archaeology, British Museum.

The Indus Civilisation: A Contemporary Perspective

Author - Gregory L. Possehl
ISBN - 0 7591 0171 X and 0172 8
Publisher - Altamira
Price - £61.00 and £22.95
Pages - 6

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