Industrious habits of cities past

Indus Age - Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization
December 3, 1999

What was life like in an Indus metropolis? Asko Parpola checks the evidence.

These two books on the Indus civilisation are of major significance and as such are fitting tokens of gratitude to two teachers and mentors - the Indus archaeologists George F. Dales Jr and Walter A. Fairservis Jr, to whose memory they are dedicated.

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer was the "right hand" of Dales. His own principal research interest is Indus valley crafts. For his 1983 doctoral dissertation on ancient and modern shell manufacture in South Asia he not only made an extensive study of museum collections but also investigated the techniques of the modern Bengali shell workers. In the late 1980s, he carried out excavations in a contemporary bead maker's workshop in Gujarat. This ethno-archaeology was encouraged by his study of surface indicators of craft activities at the major Indus city site Mohenjo-daro. Experiments to replicate the techniques of ancient craftsmen in laboratories, both in the field and at the university, have been an integral part of Kenoyer's research.

Since 1985, when Dales started new excavations at the second major city site Harappa, Kenoyer has annually participated in the project as its co-director. With their careful exploration methods and many-sided scientific analyses, these excavations have given a lot of precision to our knowledge of the Indus civilisation, particularly with regard to its mature urban phase. Although the massive digs at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the 1920s and early 1930s brought to light much material, it was obtained with highly unsatisfactory and summary methods.

Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization is a lavishly illustrated book in which Kenoyer gives a comprehensive description of the mature phase of the Indus civilisation as presently understood by an archaeologist well versed not only in his own special field but also in modern folk traditions of the Harappan area, which he compares with ancient ways of life. It is an ideal introduction to the subject for the non-specialist but contains much new information backed up by bibliographical references (including articles by Kenoyer himself).

The introduction outlines the history of discovery and interpretation, chronology, terminology and theoretical frameworks as well as the environmental setting. Subsequent chapters deal with: the gradual evolution of human adaptation in South Asia, from Stone Age to the threshold of urbanisation; the settlement patterns of cities, towns and villages and their architecture and water engineering; the Indus script and attempts at decipherment; administration and trade (the seals, weights and measures, transport and trade routes); religion and its symbols and rituals; city life; technology and crafts, and food production including agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing and hunting, and cooking traditions; and the decline and legacy of the Indus cities.

Kenoyer was induced to write the book by organising an exhibition at three American museums in 1998-99. The objects in the exhibition are illustrated partly as text figures, partly in a descriptive catalogue that, together with a select bibliography and an index, concludes the book.

Kenoyer has been able to publish several extraordinary objects (or their features) for the first time. Among them are a cooper spearman from Chanhu-daro, the jewellery hoard unearthed by Fairservis at Allahdino (with the exciting story of its discovery), and three gold cylinders with Indus script.

I strongly recommend this book as a valuable introductory textbook. There is a certain amount of repetition, but this refreshes the memory and allows one to read the chapters as independent wholes. What criticisms I would like to mention do not detract from my overall appreciation. Kenoyer repeatedly emphasises that there is no depiction of warfare in Harappan art, and interprets this as suggesting that the Indus people were peaceful and their rulers used other methods to uphold social order. While this is likely to be largely correct compared with other early civilisations, I would not exclude the possibility that the ash layers separating the early and mature Harappan layers at Kot Diji and at Nausharo represent intentional destruction of these sites and that the mature Harappan culture was forced on the people through warfare.

In any case it is not correct to deny altogether the presence of warriors in Indus art. There is the spearman from Chanhudaro mentioned above; the alternative interpretation offered by Kenoyer - a dancer - appears very unlikely.

A second example is found on a cylinder seal from Kalibangan showing two men about to spear each other. They are hardly "fighting over a woman" and grabbing her hands; rather, she is grabbing their hands (space did not allow her horns nor her tiger vehicle to be depicted in this scene, but she appears to be the goddess of war). Her action can be understood from the Vedic text Jaiminiya-Brahmana which tells us of the goddess Vac. When angry, she became a lioness with a mouth at either end of her body. Standing between the gods and demons who were fighting with each other, she grabbed whomever she could reach on either side. In other words, both sides lose warriors as victims to the goddess of war. Incidentally, the two men both wear their hair in the "double-bun". Kenoyer does not tell us that this hairstyle comes from Mesopotamia; hair worn in such a "double-bun" constitutes part of a Sumerian electrum helmet excavated at the royal cemetery of Ur.

He is also hypercritical with regard to all hypotheses that associate "invasions" or "migrations" of Aryan-speaking tribes with the decline of the Indus cities and the replacement of their rituals, language and culture between 1900 and 1300 BC.

Gregory L. Possehl, author of the second book, had his interest in the Indus civilisation kindled in 1964 when he visited Mohenjo-daro with Fairservis. From 1970, Possehl has excavated Indus sites mostly in India, in Gujarat, while the majority of western specialists have worked in Pakistan. Possehl is an expert on the southern extension of the Indus civilisation, and has published, besides numerous articles, two books on his own field researches.

But his greatest passion seems to have been the collection and computerised digestion of whatever has been published on the Indus civilisation and related topics. In 1979, he published a collection of classical articles and an extensive bibliography as Ancient Cities of the Indus . This was soon complemented by another edited volume, Harappan Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective . While digging into old materials left behind by pioneers, Possehl came across text worth publication, such as Sir Aurel Stein's data on the Kulli culture, which resulted in Kulli: An Exploration of Ancient Civilization in South Asia .

The scale of Possehl's activity in documentation is apparent from the fact that the new book, more than 1,000 pages long, is one of the four projected volumes by Possehl in a series entitled Indus Age. It is true that the other published volume, The Writing System , comprised just 258 pages, but the remaining two volumes, The Mature Harappan and The Transformation , can be expected to match The Beginnings in size.

The earlier volume detailing attempts at deciphering the Indus script no doubt provides a lot of useful material and a general overview but is vitiated in a number of ways. It is infested with innumerable misprints, and bears witness to the author's unfamiliarity with the disciplines of philology and linguistics. Nor is the reporting always up-to-date and fair; for example, my book Deciphering the Indus Script is mentioned, giving the impression that it has been taken into account, but Possehl's presentation of my position was based on the first preliminary reports from 1969-70 and their reviews.

In the present volume, Possehl is in his own field and the book has been produced with great care with misprints being remarkably few for a volume of this size. The book is packed with useful information, collected and presented with judicious analysis. It is an absolute must for every specialist. A general reader, however, may be overwhelmed by the amount of detail, although the author has taken pains to address "students, professors and a lay audience" with "a curiosity about the deeper history of the subcontinent".

After an introductory overview, Possehl deals with "the discovery of the Indus Age". He throws new light on the personal histories of the men involved in the recovery of the most ancient past of the Indian subcontinent. The detailed examination, accompanied by fascinating pictorial material, extends until the independence of India and Pakistan (1947), and will perhaps be continued in the subsequent two volumes, although even here there is a sketch of the sequel. "The cultural geography of the Indus Age" presents a very detailed palaeo-environmental reconstruction, including fauna, flora, climate, rivers and regional geography. The final section, "The beginnings of the Indus Age" deals with the development of food production and domestication in South Asia, with reference to the Near East. The excavations of individual sites and their finds are described and illustrated in great detail.

Indus Age: The Beginnings concludes with an alphabetical "gazetteer of sites of the Indus Age", the site name being followed by information on its location (district, coordinates), the cultural periods evidenced, bibliographical references, and the size of the site, with "mineral localities", and a massive bibliography. The table of contents and the general index offer a great wealth of data to guide the reader, and the text is complemented by equally informative and copious illustrations.

Asko Parpola is professor of Indology, University of Helsinki. He is visiting research scholar, Kyoto University, Japan.

Indus Age: The Beginnings

Author - Gregory L. Possehl
ISBN - 0 8122 3417 0
Publisher - University of Pennsylvania Press
Price - £73.00
Pages - 1,063

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