Lost, not forgotten, cities of the Indus

November 21, 1997

SOUTH ASIAN ARCHAEOLOGY 1993. Edited by Asko Parpola and Petteri Koskikallio. Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. 445pp (Volume one), 442pp (Volume two), $195.00 (both volumes). ISBN 951 41 0729 2.

The 70 papers published here in two volumes are from a wide-ranging conference, held in Helsinki in 1993, which has become, since its inception in 1971, the major venue for the reporting of new archaeological and art-historical fieldwork concerned with the Indian subcontinent and its borderlands. The range of this conference and the quantity of papers presented continues to grow - an indication of the healthy expansion of this discipline which deals with the archaeology of about a sixth of the world's population. A sign of the value put on this study by the host country is the extent to which both the conference and the publication have been supported by the Finnish government.

The papers are arranged alphabetically by author which is useful when searching for the contributions of individuals, but does not enable the reader to see all the papers on one subject consecutively. It is, nevertheless, a publication which is a pleasure to use.

One of the striking features of these volumes is the quantity of papers devoted to the archaeology of the Indus valley. The excavation of sites such as Mehrgarh - reported on once again at this conference (it was reported for the first time at the first conference in 1971) - has transformed our knowledge of the antecedents of the Indus civilisation. The long chronology established at Mehrgarh and its situation on the western edge of the Indus valley, provide opportunities to tie Indus archaeology into that of surrounding areas of central and western Asia. Also presented is work from the two great sites in the valley itself, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. A team from Aachen reports on ten years' investigation at Mohenjo-daro - primarily on architecture and chronology - while the Americans at Harappa report on a range of topics from mapping of the city walls, to the use of experimental archaeology to understand ancient Indus ceramics. Through the use of scientific methods of surface investigation, as well as excavation, the ancient Indus sites are yielding information which makes it possible to understand them; only the decipherment of the script remains elusive.

However, even in this difficult area, there is important progress. The publication in 1987 and 1991 of the magnificent two-volume listing of known seals and inscriptions of the Indus valley type (it is on the seals that the vast majority of Indus inscriptions have been found) has made the prospect of progress more likely. Edited by Asko Parpola (co-editor of South Asian Archaeology 1993) and published by the same Academy of Finnish Sciences as produced these volumes, they are a monument to Parpola's commitment to the study and eventual decipherment of the script. Parpola's paper in the present volumes, in a manner typical of his methodical approach, lays out the criteria which need to be satisfied to enable an eventual decipherment. The other veteran of the decipherment saga, I. Mahadevan, also publishes a paper here.

The quantity of data now available on the Indus civilisation has radically changed the way scholars view it. The need for a work of synthesis to draw together the new findings is a desideratum (the catalogue for the German exhibition, published in English as Lost Cities of the Indus, remains the best, though it is ten years old). Any library covering the Indus civilisation should acquire these Helsinki-based volumes.

While about a third of the papers deal with the Indus Valley, the variety among the other papers is huge, ranging from reports on the great medieval south Indian site of Vijayanagar to the study of stone and bronze sculpture from Bengal. These volumes are a conspectus of recent archaeological work concerning the subcontinent - with "archaeology" and "subcontinent" defined in the broadest sense.

Richard Blurton is assistant keeper, department of oriental antiquities, British Museum.

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