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The Indus Valley: An Introduction

Also known as the Harappan Civilisation, the Indus Valley is a unique but highly sophisticated civilisation. Located in the Indian Subcontinent, near the Indus River, the Indus Valley dates from around 3300 to its fall in 1500BC.

The following post is a series of notes I have compiled based on a lecture by Mark Kenoyer:

A series of future posts will include further sources and target each aspect of this incredible culture thematically. From the lack of warfare and rulers, to trade and urban planning.




  • Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro

  • Covers one of greatest regions than other societies

  • Interconnected, trade and genes between other civilisations

  • Each civilisation evolved on own trajectory, based on what works for them, sharing knowledge with others

  • Evolve alongside others in Indian subcontinent (Bactro-Margiana, Helmand, Baluchistan, Malwa, Ganga-vindhya, Deccan, Indus)

    • Merge into Indo-Gangetic Tradition

    • First empires in South Asia incorporate these early civilisations (300-400BC)


  • Harappa, alluvial plain

    • First people settling in Harappa were connected to all areas Indus

      • Shell from sea, minerals from West/East

      • Bring to plain to make objects

    • First village in Harappa mound

      • Initially a flat plain, now 17m due to cultural development

      • Pottery (handmade not wheel), painted decoration

      • Inscriptions:

      • Potter's mark (identification)

      • Post-production markings (writing? same time writing develop elsewhere)


  • Cosmology, way of seeing universe, developing

  • Establish social organisation

  • Swastika (originate cave paintings 10,000BC)

House ordered north-south and east-west (cardinal points)

  • Houses made of mud brick or reeds, wattle and daub


  • Ornate styles developing

  • Shell bangles (800km away)

  • Thick = women heavy labour (or break)

  • Thin = women less manual labour

  • Clay = cheap

Image: Thick clay bangles indicated manual labour and thin ones indicate high status, thin bangles are less practical and would easily break in even tasks such as cooking


  • Begins around 2600BC

  • 2450BC most common period

Indus materials from elsewhere

  • Randall Law: Map plotting location of all stones from Harappa

  • Ravi Phase people got things from North but also south Sujarat and Kutch

  • Made carnelian, lapis, jasper and hard stone beads (need technology)

  • Clay beads

  • Beads and lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan

  • Sealing from Gulf

  • Shell from Indus

  • Ev: Ur burial has shell cylinder seals from Indus and Lapis from Afghanistan and Persian Gulf

  • Indus not make cylinder seals, the shell was sold and carved to Mesopotamia

  • Ev: Dark green bloodstone made at Dholavira on Kutch is found from Akkadian period at burials of Ur in 2200-2100BC

  • Ev: Cylinder seal marked with 'this is the seal of a Meluhhan interpreter'

  • People did interpret for Meluhhan traders

  • Texts say Meluhhan villagers were there

  • Statements by Mesopotamian conquered Meluhhans (no evidence of warfare, but may have dominated villages)

  • Ev: Carnelian belt from Mohenjo-daro and Kish Beads from burials at Ur, made in Indus

  • Kish Beads made from stone not in the Indus (Agate) but made with technology of Indus craftsman

Indus craftsmen may live in Mesopotamia and make objects for elite courts

  • Ev: Faceted Carnelian Beads only made in Mesopotamia, never in Indus, but made by Indus technology

  • Catering to Mesopotamian elites

Trade routes

  • Mesopotamia, Persian Gulf, Central Asian and possibly China

  • Ev: beads from Zhous period (years after Indus)

  • Possibly beads handed down and then copied based on Indus craft by later China

How do we know it is Indus Technology?

  • Stone called Ernestite

  • Drills in Kish for drilling long beads in ernestite

  • Specialised drilling technology for straight and long columns through the beads

  • Technology for vesuvianite came only from Indus, and only carved via ernestite drill, found in Mesopotamia

Control of Trade and Production

  • Controlled production and technologies

  • Walls around cities and people have to pay taxes

Complex standardised weight systems, calibration almost identical

  • Cubic and truncated spherical weights (from Chanhudaro)

  • Very similar to Egyptians but no evidence of that connections

  • Mesopotamia did not have standardised weights (15 different numbering systems to count commodities)

Numbering systems

  • Cannot be translated but the number of slashes indicates number

  • 4 key number


  • Trading with central Asia

  • Terracotta sealing with Central Asia seal on one side and Harappan on the other

  • Ev: Terracotta sealings with Central Asian and Harppan seal at Mohenjo-daro

Different Relationships

  • Indus seals in Mesopotamia but no Mesopotamian in Indus

  • Central Asian seals in Indus

  • Mesopotamian trade likely occur via Oman

Women from Harappa go to Mesopotamia?

  • Ev: Strontium analysis

  • Ev: Figurines in Indus have elaborate flower headdress, only time they are found in Mesopotamia is in Ur

Ravi Phase

  • 3500-2800BC (Regionalisation Era)

  • Develop villages throughout

  • Networks trade linking cities in Mesopotamia

  • Contact of early Cities

  • Ev: Late Uruk Jemdet Nasr Cylinder Seal

  • Cylinder seals with temples, priest king feeding herd cattle - possibly an Indus Valley shell

  • Shell only found in Karachi, thick column 3cm diameter, only species that thick column, seal made from this shell

  • 3300-2900BC

  • Indicate trade connections linking Mesopotamia and Indus

Kot Dijian Phase

  • 2800-2600BC (Regionalisation Era)

  • Settlement grow into town

  • Two sectors

  • Adjacent

Large Walls

  • Walls not for defence

  • Controlled access - trade/materials/politics

  • City walls requires transport technology

  • Ev: Ox Carts and Bullock Carts in 2800BC

  • Ev: Roadways developed

  • Cart tracks on streets 2800BC

  • Move timbers, bricks and commodities

  • 3700BC (some cart fragment) and in Girawar there is a cart with wheels

  • Early evidence of wheel carts developing in Steppes and Indus

  • Mudbrick Walls

  • 450 people 3 months to build

  • Walls enclose grid-like settlement

  • North-south and East-west streets

  • Used until 2600BC

High Value Items

  • Complex Craft Technologies

  • Firing

  • Faience (frit, ground rock) which is heated in fire and glazed surface

  • Blue turquoise colour, fake turquoise invented for faience

  • Furnaces, Kilns and other technologies

  • Some houses have no evidence of craft

  • Suggest there are crafters and resource controllers

Silver and Gold

  • Sequin buttons, silver ornaments, textiles and bangles etc.

  • Found hoards or lost in streets

  • Silver traced with lead isotopes

  • Lots from Baluchistand

  • Some silver with unknown origins

  • Anatolian Pleateu and Mesopotamia famous for silver (possibly from there)

Evidence of wealth

  • Losing silver gold on street and not pick up suggest enough wealth

  • Suggest control and dominate cities

New materials used

  • Suggest prospecting and find new competitive resources

  • Trying to break into market

  • Competition allows growth and expansion

  • Extending South

People Controlling Resources and Power

  • Power demonstrated through writing, seals, weights

    • Sealings to control goods stored

    • Elephant motif, geometric seals

    • Cubic limestone weight to value gold?

    • Pottery signage

    • Harappa 1: Post-firing graffiti in Ravi Phase

    • Harappa 2: Similar signs from graffiti used to develop Indus script

    • Beginnings of writing symbols - evolution and eventual codification

    • Writing system began to be used in seals

Harappa Phase

  • 2600-1900BC (Integration Era)

  • Cities emerging

  • Rulers

  • Had names and used writing system which recorded names and genealogies

  • Cannot translate names


  • No bilingual texts to translate this language

  • Indecipherable

  • Common Image is like a unicorn

  • Symbol of communities

  • Shown in seals and figurines

  • Only one horn from single figure

  • No animals bones, clearly a myth

Codifying multiple languages

  • Proto-Dravidian, Mundari, Indo-Aryan, Sino-Tibetan, Language 'X'

  • Language 'X' = first language people named animals, trees, plants and sickles (still in Hindi and Urdu) - these cannot be traced to modern language family, believed to be Neolithic language


  • Written from right to left

  • Based on pottery writing


  • Economic/Trade

  • Ev: found on square seals used for trade and ritual

  • Ev: Faience, steatite or terracotta tokens fo accounting or rituals


  • Personal Identification

  • Ev: Faience and steatite regulated pottery workshop uses

  • Rigid control of production of tablets (state or elites)

  • Prescribed

  • Track movements across the city


  • Sealings

  • Ev: lump of clay with four different seals

  • Four people stamp clay as corporate ownership

  • Equal testing of ownership

  • Large Seals

  • Too large/awkward to be used

  • Symbols

  • Small circular seals

  • Traders in gulf used

  • Used in writing seals

  • Sequence of signs from Indus and gulf is not the same

  • Same alphabet to write multiple languages

  • Indus script to write Gulf langauge


  • Indus script in last phase show change in sequence of writing

  • New signs coming in on objects dated later

  • Some signs disappear in later objects

  • Changing system

  • New languages came in?

  • Egyptians heiroglyphs no word for horse, when horses introduced there was a heiroglyph sequence for horse, word for horse was not Egyptian it came elsewhere


  • Writing is connected to ideology

  • Key to understanding disappearance

  • Associated with rituals and events

  • Trees as motifs suggest why there are no large temples

  • Trees/outside location of rituals


  • Indus Valley did have rituals

  • Ev: Deities, animals sacrifice and human-tiger interaction on seals

  • 2200-1900BC seals from last phase

    • Deity grabs tigers by throat standing on elephant and wheel above head (Palaeolithic tradition translated into regional ideas? Independent of Gilgamesh epic)

    • Man talking to tiger from tree

    • Sacrifice of water-buffalo using trident as spear and deity in yogic position

  • Narratives followed in later South Asian iconography - e.g. killing of water buffalo represents deity conquering power of chaos, seen in Tantric iconography

  • Water buffalo motif spread to Mesopotamia - may be domesticated in Euphrates?

  • Iconography of seals and Akkadian Cylinder seals suggest motif and animals came from Indus

  • Water buffalos - good milk

  • Kept in temples in Mesopotamia and watered for deities

  • Dholavira Seals

  • Made of teracotta tablet

  • Giants holding two people by waist and horned deity on other side

  • Evidence for human and superhuman conflict

  • Conflict is always between deities and humans or humans and animals - never between people


  • Yoga developed in Indus as part of religious ideology

  • May be linked with writing

  • Link between later ritual significance of Indus and earlier


  • Many houses have wells and bathrooms

  • Underground drainage system in the city

  • Superior conditions to contenporeos

  • Well planned urbanisation


  • Multiple walled areas next to each other with gateways

  • Outside of the walls is a settlement - caravanserai (stay outside city at night if gates closed)

  • Cemetery to south and west of settlement

  • Craft workshops within walled areas - faience and clay

  • Only two seal workshops - produce seals all over city

  • Suggest control of production of writing material


  • No hierarchical rule of cities

  • No monarchs


  • Ev: Priest-king sculpture, Mohenjo-daro

  • Represent on of the elites - lots of power

  • Painted red and green and gold bead on forehead

(Right: Priest-King Sculpture from Mohenjo-Daro)


  • Elites distinguished by textiles

  • Ev: textiles made of cotton, wool and silk

  • Copper and microbeads ornaments threaded with silk

  • Ev: Robed figures in Dholavira and Mohenjo-Daro

  • Represent clan leaders or individuals with power


  • Elaborately decorated females

  • Ev: figurine with elaborate jewellery similar to Allahdino hoard

  • Ev: figurine with Harappan headdress from Mari, Mesopotamia, 2400

  • No other Mesopotamians have this headdress

  • Mari is filled with Indus beads

  • Perhaps sealed goods in marriage

  • Hoards of Allahdino jewellery

  • Silver necklaces, belts, toe-rings etc.

  • Last phase of Harappa women may have been ordering slaves around

  • Women buried in early part of cemetery have wide bangles and they thin with time

  • Women became more elite and removed from physical labour

  • Other people must be doing labour

  • Wide bangles found outside cemetery suggest some women with lower status as carry out heavy labour (trading women?)


  • People buried in Harappan cemeteries

  • Equal male-female

  • Not buried with wealth, normally ornaments and shell bangles

  • Max gold = 3 beads in Harappan period

  • Hereditary communities

  • Skeletal analysis (matri-local burial)

  • Strontium Isotopes

  • Genetics

  • Women buried next to husband and their kin


  • No evidence of warfare in the Indus

  • Walls not used for defence

  • No enslavement or war in Indus iconography

  • No images of rulers in iconography

  • No war weapons only hunting (spears and daggers)

  • No cities of Indus ever burned or destroyed by warfare

  • Not mechanism for integration

BUT there is an exception

  • Ev: Kalibangan Cylinder Seal

  • Viable reason to fight - community conflict over bride

  • Deity stands behind bride to protect

  • Indus people had spears and daggers - no swords - more likely for hunting than war weapons

  • Two men with spears pointed at each other and a woman between them

  • Cylinder Seals are not produced in the Indus

Image: Kalibangan Cylinder Seal


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