Sunday, March 19, 2017

unearthing history

In the northwest part of India that borders Pakistan there is a huge area where the Indus River flows to the Arabian Sea. In that river valley on the frontier of two modern countries are the remains of another river that was once fed by annual monsoons and the Himalayan glaciers, the Sarasvati, on whose banks the very ancient Indus Valley civilization once thrived. Also known as the Harappa (named after a nearby village) the culture remains an enigma. The Sarasvati, a miles wide river that ran south of the Indus whose course is still visible from space, has been a dry river bed for the better part of three thousand years. Once the Indus Valley civilization itself collapsed circa 1900BC its cities eroded and their remains covered by (that old standby) the sands of time.

It was in 1826, that a British Army deserter, posing as an American engineer named Charles Masson, recorded the existence of mounded ruins at a small town in the Punjab, Pakistan. The Punjab came under British control after 1849, and with the building of canals, roads and bridges, it became one of the most prosperous agricultural provinces of the empire. Archeological surveys undertaken in the mid-1800s led to the assumption that as the mounds were remnants of a recent culture it would be okay for the engineers constructing the Lahore-Multan railroad used brick from the Harappa ruins for track ballast. The bricks taken from the site were more than enough to furnish 100 miles of railway track, testifying to the scale of the buildings that existed there.

In 1919, the site of what turned out to be another important city, Mohenjo-daro, was visited by an Indian archeologist who found items indicating the place was very old and likely very large. Major excavations were carried out at separate periods from the 20s to the 60s when they were banned due to weathering damage to the newly exposed structures. In recent years less invasive methods have been used to gather further information.

Thousands of years ago (as of last year determined by geologic survey and modern dating methods to be at least eight thousand years) the Indus Valley civilization was larger than the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia combined. Many of its sprawling cities were located on the banks of rivers that still flow through Pakistan and India today. This culture once extended over more than 386,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges, and at its peak may have accounted for 10 percent of the world population. The cities were so sophisticated and well-planned, that many archaeologists believe they were conceived as a whole before construction on them begun. Lothar, a port city found in the 1950s,  has the earliest known shipping docks.

The Indus script is made up of partially pictographic signs and various human and animal motifs that have been found inscribed on miniature steatite seals, terracotta tablets and occasionally on metal. As none found have been longer than 26 characters decoding them has proven impossible so far.

Well-planned street grids and elaborate drainage systems hint that the occupants of the ancient Indus civilization cities were skilled urban planners who gave importance to the management of water. Wells have also been found throughout the cities, and nearly every house contained a clearly marked bathing area and a covered drainage system. The houses were thick walled with tall ceilings to help keep them cool; flat roofs, latticed windows, and gardens were part of every home. Archeologists found a large pool surrounded by the remains of small bathing chambers on the upper level of Mohenjo-daro that may have held religious significance. It was so well sealed that it could be filled with water even today.

The civilization's prosperity and stature are evident in the artefacts, like beads, jewelry, and pottery recovered from almost every house, as well as the baked-brick city structures themselves. It appears not everyone was rich but even the poor probably got enough to eat. The cities lack ostentatious buildings like palaces and temples, and there is no obvious central seat of government or evidence of a ruler. Also, the lack of many weapons shows that the Indus people had few enemies and that they preferred to live in peace.

Farmers, traders, and craftspeople, the most commonly found artefact in the Indus Valley civilization is jewelry. Both men and women adorned themselves with a large variety of ornaments produced from every conceivable material ranging from precious metals and gemstones to bone and baked clay. Excavated dyeing facilities indicate that cotton was probably dyed in a variety of colours (although there is only one surviving fragment of coloured cloth).

Archaeologists have long wondered about the sudden decline of the Indus Valley civilization. There is no convincing evidence that any  city was ever burned, severely flooded, besieged by an army, or taken over by force from within. It’s more likely that the cities collapsed after natural disasters or after rivers like Indus and Ghaghra-Hakkar changed their course and the Sarasvati dried out.


I've been fascinated by history for most of my life and deep history has enthralled me these past years as more discoveries have been made and disseminated. The subject of the Indus Valley civilization is very big and much more complex than a small blog post allows. I've even had trouble choosing just a few photos and imagined illustrations of the period to show here for the simple reason there are so many. I hope you'll be interested in looking at some of the links or checking out the subject for yourself. If you do you'll find that it's also a contentious issue because of continuing political, religious, and caste-class issues.

There is one last thing I'd like to mention before I finish and that's the fact that at the Last Global Maximum (21 thousand years ago) of the most recent Ice Age coastal sea levels around the world were 400 feet lower than they are today. 10 thousand years ago, when the enormous glaciers began to melt, it's very likely that a number of places where people lived may have been inundated by sudden overwhelming floods. Considering the areas in red on this map were once dry land it's easy to see the Indus Valley was much larger then than now, a fact that opens many possibilities about origins.

When it's hard to think about the future there's some comfort in imagining the past - at least for me..


  1. Hi Susan,
    In your previous post that was a wonderful picture. We had an indoor violet that only perished recently after nearly 20 years.
    In relation to this post it is an amazing story to go with some great pictures. From what I can ascertain that region may well have been indicative of the earliest known civilizations in world history. I understand some remnants of Neolithic communities have been unearthed in nearby Pakistan. Conceivably the regions birth arose as earlier hunter-gatherer began began to domesticize local animals and introduced farming so that over time by circa 8000- 5000 BC they were constructing large cities and making pottery, stone artifacts, and had already established very extensive trade links with the peoples of other regions.
    Best wishes

    1. Hi Lindsay,
      Very good, that's a long life for a single african violet. Once one of mine developes a long neck I usually start a new one by harvesting one of its larger outer leaves and either rooting it in water or planting it directly in a light soil mix.
      Yes, I'm very happy you enjoyed reading this one. I agree it seems very likely that settlements in the vicinity of the Indus Valley were important in the development of relatively recent human culture. I most appreciated the news that trade was so important to them and that kings, priests, and warfare unknown.
      That's a past I'd enjoy knowing was our future.
      All the best

  2. A truly fascinating post. Thank you.

    1. You saying so makes the effort taken worthwhile, Tom. It wasn't one of the easiest I've done for the simple fact there's a lot of material - not all of it trustworthy.

  3. Interesting. The timescale of deep time, past and future, makes me rather giddy, so I have to soon snap my attention back to the here and now.

    1. I find the subject of deep time to be both enormously entertaining and thought provoking. The speculative futures envisioned by some science fiction authors are also excellent food for thought but, invented as they are by individuals, I find they don't provide the nourishment of history. Still, it is challenging to envision the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in a jumble of sedimentary rock.

      At this historical juncture, you would think that we have found enough lost cities, that we might take folklore a little more seriously (not in an Ancient Aliens way that maintains that whatever we have lost was clearly some sort of extraterrestrial-influenced super-civilization), rather that changes in climate, geology, and even the migrations of people have obscured the past, both philosophically and geographically. The 'Lost City' is the ancient emptiness upon which we can inscribe our hopes and dreams, to evaluate what was, what is, what might have been, and what the future could hold.

  4. What can I add to what you've already discussed on a dear-to-me subject except to thank you for taking the time to write this up. Wouldn't it be hreat to be able to travel back in time to these places? Then again, maybe not. might be too scary for us soft modern folks.

    1. I'm so glad you came by to read it, Marja-Leena, as I know history is a subject close to your heart. I agree with you that although the idea of traveling back in time is a fascinating prospect it's almost impossible to grasp the reality of what things would have been like for us depending upon the where and when. Nevertheless, being born to a family of the Indus Valley civilization sounds better than most. I read there are indications they had even been the first to unravel the mystery of silk production.

  5. Fascinating.
    Although I do not take the Hancocks, von Dänikens et al. too serious.

    Anyway, aren't there more things in heaven and earth, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy. :)

  6. Funny, I don't recall having mentioned either one of them. However, marine archeology is difficult and in the case of an area like the Gulf of Cambay where the currents are strong it's even more problematic. We'll likely never know for certain but India's National Institute of Ocean Technology has been the only official body to have made a reasonable attempt.

    Graham Hancock has written some very interesting books in collaboration with geologists and other professionals pointing out just how short-sighted are a number of our preconceptions. Erich von Däniken's 'Chariots of the Gods' ideas have no serious basis whatever.

    Good night, Horatio :)

  7. We are so proud of our accomplishments......Seattle, where I taught for decades, I congratulating it's self for the decision to build upwards in the downtown area.
    What will people find of it a thousand years from now, I wonder. Steel rusts, dissolves. Pressure builds on the bases of high structures, things collapse.
    One wonders.

    1. "is," not "I" in first paragraph

    2. I knew that, Mike, I also make more typos than I'd prefer.

      A thousand years? You're likely right about the degradation and fall of modern architecture, but the good news is the forests would expand to fill the gaps.