19. What have been the most interesting findings about the Harappan Civilization during the last two decades?

Broken sherds were occasionally used as a form of "scrap paper" to send notes or serve as temporary records. Found in Harappa in the 1990s from ca. 2300 BCE.

What in your view are the most exciting, significant or illuminating insights gained? What avenues would you like to explore in future asssuming absolutely no practical or financial constraints whatsoever? Submitted by Paul Toth and Gharial Abramnova from school student questions

Jane McIntosh
The excavations at Dholavira have revealed a city in some ways unlike those previously known but following the same overall patterns so they have both confirmed much that had been surmised on the basis of the early excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and broadened what we know about Harappan cities. The discovery of a city in Gujarat has focused increasing attention on this region, which was the Harappans' gateway to the wider world.

The recent excavations at Harappa have both clarified and expanded much that known from earlier excavations here and has revealed a great deal about the development of the Indus civilization from its antecedents to its decline. In particular, the excavations have provided a sequence of development in the Mature Harappan period that begins to allow the establishment of an internal chronology of development in what was previously seen as a uniform, undifferentiated period of considerable length.

Many recent pieces of research have focused on aspects of Harappan technology, revealing the tremendous sophistication of Harappan craftsmanship. One notable example of this is the study by Halim and Vidale of the manufacture of stoneware bangles at Mohenjo-daro.

In recent years there has been far more attention focused on rural settlement than before, although the number of excavated villages is still small. This has gone a considerable way towards achieving a broader picture of Harappan society, although there is still a long way to go.

Given unlimited resources I should like to see the complete excavation of the city of Ganweriwala, including a survey of the local area to establish the local settlement hierarchy, and the full recovery and analysis of floral and faunal remains from the city. Its location in the "Saraswati" valley means that it should shed light on the importance of this region which some have called the "breadbasket" of the Indus civilization. Complete excavation of a city should give important insights into the organisation of crafts; housing differentials; the existence or not of religious structures, palaces and public administrative buildings, including storage facilities; docking and other transport facilities; burials; and all the other questions that poor early excavation techniques at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and the 19th century destruction of much of Harappa have left permanently unanswered. Investigation of the neighbouring region should also reveal much about how the cities were supplied with food.

I should also like a similar study of Pathani Damb. At 100 hectares, this has the potential to be another city, though it is not currently considered to be a regional capital, as Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Dholavira, Rakhighari and Ganweriwala are. It is located in a position controlling a major access route into the Indus region from the west and as such should shed considerable light on Harappan trade. Its complete excavation would offer similar insights on urban layout and structure, relationship to local region etc as I have suggested above for Ganweriwala.

A less ambitious but still enormously rewarding project I would also like to see is the full recovery and comprehensive analysis of faunal material from Harappan sites of all types. At present many reports only indicate the presence or absence of different species, but so much more could be revealed by studies giving detailed age and sex analyses for each species and the relative proportions and importance of different species. Were the Harappans keeping woolly sheep, for instance? how important was milk and which animals were kept for their milk? what was the role of animals in traction and transport? what differences were there between settlements of different sizes and types in the animals they kept, and why? and so on.

Asko Parpola
To me most exciting among the archaeological discoveries of recent decades have been the previously unknown Bronze Age cultures of Sintashta-Arkaim in the southern Urals, BMAC in the oases of southern Central Asia and Jiroft in the Kerman province of Iran. These cultures have filled voids on the archaeological map and opened up new possibilities to explore such complex phenomena as the prehistory of Indo-Iranian languages and their coming to Iran and South Asia. As our earliest literary sources from South Asia are in Indo-Aryan, we need to understand this background also for our interpretation of the Harappan heritage. Of course, it is exciting that more Indus seals and texts keep being found. In this respect, new large-scale excavations at Mohenjo-daro would certainly be most productive.

Rita Wright
The implementation of problem oriented research, opportunities for collaborations among local and foreign scholars, fellowships for study and travel, but more are needed.

Currently the sustained research at Indus cities has provided us with greater understanding of their growth, their economies and the societies they developed. More information is needed about the rural populations, thus systematic surveys using modern technologies such as GIS are needed and excavations of small sites of different sizes and having different functions. More funds and personnel are needed for protection of sites and prevention of looting.

Richard Meadow
The excavation of Dholavira and of sites like Farmana in Haryana have provided important new insights into the Indus Civilization, complementing what has been learned from new work at Harappa and in Balochistan. What we now know is that the Harappan was a dynamic and complicated socio-cultural phenomenon that is not possible to easily characterize. Thus there is much work still to be done, and that is what is most exciting.

The most significant insight is that the Indus Civilization was a dynamic and complicated phenomenon, regionally differentiated, yet sharing some common material cultural attributes. To what degree this sharing was because local populations "bought into" aspects of the Harappan culture (e.g., India and China have "bought into" aspects of "Western culture" today) or because some sites were Harappan colonies or had Harappan elites ruling over local populations remains to be determined on a site by site basis. If there were no constraints the following would be most useful:

  • extensive and very detailed surveys of the whole of NW South Asia to locate sites before more are destroyed by the expanding populations of that region
  • salvage excavations of the most significant endangered sites of all sizes
  • long term research-oriented excavations at selected sites of all sizes in different parts of NW South Asia
  • extensive laboratory study of the findings including application of a range of archaeological science techniques

Shereen Ratnagar
It is the realization that the sea level was much higher in Harappan times than today. So that Dholavira and Khadir Island were surrounded by water all the year. Set in that context, I am struck by the water-harnessing arrangements at Dholavira. You are on your own, no perennial river near by, and what is now a Rann was a gulf of the sea all around you. What do you do if the usually torrential rains fail one year?
True, Dholavira is located on one of three points on Khadir Island where sweet water wells up from the aquifer. Have you seen the huge well high up on the citadel? But it appears that this was not enough.

There were so many reservoirs, trapping the flash-flood waters of the two seasonal streams. And then there is an additional mystery: if you store water on the ground in a cavity, how do you prevent it from going green and becoming poisonous? You need fish or other life forms, or else you need constant movement (oxygen) within the water body.

For me Dholavira embodies the romance of the IVC.

Iravatham Mahadevan
The most important excavation in recent times is that of Dholavira in the Kutch region of India. The most outstanding discovery is of a massive sign board with 10 very large characters each measuring about 40 cms in height. Unfortunately no one can yet read what the sign board says