Etched Carnelian Beads from Chanhu-daro

Etched carnelian beads are a hallmark of the Harappan phase and copies of them in different materials are found during this period illustrating their value to the people of the Indus Valley Civilization. Examples of this bead type have also been found in Mesopotamia, Iran and the Gulf and it is believed now that all of these may have been manufactured in the Indus Valley. Until E.J.H. Mackay’s excavations at the site of Chanhu-daro in 1935-36, it was thought that the beads may have been manufactured in Mesopotamia. However, within the first month of excavation at Chanhu-daro, in November of 1935, Mackay found more etched carnelian beads at this one site than were known at that time!

In a typewritten field report dated December 1, 1935 Mackay wrote: “A certain type of carnelian bead that rarely occurs at Mohenjo-daro and is also rare in Sumer is the kind known as ‘Etched Carnelian’, a process in which various designs are painted in white on carnelian and then burnt in. In the course of less than a month we have found at Chanhu-daro more specimens of this painted bead than in the whole of the six years work at Mohenjo-daro, and I am hoping to find that it also was made here” (Mackay 1935).

As part of an ongoing research project, Mackay’s excavation records from the 1935-1936 season at Chanhu-daro are being reanalyzed. The archived records include unpublished field drawings, individual object description cards, monthly field reports, photos, as well as various data lists and miscellaneous object drawings. These records are held by the Penn Museum Archives, University of Pennsylvania as well as the Asiatic Art Department, Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The American Oriental Society (AOS) was based at UPENN in the 1930s when Norman Brown was President, and Brown with the AOS provided institutional affiliation for the Chanhu-daro excavations, hiring E.J.H. Mackay to be the field director. Financial backing was provided by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

In the final published report on his excavations, Mackay published 16 etched carnelian beads ((Mackay 1943), plate LXXIX). However in the process of digging through his records, an additional six were identified, and drawings were uncovered of four of the six. These beads were either duplicate types of what was published, or the design was not legible because the bead was too badly broken. In total, records for 22 etched carnelian beads have been identified and the most popular design is the figure-eight, or double eye motif with a total of 7 individual beads. A glance at the published examples shows the great variety of designs found at Chanhu-daro: single circle, double circle (figure-eight), triple circle, running concentric circles, as well as more complex patterns made up of various lines and circles, and one bead with chevrons. This variety of designs found at a single site, along with examples of etched carnelian beads that were decorated but had broken during drilling, led Mackay to conclude that indeed, Chanhu-daro manufactured etched carnelian beads. Indeed, the recent French-Pakistani research project at this site has uncovered further evidence of this small site’s function as a manufacturing center for various object-types, supporting Mackay’s earlier interpretation.

Mackay, E.J.H. 1935 Report on the month’s work at Chanhu-daro during November 1935, letter to Edgell, Director of the Boston MFA, December 1, 1935. From the Archives of the Asiatic Art Department, Boston Museum of Fine arts.
Mackay, E.J.H. 1943. Chanhu-daro Excavations, 1935-36 (American Oriental Society: New Haven).

1. Color image shows examples of etched carnelian beads found by Mackay at Chanhu-daro, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
2. The beads in the image have been redrawn by H. J. Miller after drawings found in the UPENN archives. The Table below lists Mackay’s measurements (in inches) and where the four illustrated unpublished beads were found.
3. Plate LXXIX from Chanhu-daro Excavations, 1935-36.