The Harappan ‘Veneer’ and the Forging of Urban Identity

This thought-provoking paper explores the widespread similarity and standardization in material culture across the Indus Valley Civilization, termed by others as the ‘Harappan Veneer’. This uniformity spread across a large region and a diverse population, raising questions about the mechanisms that resulted in such notable similarities and the implications for Indus identity and urbanism. How did such an apparently uniform culture spread over so wide an area that before and since has been home to many different ethnic groups and traditions? Dr. Davis "sets out to address if the archaeological culture designated as Harappan represent an ethnicity or identity, or as it may alternatively be phrased, as ‘Did the Harappans recognize themselves as Harappan?’"

The author explains her departure point very clearly, one that most Indus archaeologists would agree with: "I believe that the phenomena of urbanization in the Indus region and the increased homogenization and development of the suite of Harappan material culture are inherently linked. Urbanization, like other significant shifts in socio-political organization, would have had an impact on the dynamic processes of identities and ethnicities (Barth 1956; Díaz-Andreu 2005; Jones 1997; Insoll 2006; Lucy 2005). Likewise significant changes in material culture, architecture, and culinary practices reflect of shifts in perceptions of selves and nature (Deetz 1977)," (p. 152).

Material culture is often tightly linked to ethnic identity, and "the concept of ‘the Harappans’ as an ethnic or linguistic group persists in interpretations of the Indus archaeological record," (p. 152). Indeed this is the simple assumption often made in discussing the Indus civilization, that this was a single ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other definition of singular community that dominated such a vast area even if evidence from those times and after in the same region shows that multiple groups were present on the land, interacting, entering and leaving, settling and moving over long periods. Large settlements like cities were typically connected to other regions both through traders and pastoral and nomadic communities that moved goods and services seasonally. "The process of urbanization does not only include the initial founding of cities on the landscape but also includes the constant in-migration and integration of outside populations into urban centers. This is a general process that is common for all urban centers," writes Davis (p. 152). To explain how this might have led to the emergence of the "Harappan veneer" or largely consistent "Indus" material culture across the region, she looks at the four major models for ethnic processes during urbanization: 1. Ethnogenesis, the formation of a new identity during urbanization; 2. Emphasis, where people put "emphasis on ethnicity as an important social construct and identity, and this emphasis of ethnic identity correlates of active displays of identity through material culture and styles, publicly and privately signaling your affiliations to others" (p. 154); 3. Dominance, where one group basically conquers others and imposes its identity even if others are submerged not destroyed (e.g. colonialism); and 4. Dormancy. where previous and continuing ethnic identities are submerged but not eradicated as class, occupational and larger combined elements - "a new style that draws upon pre-existing elements and forms," (p. 155).

The four concepts are discussed in detail, with the author coming our firmly in favor of 4. Dormancy as the best means of describing the uniformity in material culture across the Indus Valley Civilization, encompassing utilitarian and prestige items, arguing against the material culture representing a singular ethnic identity, instead suggesting it signified a broader, urban identity connected to trade and craft networks. Specific ethnic identities remained, as they do today, but the paper proposes that the shared use of material culture and symbolic representations among urban centers was forged through integration of different regions linked by trade and craft traditions, creating a common identity for urban residents. The paper challenges the assumption that material culture directly correlates with ethnic identity in ancient civilizations. She concludes: "The thin overlay of the Harappan Veneer does not reflect ethnicity and Harappan pottery does not equate with Harappan People. This re-evaluation of the Harappan Veneer explains why Harappan material culture appears in large and small sites, amongst the elites and non-elites, and in many different environmental and subsistence regions, partially obscuring regional variations. Rather than envisioning Harappans as single cultural or linguistic swath, we can use this framework to map different communities of practices, and the various ways in which identity was expressed actively and passively on the Indus landscape," (p. 158).

Instead Davis prefers the concept of a "brand" to describe how this veneer may have functioned, an idea also entertained by Dr. Dennys Frenez. Notwithstanding that this means much more than what we might associate with brand, it would have been nice to see more examples of what Dr. Davis was including in her analysis. For example, "Kot Dijian style" (p. 155) seems to have been pinpointed by various archaeologists as a temporal precursor to the Integration era, when Indus urbanism was at its height and it is in the same lower Indus region; visual examples of how such a style may have been incorporated or amended over time would have been helpful. "There are examples of early versions of iconic motifs such as pipal leaves, intersecting circles, and fish scales (also triangles and sun/disk motifs) and distinctive forms such as dish on stands that span in all corners of the greater Indus sphere from Northern and Southern Baluchistan, Sindh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, and to a more limited extent Northern Gujarat," writes Davis; illustrations would have let the reader contemplate weighty questions a little more on their own. Not to mention the figure of the "unicorn," thought by many to illustrate an integrated, corporate identity, the most popular icon on seals that is firmly linked to urban settlements but then disappears with them entirely.

Nonetheless, a valuable read and another clear warning to easily trying to subsume what must have been a very complex social, political and economic polity during ancient Indus times into simplified regional, ethnic, or religious identities.

Image: Map of the Indus Civilization (map by the author).