Prehistoric Balochistan: Cultural Developments in an Arid Region

"It has become clear that Balochistan can neither be perceived as a border nor as a frontier; but rather as a core area with its own dynamics and characterised by regionally distinctive styles," writes the author (p. 194), who has led or been involved with some of the most consequential excavations in Balochistan over the past few decades. This very clear, well-written and well-illustrated paper carefully reviews the history and evidence from archaeological research in this vast province (as large as Germany, she notes). Starting in the 1880s, but then accelerating in the 1990s and 2000s with joint German, French and Pakistani teams revealing a network in the "borderlands" of rich, complex societies that flourished well before the ancient Indus civilization. Two thousand years before. They had links to Afghan sites like Mundigak, Iranian ones like Shar-i Sokhta, as far north as Turkmenistan, besides towards the east in the Indus valley region and beyond. Moreover, they were in separate ways already using some of the key motifs of later ancient Indus culture, whether the pipal leaf or the humped bull.

"It was the French Mission working at Mehrgarh in the Kachhi Plain, which opened a completely new horizon in Indus archaeology. Although dated to the late 8th millen- nium BC and thus later than similar developments in Syro- Mesopotamia, the discovery of Neolithic Mehrgarh with evidence of the transition from gatherers and hunters to settled agriculturalists and herders, linked this part of the ancient world with the Fertile Crescent. A cultural sequence unearthed at Mehrgarh reaching from the aceramic Neolithic to the 1st millennium BC, Nausharo, Sibri, and Pirak revealed a long-lasting tradition, moved cultural definitions beyond pottery styles, and facilitated the development of advanced cultural and chronological schemes" (p. 178) writes Vogt. "Although this work firmly established the importance of the region, the quality of information required to address settlement growth and interaction patterns was available for only limited areas. This situation changed in the later 1980s when Balochistan became accessible and a French team opened work in Makran. Under the direction of R. Besenval, the team conducted extensive surveys and excavations at Miri Qalat and Shahi Tump in the Dasht Plain."

Shahi Tump was a major find, and then excavations at Sohr Damb/Nal led by the author, really opened up the province south of Mehrgarh into a wondrous eco-system of culture, with styles and techniques of manufacture distinct from yet related to everyone around them for a thousand miles and thousands of years. It seemed like the relationships of cousins, many of them. This makes sense, but is not like archaeologists like to study areas, with greater and greater focus on specific places, times and people. This is difficult to do even today among the so many cultures intermingling throughout the region; all one can say is that people are constantly moving, from Balochistan into Sindh and Punjab, over hundreds of years through trade, settlement and kinship alliances, and it would not have been that different in 3000 or 4000 BCE.

And it is not like these were "small" cultures either: "Nal pottery is widely distributed throughout Southern Balochistan," writes Vogt, "along the western piedmont zone in Sindh, but also occurs at distant sites such as Mehrgarh VB and VI, Miri Qalat IIIa–b and the Dasht sites, Shahr-e Sokhta I–II, where it was locally copied, and Tepe Yahya IVC1 [both Iran] assemblages show regional or local differences in terms of shapes and motifs, and most likely technology" (pp. 188-9).

A rich and satisfying paper, with many color images, a chronology and regional map and a further entanglement of ancient Indus roots in the soils all around.

Ute Franke-Vogt's 120-slide show Archaeology of Ancient Balochistan is available on this site.

Image 1: Sohr Damb/Nal aerial view; Image 2: Shahi Tump IIIa, tomb 402 leopard weight. Image 3: Indus seal with humped bull from Kinneru, Ornach valley. Image 4: Sohr Damb/Nal, Trench I, unit 345, period III, large pot with friezes with hour glass, mountain goats, and bracket design.