A Brief Introduction to the Ancient Indus Civilization

A Brief Introduction to the Ancient Indus Civilization

The greater Indus region was home to the largest of the four ancient urban civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, South Asia and China. It was not discovered until the 1920's. Most of its ruins, even its major cities, remain to be excavated. The ancient Indus Civilization script has not been deciphered.

[The original 1996 version of this section can be seen at old.harappa.com.]

Many questions about the Indus people who created this highly complex culture remain unanswered, but other aspects of their society can be answered through various types of archaeological studies.

Harappa was a city in the Indus civilization that flourished around 2600 to 1700 B.C.E. in the western part of South Asia.

Cities and Context

Priest King, Mohenjo daroThe Harappans used the same size bricks and standardized weights as were used in other Indus cities such as Mohenjo Daro and Dholavira. These cities were well planned with wide streets, public and private wells, drains, bathing platforms and reservoirs. One of its most well-known structures is the Great Bath of Mohenjo Daro.

There were other highly developed cultures in adjacent regions of Baluchistan, Central Asia and peninsular India. Material culture and the skeletons from the Harappa cemetery and other sites testify to a continual intermingling of communities from both the west and the east.Harappa was settled before what we call the ancient Indus civilization flourished, and it remains a living town today.

Ghaggar-Hakra River

There may have been another large river that ran parallel to and east of the Indus at some time in the past. The northern part of its now usually dry bed is called "Ghaggar" in India and "Hakra" in Pakistan. This group of channels is sometimes referred to as "Saraswati" and is associated by some with the Saraswati River of the Rg Veda).

Its lost banks are slowly being traced by researchers. Along and within its dry bed, archaeologists are discovering a whole new set of ancient settlements.


Ancient Mesopotamian texts speak of trading with at least two seafaring civilizations - Magan and Meluhha - in the neighborhood of South Asia in the third millennium B.C.E. This trade was conducted with real financial sophistication in amounts that could involve tons of copper. The Mesopotamians speak of Meluhha as a land of exotic commodities. A wide variety of objects produced in the Indus region have been found at sites in Mesopotamia.

This site tells the story of the ancient Indus Civilization through the words and photographs of the world's leading scholars in the US, Europe, India and Pakistan. It starts with the re-discovery of Harappa in the early 19th century by the explorer Charles Masson and later Alexander Burnes, and formally by the archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham in the 1870's. This work led to the the first excavations in the early 20th century at Harappa by Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni, and by R.D. Banerji at another Indus Civilization city, Mohenjo Daro.

HARP and Indian excavations

Since 1986, the joint Pakistani American Harappa Archaeological Research Project (HARP) has been carrying out the first major excavations at the site since before independence in 1946. These excavations have the shown Harappa to have been far larger than once thought, perhaps supporting a population of 50,000 at certain periods. These continuing excavations are rewriting assumptions about the Indus Civilization, as is recent work by archaeologists in neighboring India. New facts, objects and examples of writing are being discovered every year in India and Pakistan.


Over 600 slides from HARP photographed by Dr. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer [University of Wisconsin, Madison] and Richard H. Meadow [Harvard University] appear on this Website, including the 90 Slide Introduction to the Ancient Indus Civilization. A detailed look at the discoveries from 1995-1998 at the actual site in Punjab describes the comprehensive evidence for a Early Harappan Ravi Phase dating to 3300 B.C.E. Another 90 slide section covers excavations in 2000-2001. It includes an essay on the early development of Indus arts and technologies. Another section explores the mysterious so-called granary and circular platforms at Harappa. A fifth 90 slide section covers further evidence for the Ravi and Kot Diji phases at the site. A 72 slide series by Sharri Clark [Harvard University] looks at ancient Indus figurines discovered in Harappa. There is also a 103 introduction and image series on Mohenjo Daro, the best known ancient Indus site in Sindh, southern Pakistan.

Hundreds of other slides and numerous essays by a number of other leading scholars of the ancient Indus civilization in India, Pakistan, Europe and America are part of this Website. Many more new facts and theories will be published here in the coming years, for we are only at the beginning of what are likely to be a long series of exciting future discoveries in the Indus and Saraswati river basin.