Early Developments of Art, Symbol, Technology in the Indus Valley Tradition

Early Developments of Art, Symbol, Technology in the Indus Valley Tradition

Archaeologists studying the emergence of early civilizations often focus on finely crafted art objects in order to understand aspects of economic, socio-political and religious organization. The importance of such objects is increased when studying early societies for which there are no written records, such as the Indus Valley civilization. Although some of the communities living in the Indus cities did use a formal writing system, it has not yet been deciphered and the detailed study of material culture provides one of the few sources of information for determining the nature of the society and for comparing it to other early cultures.


Over time, as questions about the past have changed, the approaches used by archaeologists to study finely crafted objects have also changed dramatically. One category of artifacts that provides an example of how scholars have changed their perspectives and interpretations over time are the intaglio stamp seals of the ancient Indus cities. When they were first discovered in 1873, the exquisite carved steatite seals from Harappa gained world attention because of their unique style and enigmatic script. Essentially they were compared stylistically and linguistically to the cylinder seals of Mesopotamia (Marshall 1924). After many years of excavation and study, scholars such as Ernest Mackay had the opportunity to study the materials that the seals were made from and the general techniques of carving and manufacture (Mackay 1938). These studies revealed that there were in fact many different types of seals, and inscribed objects, some of which were not used for sealing at all. The interpretive implications of these variations were not at first realized, but it was clear that the techniques of manufacture and variations were the result of indigenous cultural developments and not due to diffusion of ideas from other early civilizations.

As the study of Indus cities shifted to more theoretical issues of social, economic and political organization, the production and use of artistic objects such as seals came to take on a very different light (Rissman 1989). Questions about the symbolic or socio-political meaning of these seals required more rigorous studies of the production, use and discard of the artifacts (Kenoyer 1997a). This stimulated new studies and interpretive models that would require totally new methods of data collection and analysis. The seals of the Indus cities were shown to be more than simple art objects, to be compared to seals in other civilizations, but were seen as symbols of power and authority that had been created through complex technologies (Kenoyer and Meadow 1997; Kenoyer and Meadow 1999).

While seals may be one of the more spectacular types of objects found in the Indus cities, this same progression of changing studies and perspectives has been going on with most aspects of the Indus civilization. Scholars have begun to reexamine artifacts recovered from earlier excavations and discover new finds through excavations in both Pakistan and India. By studying the artistic elements, the symbolic elements and the technological processes needed to create such objects scholars have begun to shed new light on the socio-economic, ideological and political developments that set the foundation for the Indus civilization. A recent study of steatite bead making technology has looked at the changes in Indus technical virtuosity and social structure (Vidale and Miller 2001, in press). In this paper I will focus on examples resulting from the recent excavations of the Early Harappan (Ravi and Kot Diji Phases) at Harappa, along with comparisons from the important sites of Mehrgarh and Nausharo.

Geography and Chronology

Important Geographical Regions and Sites of the Indus Valley Tradition
Figure 1. Important Geographical Regions and Sites of the Indus Valley Tradition.

The term Indus Valley Tradition is used to incorporate the long term cultural trajectory that characterizes the large geographical region of the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra river valleys (Kenoyer 1998) (Figure 1). This area extends from the highlands of Baluchistan, Pakistan on the west across the vast Indus alluvial plains to the deserts of Cholistan and Thar that form the border between Pakistan and India. From north to south the region stretches from the foothills of the Himalaya to the coastal regions of Makran, Pakistan and the islands and mainland of Gujarat, India. This vast geographical area provides numerous diverse resource areas for raw materials as well as subsistence activities. The juxtaposition of these resources provides a stimulus for the establishment of exchange networks that were facilitated by numerous passes between the highlands and alluvial plain, the presence of rivers and relatively accessible coastal regions.

The chronology for the Indus Valley Tradition can be divided into four Eras (Kenoyer 1991a; Shaffer 1992). The Early Food Producing Era (ca. 7000-5500 BCE) is also commonly referred to as the Neolithic period, and is a time when domestic plants and animals are first exploited in the Indus Valley. The Regionalization Era, (5500-2600 BCE) corresponds to a period of regional cultural development that is subdivided into various Phases defined by specific artifact styles and regional cultural interaction. Recent excavations at the site of Harappa provide evidence for the emergence of an Early Indus state around 2800 BCE at the end of the Regionalization Era, but the major phase of state-level development and urbanism does not begin until around 2600 BCE (Kenoyer and Meadow 2001 in press).