Aerial View of Mundigak 1

"Jean-Marie [Casal] pointed. 'There in front you see Siah Sang Pass—that is, Black Stone Pass.'

"We had turned north towards a line of low, black mountains spla­shed with one white patch. As we drove into the black hills, a feeling of foreboding seemed to sweep across us. The range was probably little more than a thousand feet above the plain, but so dark, so grim and completely barren, with such menacing black rocks, that it seemed the made-to-measure setting for a Shakespearian tragedy. It was a relief to emerge on the other side of the gloomy, winding track to see a large valley rimmed with grey-blue peaks.

"'Mundigak,' announced Jean-Marie, pointing across the valley."

- Sylvia Matheson, Time off to Dig Archaeology and Adventure in Remote Afghanistan, London, 1961, p. 51

Mundigak is a site in southern Afghanistan near Kandahar, dated from about 3500 BCE to about 2400 BCE in its first four periods; afterwards there remains a lot of uncertainty. The quote above is from Jean-Marie Casal, in a memoir of accompanying the scrappy expedition in 1956 by Sylvia Matheson, an archaeological journalist in London who had tried for many years to make it to Afghanistan herself. "The results of these excavations still represent the major research effort concerned with the later periods of prehistory in southern Afghanistan," write Cameron A. Petrie and Jim G. Shaffer in their lengthy piece on Mundigak in the The Archaeology of Afghanistan (2019, p. 161), an up-to-date synthesis of the available knowledge about the site and larger region, much expanded since it first appeared in 1978.

The story of Mundigak starts more than a thousand years before the mature Harappan civilization [c. 2450-2200 BCE]. By this time Mundigak IV, as Casal called it, had probably ended. The so-called "Palace" and "Temple" seen in the next images was built before this time, when Mundigak's own development and importance, from the evidence of these buildings, would have peaked.

In The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan, archaeologists Bridget and Raymond Allchin write about "the relations between the upland valleys and the floodplains of the neighbouring Indus system, . . . an artery through which long-distance trade flowed. . .. It is probably this trade which provided stimuli for the development of an incipient urbanism in one part of the region, in southern Afghanistan and Seistan, leading to the growth of such sites as Shar-i Sokhta or Mundigak into towns or even 'caravan cities'. One result of this interaction must have been that the many parallels between the material culture of this region and that of Central Asia, witnessed at sites of the Namazga I and II period [4500-3200 BCE in southern Turkenistan] continued to be a prominent features. The links between Central Asia, the Indo-Iranian borderlands and the Indus Valley seem to have been particularly strong and enduring, and must lead us to enquire whether they may not have involved more than mere trade. In the light of later history, and of the continuing movement of peoples down into South Asia from the north, one may legitimately expect movements of people to have been a major, if nowadays unfashionable, factor. We must also recall that – on the evidence of Mehrgarh – the beginnings of such contacts were already at this time at least fifteen centuries old." (1982, p. 133)

Although very dry today, it ancient times the region might have been greener with seasonal rivers flowing south into Balochistan and Sindh. During Casal's first visit in 1951, sudden thunderstorms flooded the valley and old river beds, nearly drowning animals at 1,800 meters (5,500 feet) in altitude. But the climate may not have been much different either, just a less denuded natural landscape in which the mounds of Mundigak once sat, and perhaps greater river flow.

Image: Satellite view of Mundigak from Google Earth and (inset): The Mound Before Excavation, early 1950s, from Jean-Marie Casal, La Civilisation d l'Indus et ses enigmes [The Indus Civilization and its Puzzles] 1969, p. 26 and photograph of him from a biographical website, and Sylvia Matheson onsite from her book.