Lost Cities of South Asia and
The Far East (1 of 4)
Location: Indus Valley, Pakistan
Date of Construction: c 2800 B.C.
Abandoned: C 1500 B.C.
Built By: Indus Civilization, also Known as Harappans
Key Features: Municipal Plumbing and Sewage; Street Grid; Beads, Seals, Plaques, Weights, Figurines; Lack Of Monumental or Public Art.
Harappa and its sister city Mohenjo-daro are two of the largest cities of the Indus civilization (also known as the Harappan civilization), the least known and most mysterious of the four original centers of Old World civilization.
While ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and China are relatively familiar, heavily excavated and researched and, crucially, accessible to us through their own words thanks to their writings and inscriptions, the Indus civilization remains enigmatic, even though it was the largest and in some respects the most sophisticated of the four ancient states.
What language did the people of Harappa speak? What does their script record? Who ruled them and how? What gods did they worship? What kind of legacy did they bequeath to the people who now inhabit their ancient territory?
The first Europeans to see the great mounds of the Indus Valley assumed they were relics from the early days of Hindu-Buddhist civilization, the recorded history of which began with the Mauryan Dynasty of 321 B.C.
The explorer Charles Masson, for instance, the first European to report the ruins of Harappa after stumbling upon them in the late 1820s, assumed it was the stronghold of King Porus, defeated by Alexander the Great in 326 B.C.
In 1875, the first of a series of strange seals engraved with an unknown script was discovered at Harappa, pointing to the possibility that the mound concealed the remains of an entirely new civilization.
But it was not until 1924, when the Archaeological Survey of India announced the first results of excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, that the existence of a previously unknown Bronze Age civilization was conclusively revealed.
By this time the site at Harappa had already suffered catastrophic damage thanks to the depredations of the railway.
When the Lahore-Multan railway line through the area had been constructed in the 1850s, workers had used the vast quantities of bricks that peeked through the surface of the great mounds as a ready source of ballast and large areas of the ancient city had been destroyed.
The Indus Civilization
But the damage wrought by brick scavengers has not prevented archaeologists from building a picture of the civilization that was centered on large urban settlements such as Harappa.
The roots of the Indus civilization date back as far as 7000 B.C., when villages in the Indus Valley and the adjacent hill country that marks the border between the Indian sub-continent and the Iranian region first developed.
In the Chalcolithic Era (or Copper Age), from about 4300-3200 B.C., these villages grew quite large and spread their influence throughout the Indus Valley region, where the great River Indus and the now extinct River Sarasvati flooded annually, bringing great fertility but also great obstacles to settlement.
From around 3700-2800 B.C. villages began to develop along the Ravi River, one of the tributaries of the Indus, and this period saw the spread of a homogenous culture through the region, with toy models of bullock carts attesting to the growth of trade routes.
Which had already reached for hundreds of miles, and specialized craft technologies involving metalwork, pottery and jewelry (that would later be central to the Indus civilization) spreading as well.
At this time the region may have had stronger seasonal variation in temperature than now, with the floodplains and surrounding areas providing rich hunting and fishing as well as fertile arable land.
Precursors to what would later become a full-blown writing system began to appear, in the form of symbols inscribed onto pottery.
From 2800-2600 B.C. Harappa grew into a large town, covering more than 61 acres in two walled zones. Crafts, trade and social organization all became increasingly developed.
By 2600 B.C. the fully urban Harappan phase (or the Indus civilization) began and for 700 years Harappa dominated the surrounding region.
It grew into a huge city of up to 80,000 people (the population probably fluctuated over the year, with market season bringing in hordes of outlying folk) that covered over 370 acres with a circumference of more than three miles.
The Indus civilization itself spread its influence over an area the size of Western Europe and twice as large as ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt, with more than 1,500 known settlements centered on what are now the provinces of Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan, and spreading into northwestern states of India as far as the Ganges Valley, southwest into what is now Kutch and Gujarat, and west as far as northern Afghanistan.
Materials found in Harappa attest to a trade network that stretched from Central Asia to Mesopotamia and Arabia, with raw materials imported to the city where artisans produced manufactured goods for export – for example, decorated carnelian beads from the workshops of the Indus civilization have been found at sites in Mesopotamia and Persia.
The Harappans also developed sophisticated systems for regulating trade, ownership and transactions. Seals with standardized symbols and a form of hieroglyphic writing known as the “Indus script” were widespread, and it is thought they were probably used to mark goods with quantities and ownership.
Similarly marked copper plaques may have been the start of a system of currency, while small tokens of faience and fired steatite (also known as soapstone) inscribed with marks may have been used for accounting purposes.
Tablets of clay or faience have been found snapped in half, and they may have been used to regulate contracts, with each party to a transaction retaining half of the tablet until it was completed. A common class of find at Harappa is small stone cubes of graduated sizes.
These were standardized weights used to ensure fair transactions in the trade of high value merchandise, such as jewelry.
Sophisticated, Structured City
One of the best-known features of the Indus civilization was its highly advanced urban planning and sewerage system.
Harappa featured a water infrastructure of a scale and sophistication not seen anywhere else until Roman times, and even then only in the richest areas of a city, whereas at Harappa the provisions were universal.
Numerous brick-lined wells scattered around the city provided a steady supply of water, while houses were equipped with bathrooms and latrines, which emptied into sewage drains, themselves connected to municipal main sewers.
The sewage was fed to collection points outside the residential zones and was probably carted off to be used as fertilizer for the market gardens surrounding the city.
The same careful planning that is evident in the sewage systems operated on a larger scale; the Indus settlements are remarkable for being the world’s first planned cities.
Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities grew organically, with no strategic planning resulting in winding streets, warrens of lanes and alleys and irregular-shaped buildings.
By contrast, Harappa was laid out on a grid system not seen again until the Greek cities of the mid-1st millennium B.C., with wide central avenues, regular shaped buildings and the aforementioned water infrastructure into the fabric of the city.
The street grid was oriented to the cardinal points of the compass and the major avenues were more than 26 feet wide. Along some of them were central dividers suggesting a two-lane system for regulating bullock-cart traffic.
Harappa comprised three main walled areas (that left three large mounds for archaeologists to pick over) and surrounding walled suburbs. Massive walls of mud brick, with brick gateways, served multiple purposes:
1. Control of access into the city, and
2. Defense and also protection from floods.
Evidence of military might and associated sociopolitical power structures is noticeably absent from Harappa and the other cities, with no monumental art or reliefs, no depictions of proud emperors or conquering armies.
It is hard to identify any remaining buildings as palaces or temples, although one of the main zones of Harappa is described as a “citadel”, and each walled area probably had some public/administrative/religious function.
The absence of the normal signs of authority (i.e., of a king or emperor) is part of the wider enigma concerning the Indus civilization.
How did it come to control such a wide area and how was it governed? Who was in charge? It is thought likely that government was by a sort of corporate model rather than a centralized monarchy, with each city ruled by its own elite class, who possibly combined religious and secular authority.
Harappan arts and crafts encompassed pottery, small statues, gold and silver jewelry, bronze tools and seals and tokens. Almost all of the seals and tokens were marked with the Indus script and sometimes also with animal motifs.
These might have had religious connotations, perhaps as totem animals for different tribal groupings or they may have symbolized different classes or clans.
The most commonly represented animal was the unicorn, which might have been the symbol for a merchant or trader, but the variety of other animals represented, including elephants, bison, tigers and rhinoceroses, bears testament to the ecological diversity of the region in ancient, probably wetter, times.
Perhaps the most distinctive products of the Indus civilization were beads. Excavations at Harappa show stone beads from every level of occupation and the production of finely wrought and often extremely difficult to make beads from rare and valuable material is one of the defining technologies of the civilization.
Figurines from the city show that people wore multiple strings of beads and there may have been a sophisticated ‘language’ of bead jewelry signaling social status, wealth, power and other attributes. They were also an export commodity.
The most common material was steatite, a soft white stone also known as soapstone, but other materials included bronze, carnelian, agate and jasper.
The harder the material and the smaller the bead, the more difficult it was to make and excavations at Harappa suggest that different workshops in the city, perhaps under the direction of wealthy patrons, competed to advance their skills.
Harappans also developed technologies for glazing and coloring beads, including the technology of faience, where a ceramic or stone is glazed with a lustrous sheen, particularly to make it look like lapis lazuli or turquoise, precious materials that stained easily when worn next to the skin.
Later Harappans developed glass beads c 1700 B.C., 200 years before the Egyptians first made glass.
There is much that we don’t know. Aside from lost cities and ancient kingdoms that we find, we don’t even know all that is in the ocean, let alone outer space.
Yet, because we don’t know everything, we know that You are the creator of all things.
“All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made (Jn 1:3).