Have you ever dug a hole somewhere outside, hoping you’d find something ancient and mysterious? How would you know what it was, who it belonged to, or how old it was? These are questions that archeologists ask all the time, as they carefully dig through layers of cities, houses, even trash heaps to discover clues about how people lived in the past. Today, we’re going to visit an ancient civilization that was almost forgotten, and look at some of the clues archeologists have found about who they were and how they lived.
Indus River Valley
First, we’re going to journey back 4000 years, to an area that is now partly in India and partly in Pakistan, called the Indus River Valley. In this ancient time, two large rivers flowed through this valley: the Indus, which gives the valley the name we use now, and the Saraswati, which has long since dried up. Here in this hot, dry region, the rivers provided food, water, and transportation for a sophisticated civilization we now call the Indus Valley Civilization, or the Harappan Culture. Monsoons brought torrential rains to the area each year, as they do now, flooding the rivers and making the soil around them rich and perfect for growing crops. The people of the Indus Valley culture build grand, carefully planned and constructed cities, as well as hundreds of other smaller settlements. They prospered for thousands of years, and then, they vanished. What happened? How did these people live? And how did we rediscover them?
Discovering the Indus Valley Civilization
Archeologists began to rediscover the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization in the 19th century. The first person to note that there might be ancient sites in the area was Charles Masson, an Englishman who had abandoned his job with the East India Company in the 1820s, and went exploring in northwest India. During much of the period of this rediscovery, the British Empire controlled what is now India and Pakistan. Masson thought the remains of the city he found, which is now called Harappa, were somehow related to Alexander the Great and his conquering army. He was wrong. Later, a British archeologist named Alexander Cunningham thought it was a Buddhist site. He was wrong too. Neither man guessed that the city was much, much older.
By the time Cunningham began excavating Harappa in the 1870s, many of the structures had been taken apart. Workers had taken them to use on a railroad that was being built between the cities of Lahore and Karachi. Still, he did find some interesting items, especially a mysterious seal with a bull and some symbols along the top. The seal may have been used to stamp property or as a person’s signature. The symbols at the top are especially remarkable: they look a lot like writing! But, no one has been able to decipher what they mean. We don’t even know what language they’re from, though it’s probably similar to others spoken in India today.
John Marshall’s Excavations
In the early 20th century, another archeologist named John Marshall planned and started major excavations of both Harappa and another city called Mohenjo-Daro. An archeologist on the project, named Rakhal Das Banerji found seals at Mohenjo-Daro that were very similar to the ones at Harappa, 400 miles away. These seals also had the mysterious writing, and similar images of people, animals and even unicorns! He thought that the two cities must be part of the same culture. Marshall’s team eventually discovered that the Indus Valley culture was much older than any other known civilization in India! In fact, it was one of the oldest civilizations in the world – along with the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians.
The cities are in ruins now, but we can see their layouts and basic features, and archeologists have unearthed many artifacts, or objects, from everyday life. Together, these things give us an idea of how the Indus Valley people lived, but also leave some tantalizing mysteries.
A lot of careful planning went into building Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, and other, smaller settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization. The cities were built on gigantic, raised brick platforms, to protect them from flooding. Most had a large citadel in the middle for protection. Homes, markets and workshops spread out under the citadel. All the streets were straight and ran in either and East-West or North-South direction. This would certainly make it easy to find your way around! Different trades, such as metal working or pottery, were practiced in different parts of the city. In Mohenjo -Daro, there is even an area that seems to be a public bath or pool!
Indus Valley Civilization cities were also the first in the world to have sewer systems, and pipes that carried waste from homes. Even small homes had a room with a toilet and washing area, like a modern bathroom. Keeping clean and healthy must have been important to these people!
With such well-organized cities, someone must have been making laws and ensuring that planners and builders followed the rules. But we don’t know who that was. Except for one small statue, we haven’t found many pieces of art that seem to pay tribute to a king or leader. Archeologists also haven’t found any opulent palaces where you’d expect a royal family to live. They may have had something like a city council, a group of people who made the laws. Priests may have been involved in ruling. But someone was running things, and running them well. Very few weapons have been found, suggesting the Indus Valley Civilization was peaceful and stable. And whoever made the rules made sure there were standard ways of weighing and measuring things. Even the bricks in the different cities were the same size!
It’s pretty unusual to find a civilization that appears to be so stable and peaceful, but there’s another thing that makes the Indus Valley Civilization unique: Toys! Archeologists have found thousands of objects that look like they were used as toys or entertainment for children. Small clay figurines of animals, people, and carts were probably the action figures and dolls of their day. They’ve found rattles, spinning tops, marbles and dice; game boards with tiny, ivory pieces; and clay mazes that you navigate with a marble. There’s also evidence of how people entertained each other: small figurines of girls in different dance poses. We also know they kept dogs, cats, and birds as pets. Archeologists have found clay figurines of dogs with collars, and birdcages.
Trading in the Indus Valley Civilization
The Indus Valley Civilization wasn’t isolated either. They were trading with other cultures across Asia. Jewelry and beads were made using metal and gemstones not found in the local area: Jade from central Asia, amethyst from further southeast in India, lapis lazuli and gold from northern Afghanistan. No one has found coins or anything like money in the Indus Valley cities, so they probably bartered, or traded, for these goods. Still, like everything about the Indus Valley Civilization, it wasn’t a haphazard, disorganized system: the weights and measures we talked about earlier were used to make sure exchanges were fair, and the seals were used to show who owned things and where they’d been in their trading journey.
We don’t know much about what the Indus Valley people believed. We have to guess based on artwork and other objects they left behind. Some of the seals and figurines seem to show gods or goddesses. They show people with unusual features, like horns, or surrounded by wild animals. We can also learn about religious beliefs by looking at how people took care of the dead. The Indus Valley people buried their dead with containers of food and drinks and jewelry. This might mean that they believed their loved ones would need these things in the afterlife.
Leaving the Indus Valley
Many people have tried to figure out what happened to the Indus Valley Civilization in the end. Sometime between 1900 and 1700 BCE, something was happening that caused people to start to leave the grand cities and settlements. The Saraswati may have started to dry up, while the Indus began to have more and worse floods. The longer floods may have left more salt in the soil, which made the land worse for farming. Other settlers may have started moving into the area, pushing the old residents out.
It was probably a combination of different things.We know the change happened slowly over time, not all at once. The great cities and carefully constructed buildings began to crumble. The sewer systems decayed, or were even blocked up. The items people put in graves were lower quality and less valuable. By 1700 BCE, most of the Indus Valley cities were empty.
Whatever happened, once the Indus Valley Civilization was gone, the world began to forget about this vibrant culture, one of the very first advanced societies in the world. Over time the cities crumbled, and the earth covered them up. New people moved into the area, created their own great cities, art, and monuments, not knowing that another fascinating culture once existed there. This is why it’s important to be curious and learn as much as you can. What other mysteries do you think we’ll discover about our past? What is buried under your feet right now? How old is it? And what does it mean? Maybe one day, you’ll make an interesting discovery, and then you can try to answer those questions!
Martin, Claudia. (2017) Explore! The Indus Valley. Wayland, London.
Robinson, Andrew (2015) The Indus. Reaktion Books, London.