Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Ancient Indus by Rita P. Wright

Considering the apparent depth of human misery in parts of Afganistan and Pakistan at the moment, it seems a little trite to also point out that this area is the site of some of the most interesting and early cities. Rita P Wright is the sort of courageous archaeologist who has spent her career uncovering this still-mysterious area of the earth, and this book, The Ancient Indus, published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press, presents some of the latest findings.

The first chapter deals with the history of the discovery which started when a deserter from the British East India Company, who went under the alien of Charles Masson, discovered a mound adjacent to the city of Harappa as he journeyed through the Punjab on horseback in 1829. The importance of the site only really came to the attention of the western world when article in the London Illustrated news by John Marshall declared the great age of the site comparing it with the hey-days of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Mortimer Wheeler later took an interest in the place, and wrote an influential book called the Indus Empire in 1966 (which I've ordered), but some of his ideas, for instance that the cities died out due to being overrun by Aryan invaders from the north, are now mostly dismissed. The cities seemed to be unusual in that they seem to be unprepared for war. Although raised above the flood plains and divided by walls these seem to be for segregation rather than defence.

The second chapter considers the modern ideas explaining the collapse of the civilisation, which started around 1900BC. The Monsoon shifted, as did the course of the rivers. Earthquakestoo could have an an effect, as could the silting up the rivers and the coastline extending south.

In the third chapter I learnt about the evidence of the start of farming in the area: specifically in Mehrgarh, a particularly impoverished and underdeveloped area of Pakistan, a mountainous region, just to the west of the valley. Some crops and animals were thought to be locally domesticated, while others were thought to be imported from the middle east. By 4,500BC domestication of both animals and crops was widespread.

There was an interesting section considering a particular site in Mehrgarh which described some aspects of the the life of a community living there from 7,000-2,500BC, and the changes as the settlement became larger and more urban. The average life expectancy seemed to go down, judging from the ages of the bodies exhumed from the cemeteries, and the birth rate went up. Pots became more sophisticated, some of them thrown onto a wheel and decorated with gazelles, and the oxygen and temperature of the kilns controlled to change the colour of the clay. But the best artwork seemed to come from the early part of their history. In the first era, 7,000- 4,000BC, the figurines are symbolic and strikingly beautiful.

Chapter 4 describes the rise of the city: the migration to the plains, the establishment of small villages and then the planning and the establishment of the cities. The earlier technologies of the people in Mehrgarh are developed and new ones added. The enlargement of the communities allow people to become specialised, and a hierarchy is developed with communities of 'crafters' established in 'industrial' locations. There is a cubical weight system, the bricks are standardised and an early form of script is marked on pottery.

Chapter 5 introduced me to the specific wonders of the five main individual Indus cities. Although they interacted and were based on the same culture, each one had their own individual characteristics. Mohenjo-daro, for instance, was the largest, but also short-lived. It was established quickly over just a few years on a raised platforms built above the plain, and had a sophisticated plumbing system of drain, cess-pits, baths and vertical shafts for wells, and a system of parallel roads.

Harappa, in contrast, still exists today, and although no great bath has been discovered as in Mohenjo-daro there is an unexplained large building of many small rooms which can only be described in terms of what it is not: not a granary, nor a barracks, nor a temple...

The cities are thought to have been similar in concept to the city-states of Ancient Greece in that they each controlled a a network of smaller towns and villages which were mutually dependent in terms of the supply of raw materials and goods.

In addition to the Indus valley proper there were also empire outposts and gateways. For instance, in northern Afghanistan 500km away, there was a small settlement called Shortugai, thought to be established by Harappan people to take advantage of the supply of lapis lazuli. It seems to have been a Harappa city in miniature.

Chapter 6 is an in depth look at the Harappan crafts. I read about carnelian beads that took a fortnight to produce, miniature steatite beads glazed with sand lime and clay and stoneware bangles which were restricted to the cities since their method of production was incredibly sophisticated and involved clay purification, a potter's wheel and then such careful control of a kiln that the product has a shiny metallic lustre and has the properties of glass.

Trade was another important aspect of Harappan life, and during their Urban phase (2,600 - 1,900 BC) the Harappans had important links with Mesopotamia and the Arabian peninsular. Chapter 7 describes aspects of this: the use of seals as identification of goods, the system of weights made from the same chert to establish uniformity, the use of shells, precious metals, and semi-precious stones and the idea that some of the articles made could serve as 'monies' for use in trade. One idea I found exciting was that in Mesopotamia there were Harappan emigres who served as 'tongue exchangers' and there is therefore the prospect that one day a tablet containing both Sumerian and Harappan script might be found, and so the language and writing of Harappa with its 400 signs might be interpreted.

Chapter 8 considers more aspects of the Harappan contact with distant places, which leads to chapter 9's consideration of the administration and social organisation of a Harappan city. There is evidence of a privileged society sporting carnelian beads instead of terracotta, copper bowls instead of pot, and a hierarchy of elite merchants, specialist traders, family groups and individuals and possibly state institutions - segregated by walls and spaces and proximity to cess pit. Houses had bathing platforms, toilets,wells, refuse disposal systems. In some ways the living conditions of the cities of Harappa seem to surpass the conditions of some parts of Pakiatan today.

Chapter 10 is an assessment of what is known or postulated about the Harappan religion. Some people have looked at it in comparison with the history of modern religions of the area; while others have compared it with other religions of the time. It ends with a detailed examination of Harappan seals and imagery and involves processions of worshipers wearing horned headresses, priests or shamans, and deities which have animal and human characteristics.

In chapter 11 there is an assessment of the evidence for the decline of the empire and its causes, as well as a description of the changes in lifestyle as life became more difficult. As in Greece after the Mycenae, there was a dark age. People forgot how to write because the contraction of trade meant there was no longer any need. Some cities were abandoned altogether, while some became overpopulated in some parts and abandoned others. Eventually the elite left for the Ganges basin where conditions had become more amenable.

Overall, a very interesting book with a lot of fascinating information, although it is an academic one written for undergraduates, and therefore uses the vocabulary and sentence structure of the social sciences textbook.

I bought this book from Amazon - a worthwhile purchase.

I have a pinpage devoted to the images here.


Blogger Unknown said...

can i download this book?
can i get a download link if possible?

Mon Aug 20, 11:03:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

No, this doesn't seem to be available, checking on Amazon. I guess you could write to the publisher. There are some contact details here: http://www.cambridge.org/contacts/uk/

Mon Aug 20, 02:20:00 pm  

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