If you read any literature about ancient history, you’ll often hear of the Indus Valley Civilisation as one of the first of the world civilisations. It’s intrigued historians for generations and has been the focus of various books and documentaries. However, today we want to demystify some of the frequently answered questions about this civilisation as well as give you a guide to the art and artefacts you could collect.
Where is the Indus Valley?
The ruins of the Indus Valley were first ‘discovered’ by European archaeologists in 1829 AD in the North of the Indian Subcontinent. As perhaps given away by the name, the civilisation is found in the basin of the Indus River that primarily runs through modern day Pakistan. Indeed, the two biggest and most excavated cities that have been attributed to this period: Harappa and Mohenjo, are both within Pakistan. However, the civilisation was vast. Historians estimate that the population could have been as large as 5 million at its height. The civilisation’s ruins have been found in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and on the borders of Nepal. It’s also worth noting that like many ancient communities, there’s still probably more to be excavated and discovered.
In terms of its environment, it’s worth noting that it is not just one river, but also many smaller rivers. Some of these are tributaries and some are independent sources, nearly all of them starting in the Himalayas or surrounding plateaus. In fact, ‘a few valleys have more extensive areas of arable land.’ Additionally, unlike in Mesopotamia or Egypt, the river valley is also home to lots of mineral resources. Overall, it was a geographically advantageous place to settle down.
How old is Indus Valley Civilisation?
What can be most surprising about the Indus Valley Civilisation is just how old it is. Pre-dating the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians we find the first evidence of considerable activity in the region at 7000 BC. The excavations from this period have unearth mud houses, with storage in the foundations. They were people who buried their dead next to their dwellings and laid them to rest with extravagant beaded jewellery. By around 5550 BC we start to see the terracotta figurines and pottery the Indus Valley has become well known for. This style gradually spreads over time likely through marriage, political alliance and shared religious practice.
The height of the Indus Valley was between 3000 BC and 1500 BC. It’s in this period the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo start to grow and we get urbanisation on a significant level. From around 3300 BC we start to see evidence of imports of goods from far away on a significant scale, and from 2800 BC we start to see evidence of grid systems and planned city layouts. From 2000 BC we start to see the peaceful movement in of Aryan peoples from the North East and the decline of the civilisations begins around 1500 BC. By 600 BC the once great Indus Valley Civilisation had all but shifted to an area around the Ganges. Why this is, is very much still up for debate.
What’s the difference between the Indus Valley and Harappa?
The Indus Valley Civilisation has various names. One of them is Harappan Civilisation and another is the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation. Harappa refers to the main of the two cities that have been unearthed in the region, and Sarasvati to the other main river that the people were based around.
Although there are over 1,500 towns and cities that have been identified as part of this civilisation, we want to focus momentarily on Harappa as it’s the source to so much of our information about these peoples. Built partially on a mud brick platform above the flood plain, Harappa is a remarkable urban construction. The city was organised in a grid system and the individual homes had two storeys. These dwellings had open courtyards, latrines and bathing platforms that consisted of watertight areas with one drain. This plumbing was available through connection to a city wide sanitation system. The water source is likely to be the River Ravi or a purpose built reservoir. The only large buildings are those that have been referred to a ‘granaries’ but are more likely meeting houses and community spaces. We see evidence of agate weights and measures and the taking of taxes.
What makes the civilisation stand out?
There are various reasons why historians and enthusiasts are frequently drawn to the Indus Valley. Firstly, its constructions and perceivable way of life are immediately impressive. As we hope you felt when reading above about Harappa, there’s a lot about their world that is not dissimilar from our own. Their developments of technology, building and construction are similar we do not see in Europe until much later.
Secondly, as much as the material life they lead may feel eerily familiar, their political circumstances appear the opposite. There seems to be no evidence of any king or long-lasting ruling elite. We find no royal burials and no large palaces or temples. Through rich material evidence it is clear some amassed considerable wealth – but through what means and what this meant in terms of societal order remains is unclear. Additionally, we do not see the near constant war that has come to define other ancient and many contemporary civilisations and nations. There is some evidence of conflict, for example early on and later on when the Persian eventually take over the area around 500 BC. However, this is nowhere near the level one might originally expect.
Thirdly, there’s a general aura of mystery around the civilisation that makes it all the more intriguing. There’s a lot we don’t know because we can’t decipher the script. For a lot of the 20th Century and up until the current day, many historians and linguists have tried to decipher text on seals and pottery. However, without finding longer pieces of inscription it has so far remained impossible. This means we are in the dark about a lot of the specifics or religion, politics and trade. Additionally, as alluded to earlier, there’s a lot of debate about why the civilisation came to an end.
Popular arguments as to why the Indus Valley Collapsed include:
- Climate Change meant the Sansavati river dried up and the land became inhospitable with more changeable weather events, such as the monsoon. This caused famine and instability.
- In the face of Climate Change the large civilisation broke up under the leadership of various tribal leaders into ‘Late Harappan Cultures.’
- Mesopotamia was going through political turmoil at the time and stopped trading with the Indus Valley. This was a considerable loss as it was probably a main source of income.
- Invasion from Aryan invaders displaced the Indus River People. (This argument was at once very popular but now mainly debunked and denied).
- Epidemics came in due to migration and climate change that caused a significant decline in the population.
What Artefacts remain that you can Collect?
Here at Pax Romana, we really enjoy sharing the ancient past with you – and that includes artefacts from the Indus Valley. Large scale excavations in the later 19th and early 20th Century brought lots of pieces to the European market that can be found in the trade today. So, what could you collect?
Indus Valley pottery pieces are probably some of the most well-known artefacts that are available from this period. They are often terracotta in colour and decorated with distinctive designs of fish, animals and geometric patterns. Many of them were probably in use for dining and food preparation with the highly decorated items in good condition only used for special circumstances. Additionally, they may well have had a religious purpose that we are still unsure of. People can be curious as to how these designs are preserved. In fact, the designs remain vivd as they are protected by the hard packed soil they’re buried in.
Perhaps the second most collectable items from this period are small idols in anthropomorphic forms. The figures come in a number of forms and a number of genders. There are those with breasts, those with visible genitalia and those with no visible sex characteristics at all. They’re our main way of understanding sex and gender in the Indus Valley without available script. However, it’s of course worth noting that coming to a meaningful conclusion on this is difficult and somewhat problematic.
These figures are numerous in archaeological excavations and their purpose has been regularly debated. The normal assumption is that they held some sort of relevance as fertility idols and deities. However, at best these are guesses! Historians are often still stumped by their purpose. In any case, they are beautiful pieces of terracotta art. They’re perfect for new collectors of antiquities as they are immediate talking points and easy to display.
Of course, a range of material items from the Indus Valley have been excavated. Some of these pieces are much rarer and therefore more expensive than others. In addition to pottery and idols we would also recommend the collecting of seals. These seals can be made of bronze or terracotta and range in size and value. It’s expected they were used in trade and food distribution. However, as you may be able to guess, it’s hard for us to know for sure!
We hope you have found this information useful and have learnt something new about the Ancient Indus Valley Civilisation. If you’d be interested in purchasing Indus Valley items in auction look here.