The Indus Civilization: Sudeshna Guha Looks at the Archaeology of the Indus Civilization, the Bronze Age Phenomenon of South Asia, Whose Study Began under the British and Has Continued since Independence and Partition of the Country. She Considers How the Interpretations for This Civilization Have Shaped and Been Shaped by Notions of an Authentic 'Indian Civilization'

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'Not often has it been to archaeologists, as it was given to Schliemann at Tiryns and Mycenae, or to Stein in the deserts of Turkestan, to light upon the remains of a long forgotten civilization. It looks, however, at this moment, as if we were on the threshold of such a discovery in the plains of the Indus.'

IN THESE WORDS Sir John Marshall, the British Director-General (1902-28) of the colonial Archaeological Survey of India, chose to announce the discovery of 'the prehistoric civilization of the Indus Valley' in The Illustrated London News (September 24th, 1924).


The first finds of the oldest known urban civilization within South Asia were made at Harappa (1920) and Mohenjodaro (1922)--both sites now in Pakistan--by two officers of the Archaeological Survey, Daya Ram Sahni and Rakhal Das Banerji. The discovery was indeed, as Marshall implied, sensational. For, these remains of a seemingly city-orientated and preliterate civilization had no references within the ancient indigenous literature of the Indian subcontinent. The unique Bronze Age phenomenon of the Indus Valley, now also known as the Harappan Civilization after the site where it was first exposed, thus 'appeared' as an enigma.

Yet, like many dramatic archaeological discoveries, the Indus Civilization was recovered from sites that had long been known to contain historical remains. These had been interpreted variously. The first European to record the ancient mounds at Harappa was Charles Masson, a deserter from the East India Company army, who visited the site in 1824 and wrote about it in his Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab (1842). Masson mistook the ruins (in Montgomery district of the Punjab of British India) for the ancient city of Sangala, the capital of King Porus, who was defeated by the ruler of Macedonia, Alexander, when the latter invaded the Indian subcontinent in 327 Be. Five years after Masson, in 1831, Lieutenant Alexander Burns visited Harappa during a historic journey up the River Indus and found a 'ruined citadel on the river side of town', which he noted in his Travels into Bokhara (1834). Subsequently, Sir Alexander Cunningham, the first head of the Archaeological Survev (Director 1861-65. and Director-General 1871-85), visited Harappa three times, in 1853, 1856 and 1872-73. Cunningham conducted small excavations and inferred that the ruins of the brick mounds represented Po-fa-to, a city with stupas, monks and temples described by the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang who had toured northern India during the seventh century AD to trace the Buddha's earthly trail. The 'stone implements' and 'numerous specimen of ancient pottery' which Cunningham unearthed were to disappoint him in his search for palpable Buddhist remains, although he did acquire a 'curious thing'--a stamp seal, whose drawing he published in 1875.


Characteristically of the time, Cunningham saw this seal, which is now regarded as a typical artefact of the urban phase of the Indus Civilization, as an archaeological curiosity. He pronounced the specimen to be 'foreign to India', since it depicted a hump-less bull and not the humped Indian zebu; and an inscription which, he was certain, contained no 'Indian letters'. Two other seals from Harappa were published, in 1886 and in 1912, by which time all three had found their way into the British Museum.

At a time when systematic excavations were a novelty and physical dating techniques unknown, collections of comparable artefacts offered the only means of determining cultural and chronological affinities between settlements of uncertain antiquity. So although pottery, stone tools and other objects from sites now classified as 'Harappan'--such as Amri (Sind, Pakistan), Dabar Kot (Loralai district, Pakistan), Suktagen-dor (Dasht valley of Makran, Pakistan Iranian border) and Kalibangan (Rajasthan, India)--were known by the beginning of the twentieth century, their historical connections were not investigated. …