Peaceful Harappans? Reviewing the Evidence for the Absence of Warfare in the Indus Civilisation of North-West India and Pakistan (C. 2500-1900 BC)

Article excerpt


The mature phase of the Harappan Civilisation, centred on the River Indus (Figure 1), has been characterised as having rigid urban planning, standardised systems of seals and weights, striking cultural uniformity over a vast area, and an absence of temples, palaces, elite burials and warfare in comparison to Egypt and Mesopotamia (see especially Piggott 1962; Wheeler 1968). Such generalising characterisations are increasingly being challenged, providing a picture of regional diversity in architecture, material culture, and almost all aspects of life. However, the assumed absence of warfare in the Indus Civilisation remains largely unchallenged, despite having major implications for the interpretation of the internal organisation of this civilisation. Primarily this has meant the explanation of social coercion and control in terms of ideology rather than physical force.


In fact, the absence of warfare in the Indus Civilisation suggested by many researchers is based upon problematic evidence, an uncritical acceptance of past interpretations and comparisons made with Near Eastern data which fail to distinguish between the funerary contexts from which most Mesopotamian metalwork derives and the domestic contexts from which most Harappan metalwork originates. This paper does not, however, argue for the presence of standing armies and organised war in the Indus Valley. The definition of warfare used here follows that of Webster: 'Warfare consists of planned confrontations between groups of people who conceive of themselves as members of separate political communities (factions) ... Warfare is organized and sanctioned group violence that involves armed conflict, including confrontations which combatants recognize may result in deliberate killing. Conflicts are organized and carried out by at least one of the factions with the intent of maintaining the status quo or bringing about a shift of power relations, usually the latter' (1998: 313). Warfare need not refer specifically to the modern notion of a military campaign composed of battles. The term 'weapons' is also used loosely here, encompassing objects which were certainly intended as weapons, but more significantly also including what Chapman (1999) has called 'tool-weapons'--that group of objects which could as easily be used for domestic and violent purposes, and of which the primary use cannot be ascertained by form alone. This includes such objects as knives, spears, daggers and arrowheads.

With this in mind, the paper overturns the reasoning behind interpretations of the Harappans as peaceful and warless, employing a comparative approach to illustrate how the metal weapons from Indus cities are comparable to those of the Near East (Mesopotamia, Susiana and the Levant) and Egypt, where warfare is historically documented. Discussion is confined to the Mature Harappan period. Because much of the data used here derives from old excavation reports with poor stratigraphic control, a more precise chronology is not possible.

The 'Peaceful Harappans' model

The interpretation of the Harappans as entirely 'peaceful' can be traced back to comments made in the first excavation report of an Indus site (Marshall 1931); 70 years later, these ideas have gained common acceptance but have never been rigorously tested. Since then, Indus weaponry has been portrayed as technologically inadequate for offensive use, inferior to Mesopotamian examples and outnumbered by tools at Indus sites. The ineffectiveness and scarcity of weapons was first commented on by Mackay (1931: 497) who observed that the blades found at Mohenjo Daro would 'double up upon impact', and linked this specifically to an absence of warfare: 'judging from the small number ... of weapons of offence and defence, the people of Mohenjo Daro appear neither to have been a warlike people nor have feared invasion' (1931: 282). The former statement has been repeated, often word for word, by Wheeler (1968: 73), Agrawal (1971: 191; 2000: 71), Rao (1973: 82; 1985: 530), Basham (1967: 21) and Kosambi (1997: 64). …