Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Understanding Hearth Function: An Approach from Harappa

Academic journal article Asian Perspectives: the Journal of Archaeology for Asia and the Pacific

Understanding Hearth Function: An Approach from Harappa

Article excerpt

ARCHAEOLOGISTS FREQUENTLY EMPLOY HEARTH FEATURES as informational resources that provide charcoal for dating, charred wood, faunal material, seeds for climatic, subsistence, and waste disposal studies, and artifacts for cultural analysis. In South Asia, both archaeologists and archaeobotanists use materials obtained from hearths to contribute to our understanding of the Indus civilization (e.g., Bisht 1982; Kajale 1991; Reddy 1991; Thiebault 1988; Weber 1993). While hearth contents receive considerable attention, hearth features have garnered less interest from South Asian archaeologists. Still, differences in hearth features may relate to changes witnessed elsewhere in the archaeological record. There are many strategies that archaeologists and archaeobotanists may utilize during hearth excavation and analysis. This paper will focus on these issues by examining both traditional hearth usage in the Punjab region of Pakistan and through a detailed, though preliminary, analysis of hearths at the site of Harappa, one of the largest and most important sites of the Indus civilization (Fig. 1).


South Asian archaeologists frequently use ethnographic evidence in archaeological interpretation (e.g., Belcher 1998; Kenoyer 1998; Reddy 1994, 1997). Though explanations of the archaeological record using ethnographic analogy sometimes can be misleading, information derived from ethnographic study can work heuristically to illuminate the explanatory potentials of artifacts and their associations. Ethnographic study may present new questions or possible interpretations that otherwise might not be considered by archaeologists (Binford 1967; David and Kramer 2001). However, it should not be assumed that the behavior of humans witnessed today matches that of those who produced the archaeological record (Binford 1981; Hodder 1982). Instead, ethnographic analogy should serve to illustrate what might be possible.

This study argues that Harappan hearths differ in morphology and botanical content. Preliminary results demonstrate a correlation between hearth shape and content. Ethnographic data support the possibility that different hearth types were used for varying functions. In all of the ethnographic examples presented below, hearth shape directly corresponds to function. If hearth content and shape reflect hearth use, future studies may be able to deduce the function of different Harappan archaeological hearth types.


The town and villages surrounding the site of Harappa provide an excellent opportunity to study hearths. While hearth use today may not match that of Indus civilization inhabitants, domestic cooking structures from both periods share morphological features such as relative size and construction material (i.e., clay and fired brick). Additionally, cooking on ancient South Asian hearths likely had open flames employing an array of fuel types similar to their modern counterparts. Thus, study of modern hearth use makes a good starting point for archaeological hearth inquiry. In the Punjab region of Pakistan, approximately 35 homes were visited in Harappatown and the four neighboring villages. Ethnically, these inhabitants are predominantly Punjabi with some Muhajirs (immigrants from India at the time of partition and their descendants). Since there appears to be no significant difference in hearth use (or many other cultural traits) between the Punjabi and their Muhajir neighbors, both groups are referred to as Punjabis. Among the four villages visited, hearth use appeared relatively uniform. In the more urban and less spacious setting of Harappatown, residences often had fewer hearths than their village counterparts, but the hearth types and their usage remained the same. Nearly 100 hearths of four morphological types regularly used for cooking were recorded. These include the chulha, large chulha, dudh karna, and kurahi. Usually located against a courtyard wall, each type's shape serves a specific function. …

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