Since the beginning of excavation at this complex of mounds in 1920 to 1921, Harappa has remained the type site for the so-called Harappan Civilization, also known as “Indus” or “Indus Valley Civilization.” During the period from circa 2600 BC to 1900 BC, hundreds of settlements, some of them quite large, dotted the transborder region of northwestern India and eastern and southern Pakistan. Each of these Bronze Age sites has its own story, but in one way or another, they all shared a sophisticated and distinctive cultural tradition that continues to inspire archaeological research and impress visitors.
Years ago, scholars suggested that Harappa along with another famous Indus site, Mohenjo Daro (located circa 400 miles to the southwest), were twin capitals of an empire. More recent surveys and excavations indicate that Harappa was, instead, one of a number of urban centers (including Ganweriwala, Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, and Mohenjo Daro) that served as hubs, perhaps like city-states, in a vast network of local and long-distance trade, all of which depended on the region’s agricultural productivity. Harappans kept many species of domesticated animals, and various crops were grown, but wheat and barley were especially important. There is no hard evidence for irrigation, like that found in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but it is possible that floods destroyed such tangible remains or that the Harappans used less elaborate systems to divert water. This economic network, which was concentrated in the alluvial plains of the Indus River and its tributaries, covered an area of at least 250,000 square miles and at least in size could be said to rival the territories united by rulers of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. The lack of historical accounts from this period and region makes it impossible to describe the political organization that created or protected this territory, or to explain precisely how a site like Harappa fits into the whole picture.
Harappa itself is located in northeastern Pakistan’s Punjab province, on the left bank of a dry bed of the Ravi River; the modern Ravi continues to flow about 6 miles north of the site. Named after the village that stands adjacent to the archaeological site (now represented by exposed and preserved ruins, as well as considerable unexcavated remains), Harappa’s ancient name remains unknown. Harappa was certainly one of the large towns of its day; the ruins cover an area of at least 375 acres. The site’s size is extremely difficult to determine because of thick deposits of alluvium that have covered ancient ruins. Population estimates for the ancient city vary widely, of course, with figures that range from 20,000 to 50,000.
Parts of Harappa were occupied from circa 3300 until perhaps as late as 1300 BC, a framework much longer than the period to which the site has loaned its name. This history has been subdivided into various periods through the careful study of the site’s stratigraphy and a large number of radiocarbon dates. This is especially important, since the site of Harappa has yielded occupational evidence from the entire seven centuries spanned by the Indus civilization, a further justification for its role as a type site. Changes in Harappa’s material remains are obvious over this period of 20 centuries, but there is enough continuity to suggest that this ancient city, and the civilization named after it, developed internally and probably declined as a result of natural occurrences (for example, shifting river courses, floods), including the dessication of the Ghaggar-Hakra drainage system. Nowadays, fewer scholars attempt to explain the rise and fall of the Indus civilization with reference to invasion and migration (for example, the Aryan invasion).
The ongoing research at the site is multidisciplinary in scope and continues to refine the site’s occupational history and to address topics like ecology, agriculture, and procurement of resources. The
modern excavations at Harappa rest on the pioneering efforts of both local and British scholars, including the important contribution made by Mortimer Wheeler.
During the current phase of research at Harappa and in the region at large, new data and sites have been discovered, and earlier interpretations of various architectural features have been called into question. For example, Wheeler’s identification of a fortified “citadel” on Harappa’s western mound (Mound AB) has been questioned by many scholars. What he and other scholars called a “granary” has been identified by others as a palace, and the function of large circular platforms near the “granary,” once identified as a grain processing area, is still open to debate. Streets and housing blocks followed a well-organized grid plan. Extensive use of baked bricks and the construction of wells and a drainage system also reflect the talents of the Bronze Age planners in Harappa.
Like the other cities in the Harappan realm, the affluent classes of this city acquired luxury products through exchange with distant lands, through a system of overland and maritime trade. Prized imports included gold, silver, copper, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. Objects from the Indus Valley have turned up at distant sites in India and in Mesopotamia. Wheel-made pottery and terra cotta figurines and the occasional piece of sculpture in the round reflect an aesthetic flair, but the real artistic accomplishment of the Harappans is seen in their small, square-stamp seals (most of them carved in steatite). These were used to show ownership and have been found in large numbers; they are the principal medium for the 4,000 brief inscriptions in the still indecipherable Indus script. Though no temple has been identified at any Indus civilization site, insight into Harappan mythology and religion may be provided by some intaglio scenes on these steatite stamps, which display other plant, animal, and human figures.
The Indus civilization and each of its component sites are a virtual laboratory for the investigation of early political and economic centralization and decentralization. Sites like Harappa contain valuable data for studying continuity and change within a regional context, in south Asia and beyond.
- Kenoyer, J. M. (1998). Ancient cities of the Indus Valley civilization. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press and American Institute of Pakistan Studies.
- Meadow, R. H. (Ed.). (1991). Harappa excavations 1986-1990: A multidisciplinary approach to third millennium urbanism. Madison, WI: Prehistory Press.
- Possehl, G. L. (2003). The Indus civilization: A contemporary perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.