Since the beginning of excavation at this complex of mounds in 1921-1922, Mohenjo Daro became the most famous site of the “Indus” or “Indus Valley civilization,” although the slightly earlier work at Harappa provided archaeologists with a type-site and the historical-cultural designation “Harappan.” Even today, the terms Harappan and Harappan civilization are used as synonyms for Indus (or Indus Valley) civilization and refer to remains at Mohenjo Daro and numerous other sites that share recognizable features with Harappa. In fact, during the Bronze Age (ca. 2600-1900 BC), hundreds of settlements (some of them quite large) dotted the transborder region of northwestern India and eastern and southern Pakistan. Although each of these Bronze Age sites has its own story, each also shared a sophisticated and distinctive cultural tradition that continues to inspire archaeological research and impress visitors.
Years ago, scholars suggested that Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the latter of which was located approximately 400 miles to the northeast of Mohenjo Daro, were twin capitals of an empire. More recent surveys and excavations indicate that Mohenjo Daro was instead one of a number of urban centers (including Ganweriwala, Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, and Harappa) 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. Residents at Harappan sites, including Mohenjo Daro, kept many species of domesticated animals, and various crops were grown, with wheat and barley being especially important. There is no hard evidence of irrigation, like that found in Egypt and Mesopotamia, but it is possible that floods destroyed such tangible remains or that the people of Mohenjo Daro used less elaborate systems to divert water. This Harappan 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 major site such as Mohenjo Daro fits into the whole picture.
Mohenjo Daro itself is located in southcentral Pakistan’s Sind province, on the west side of the Indus River, whose nearest branch is now located approximately 3 miles east of the site. Over time, the artificial mounds (evidence of long-term occupation and extensive use of mud brick), large portions of which remain unexcavated, have been severely eroded and destroyed by Indus flooding. The ruins cover approximately 250 acres, and population estimates for the ancient city range from 20,000 to 35,000. As is the case at Harappa, heavy alluvium has covered ancient occupational deposits at Mohenjo Daro and makes it impossible to determine precisely the site’s size and population, which might have been considerably larger than current estimates.
The name Mohenjo Daro is modern and is usually translated as “Mound of the Dead”; like all Harappan sites, this city’s ancient name is unknown. Mohenjo Daro is better preserved than Harappa, and its exposed remains are impressive in terms of the site’s layout and the extent to which buildings have survived. The rising water table has made excavation of the site’s earliest levels difficult and sometimes impossible, and the rising water table even threatens the survival of buried remains.
Although it does not show signs of a long development before the Mature Harappan era (between the 26th century and ca. 1900 BC), there was later occupation at Mohenjo Daro, although it ceased to be an urban center during the 20th century BC. Like other cities of the Indus Valley civilization, natural events (e.g., shifting river courses, catastrophic floods) probably account for this cultural decline. Nowadays, fewer scholars attempt to explain the rise and fall of these cities with reference to invasion and migration (e.g., the Aryan invasion).
Mohenjo Daro has witnessed a long history of excavation from the 1920s until more recent times. The current research on the Harappan civilization has raised questions about earlier interpretations (e.g., the nature and extent of defensive structures), but some of those views have stood the test of time. Broad horizontal exposure of ruins on both the high western mound (the so-called “citadel”) and the lower town on the huge eastern mound indicate the existence of larger public buildings (e.g., the “Great Bath,” the “Granary”) and extensive blocks of residential areas (which include many two-story houses with stairways). The features that have made the name Mohenjo Daro famous include the lower city’s grid or layout, with streets that divide the fired-brick houses into blocks and an elaborate system of drains, brick-lined wells, and private bathrooms. As a whole, the architecture reflects wealth and a detailed construction plan, although not enough of either to prevent the damage caused by catastrophic floods.
Like other cities in the Harappan realm, the affluent class of Mohenjo Daro acquired luxury products by exchanging with distant lands through a system of overland and maritime trade. Indeed, the Harappan traders and their partners abroad used a standard system of weights. Many kinds of crops were raised, and many animal species were kept, especially cattle. Mohenjo Daro also played an important role in the domestication of chickens. Valuable imports included gold, silver, copper, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and turquoise—the raw materials for metallurgists and jewelers. Timber was brought in from the mountains, and cotton cloth was manufactured. Craftsmen of Mohenjo Daro used the potter’s wheel and made small objects from elephant ivory and faience. Some terracotta figurines were used as toys, whereas others represented deities. Objects from the Indus Valley have turned up at distant sites in India and in Mesopotamia.
Excavations at Mohenjo Daro have recovered some sculptures in the round such as the famous steatite bust of a bearded man (perhaps a priest) and the equally famous bronze sculpture of a dancing girl. The greatest artistic accomplishment of the Harappans is seen in their small, square stamp seals (most of them carved out of steatite). These were used to show ownership and have been found in large numbers; they are the principal medium for the 4,000 short inscriptions in the still indecipherable Indus script. Although 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, is a virtual laboratory for the investigation of early political and economic centralization and decentralization. Sites such as Mohenjo Daro contain valuable data for studying continuity and change with a regional context in South Asia and beyond.
- Dales, G. F., & Kenoyer, J. M. (1986). Excavations at Mohenjo Daro, Pakistan: The pottery. Philadelphia: University Museum Publications.
- Marshall, J. H. (Ed.). (1931). Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus civilization: Being an official account of archaeological excavations at Mohenjo-Daro carried out by the government of India between the years 1922 and 1927. London: A. Probsthain.
- Possehl, G. L. (2003). The Indus civilization: A contemporary perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.