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See Inside Mysteries of the Ancient Ones

Uncovering the keys to the Lost Indus Cities [Preview]

Recently excavated artifacts from Pakistan have inspired a reevaluation of one of the great early urban cultures--the enigmatic Indus Valley civilization

In the mid-1980s, during our first few seasons excavating the long-dead city archaeologists call Harappa, my colleagues and I watched the passage of the annual spring fairs without realizing their implications for our studies of the ancient Indus civilization. Every year in Pakistans Indus River Valley, people living in villages travel to larger towns to attend festivals called sang--"gathering fairs" where musicians, performers and circus troupes entertain the crowds while itinerant merchants and traders hawk their wares. During the single-day event, women present religious offerings to professional pilgrims, who, on the womens behalf, will later petition the Sufisaint Sakhi Sarwar for healthy children, especially sons. At days end the holy sojourners and their colorful secular entourage make their way by foot and donkey cart to the next town along the regions age-old trade routes [see illustration on page 28].

Eventually various groups of devout wayfarers arriving from different parts of the country converge on the saints tomb hundreds of kilometers away in the Baluchistan hills. Here they deliver the alms and prayers they have collected during their treks to the saints precinct. Making their way along the same path the next year, the pilgrims bear salt and sacred earth from the distant shrine, tokens of favor for the fortunate mothers and their precious newborns.

Our view of the sang changed significantly when we began digging inside the southern gateway of Harappa, just adjacent to the traditional fairgrounds. As we sifted the uppermost soil from the newly opened trenches, we recovered modern pottery shards, hundreds of pieces of recently manufactured glass bangles, some contemporary coins, lead pellets from the air guns fired at balloons during the festival, fragments of plastic and metal toys, even a gold earring. Just below the surface levels, however, we began finding ancient Harappan artifacts that were surprisingly similar to the modern flotsam: broken pottery, terra-cotta bangles, clay marbles, toy carts, figurine fragments, and, occasionally, inscribed tablets and weights that were probably used in trade and taxation at the citys entrance.

The buried remains suggested that a thriving market existed in the vicinity and that the activities conducted there some four millennia ago were not unlike those occurring even now. Our further work has confirmed that belief. As today, nearby villagers would come to the big city on special market or festival days to participate in ceremonies, to renew family or clan ties, or to buy (or barter for) specially crafted items such as ornaments and pottery. Along the very same pathways trod by present-day pilgrims and their followers, raw materials from the hinterlands once arrived at the gates of Harappa, where the artisans in the citys many workshops transformed them into the finished luxury products that were later purchased by local elite personages and shipped far afield for export markets. Then, as now, people in the Indus Valley wore ornaments and jewelry to demonstrate their wealth and status. To modern observers, the continuity of day-to-day life in this region from deep in the past to the present is rather astounding. As archaeologists, we can try to determine whether these similarities result from cultural choices or from the fact that the available materials and technologies have not changed much over the millennia.

The enigmatic Indus Valley civilization was one of the four great early Old World state-cultures, along with Mesopotamia, Egypt and Chinas Yellow River civilization. But much less is known about it because, unlike the other ancient urban cultures, linguists have yet to decipher the Harappan script we see on recovered seals, amulets and pottery vessels. In our ongoing attempt to understand how the now vanished people of the Indus culture ordered their society and to determine the sources of political, economic, military and ideological (religious) power in this remarkably extensive and urbanized state, my co-workers and I have to draw clues from the miscellaneous material we dig up and from the layout and architecture of the cities and settlements we excavate.

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