Episode Transcript – Episode 13 - Indus Seal
Indus seal (made 4,000 - 4,500 years ago). Stone stamp found in the Indus Valley, Pakistan
Imagine the great cities of the world gone forever. London has slowly disappeared, submerged under the swollen Thames. Cairo, Los Angeles and Sydney have all been abandoned to drought and desert. Climate change has swallowed up our cities and they have vanished without trace.
Whether this apocalyptic scenario is our future, or just another Hollywood disaster movie, we or our successors will find out. But what's certain, is that it 'has' happened 'before'.
I want to take you not just to a city that was lost, but to an entire civilisation that collapsed and then vanished from human memory for over three and a half thousand years, largely due to climate change. Its rediscovery in Pakistan and north-west India was one of the great archaeological stories of the twentieth century. And in the 21st we're still piecing the evidence together. What can we now know about this lost world, the civilisation of the Indus Valley? The story begins with a small carved stone, used as a seal to stamp wet clay.
"You could really say that that's where all the things that I am interested in - civil society - starts." (Richard Rogers)
"It speaks to me in so many different ways, and it doesn't appear to be something that is alien just because it belongs to the third millennium BC." (Nayanjot Lahiri)
This week I'm looking at how the first cities and states grew up along the great rivers of the world, and how these new concentrations of people and of wealth were controlled. Around five thousand years ago, the Indus River flowed, as it still does today, down from the Tibetan Plateau into the Arabian Sea. The Indus civilisation, which at its height covered nearly 200,000 square miles, grew up in the rich, fertile floodplains. Excavations have revealed plans of entire cities, as well as vigorous patterns of international trade. Stone seals from the Indus Valley have been found as far afield as the Middle East and central Asia, but the seals I want to tell you about were found in the Indus Valley itself.
I'm in the Asia study room of the British Museum and in front of me is a small collection of stone seals, made to press into wax or clay in order to claim ownership, to sign a document or to mark a package. They were made between 2500 and 2000 BC. They're all square-ish, about the size of a modern postage stamp, and they're made of soapstone, so they're easy to carve. And they have been beautifully carved - they have wonderfully incised images of animals. I've got in front of me an elephant, an ox, a kind of cross between a cow and a unicorn and, in my hand my favourite, a rhinoceros. All the beasts have above them a few symbols which look like writing, and we'll come back to that later.
But, in historical terms, the most important of the lot is, without question, the seal that shows the cow that looks a bit like a unicorn, for it was this seal that stimulated the discovery of the entire Indus civilisation.
It was discovered in the 1850s, near the town of Harappa in what was then British India, about 150 miles south of Lahore in modern Pakistan. Over the next 50 years, three more seals like it arrived in the British Museum, but no-one had any idea what they were, when or where they'd been made. But in 1906, they caught the attention of the Director of the Archaeology Survey of India, John Marshall. He ordered the excavation of the ruins at Harappa, where the first seal had been found, and what was discovered re-wrote world history.
Marshall's team found the remains of an enormous city and went on to find many others, dating back to between 3000 and 2000 BC. This took Indian civilisation much further back in time than anyone had thought. And it was now clear that this was a land of sophisticated urban centres, trade and industry, and even writing. It ranked as a contemporary and an equal with Ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia ... and it had been totally forgotten.
The largest of the Indus Valley cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro had populations of up to 30,000 - 40,000 people. They were built on rigorous grid layouts, with carefully articulated housing plans and advanced sanitation systems which even incorporated home plumbing; they're a modern town-planner's dream. The architect Richard Rogers admires them greatly:
"When one's faced with a piece of ground where there is very limited constraints, there are not many buildings there and it's a sort of white piece of paper, the first thing you do is start putting a grid on it, because you want to own it and a grid is a way of owning it, a way of getting order. And architecture is really giving order, harmony, beauty, rhythm to space. You can see that exactly in Harappa, that's exactly what they're doing - they were giving exactly those elements. And there's an aesthetic element with it, because you can see this from their sculpture and so on - they have an aesthetic consciousness, and they also have a consciousness of order, and they have a consciousness of economy, and those things link us straight over the five thousand years to the things that we are doing today."
As we saw in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the leap from village to city usually required one dominant ruler, able to coerce and deploy resources. But just who ran these highly-ordered Indus Valley cities remains unclear. There is no evidence for kings or pharaohs - or indeed for any leader at all. And this is largely because, both literally and metaphorically, we don't know where the bodies are buried. There are none of the rich burials which in Egypt or Mesopotamia tell us so much about the powerful, and about the society they controlled. We have to conclude that the Indus Valley people probably cremated their dead and, while there may be many benefits in cremation ... for archaeologists, if I may use the phrase, it's a dead loss.
What's left of these great Indus cities gives us no indication of a society engaged with, or threatened by, war. Not many weapons have been found, and the cities show no signs of being fortified. There are great communal buildings, but nothing that looks like a royal palace, and there seems to be little difference between the homes of the rich and the poor. So what is going on here? We seem to have a quite different model of how to create an urban civilisation, without celebration of violence or extreme concentration of individual power. Is it possible that these societies were based not on coercion but on consensus? Is it going too far to see these Indus cities as an early urban Utopia? Architect Richard Rogers sees in them an exemplary balance between the public and the private realm:
"All culture stems from that early moment, all civil society stems from that and, in some ways, things have not changed as much as we would think - a house is still a house, the public domain or government building is still the same, a person sits on the stoop or step, he faces the sun or away from the sun. There's a relationship between the private domain and public domain; so all those things are really there - and the beginning of government is there too. We pride ourselves in being on one level very different but, actually, we're very close to those people."
We could get even closer if only we could read the writing on our seal, and others like it. Above all, the animal images on the seals are a series of symbols - one looks like an oval shield; others look like matchstick human figures; there are some single lines, and there's a standing spear shape. But what are they? Numbers, logos, symbols - or are they in fact a language? We don't know. Since the early 1900s, people have been trying to decipher them - nowadays of course using computers - but we just don't have enough material to go on.
The seals are often pierced, so they may have been worn by their owners, and they were probably used to stamp goods for trading - they've been found in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia.
So, we have a vast network of complex organised cities with flourishing trading links to the world beyond, all thriving between 3000 and 2000 BC. And then, around 1900 BC, it all comes to an end. The cities turned to mounds of earth, and even the memory of this, one of the great early urban cultures of the world, appears to have vanished. Why? Possibly the need for timber to have fired the brick kilns of the huge building industry may have led to extensive deforestation. More importantly, climate change seems to have caused tributaries of the Indus to change course or to dry up completely.
When the ancient Indus civilisation was initially unearthed, the entire sub-continent was under British rule, but its territory now straddles both Pakistan and India. We asked Professor Nayanjot Lahiri from Delhi University, a specialist on the Indus civilisation, about its importance for both countries today:
"I think initially, in 1924 when it was discovered, we were looking at a nation which was colonised. So to begin with there was a great sense of national pride, and a sense that we were equal to, if not better than, our colonisers, and that considering this was the case that they should actually leave India.
"Now what happens after independence, of course, is that the newly created state of India is left with just one Indus site, this site of Ranpur in Gujarat, so there is an urgency to discover Indus sites in India - hundreds of Indus sites today are known, not merely in Gujarat but also in Rajasthan, in Punjab, and even in Uttar Pradesh. On the other hand, in the case of Pakistan, of course the great cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, which were first excavated, are there. I don't think there's a competition, there is, however, a certain kind of poignant sentiment - that at least I have - when I think of India and Pakistan and the Indus civilisation, for no other reason except that the great remains, the artefacts, the pottery, the beads etc that were found at these sites - they're just completely divided among the two states."
We need to know more about these great Indus cities, and our knowledge is still growing steadily, but of course the big breakthrough would come if we could read the signs on the seals. So, if you've got some time on your hands, this might be the moment to abandon Sudoku, and come and look at the Indus seals and become the person that cracked the Indus Valley script. You might just be able to bring a lost civilisation back to life. In the meantime, the total disappearance of these great urban societies is a chilling reminder of just how fragile our own city life - indeed our whole civilisation - is.
In the next programme, we have no writing at all - and a very different kind of society, far from the urban sophistication of India and the Middle East. For the first time in the series, we'll be in Britain, where the ultimate luxury is a piece of jade.