Primary History

Indus Valley: Art and writing

  • Indus Valley sculpture

    The Indus Valley civilisation left no temples or tombs like the Pyramids of Egypt, and no great statues of kings or gods. Indus Valley people made small figures of people and animals using metal and clay.

    Only a few small statues survive. One is the Priest-King, with his beard, and his patterned robe.

    Another figure is a 'dancing girl' in bronze, only 11 cm high. This shows that Indus Valley people liked to dance. The dancing girl wears very little, but has lots of bangles on her arms. Her hair is in a plait.

    Small clay figures were thrown into rubbish pits. Perhaps they were good luck charms, or used in once and then thrown away?

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  • Making pots

    At home, Indus Valley people used bowls, dishes, cups, and vases made of terracotta. They had metal dishes made from copper, silver and bronze.

    Most Indus Valley pots are plain, but some pots were decorated, usually in red and black. Potters added bands, patterns of leaves and flowers, and shapes like fish scales. A few pots were coloured blue, red, green and yellow.

    Clay pots were shaped on a potter's wheel. The potter put a lump of wet clay on a wooden disc (the wheel), and made the wheel spin. As the clay spun on the wheel, the potter shaped the pot by hand. The finished pot went into a hot oven to 'fire'or harden it. A cheap pot might be left in the hot sun to dry.

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  • Making jewellery

    Archaeologists have found evidence that Indus Valley people wore lots of jewellery, especially beads, necklaces, ear-rings and ear-studs, amulets, bangles and brooches.

    At Harappa, archaeologists found the grave of a man, who was buried wearing a necklace of more than 300 soapstone beads. People also liked bangles made from conch shells. Shell bangles are still made in India today.

    Red beads were made by heating carnelian stones in an oven. The heat turned the stone from brown to red. After it had cooled, the stone was chipped to shape the bead. Using a stone drill, the bead-maker drilled a hole for the string. Finally, the bead was polished smooth and shiny.

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  • Indus Valley writing

    Writing was done using a pointed stick in soft clay, or with a sharp tool to scratch marks on stone or metal. It is likely that only a few people could read and write, like scribes. But perhaps traders could read enough to tell what was written on seals.

    Most Indus Valley writing was probably to do with trade, government or religion. People wrote the first line from right to left, the second line from left to right, and so on.

    In modern English, we start each new line on the left. Can you find any other modern writing that is done differently?

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  • What does Indus Valley writing tell us?

    Not very much. Indus Valley writing used at least 400 picture-signs (they were not letters, as in our alphabet). But the longest bit of writing found has only 26 characters. No one knows what language the Indus people spoke, and no one has yet been able to read their writing. There are no Indus Valley books, no laws carved in stone, no stories about kings and battles.

    It seems that Indus writing changed little over hundreds of years. Unlike English. English writing has changed so much that it's not easy to read something that was written in 1066!

    Some experts think the Indus language may have been similar to Tamil, which is spoken today by people in southern India and Sri Lanka.

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Fun Facts
  • Two seals from Mohenjo-Daro show boats.

  • One Indus seal-sign looks like a fish, but might also represent stars

  • One seal shows a crocodile eating a fish.

  • One seal shows a man with a spear fighting a buffalo.

  • Some Indus bracelets look like doughnuts, painted grey or black.

  • The biggest Indus writing is 37 cm high. It may have been on a wood board - a name sign perhaps?

  • A potter spun the wheel with the foot, leaving the hands free to shape the spinning pot.

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aerial photograph
An aerial photograph is usually taken from an aircraft or hot air balloon and shows the landscape beneath.
An amulet is a good-luck charm, like a locket, usually worn around the neck.
ancient civilisation
An ancient civilisation is one which existed over 1,500 years ago.
An archaeologist is a person who studies ancient civilisations by examining the materials they left behind. These materials can include buildings, pottery, graves and tools.
An artefact is an object that has been made by a person. Archaeologists use old artefacts to learn about the past.
BC is the abbreviation for Before Christ - which is before the Christian era.
A bullock is a young bull or ox (male cattle) used to pull carts or ploughs.
Bronze is a metal made by mixing copper and tin.
Carnelian is a reddish-brown mineral stone used to make jewellery.
A cemetery is a place where dead people are buried.
A citadel is a fortified place, usually in a raised position in or near a city.
A civilisation is a culture and society that developed in a region at a particular time.
A compass is a device that shows the direction of the magnetic or true North.
Copper is a metal. It was used in ancient civilisations to make tools.
A detective is a person who investigates crimes by finding evidence.
A drain is a pipe or ditch made to carry away water from buildings.

E to G

Materials or facts that can help you form a conclusion or judgment about something.
To excavate an area is to uncover it by digging or removing earth.
excavation map
An excavation map shows the site where an archaeologist is searching for artefacts.
faience (fie-unz)
Faience is a material made by heating minerals until they melt; when it cools, it is hard and shiny.
A furnace is a very hot fire used to melt rocks containing metals, and melt metal soft enough to shape.
geophysical scan
A geophysical scan uses radar, lasers and other 'x-ray' technology to look beneath the ground for hidden objects.

H to L

The Himalaya are the highest mountains in the world, to the north of India.
A Hindu is a person who follows the ancient religion of Hinduism, which began in India.
To irrigate is to use water from a river or lake to feed farm crops in fields.
Jade is a hard stone used to make jewellery and ornaments.
A kiln is a very hot oven used to bake and harden materials such as clay and bricks.

M to O

Mesopotamia was an ancient civilisation in what is now Iraq; it lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Minerals are natural substances like gold, silver, stone or sand.
A museum is a building that houses artefacts that have a historical value.
If something is mythical, it is imaginary or made-up.

P to Z

physical feature
A physical feature is a land shape formed by nature. Valleys, mountains and deserts are all physical features.
port city
A port city is a city by the sea, where boats can dock and people can buy or sell goods.
A record is information or data that has been collected and kept.
Resources are the raw materials people use for building or making things.
An Indus seal was a small stone block with a picture that left an impression when stamped into soft clay.
A settlement is a place where people live together, such as a village, town or city.
An archaeological site is an area that archaeologists are investigating.
A scribe was a person in ancient times who could read and write, and wrote things for other people.
A slave is a person who is not free and has to work for an owner.
Steatite is a soft stone which can be carved using metal tools. Steatite hardens when it is fired in a kiln.
Stone Age
The Stone Age was the period in ancient history when people made tools from stone, such as flint knives and axes.
Sumer was a land in Mesopotamia, with one of the first civilisations, about 3500 BC.
Taxes are what people have to pay to their government, as money or in ancient times as goods, such as sacks of grain.
Terracotta is clay that has been baked at a high temperature to make it hard and waterproof.
Trade is exchanging goods. A trader is someone who makes a living by trade, buying and selling things that they or other people have grown, collected or made.
A well is a hole dug to find water underground.