Primary History

Indus Valley: Trade and Travel

  • What did Indus Valley people trade?

    Indus Valley cities lived by trade. Farmers brought food into the cities. City workers made such things as pots, beads and cotton cloth. Traders brought the materials workers needed, and took away finished goods to trade in other cities.

    Trade goods included terracotta pots, beads, gold and silver, coloured gem stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli, metals, flints (for making stone tools), seashells and pearls.

    Minerals came from Iran and Afghanistan. Lead and copper came from India. Jade came from China and cedar tree wood was floated down the rivers from Kashmir and the Himalayas.

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  • Checking the weight

    Indus Valley traders did not use money. So they probably exchanged goods - say, swapping two sacks of wheat for one basket of minerals.

    The traders weighed their goods on balance scales, using stone cubes as weights.

    The weights were made from cubes of a flinty rock called grey chert. The smallest cube was very light, weighing less than 1 gram! The heaviest was over 11 kilograms - a bit more than 4 bags of supermarket potatoes.

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  • What were seals?

    In 1872, archaeologist Alexander Cunningham was puzzled by a flat piece of stone from Harappa which had writing on it. It was a seal. Another archaeologist, Rakhal Banerji found more seals in 1919.

    Over 3,500 seals have now been found. Most are square or oblong, and small, about 25 mm across. They are made from steatite or faience, usually baked hard. Each seal has a picture and writing on it, carved with a copper tool.

    Pressed into soft clay, a seal left an impression (a copy of the picture and writing). When the clay dried hard, it could be used as a tag which could then be tied to a pot or basket.

    Indus Valley traders probably used seals like labels, to show who owned a sack of grain, or that the correct city tax had been paid.

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  • Seal animals

    Many seals have pictures of animals on them. Animals on seals include elephants, rhinoceros, tigers, fish-eating crocodiles (gharial) and zebu (humped cattle).

    The most commonly pictured animal on Indus seals is a 'unicorn'. In ancient stories, the unicorn was a mythical beast, usually looking like a horse, with one horn.

    Some people think the Indus Valley 'unicorn' is really a cow sideways-on. It may have been a 'good luck' charm, or the badge of an important group of traders.

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  • Traders' travels

    Indus Valley traders crossed mountains and forests. They followed rivers walking along the river bank. They also used boats. In a boat, it was easier and quicker going downstream (the same direction as the river was flowing).

    Some traders carried goods on their backs. Others drove wooden carts pulled by bullocks. Archaeologists have found clay models of carts, which look like the bullock-carts still seen in India and Pakistan today.

    Traders probably journeyed in groups. At night they made camp, or slept in roadside hotels. Sometimes it was safer to travel in groups, for protection against robbers or hungry tigers.

    Some traders settled in other lands. Traders from another civilisation called Mesopotamia made their homes in Indus cities, and people from the Indus Valley went to live in cities in Mesopotamia.

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  • Indus Valley boats

    A picture on one seal shows an Indus Valley boat with raised ends (prow and stern), a rolled-up sail, and a square cabin. A man at the stern (back) has a long oar, possibly to steer. A flat-bottomed boat could travel in shallow water. It could be pushed by a pole, by paddles, or by the wind in its sail. Bigger boats went out to sea.

    Boats in ancient times were made of wood, or bundles of reeds. Modern experiments have proved that even reed boats could cross oceans. Boats like ancient Indus Valley craft are still used in India, Pakistan and in the Arabian Gulf.

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  • Trade with Mesopotamia

    Sargon of Akkad (2334 to 2279 BC) was a king in Mesopotamia. This was one of the first ancient civilisations. We know Indus Valley traders went there, because Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia.

    Sargon's scribes kept written records of ships from other lands. So we learn that the Mesopotamians bought gold, copper and jewellery from 'Meluhha'. Was Meluhha the Mesopotamian name for the Indus civilisation? Or was it the Indus Valley people's own name for their land?

    To reach Mesopotamia, Indus ships sailed west. They probably kept close to land. Bits of old Indus pottery found on beaches in Oman, in the Gulf, came from storage jars left behind by traders.

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Fun Facts
  • Sea shells, for ornaments, were traded from over 800 km away.

  • Indus people used the stars like a compass, to find north, south, east and west.

  • Traders carried monkeys to sell as pets.

  • Mesopotamians bought ivory, gold, precious stones and 'rare animals' from Indus traders.

  • Traders carried monkeys to sell as pets.

  • Indus seals have been found in Oman, in the Gulf.

  • Some Indus merchants lived at 'Dilmun' (modern Bahrain, in the Gulf).

  • Rulers (for measuring) were made from shell, bronze and ivory. But they seem to be all marked differently!

  • A bit of dyed cotton cloth from Mohenjo-Daro is one of the two oldest in the world. The other piece was found in Jordan.

More to Explore

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

E to G

evidence
Materials or facts that can help you form a conclusion or judgment about something.
excavate
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.
furnace
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

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

M to O

Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia was an ancient civilisation in what is now Iraq; it lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
minerals
Minerals are natural substances like gold, silver, stone or sand.
museum
A museum is a building that houses artefacts that have a historical value.
mythical
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.
record
A record is information or data that has been collected and kept.
resources
Resources are the raw materials people use for building or making things.
seal
An Indus seal was a small stone block with a picture that left an impression when stamped into soft clay.
settlement
A settlement is a place where people live together, such as a village, town or city.
site
An archaeological site is an area that archaeologists are investigating.
scribe
A scribe was a person in ancient times who could read and write, and wrote things for other people.
slave
A slave is a person who is not free and has to work for an owner.
steatite
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
Sumer was a land in Mesopotamia, with one of the first civilisations, about 3500 BC.
taxes
Taxes are what people have to pay to their government, as money or in ancient times as goods, such as sacks of grain.
terracotta
Terracotta is clay that has been baked at a high temperature to make it hard and waterproof.
trade/trader
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.
well
A well is a hole dug to find water underground.