Indus seal

Contributed by British Museum

A seal (right), and an impresssion made by it, from the Indus Valley civilisation. © Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

This seal was found in the 1870s and led to the discovery of an ancient civilisation in the Indus Valley. It was probably used to close documents and mark packages of goods. This suggests that the Indus civilisation was part of an extensive long-distance trading network. The animal on this seal was originally mistaken for a unicorn but is now thought to be a bull. The seals carry the oldest writing in South Asia. It has yet to be deciphered.

What was the Indus Civilisation?

The earliest civilisation in South Asia developed along the Indus river and India's western coast. The Indus civilisation produced writing, built large cities and controlled food production through a central government. Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus civilisation was not dominated by powerful religious elites. No temples were built and no images of state gods or kings have been found. Deforestation, climate change and a series of invasions all contributed to the Indus civilisation's decline in 1500 BC.

The Indus civilisation had complex sanitation systems and there is even evidence that houses had bathrooms.

Legacy of the Indus Valley civilisation

In 1924 when the civilisation was discovered, India was colonised. So to begin with there was a great sense of national pride and a sense that we were equal if not better than our colonisers and considering this that the British should actually leave India. This is the exact sentiment that was expressed in the Larkana Gazette – Larkana is the district where Mohenjodaro is located.

After independence, the newly created state of India was left with just one Indus site, in Gujarat and a couple of other sites towards the north, so there was an urgency to discover more Indus sites in India. This has been among the big achievements of Indian archaeology post-independence – that hundreds of Indus sites today are known, not only in Gujarat but also in Rajasthan, in Punjab, in Haryana, and even in Utter Pradesh.

The great cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, which were first excavated, are in Pakistan, and subsequently one of the most important pieces of work on the Indus civilisation was done by a Pakistan archaeologist – Rafique Mughal (presently a professor at Boston University) who discovered nearly 200 sites in Pakistan and Cholistan. But my own sense is that on the whole the state of Pakistan has been much more interested, not exclusively but significantly, in its Islamic heritage so I think there is a greater interest in India as compared to Pakistan.

There is not a competition but a certain kind of poignant sentiment that I have when I think of India, Pakistan and the Indus civilisation, for no other reason than that the great remains - the artefacts, the pottery, the beads etc that were found at these sites - are actually divided between the two states. Some of the most important objects were actually divided right down the middle – like the famous girdle from Mohenjodaro. It’s no longer one object, it’s really two parts that have been sundered like pre-independent India into India and Pakistan - these objects have met with a similar fate.

Nayanjot Lahiri, Professor of History, University of Delhi

A spiritual legacy

The Indus civilisation has a legacy which would resonate with any Indian who walks through the Harappan Gallery of the National Museum. There are so many objects there that you feel a complete affinity with.

For example you see a lot of shell bangles that are still worn by women, especially married women, in many parts of India. You see particular kinds of pictures inscribed on seals which show tree worship, and tree worship can be seen anywhere in India, including in urban Delhi. You can see figures in what appear to be in yogic postures, figures in meditation surrounded by animals, things you feel familiar with.

Similarly, in the Harappan gallery there is this extraordinary miniature terracotta phallic emblem which is actually set in what looks like to any Indian a Yoni. Somebody who is not politically correct as historians tend to be – just an ordinary Indian – he would tell you that this is a Shiva linga.

You think of the great bath of Mohenjodaro, you think of the extravagant use of water - there was a well for every 3/5 houses - then you think how finicky Indians are about their personal hygiene and how important water is to us. It doesn’t appear alien just because it belongs to the third millennium BC.

Now I am not trying to say that we can trace modern Hinduism from the Indus civilisation but there are things about the Indus civilisation which become a part of later Hinduism.

Nayanjot Lahiri, Professor of History, University of Delhi

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 18:28 on 19 May 2010, Neil wrote:

    Wonderful artifact and wonderful short radio show! The first I've listened to in this series and it has me hooked. The Indus symbols are fascinating for many reasons, not least of which are the different approaches to deciphering work and real personal animosity between the various academics working on it! I?ve often thought it would make a great 1 hour TV documentary but for the moment I?m very content with the 15min inspirational radio show.

    Complain about this comment

  • 2. At 12:27 on 28 October 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    I?ve no idea what the debate is concerning these seals. But I would think the whole point about a seal is that there are always two copies so as to provide proof of ownership or rightful possession. In the case of a breeding bull where its husbandry would have been carefully recorded duration of ownership was probably controlled by the state. Perhaps that is what the seal refers to.

    Complain about this comment

Most of the content on A History of the World is created by the contributors, who are the museums and members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC or the British Museum. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site’s House Rules please Flag This Object.

About this object

Click a button to explore other objects in the timeline


Indus Valley (Pakistan, India)


About 2550-2000 BC


View more objects from people in London.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.