A Harappan export processing zone

Print edition : July 22, 2016

An aerial view of the Harappan industrial site of 4MSR near Binjor in Rajasthan. Photo: ASI

This photograph, taken from a drone, shows the “key trench”, the main trenches on the mound, the grave of Peer Baba (which stands separately on the mound) and a concrete tank with water (partly seen) to irrigate the wheat fields that surround the mound at 4MSR. Photo: ASI

Platforms made of mud bricks, at varying levels. Photo: V. Vedachalam

Circular and yoni-shaped (foreground) hearths in a trench. In the furnaces, Harappan artisans made beads, copper products and gold ornaments. Photo: V. Vedachalam/ASI

Platforms made of mud bricks, and oval- and circular-shaped hearths. Photo: V. Vedachalam/ASI

An ingeniously built furnace with a platform (right) for the smith to sit and blow the fire burning in a pit in front of it. Air from the blower resting in a depression abutting the platform ran through an underground pipe to the firepit. The molten metal collected in the hearth was cast by artisans into ingots. Photo: V. Vedachalam

Terracotta cakes of different shapes found in the trenches. While the disc-shaped cakes were used to maintain the temperature in hearths, the triangular- and the rectangular-shaped ones were used for decoration and flooring. Photo: V. Vedachalam

Hundreds of disc-shaped terracotta cakes have been found at 4 MSR during the excavations in 2015 and 2016. Photo: V. Vedachalam

Four of a series of circular hearths. The hearths, the furnaces and the artefacts confirm that 4MSR was a Harappan industrial site. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A small tank made with wedge-shaped burnt bricks and the channel that carried water into it. The tank measured 130 cm x 130 cm on the outside. Harappan craftsmen used the water in the tank mainly for cooling the beads they made. Photo: V. Vedachalam

Sanjay Manjul (second from left), director of the excavation at 4MSR, and his team members with a pot discovered from the site. Photo: V. Vedachalam/ASI

A student of the Institute of Archaeology, ASI, New Delhi, brushing a perfectly made pot. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A soak jar, with a terracotta pipe leading to it. Waste water produced after activities such as cooling of beads while drilling holes in them or washing of vessels and clothes was let into the soak jar. In Harappan settlements, these soak jars were often placed just outside the house, in drains on the street. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A copper ring. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A copper stylus with a gold foil at one end, and gold ornaments. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A terracotta seal with three Harappan signs showing two human figures on both sides of a jar with a double handle. It belongs to the Mature Harappan period. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A hammer, chisel and spearhead made out of copper found in the trenches. Photo: V. Vedachalam

Several gold bits found in the workshops. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A terracotta top. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A terracotta animal figure. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A rare human figurine with a beak-like nose and holes around the neck. The holes may have been for the inlay of semi-precious stones. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A seal-cum-pendant, made out of steatite, found in the "key trench" at 4MSR. One one side are engravings of figures of a dog, a mongoose and, perhaps, a goat. On the other are the figures of a frog and a deer. The pendant belongs to the Early Harappan period (3000-2600 BCE). The pendant, with a knob-like projection at the top, had a hole too for a cord to pass through so that it could be worn around the neck. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A seal-cum-pendant, made out of steatite, found in the "key trench" at 4MSR. One one side are engravings of figures of a dog, a mongoose and, perhaps, a goat. On the other are the figures of a frog and a deer. The pendant belongs to the Early Harappan period (3000-2600 BCE). The pendant, with a knob-like projection at the top, had a hole too for a cord to pass through so that it could be worn around the neck. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A dabber used by Harappan potters to smoothen out the surfaces of pots or jars they made. To this day, potters everywhere, be it in villages in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka or Gujarat, use the same kind of dabber. The tradition has continued for 5,000 years. Photo: V. Vedachalam

A furnace containing ash in an industrial shed. The ash looked fresh in the furnace that was perhaps last used 4,500 years ago. Photo: V. Vedachalam/ASI

Excavations at the 4MSR site near Binjor in Rajasthan reveal an exclusive industrial production centre belonging to the Early Harappan and Mature Harappan phases.

AS far as Harappan sites go, it is the odd one out. The settlement had no fortification walls, no streets cutting at right angles, no citadel where the ruling elite lived, no middle town which housed the residences of traders and craftsmen and no warehouse—features that characterise Harappan settlements. Instead, it had all the trappings of a small, rural industrial production centre. This Harappan site, named 4MSR, is near Binjor village in Suratgarh district of Rajasthan and is believed to be 5,000 years old. It lasted for more than 1,100 years through what is called the Early Harappan (3000-2600 BCE) and the Mature Harappan (2600-1900 BCE) phases. It had no Late Harappan (1900-1500 BCE) phase.

Why Harappans abandoned the site at the peak of the Mature Harappan phase is not clear. Experts believe it could either be because of floods or because the land became arid. The site was situated between the two channels of the Ghaggar river.

The furnaces, hearths and structures made of mud bricks discovered in the 12 trenches dug by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) from January to March in a big mound surrounded by wheat fields at 4MSR were ample proof of a factory site with multipurpose workshops. The ash in the furnaces looked fresh 4,000 years after the site was abandoned!

One of the furnaces stood out for the ingenuity of its design. It had a platform for the smith to sit and blow the fire burning in a pit a short distance away. A tuyere (a tube or pipe through which air is blown into a furnace) ran through the earth from a scooped out depression, in which one end of the blower rested, to the firepit. Artisans sat here to smelt gold and copper from the ore and cast them into ingots. An anvil lay in another trench.

Adjacent to the furnaces were hearths, which were circular, oval or yoni-shaped, where craftsmen made exquisitely finished products in gold, such as earrings, beads, spacers and pendant frames, or stuff like rings, bangles, chisels, needles, fish hooks and spearheads in copper. A rare artefact unearthed from one of the trenches was a copper stylus with a thin gold foil wrapped around one end of it.

Beads in different shapes and designs made out of semi-precious stones such as carnelian, lapis lazuli, jasper, agate, steatite and amazonite were also produced in these workshops. Bangles and rings were made out of seashells and terracotta too. The assemblage of ceramic ware—S-shaped jars, perforated jars, storage pots, goblets, beakers, and black and redware—at 4MSR shows that the potters of the Early Harappan period were a creative lot.

Most of the artefacts, especially the beads, the copper ware and the gold ornaments, were traded in other Harappan sites. The weights, small and big, made from chert stone and seashells bear testimony to the long-distance trade links of the Harappans at 4MSR.

Rural settlement

“The usual plan of a Harappan settlement, which had a citadel, a middle town, a lower town and fortifications, is not traced here. This was a rural settlement,” said Sanjay Manjul, the director of the excavation at 4MSR. Manjul is the Director of the Institute of Archaeology, New Delhi, ASI’s academic wing, which offers a two-year postgraduate diploma in archaeology. It has been conducting the excavations at 4MSR jointly with the Excavation Branch-II of the ASI at Purana Qila, New Delhi. Students of Santiniketan, Kolkata; and Kumaon University, Uttarakhand; and the staff of the archaeology departments of Telangana and Assam also formed part of the excavation team.

Each of the 12 trenches dug in the second season this year measures 10 x 10 metres and has four quadrants of varying depths. “This site is important,” Manjul said, “to get a complete picture of the Harappan period and to understand the process of urbanisation at that time. Without studying a rural settlement, one cannot understand an urban settlement.”

‘A unique site’

R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General, ASI, called it “a unique site” which “exclusively had a cluster of workshops for industrial activity right at the beginning of the pre-Harappan [also known as Early Harappan] period”. Bisht, who led 13 seasons of excavation of Harappan sites at Dholavira in Gujarat from 1990 to 2005, visited 4MSR both last year and this year.

He observed that 4MSR had “so many factories” and said: “I could not notice any street system. There were no lanes either. I saw so many fireplaces for the first time in a Harappan settlement.”

One other thing that fascinated Bisht was the discovery of a cluster of eight weights made out of banded chert stone, seashells (three) and sandstone. They weighed 0.25 grams, 0.46 g, 0.76 g, 2.26 g, 6.95 g, 13.68 g, 27.5 g and 52.10 g. The general ratio of the weights was 1:2. “So far, Dholavira is the only site which has yielded so many shell weights. It has not been reported from any other site that the Harappans were also using shell weights. But Binjor now has three shell weights,” he said.

Shubha Mazumdar, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch-II, ASI, said the importance of the site lay in its workshops. “The Harappans, depending on their capacity and economic conditions, built these kinds of workshops. They made finished products here and exported them to other sites,” he said.

The ASI team also discovered a large quantity of terracotta and shell bangles with ornamentation from the site. Some of them were of the conjoined variety, that is, twin bangles. “They were all made in hearths. In the bigger hearths, we found a lot of disc-shaped or triangular terracotta cakes,” Manjul said. Among the artefacts found at 4MSR, three stand out: a seal-cum-pendant made out of steatite with engravings of animals on both sides; a terracotta seal with three Harappan signs; and a terracotta figurine with a beak-like nose, hairdo, banded ornaments, and holes around the neck, which might have been for the inlay of semi-precious stones.

The seal-cum-pendant belongs to the Early Harappan phase. Carved on one side of it are a frog and a deer with horns. The other side has a mongoose, a dog and, perhaps, a goat. One cannot but admire the dexterity of the craftsman who carved the animals on both sides of the thin seal, 2.3 cm x 2.2 cm, without damaging it. “You can wear it as an amulet or a pendant. It is basically an amulet-seal without a script,” said Manjul.

Bisht said the discovery of this kind of steatite pendant from the pre-Harappan level was interesting. “It does not appear to be a seal. It appears to be a token, a kind of pendant. I doubt whether such a pendant has been reported from any site so far,” he said. It has a knob-like projection and a hole for a cord to pass through, which is unusual. “What is also unique is the depiction of five animals,” Bisht said.

K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, and an accomplished field archaeologist, called his visit to 4MSR in March “one of the most rewarding academic experiences”. The 4MSR excavation was important on several counts, he said. Generally attention was paid to big Harappan sites such as Kalibangan, Dholavira, Rakhigarhi and others, he said. “We hardly concentrate on small settlements to understand the intricacies involved in the urbanisation of the Indus Valley civilisation. That way, Binjor is a unique Harappan settlement that provides the much-needed data on feeding [distribution] centres,” Rajan said.

Similarities, differences

In what ways are this year’s excavation different from the one last year which yielded a vast assemblage of painted ceramic ware from the Early Harappan period? A Harappan seal, thousands of beads made from semi-precious stones, a gold ornament, hundreds of disc- and triangular-shaped terracotta cakes, a fire altar and the skeleton of a woman were found in the excavation at 4MSR in 2015 (“Harappan surprise”, Frontline, April 17, 2015).

“It was a limited excavation last year to know the cultural sequence and the nature of the site, the catchment area of nearby Late Harappan sites, and the sites that belonged to the painted greyware [PGW] culture and the black and redware [BRW] culture. These sites are situated all around 4MSR,” said Manjul. This year, the ASI team tried to understand the settlement pattern of the Harappans, and the horizontal plan of each stage of the Early Harappan and the Mature Harappan periods. So trenches were laid across the mound in the east-west and north-south directions.

The excavation last year, though limited in scale, prompted the ASI staff to assume that 4MSR was a factory site with several workshops. “This year’s excavation confirmed that 4MSR was indeed a factory site and the horizontal excavation revealed the plan of these multipurpose workshops with their furnaces, a series of hearths of different shapes and sizes and an anvil,” Manjul said.

“A lot of urban sites have been excavated. But rural, camp or factory sites have hardly been excavated in the Harappan context. This excavation has revealed a lot of furnaces, hearths and an anvil along with the raw materials that the artisans used in their workshops. So this site is important to understand a rural Harappan settlement. It came up sometime during the period of other Harappan sites such as Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Baror and Banawali,” he said.

Ingenious design

The multipurpose workshop complex had within it a small square tank ingeniously designed with wedge-shaped bricks to store water. In many Harappan sites, while structures such as platforms and residential houses were built with rectangular mud bricks (bricks made of clay and dried in the sun), the well was built with wedge-shaped burnt bricks. Bricks baked in kilns at a high temperature did not break easily. The tank in this case was made of two layers of wedge-shaped burnt bricks, with the floor level measuring 80 cm x 80 cm and the outer wall of the tank measuring 130 cm x 130 cm. Water reached the tank through a small channel on the floor.

“Water is sprinkled on the beads which get heated up when craftsmen drill holes in them. Besides, water is used for kneading the clay for the terracotta products and while bending products,” Shubha Mazumdar said.

Some platforms at the site were separated by a gap of 170 cm. “It can be a corridor or a passage. It can be a separation of one house from the other,” said Mazumdar. Some workshops had small residential houses situated adjacent to them.

The rubble dumped on the mound by the Army after Partition in 1947 and later by villagers helped preserve the Harappan exotica for many years. But farmers have cut the sloping sides of the mound to reclaim more area for wheat cultivation. Worse, a concrete tank used for irrigation now stands close to the mound.

Layers of history

The trenches dug in the mound have seven layers, each layer revealing the history of a particular period. The top two layers form the rubble heap. Layers three and four, below them, are associated with the Mature Harappan period. “Layer four signifies the peak period of the Mature Harappan phase. Layer three depicts the end of the Mature Harappan phase. There is no Late Harappan phase here,” said Mazumdar. Layer five forms the transitional phase between the Early Harappan phase and the Mature Harappan phase. Vestiges of the Early Harappan period are found in layers six and seven.

The trenches yielded a spectacular variety of pottery assemblage of the Mature Harappan period. They include S-shaped jars, perforated jars, goblets, dish-on-stand, cooking vessels, redware, black and redware, black on redware and greyware.

The layers belonging to the Early Harappan phase yielded dish-on-stand, a variety of goblets, beakers, pottery with bichrome paintings and some shards with polychrome designs. Toy carts and animal figures, especially those of bulls, were recovered from here. “The total cultural deposits of the site would be more than five metres,” said Manjul.

Importantly, the ASI staff excavated what they call “a key trench” among the wheat fields, about 30 metres from where the slope of the mound ends. “The original mound would have extended beyond this key trench. The key trench was excavated to identify the original extent of the mound and unearth the cultural deposits there,” said V.P. Yathees Kumar, assistant archaeologist, ASI.

The ASI team dug this trench up to 11 layers. The villagers and the Army had disturbed the top six layers. So the top 80 cm did not yield any cultural deposit. The sixth layer yielded Early Harappan pottery. The rim of Early Harappan pottery was thin or featureless. That is, it did not turn inwards or outwards. The rim carried paintings.

The key trench did not reveal any structural activity after the eighth layer. It was in the eighth layer that the ASI staff found the steatite seal-cum-pendant which carried the engravings of animals on both sides.

There were indications in the 10th and 11th layers that a flood had occurred. “This is river sand from the Ghaggar,” said Yathees Kumar, scooping out sand from the 11th level.

There was “abundant evidence” of the abandonment of the site, and the ASI staff noticed flood deposits in the “key trench” in at least two stages, during the Early Harappan and the Mature Harappan phases, Manjul said. “The reason may be floods or a dry phase, which we will determine after the scientific analysis of the sediments,” he said.

The botanical remains from the trench will be sent to the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow, to find out what forced the Harappans to abandon the site after its Mature Harappan phase. The faunal remains are being studied by a multidisciplinary team from the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in Pune, which is excavating the Harappan site at Rakhigarhi, and other institutions to understand the climatic conditions that prevailed at the site during its Early Harappan and Mature Harappan phases. “As a whole, the site shows the various stages of the Early Harappan and Mature Harappan periods. Mud-brick structures to house multipurpose workshops-cum-residential quarters were found there,” Manjul said.

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