Harappan surprise

Print edition : April 17, 2015

A seal made of steatite stone found in one of the trenches in 4MSR. It is a sure sign that the site belongs to the Mature Harappan phase. The seal has the carving of a unicorn standing in front of an incense burner and five Harappan characters on the top part. Photo: S. Subramanium

A view of the mounds at the 4MSR site near Binjor. Photo: S. Subramanium

Sanjay Kumar Manjul, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and also Director of Excavation at 4MSR, examining a painted pot. Manjul is a specialist in ceramics. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

A perforated pot found in a trench. A rare feature of the site is that a perforated jar, a perforated pot and a perforated bowl have been found, all telltale signs a Mature Harappan culture. Photo: S. Subramanium

A.K. Pandey, Deputy Director of Excavation, points to the mud-brick structures and a pestle in a trench. The trench also yielded ovens and hearths. At right is a silo lined with mud for storing grains. Photo: S. Subramanium

A view of the trench with rooms made of mud bricks. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

A view of the trenches, which have revealed mud-brick structures, silos for storing grains, and ovens and hearths. Photo: S. Subramanium

A trench full of pots, jars and other ceramics. It was perhaps a storehouse for grains. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

A razor blade (left) and a broken celt, both made of copper. Harappan culture belonged to the Bronze Age. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

A variety of beads found at the site, which yielded evidence of industrial activity to make beads from semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, faience, agate and steatite. Photo: S. Subramanium

A chert blade. Such blades were used for skinning hunted animals. Photo: S. Subramanium

Painted terracota pottery. Photo: S. Subramanium

A perforated bowl, with a hole at the bottom, a rare occurence in Harappan sites. Photo: S. Subramanium

A potsherd with a painted flower. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

A potsherd with a painting of a lion or an animal belonging to the cat family. The animal's elongated body shows the 'Kulli" style of painting of Afghanistan. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

Ceramics, includinga painted pot with a handle, another rarity. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

Copper rings. Photo: S. Subramanium

A terracota figurine of a humped bull.

Fabric marks on a piece of clay. Spindle whorls have been found, indicating that the residents there knew how to weave fine fabrics. Photo: S. Subramanium

The impression of a seal on clay, indicating that tax had been paid on goods. This confirms that the site had trade with other Harappan settlements. Photo: S. Subramanium

A part of a gold ear ornament. It is rare to find gold ornaments at Harappan sites. However, gold tubular beads have been found at Khirsara and Lothal, both in Gujarat. Photo: S. Subramanium

A cubicular weight made of chert stone. Photo: S. Subramanium

The fire altar, with a yasti made of an octagonal brick. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

An idli-shaped terracota cake that retained heat and was used to keep milk warm for children in winter. Photo: R. Ravindran

The skeleton of a woman, about 40 years old. The ASI archaeologists are identifying the grave goods in the trench to determine whether the skeleton belongs to the Early Harappan, Mature Harappan or a later period. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

Students of the Institute of Archaeology, New Delhi, and staff of the ASI taking part in the excavation at 4MSR. In the back row, A.K. Pandey is seen showing an instrument used in the excavation. On his left is Sanjay Kumar Manjul. Photo: Subhash Chandel, ASI

The discovery and excavation of a new site, 4MSR, near Binjor, Rajasthan, may yield vital clues about the evolution and continuity of the mature and late phases of the Harappan civilisation and their relationship to the painted grey ware culture that followed.

SEVEN kilometres from the small town of Anupgarh in Rajasthan, as our taxi was speeding on the road, we spotted the board we were looking for. It simply said “4MSR”. Nobody seems to know what “MSR” stands for. The local people say names like these are given to villages by the Irrigation Department. Houses in the village have spacious, open courtyards where tractors are parked, or cattle are chewing hay in the late afternoon sun. One kilometre from the village, a fascinating site greets us: big tents on four corners of a level ground which is actually the dry bed of the Ghaggar river. At the centre is a badminton court. At the entrance to the bivouac is the tent for security personnel, and it has a bell—a piece of iron railing—hanging next to it. The tent we enter is a spacious one and has a white screen on one side and several rows of chairs in front of it—obviously a classroom.

“To welcome you, we excavated a seal just yesterday. It is made of steatite.” A.K. Pandey, Deputy Director of the excavation at the Harappan site of 4MSR, told the Frontline team. Along with Pandey, who is also the Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch-II, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), New Delhi, were the staff of the ASI and the students of the Institute of Archaeology, New Delhi, affiliated to the ASI. “It is a square seal, having the figure of a unicorn. Five Harappan letters are incised on its upper part. The seal shows that the people of 4MSR had trade with other areas,” he said.

The site, which is a couple of kilometres from Binjor village, is in Anupgarh tehsil of Sri Ganganagar district, Rajasthan. It is just 7 km from the India-Pakistan border as the crow flies. The archaeologists and the students are excavating a big mound in the alluvial plains of the Ghaggar river. Ghaggar is the modern name given to the Saraswati river. The village residents call the mound Thed and it is about 400 metres from the camp.

There was a swirl of activity on the mound, where 10 trenches have been excavated, each measuring 10 by 10 metres, with four quadrants. Women from 4MSR were sieving the sand dug up from the trench, hoping to find tiny beads or seals. In the pottery yard, more women were sorting out different types of pottery. Behind the pottery yard, Hardeep Singh, a carpenter, was giving the finishing touches to a scabbard he had made while Mangla Ram, an ironsmith, was working up the flames in a chula and sharpening the tools needed for the excavation. Sometimes, Hardeep Singh becomes the ironsmith and Mangla Ram the carpenter.

Sanjay Kumar Manjul, Director, the Institute of Archaeology and head of the excavation at 4MSR, came straight to the topic. “It is natural to ask why there was a need to excavate at 4MSR when so many Harappan sites situated in the Ghaggar river valley have been excavated and reports published on them,” he said. In the Ghaggar river valley itself, he pointed out, explorations and excavations had been done in several sites by archaeologists such as L.P. Tessitore (1916-17), Aurel Stein (1940-41), Amalananda Ghosh, Katy Dalal and others. These sites included Kalibangan, excavated by B.B. Lal, B.K. Thapar and J.P. Joshi, over nine field seasons from 1961 to 1969; 46 GB and Binjor 2, 3 and 4, all situated within a few kilometres of 4MSR and excavated by Amalananda Ghosh; Binjor 1, excavated by Dalal; Rakhigarhi, excavated by Amarendra Nath (1997-2000) and Vasant Shinde (2014 and 2015); and Baror (2003-06), excavated by Urmila Sant and T.J. Baidya.

Manjul explained: “The purpose of the present excavation at 4MSR is to learn about the Early Harappan deposits, 4MSR’s relationship with other contemporary sites and to fill the gap between the Late Harappan phase and the painted grey ware [PGW] culture. We should know about the early farming phase [that existed in the pre-Harappan period]. It is also important to know the continuity of the sequence from the Late Harappan phase to the PGW culture. That is why we have taken up explorations and excavations in this entire area.”

At its height, the Harappan civilisation flourished over 2.5 million sq. km in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. About 2,000 sites have been found, from Sutkagendor in the Makran coast of Balochistan to Alamgirhpur in the east in Uttar Pradesh and from Manda in Jammu to Daimabad in Maharashtra.

The Harappan civilisation is divided into three phases: Early (3000 BCE-2600 BCE), Mature (2600 BCE -1900 BCE) and Late (1900 BCE-1500 BCE). The PGW culture came later and is datable to circa 1200 BCE and belongs to the early historical period.

After Partition, big Harappan sites such as Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and Ganweriwala fell on the Pakistani side. Between 1972 and 1974, M.R. Mughal, former Director General of Archaeology and Museums, Pakistan, explored Bahawalpur in the Cholistan region of Punjab, situated on the border with Rajasthan. Mughal found a lot of pottery on the surface there and named it Hakra ware after the Hakra river which flows there and which is called Ghaggar in India. Originating in the Himalayas, the Ghaggar flows through Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat before joining the Arabian Sea near the Rann of Kutch.

If the cornucopia of artefacts thrown up from the current excavation is any indication, 4MSR has all the characteristics of having been an Early Harappan and Mature Harappan site like Kalibangan situated 120 km away. There are no indications that a Late Harappan phase existed. “A special feature of 4MSR is the discovery of a perforated jar, a perforated bowl with a hole at the bottom and a perforated pot, confirming its status as a Mature Harappan site,” asserted Pandey. What fascinated him was the discovery of pots with handles. “In a nutshell, our excavations have yielded pre-Harappan Hakra ware, Early Harappan pottery and Mature Harappan ceramics,” he said.

What stands out in the excavation is the bonanza of Early Harappan pottery with beautifully painted figures of peacocks, a lion, birds, pipal leaves and fish-net designs. Another discovery, a beautiful pot with a pencil mouth, could have been used to keep precious liquids or perfume.

Other important artefacts obtained from the site are beads made of carnelian, lapis lazuli, steatite, agate and terracotta; copper, shell and terracotta bangles; copper rings and fish hooks; terracotta spindles and whorls; weights made out chert stone; terracotta sling balls, toy-cart frames, figurines of humped bulls, and arrowheads. Two horns of nilgai were found in a trench. Of particular interest is a potsherd with the impression of a fabric. Besides the seal, a sealing (impression of a seal) was found. The centrepiece of the discoveries is a fragment of a gold ornament for the ear. It is rare to find gold ornaments in Harappan sites although tubular gold beads have been found in Khirsara and Lothal, both Harappan sites in Gujarat.

One trench yielded a skeleton, perhaps that of a female, about 40 years old. The ASI team is in the process of identifying the presence of grave goods in the trench to determine the period to which it belongs.

What has come as a bonus is the discovery of a fire altar, with a yasti (a shaft) in the middle. “The yasti is an indication that rituals were performed at the altar,” said Manjul. The yasti here is an octagonal, burnt brick. Although bones were found in the upper level of the deposits in this trench, it could not be ascertained whether they were sacrificial bones. The ASI team traced mud and ash layers at the lower level in the trench and also found a bead inside the fire altar. Pandey said fire altars had been found in Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi, and the yastis were octagonal or cylindrical bricks. There were “signatures” indicating that worship of some kind had taken place at the fire altar here.

Rakhigarhi Rediscovered

According to Manjul, an important reason why so many Harappan settlements came up in the then Saraswati valley was its fertile alluvial plains. Besides, raw materials such as chert, clay and copper were available in the nearby areas.

It was puzzling, Manjul said, that while a lot of pottery belonging to the Mature Harappan period was found at Kalibangan, Baror, Binjor and 4MSR, no pottery belonging to the Late Harappan phase had been found in these and other nearby sites. “The Harappans deserted 4MSR, Binjor and Baror after the Mature Harappan phase. Why?” he asked. Another puzzle was that only the Late Harappan culture existed in the Suratgarh region in Rajasthan. “There is no continuity of the Harappan phases in the Ghaggar river valley. Did a migration take place towards Suratgarh after the Mature Harappan period? We have to find out the reasons why it happened,” Manjul said. (Baror, Binjor and 4MSR are contiguous sites. While Baror is about 20 km from Binjor and 4MSR, Kalibangan is 120 km from 4MSR. Kalibangan is 25 km from Suratgarh).

Again, there was no continuity between the Late Harappan phase and the PGW culture. To find out whether there was any continuity between the Late Harappan phase and the PGW culture, the ASI and the Institute of Archaeology excavated a trial trench in March 2015 in a mound called 86 GB, less than 2 km from 4MSR. There are several sites with PGW deposits within 20 km of 4MSR. “It is important to understand both the cultures, the Late Harappan and the PGW cultures, which are in independent horizons along the Ghaggar river,” Manjul said.

It was ASI Director General Rakesh Tewari and former Joint Director General R.S. Bisht who suggested that the ASI excavate Binjor again, where earlier Amalananda Ghosh and Katy Dalal had dug up several mounds. This led to the Excavation Branch-II, ASI, and the Institute of Archaeology taking up a joint excavation at 4MSR. “If an excavation is done again at Binjor [4MSR], we can combine the results of the excavation done in Cholistan by M.R. Mughal and the excavations here,” Bisht said.

So, when Pandey and his colleagues surveyed Binjor in September 2014, they discovered Thed. “We thought it had been discovered earlier by either [Amalananda] Ghosh or [Katy] Dalal, but nowhere has it been mentioned in the records. Ghosh had mentioned four mounds named Binjor 1, 2, 3 and 4. This mound is not one of them. This is different. This was discovered by me, Ambily C.S. and Vinay Kumar, both assistant archaeologists of the ASI,” Pandey said. On the top of the mound is the grave of Peer Baba, a Muslim holy man who is worshipped by Hindus and Sikhs.

When the excavation began in January 2015, ASI archaeologists found that a lot of waste material had been dumped on the summit of the mound by the local people and the Army, which had camped there soon after Partition. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the dump had protected the mound. But modern farming activity had reduced the mound’s size because farmers had cut away its sloping fringes to reclaim land for farming. So, the mound that exists now is only half its original size. Farmers have built a long concrete trough for storing water and laid water channels around the mound to water the wheat fields. In February, when Frontline visited the area, all around the mound were vast stretches of wheat fields in bloom. Indeed, for 100 km from Kalibangan to 4MSR, wheat fields, watered by the aquifers of the Ghaggar river, stretch endlessly on either side of the road. Every trench has revealed structures such as walls and small rooms made of mud bricks. Most of the rooms have post holes, where posts stood more than 4,000 years ago to support the roof, or perhaps they held door jambs. The size of the mud bricks is in the ratio of 1:2:4, a typical Mature Harappan feature.

There are successive floor levels made of mud bricks, especially in the industrial area of the site. “It shows that whenever the original floor in which the Harappans were working got damaged, they built another floor over it. Between two floors, we have found a lot of ash, charcoal, bones, pottery and artefacts. There are katcha drains in some trenches,” Pandey said.

The trenches have thrown up remnants of ovens, hearths and furnaces, with white ash and soot embedded in the soil, testifying to the industrial activity of making beads at the site. Hearths were found both inside and outside the Harappan houses. Pandey offered an explanation: During winter, Harappans cooked inside their homes but in summer, they cooked outside. One trench revealed a deep silo, lined with mud, to store grains.

The number of idli-shaped terracotta cakes found in the ovens and hearths is incredible. “The presence of idli-shaped terracotta cakes in great numbers in ovens and hearths shows that they had a great role to play in baking many things,” Pandey said.

V. Muthukumar, assistant archaeologist with the ASI and a trench supervisor at the site, who is now a student of the Institute of Archaeology, explained that the idli-shaped terracotta cakes, heated by flaming charcoal, retained their heat for a long time. These hot terracotta cakes were kept in the oven at night to keep milk warm for children, he said. Hundreds of small riverine shells found in trenches “must have been used to clean pots”, Muthukumar said.

To reach the soil beneath the mound quickly, two trenches had been dug in the south-east and south-west corners. Since water channels ran close to these two trenches, their floors were wet and mud bricks found in these trenches had coagulated because of water seepage. The trench in the south-east corner had mud-brick structures and a “hara” for keeping cattle feed. “This was perhaps a cattle shed,” said Jigme Wangmo, a student who was at work there. Since the mud bricks had got fused, it would be difficult to say with certainty whether the bricks had been used for flooring or building a wall, said Siripuram Rushikesh, also a student.

Indeed, the credit for discovering the steatite seal that was shown to us on our arrival goes to Raj Kumar, a labourer who was working in quadrant three of trench N30 E10. Delighted, he showed it to the trench supervisor, Ambily C.S., who sprinted to show it to Pandey. It was in the same trench that she found the skeleton too.

What has gladdened Pandey is that the excavation has thrown up a variety of artefacts, confirming that 4MSR has all the traits of a Mature Harappan civilisation. These include a jar, a pot and a bowl, all perforated; jars for storage; black-on-red and plain red ceramics; goblets; beakers; dish-on-stand; pots with pencil mouths; a seal; a sealing; a cubicular weight made of chert stone; mud-brick structures; painted pottery with a variety of designs, and so on. Goblets have rims with lines incised at perfect intervals.

“The characteristics of the pottery of the Mature Harappan period are that they are made of well-baked clay and precisely decorated with paintings. Perfection is the hallmark of Mature Harappan ware,” Pandey said.

A remarkable feature is that a bonanza of ceramic assemblage belonging to the Early Harappan period has been found in the lower levels of the trenches. They are akin to the Hakra and Sothi ware of Pakistan, and the Kulli style of paintings of Afghanistan. “We also found plenty of Periano Ghundai [an archaeological mound in Balochistan, Pakistan] reserved slipware. Along with this, an exuberant amount of Kot Dijian [Kot Diji is an archaeological site in Sindh, Pakistan, considered a forerunner of the Harappan Civilisation] style of the painted pottery tradition of Pakistan has been found,” said Manjul. Periano Ghundai is in the Zhop valley of Pakistan. Pottery from this Early Harappan site has designs of peacocks, birds, a lion or perhaps an animal belonging to the cat family, a moustache design and bichrome floral designs, and they are similar to the Kot Diji ware. “The Kot Dijian style of ceramics, which consists of pots with everted, rounded, square and beaked rims, is prominent in the assemblage,” said Prabodh Shirvalkar, Assistant Professor of Archaeology, Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune. The pots are painted with black horizontal bands and wavy lines in panels. An important example, which shows the influence of the Kulli style of painting on ceramics, is the painting of the body portion of an animal belonging to the cat family. The animal has an elongated body and its hind limbs are curved inwards.

Manjul said: “The appearance of the Early Harappan period ceramic assemblage found at 4MSR is dominated by Hakra, Kot Dijian and Sothi elements. This is the first site in this region where so much of cultural mixing or amalgamation is available. This has helped in understanding the development of the Mature Harappan phase and its cultural process. In the transitional phase, there is a combination of Early and Mature Harappan pottery. The ceramic assemblage of Mature Harappan is dominated by black-on-red ware, plain red ware, perforated jars, pots and plates, globular pots and dish-on-stand, but there is a continuation of the early traditions. The gradual transformation from the Early Harappan to the Mature Harappan is very visible here.”

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