Telltale furnaces

The latest round of the Archaeological Survey of India’s excavations at 4MSR in Rajasthan gives valuable insights into how the Harappans made the transition from an agricultural society into an industrial one.

Published : Jun 07, 2017 12:30 IST

An oval furnace with a hub in the middle for keeping the crucible where artisans kept the copper ingots before fashioning them into artefacts. The furnace has holes for aeration and for inserting tuyeres to work up the flames.

An oval furnace with a hub in the middle for keeping the crucible where artisans kept the copper ingots before fashioning them into artefacts. The furnace has holes for aeration and for inserting tuyeres to work up the flames.

A CIRCULAR flat-bottomed terracotta vessel with a pronounced knob at the centre is among the artefacts that are engaging the attention of archaeologists at 4MSR, a Harappan site about 10 kilometres from Anupgarh town in Rajasthan. They found not one but two such vessels, but in the second one the knob had broken off. “This is a unique find,” says Sanjay Kumar Manjul, director of the excavation for the 2017 field season, the third so far, at 4MSR. (No one seems to know what 4MSR stands for.) “It is probably a ritualistic vessel. Similar type of pot depictions have been found on seals from Harappan sites in India and Pakistan,” he added. The vessel has been depicted on Harappan seals, placed in front of a unicorn, and on copper plates along with a seated “yogi” with a horned headdress. Manjul, who is also Director of the Institute of Archaeology, the academic wing of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), New Delhi, and other scholars make intelligent guesses that it may be a ritual/ceremonial vessel, an incense burner, or a massive dish that is placed on a stand.

The bowl takes pride of place in the huge tent pitched on the dry bed of the Ghaggar river near 4MSR that houses all artefacts excavated at the site. Another exciting find was two tortoise shells amid charred bones of the tortoises. This suggested that tortoises formed an important part of the food of the Harappans who lived at 4MSR about 5,000 years ago.

Among the artefacts discovered were seals; fragments of gold foils and gold beads; miniature beakers probably used for measuring liquids; painted pottery; perforated jars; goblets and storage pots; beads made of steatite, agate, jasper, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and other semi-precious stones; earrings; fish hooks; spear-heads and arrowheads made of copper; bangles made of conch shells; and terracotta figurines. The trenches also yielded hundreds of terracotta cakes in shapes that ranged from oblong (popular among archaeologists as idli-shaped) to triangle and similar to a clenched fist ( mushtika ). They also yielded 10 pieces of weights made of banded chert stones.

But the most important discovery this year was a massive wall built of mud bricks stacked to a width of 8 metres, in the south-eastern corner of the excavation mound. The wall showed clear evidence of having been built during two successive phases of the Harappan civilisation, and it turns right at one point perhaps indicating that it could have run around the settlement, thus demolishing the assumption that 4MSR did not have a fortification or enclosure wall. In fact, the remains of the wall have been found on the western and northern sides of the mound.

K. Rajan, professor of history, Pondicherry University, who gave a series of lectures to students of the Institute of Archaeology at the site, confirmed that it was an enclosure wall, a feature found in many Harappan sites. The paleo-channels of the Ghaggar river were just 500 metres away from the site, to the north and the south. The wall could have been built to prevent flooding of the site. While fortification/enclosure walls at Harappan sites in Gujarat were made of stones, as one travelled towards Mohenjo-daro or Harappa (both in Pakistan now) they began to be made of burnt bricks. In Rajasthan, the walls, be they at 4MSR or Kalibangan, were built of mud bricks that were made with fine clay, which gave the bricks a fine texture, that is, they had been well levigated, as Disha Ahluwalia, a superviser at 4MSR, explained.

Besides the wall, the lower levels of this Harappan industrial complex showed evidence of streets having been there, belying the assumption that the settlement had no organised streets.

Industrial secrets

The trenches excavated in 2015, 2016 and 2017 revealed the industrial secrets of 4MSR, which lasted from circa 4000 BCE to circa 2000 BCE through what is called the Early Harappan (3000-2600 BCE) and the Mature Harappan (2600-2000 BCE) phases. Possibly the Late Harappan phase settlements may also be visible. At the time Frontline visited the mound in March, more than 15 trenches, each 10 metre x 10 metre, had been dug jointly by students of the Institute of Archaeology and archaeologists of the Excavation Branch-II of the ASI. Arvin Manjul, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch-II was the co-director of the excavation.

The mound itself offered a spectacular sight, with trench upon trench bristling with furnaces, hearths and kilns that confirmed the industrial nature of the site. The furnaces, hearths and kilns were situated on mud-brick platforms at various levels and presented insights into the activity during the various periods. Close to the furnaces and hearths were big storage pots, twin pots and broken perforated jars. Beads lay scattered on a few furnace floors. In the kilns, there were terracotta beads and broken terracotta bangles. This year’s excavation threw up furnaces and hearths of different shapes: oval, circular, yoni-shaped and even a squarish one.

One of the trenches had a big, oval-shaped furnace lined with mud bricks. It had a short mud-brick wall, with the inner side of the bricks blackened from the searing heat of the furnace and the furnace floor rammed with mud. The furnace had a hole for blowing air into it with tuyeres to fan the flames. There was a central hub too for placing crucibles in which to smelt copper from the copper ore. “This furnace was for extracting copper from the copper ore. It was periodically plastered. That meant it was used for a long time,” Manjul said.

In a furnace in a nearby trench, copper ingots recovered from the copper ore in the previous furnace had been converted into workable pieces. This furnace had a passage for blowing air with bellows and charcoal pieces were found strewn on the furnace floor. An anvil was found nearby, which was obviously the place where the copper ingots were beaten into workable pieces. There was also a channel for bringing fresh water that the smiths used for strengthening the workable pieces.

In the third furnace, the Harappan artisans converted the copper ingots into tools and artefacts Manjul summed up the process: “The first furnace was probably for smelting copper from the ore. Here, high temperature was required. In the second, normal temperature was required because the smiths had already made copper. In the third, the artisans made a variety of copper artefacts such as bangles, beads, rings, fish hooks, arrowheads, spear heads, and so on.”

In one trench was a big, circular kiln, with potsherds lying on its floor. There were white patches on the floor, which had apparently resulted from the intense heat worked up in the kiln. Explaining the difference between a furnace and a kiln, Rajan said: “If you are working a metal like copper, it is called a furnace. If you are firing/baking ceramic products, it is called a kiln.” It is in these kilns that the Harappans fired a variety of pottery, including storage pots, big jars, perforated jars, goblets, beakers, dish-on-stands and terracotta figurines.

With such a variety of furnaces, hearths and kilns, it was not surprising that Manjul called 4MSR “an important industrial settlement” that is “at present the only example in the Harappan context which shows a major industrial activity”. The series of furnaces in trench after trench and at different levels indicated that multiple artisans had worked simultaneously and that the site had been occupied continuously and industrial activity was also continuous, he said. There were many sites of a similar nature in the vicinity. Manjul added: “The region was a major industrial hub. There is no doubt about it. These varieties of artefacts cannot be consumed here itself. This was one of the industrial centres that catered to urban settlements such as Kalibangan, Rakhigari and Ganweriwala.”

Indeed, the three seasons of excavation have provided a tremendous insight into how 4MSR evolved from an agricultural settlement into a major industrial centre that manufactured copper artefacts, beads from semi-precious stones and a wide variety of terracotta products and exported them to Harappan sites nearby and far away.

Manjul said: “In the lower levels [of trenches], there is evidence of agriculture because there are domestic hearths within residential complexes. In the transitional phase from Early Harappan to Mature Harappan, there are furnaces within house complexes. Later, during the Mature Harappan phase, there was a complete transformation into an industrial site. Thus, there was a gradual transformation from agriculture to industry.”

The third season of excavation at 4MSR had a clear objective: to understand the nature of the industrial activity that had been observed during the second field season in 2016. Manjul said: “In this season, we have some clear evidence of copper smelting, melting and craftsmen working on the metal. Along with that, we have excavated anvils, storage jars, dish-on-stand, etc. We have found copper slag, terracotta crucibles and terracotta moulds and finished copper artefacts such as fish-hooks, spearheads, arrowheads, beads, copper strings, copper rings and bangles. It was observed that the entire process of copper working, from smelting to making finished products, was done here. This site revealed manufacturing of artefacts from steatite. In the smaller hearths, along with steatite we noticed charcoal and ash.

“The industrial activity started during the transitional stage from the Early Harappan phase to the Mature Harappan stage. Full-fledged industrial activity took place during the Mature Harappan stage and the late Mature Harappan phase.” Shubha Majumdar, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, said that at least four major structural phases were noticed during the Mature Harappan phase.

There were signs of agricultural activity in the lower levels of the trenches because the weather at that point of time was conducive to farming. When the weather changed for the worse, the region became semi-arid. “So people switched over from agriculture to industrial activity to sustain themselves,” Manjul said.

What facilitated the change to industrial activity in a big way was the availability of copper ore, possibly from the Khetri belt situated about 150 km away, in Rajasthan. Similarly, gypsum, which was used in the flooring of homes, was available in the nearby area, while steatite, which was used for making beads, was available in plenty within a 200 sq km area. On the other had, lapis lazuli, gold, shell and semi-precious stones were not available nearby, and artefacts made from them showed clear evidence of 4MSR’s linkage with distant shores and contemporary settlements, Manjul said.

The Harappans at 4MSR exploited a variety of stones available in the Aravalli hill range for making pestles, mortars and anvils. Chert stones were available in the Rohri hills in Pakistan. The artisans made both small and big chert blades. The chert blades were used for manifold purposes, including skinning of animals and making sickles. The Harappans also fashioned modular chert blades for making different tools, besides tools of copper, bones, antlers and stone. Stone-hammers were made with a wooden handle. In the early stages of development, the Harappans made tools by driving the stone inside the wood. In subsequent stages, they drove the wood inside metal for they had learnt the art of metal working.

The settlement pattern 10 to 20 km around 4MSR showed that there were separate Early Harappan sites, Mature Harappan sites and sites with the late phase of the Mature Harappan civilisation. “After that, in this same region, we had painted grey ware (PGW) settlements, and they continued up to post-Gupta period followed by the Rang Mahal culture. This is the complete cultural sequence of this area,” Manjul said.


Another important feature of the latest round of excavation is the discovery of seven seals, which confirmed that 4MSR belonged to the Early Harappan, then transitional and the Mature Harappan phases.The seal that belonged to the transitional phase has a geometric design on the one side and a little knob on the other side. Since it has a knob on the obverse side, it could have been used to stamp the geometric pattern on a piece of clay tied to a bag to signal that duty had been paid on the goods kept in the bag. Of the two seals that belong to the Mature Harappan phase, one had the engraving of a unicorn with a ceremonial vessel in front of it. There is a Harappan sign above the unicorn. There were more Harappan characters, but they had been scraped off. This seal showed superb workmanship because the artisan had not merely carved the unicorn on the tiny steatite slab but had unerringly scooped out the outline of the entire animal within the narrow confines of the seal.

This seal has a knob on the obverse with a hole in it for a string to pass through. Perhaps, the owner of the seal wore it around his neck. Another seal portrays a unicorn, but the seal’s top portion is broken off. It was found embedded in the mud and the impression of the unicorn can still be seen on the mud.

Animal treasures

What excited the archaeologists was the discovery of two tortoise shells amid charred remains of tortoises. Vijay Sathe, a professor in the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, Pune, who studied the tortoise shells, antlers and other animal remains, said: “This site has a good representation of skeletal evidence of animals. They include cattle, sheep, goat, antelope and similar small-sized mammalian fauna. The inhabitants of 4MSR used a good blend of wild and domesticated animals for food and farming. An interesting thing noticed here was the inhabitants’ preference for animals such as tortoise and fish. The presence of a couple of varieties of tortoises was noticed in the form of their carapace and their charred bones, which are potential indicators of the food habits of the inhabitants. That is, they roasted and consumed the tortoise. Besides tortoises, the remains of a variety of freshwater fish have been found in charred condition.”

If one were to look at the composition of both wild and domesticated animals that the Harappans of 4MSR ate, it appears that a variety of animals, especially small-sized animals, such as chinkara, antelope and barking deer, besides cattle, goat and sheep, did have their share in their food economy, Sathe said. The science of archaeo-zoology had important role in archaeology, he added. Once a detailed analysis was completed, it would be possible to talk about the animal population found around 4MSR, the contribution of the cattle to agricultural and other practices and the attitude of the Harappans towards these animals as a whole.

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