Telltale furnaces

Print edition : June 23, 2017

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. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

The star discovery of the year at 4MSR, the Archaeological Survey of India's site in Rajasthan, was this oval-shaped furnace lined with mud bricks. It was in furnaces such as these that the laborious process of making copper artefacts began. The furnace was used to smelt copper from the copper ore. It had a hole for inserting the tuyere for fanning the flame and holes on its sides for aeration. Beside the furnace is an anvil where the sheeted ore was hammered into ingots. Photo: T.S. Subramanian

Sanjay Kumar Manjul, ASI’s director of excavation, studying storage jars adjacent to furnaces build on brick platforms. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

In 4MSR, trench after trench threw up furnaces and hearths in different shapes, clearly indicating that it was a thriving industrial centre. The picture shows a long, oval-shaped furnace and a circular furnace built on a mud-brick platform. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

A circular hearth with charcoal pieces and ash. Harappans made beads out of steatite, agate, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and so on here. Photo: T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

A yoni-shaped furnace found at 4MSR. Photo: T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

This terracotta vessel with a pronounced knob at the centre has engaged the attention of archaeologists as a "unique find" and is probably used in rituals or ceremonies. Similar vessels have been depicted on Harappan seals and copper plates. Photo: ASI

The copper plate with the engraving of the knobbed ceremonial vessel similar to the one found in the 2017 round of excavations. Photo: VASANT SHINDE

At the ASI's 43GB site, Sanjay Kumar Manjul (right) and K. Rajan, professor of history, Pondicherry University. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

An inverted pot, probably of the Mature Harappan period, found in situ in a trench at 4MSR. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

A portion of the enclosure wall that has been excavated in different areas around the mound. The wall, made of mud bricks, is thought to run around the settlement, and this one is in the south-east corner. Photo: ASI

A painted terracotta pot. Photo: ASI

A view of the sunset from the mound at 4MSR surrounded by wheat fields. Photo: T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

Harappan beakers for measuring liquids. Photo: V.V. KRISHNAN

Boards announcing the names of 4MSR village near Bijnor. 4MSR is, as the crow flies, 7 km from the border with Pakistan. After Partition, Rajasthan Irrigation Department officials gave names such as 4MSR, 43GB and 86GB to newly created settlements for refugees from across the border. Photo: T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

The ASI's Arvin Manjul (third from left), co-director of the excavation at 4MSR, 43GB and 68/2GB, and other archaeologists examine a human skeleton found in the trench at 68/2GB. Photo: ASI

On the mound at 43GB around 50 km from 4MSR. Unlike 4MSR, the mound is heavily built up with houses and other structures, making excavation a real challenge. People of the Mature Harappan period settled on a big sand dune at 43GB, which became a mound after they abandoned it. Photo: T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

The trial trench at 68/2GB near 4MSR. It yielded Early Harappan ceramics, beads made of semi-precious stones, terracotta bangles and pestles. Photo: ASI

Gold rings, pieces and foils found in the 2017 excavations testified to the fact that the 4MSR Harappans made gold products too. They sourced gold from present-day Karnataka. Photo: ASI

The seal with a perfectly carved figure of a unicorn-it has been scooped out with precision on a thin slate of white steatlite-belongs to the Mature Harappan period. The ceremonial vessel in front of the unicorn is a puzzle. The seal has one Harappan sign on top and other signs that seem to have been scraped off. It has a perfectly made knob with a hole on the reverse and is a good example of seals of the Mature Harappan period. Photo: ASI

Seven different seals were found at 4MSR in the 2017 round of excavations and they provided insights into the gradual development in the production of seals. The seal with triangular designs and a crudely made knob, with a hole through which to string a thread, belongs to the transitional phase between the Early Harappan and Mature Harappan phases. Photo: ASI

Arrowheads, spearheads, celts and fish hooks, all made of copper, were found in the trenches at 4MSR, affirming to the industrial nature of the site. Archaeologists found copper bangles, rings, beads, and so on. Photo: ASI

Hundreds of oblong (popular qamong archaeologists as idli-shaped), triangular terracotta cakes have been found at 4MSR and the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana, 340 km away. While the oblong cakes were used to retain heat in domestic hearths and chulas for keeping milk and water warm, the painted triangular cakes were embedded as decorative pieces on walls and floors of houses. Photo: ASI

Humped bulls, made of terracotta, found in the trenches at 4MSR. Photo: ASI

The shell of a tortoise in one of the trenches. Two such shells were found in different trenches along with charred bones, indicating that the Harappans consumed tortoise meat. Photo: ASI

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.

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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