Tales from the dead

Print edition : May 29, 2015

The burials at Farmana are divided into primary, secondary and symbolic/ceremonial. In the primary burial (above), the body was placed in the pit along with ritual pottery, tools, beads, bangles and anklets. Photo: Deccan College, Pune

The secondary burial (above) contains a few human bones and burial goods. It is likely that the body was kept in the open for several days and the bones that remained were collected and buried in the pit. Photo: Deccan College, Pune

In a symbolic burial (above), there are no bones at all. This means a person whose body could not be retrieved was given a ceremonial burial. Photo: Deccan College, Pune

WITH the discovery of 70 Harappan burials, most of them with skeletons, the cemetery at Farmana in Haryana can stake its claim to be the largest Harappan graveyard found so far. The burials provide insights into Harappans’ customs, rituals, beliefs, health and eating habits, and even death from malnutrition. Other facts revealed are the economic and social status of persons, which can be derived from the jewellery found in the burial pits; the respect accorded to women in Harappan society; and their relationship with contemporaneous societies that supplied them raw materials.

“The site of Farmana is one of the few Harappan sites in the subcontinent that have Mature Harappan cemeteries located in their vicinity. Variations in customs, burial goods and the orientation of pits clearly suggest the presence of different population groups within Farmana,” said Vasant Shinde, director of the excavation at Farmana. It is a vast cemetery, covering 3.5 hectares, with only burials. No cremation was done.

A team of archaeologists and scientists from Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, Research Institute of Humanity and Nature, Kyoto, Japan, and Maharshi Dayanad University, Rohtak, Haryana, excavated both the Harappan habitational site and the graveyard at Farmana in 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09. An interesting finding from the excavations is the traces of “masala curry of spices, including turmeric”, in a pot along with a skeleton in the cemetery. “This is the first time we found that the Harappans ate curry. They consumed wheat and rice…. We found traces of spices, including turmeric [in a pot in a burial pit]. It shows the contacts that the Harappans had with the south Indian people because the spices must have come from south India,” he said.

In his article entitled “Farmana and the Harappan Civilisation”, published in Heritage India, 2012, Volume 5, Issue 2, May 2012, Shinde says: “The Early Harappans lived in complexes made of circular or oblong pit dwellings. Gradually, over a period of time, these pit dwellings were replaced by rectangular or squarish structures over-ground, culminating in a planned town during the Mature Harappan phase. All the Mature Harappan structures at Farmana were made of mud-bricks and only occasionally, burnt bricks were used and mainly for the construction of foundations, drains and bathing platforms. The bricks used for construction were of the typical [Mature] Harappan ratio of 1:2:4…. Considering the extremely thick walls in the case of some structures, there appears to be a possibility of the presence of double-storey buildings….”

The cemetery at Farmana was discovered by chance. In the second season of excavation, a farmer who owned wheat fields nearby dug up his field for construction and came across human bones and potsherds. He showed them to the archaeologists working at the site. A minor excavation in 2007-08 confirmed the presence of the burial ground. So a major excavation was done the next year, which revealed the 70 burials and a cache of burial goods. The quality and quantity of these goods varied from burial to burial. Most of the burials were in the north-south direction.

There were three kinds of burials at Farmana: primary, secondary and symbolic/ceremonial. In the primary burial, the body was placed in the pit along with ritual pottery, tools, beads, bangles and anklets. In the second type, the body was kept in the open for several days and the bones that remained were collected and buried in the pit along with the burial goods. In the symbolic burial, there were no bones at all. This means that a person who may have died, say, in a fight or was killed by a wild animal and whose body could not be retrieved was given a ceremonial burial.

Another interesting feature of the burials was the use of clay coffins. In this instance, the burial pit was lined with clay and the body was lowered into the pit. The pit was covered with soil and a plaster of clay was applied on the top surface of the soil. Shinde said: “It is made so well that it looks like a clay box. The clay box burials were reserved for people who enjoyed a high status in society…. Besides, from the burials, it appears that the status of women in Harappan society was high because they were carefully buried in the centre of the pit. They were buried with their jewellery.” There were also large pits with big ritual pottery indicating the social ranking of the person buried.

The high content of copper and zinc in the bones points to the fact that Harappans were generally meat-eaters. Some trenches in the habitational area had charred remains of wheat, rice, barley and mustard. The Harappans roasted these grains and ground them to make dishes. The grains that got charred were thrown away.

Isotope analysis on the skeletal remains of the women at Farmana shows that some of them were not Harappans. These women could be from the Khetri region of Rajasthan, which supplied copper to the Harappan sites to make artefacts. Shinde said: “It shows that the Harappans married women from outside their region. This is interesting because the natural resources located outside the Harappan sites were controlled by contemporaneous societies such as the Ahar-Banas and the Ganeshwar-Jodhpura cultures. We had earlier believed that the Harappans obtained raw materials for their products by trade. But they also had matrimonial alliances with those who supplied them raw materials.”

T.S. Subramanian

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