Art of the Indus

1st December 2000 at 00:00
The Indus Valley Civilisation is an exemplary history topic brought to light by exciting new resources, reveals Ilona Aronovsky

There was once a Bronze Age civilisation as powerful and wealthy as Ancient Egypt. Its domains were much larger - 1.2 million km2, in Pakistan, north-west India and outposts in Afghanistan. Its foremost cities were probably the largest and best planned in the world in the period 2600-1900BC. Three to four thousand years later, people in English cities were emptying chamber pots out of the window, but both wealthy and ordinary inhabitants of Mohenjo-Daro (in Sindh, present-day Pakistan, near the River Indus), Harappa (another Indus Valley urban centre further north of Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan) and many of the 2,000 cities and settlements of the Indus civilisation had bathrooms connected to city-wide underground drains, soak pits (an early form of sewage disposal) and access to sweet water from hundreds of deep wells.

There are many puzzling questions about the Indus civilisation (also called Harappan - Harappa was its first discovered city). This is an advantage in promoting history attainment as the topic can be treated as an open-ended investigation. Pupils can scrutinise the smallest piece of evidence for clues, as archaeologists do. They can engage with the same questions and controversies that academics still grapple with, for example, who exactly were the rulers of these vast domains? There are clues, but no easy answers; tombs of great kings and queens stuffed with treasure are nowhere to be found.

Teachers planning the topic for the first time will be looking for a range of resources. The QCA guidelines suggest the main resource can be the Indus Valley KS2 history pack from the Commonwealth Institute. For example, pupils can think about an influential, but now discredited, theory that the urban centres of the Indus were deserted as a result of Aryan invaders descending from Afghanistan destroying its cities, causing the collapse of the civilisation. The theory was based on the archaeological find of 38 skeletons of people who died in mysterious circumstances at Mohenjo-Daro, which the late archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler believed were evidence of a "last massacre". Children can do an inquest, and suggest alternative causes of death, using the pack to look at forensic information about the skeletons, and other evidence and arguments.

The pack needs supplementing with high-quality colour photographs and a wealth of these are on the Harappa website at produced by Omar Khan, San Francisco, in the form of slide shows. They are provided by archaeologists, so all the technical details - dimensions of artefacts, what they are made of, and the manufacturing process - can back-up observation activities, such as "what is this object? What do you think it was used for?".

Photographs from the site can be downloaded and presented to pupils as objects or buildings to identify or comment on. Some are mystery objects suitable for endless speculation. Pupils can label and write about them in their own multimedia presentations.

Perhaps the greatest problem about a site with so many resources is where to start. We can begin this visit to the Indus civilisation in an alley flanked by house walls, off a wide main street, in Lower Town Mohenjo-Daro. We can see how different excavation levels in a house have revealed that the same deep well was used in successive periods of occupation. (See figure A.) Surviving evidence is in the streets, roofless walls of buildings, non-perishable artefacts (with rare exceptions), the ideograms of as yet undeciphered script, modest graves, animal bones, and hints from later South Asian language and culture.

Janice How, deputy head of Kings Furlong junior school, Hampshire, taught the Indus Civilisation even before it was given as the world history exemplar in QCA guidelines. She says: "The children really do learn historical skills - they become fascinated by the hypotheses that they are allowed to make. The approach is like a breath of fresh air, because no single person is an expert, we all are."

What sort of lifestyle was enjoyed by the people of the Indus cities? Terracotta figurines, usually of women (figure B) show how they might have worn exquisite jewellery of gold, silver, faience (decorated and glazed earthenware or porcelaine) gemstone and shell. (See figure C.) These were found secreted in hoards, in workshops or worn by women and men buried at Harappa. Pupils can recreate Harappan costume and personal ornaments. For example, strings of exceptionally long carnelian quartz beads (8.22-12.4cm) could have been worn as hip or waist girdles.These must have been fabulously expensive.

On the Harappa website, the Indus Tour of the Harappa Excavations Project consists of 90 slides which show a mix of artefacts, architecture, important buildings, and modest graves full of useful domestic pottery. The famous so-called Priest King statue from Mohenjo-Daro is shown from all angles. Teachers can make him part of a quest to find the rulers of the Indus cities. A hoard of jewellery has a gold head band or "fillet" very like that worn by the priest king, whose statue seems to have been vandalised in antiquity along with other statues of seated males.

Using resources in the Commonwealth Institute pack, pupils could create a scenario from similar, but smashed, statues found near an unusual shallow burial of a man in the courtyard of a very wealthy household. One archaeologist, Professor Ratnagar J Nehru of the University of Delhi, suggests that these remains are evidence of the overthrow of a ruling dynasty. They could contrast this with the view of another archaeologist, Professor Jansen, former director of the UnescoMohenjo-Daro Research Project. In his opinion the priest-king statue does not belong to Indus culture but was imported from Ancient Sumer.

There are superb photographs on the Harappa website of Indus miniature carved soapstone seals depicting the mythical one-horned beast as well as real animals such as the elephant and zebu bull, and deities (figures D and E). There is more on the website about how they were made in "Unicorn Seal", a compilation of text and slides. The back view of a seal is essential in working out that they were used to stamp clay sealings attached to goods. This can be the start of an investigation into trade and transport. There are more clues in an amulet depicting long boats, (figure F), which travelled the great rivers of the Indus system, and up the Gulf to Ancient Sumer carrying raw materials and luxury items. Working model carts made of terracotta, which seem to be toys, are found at many Indus sites (figure G). They can be modelled by pupils, who can test their design for suitability on various surfaces see Contacts box for a modelling kit. Terracotta dewlap bulls can be modelled and harnessed to the cart. Also on the website are "Harappa 3-D", and "Lothal" (a port in Gujurat), where you can find artists' impressions of a massive drain and large gateway to the walled city, and a possible dock. "Rohri Quarries" looks at Indus flint-mining, among the largest known manufacturing enterprises of ancient times. "Mohenjo-Daro Walk" includes views of its great citadel and "Harappa Walk" shows evidence of ancient mass production.

The Indus Valley civilisation is belatedly growing in popularity as a school topic. Now the web and recently produced resources are making this detective story accessible and versatile.


Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan, the leading international experts, debate on the Harappan website the meaning of ideograms in 'Indus Script'. An 'Indus Dictionary' gives useful tables with contested meanings of these child-friendly signs. Pupils can discuss whether the Jar sign looks like a cow with horns and ears (as Parpola believes) or a jarwater container with handles (as Mahadevan maintains). A clue to the fish sign is a root word for fish and star in Tamil - 'min'- glitter (in Parpola's view) ILONA Aronovsky is author of 'Make your own Ancient artefact - The Indus Cart Kit'. pound;8.50 + pound;2pamp;p, History Education Consultancy (HEC), details below. She is co-author with Umaya Aafjes of the "Indus Valley" KS2 History pack, pound;9 each from the Commonwealth Resource Centre, Commonwealth Institute, Kensington High Street, London W8 6NQ. Tel: 020 7603 4535 ext 210.

HEC also supplies archaeologist-approved replica artefacts such as seals, statues and pottery for classroom use, and is planning a subscription service for schools, with multimedia resources and activities. Photos and text may be used for education purposes only, otherwise copyright permission and fees apply.

Contact HEC for Harappa Replica artefacts and a teacher's guide to other Indus Valley resources, including videos. HEC, 54 Heigham Road London E6 2JQ 020 8472 3825.

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