Ancient South Asian Archaeology (1/2)
joe at sfbooks.com
joe at sfbooks.com
Tue Dec 3 14:03:11 UTC 1996
(A copy of this message has also been posted to the following newsgroups:
Usenet followups set. Posted and e-mailed. This is a fantastically long
post split into two parts; if you would like to reply, please do read the
part at the end with more details about the distribution. This is in
minimal digest format. The subjects are:
2. References on Harappa
3. The Gangetic problem
4. The Archaeology of Ancient Indian Cities
5. The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia
6. More references on the Gangetic civilisation
Subject: 1. Invocation
I'm close to finishing an FAQ for Usenet newsgroup news.groups, one of my
bigger accomplishments in the past year on the nets. The thing that first
brought me there was the proposal for sci.archaeology.moderated. And the
things that brought me to the archaeology newsgroups were a set of
questions I've had for ten years.
What's become of Indian archaeology, and the particular archaeologists I
admired, in the last ten years? Have the theories of cultural evolution I
studied been completely forgotten? Is the stupendous challenge Harappa
presents those theories yet resolved?
I'm nearer answers to these questions than I have been in a decade, thanks
to the debates on the origins of Sanskrit recently held on the RISA-L
mailing list and on the newsgroups sci.archaeology and sci.lang. But
that's ironic in two ways. First, I've done a fair chunk of the debating
myself. With the notable exception of Edwin Bryant (for which reason he's
cc'd), I've had to come up with much of the archaeological info in the
Second, the origin of Sanskrit is really tangential to my interests.
Obviously the question of who did what, where, when, is fundamental to
history. I don't want to downgrade the concern with whether the Aryans
did what to whomever... But there's an entirely different mystique
available in the archaeology of ancient South Asia. It has to do with
questions about how society works.
In the first major work of social science I read, <The Evolution of Urban
Society>, Robert McCormick Adams presented a picture of the early
civilisations as consistently following a single path into the world of
emperors and slaves: into inequality. Without being particularly
assertive about causes, he described processes by which equals became
inequal. He, and those who elaborated and disputed his views in later
years, offered me a perspective I badly needed to make sense of the world:
that society was a historical artifact.
A year later, I tried to make sense of inequality by studying the history
of India. This led me to an effort to apply Adams' theories and similar
ones to that history, to the civilisation of the Ganga valley.
Now, it's a commonplace among people who talk about "urban origins" or
"state origins" - this study of the birth of inequalities - to distinguish
between "pristine" or "primary" beginnings and "secondary" ones. And very
exactingly, at that. The typical list of "pristine" civilisations runs
something like this: Mesopotamia; maybe Egypt and Harappa; China;
Philip Kohl has made enough of a case for the Oxus valley that I needn't
repeat it here. But we continue to take it for granted that civilisation
elsewhere has obvious origins.
Students of India, however, don't. The reigning orthodoxy hasn't admitted
the possibility of urban continuity between the Indus valley and the
Ganga, and thus has had to argue the case for the latter as "pristine".
Typically, the rise of states and cities has been dated to something like
800 - 600 BC, and attributed to the invading "Aryans" and their iron tools
which enabled the exploitation of the Ganga valley.
Now, there's just one oddity about this. Sanskrit literature - Aryan
literature - reaches back, by most accounts, long before these
foundations. If the standard account is true, then in South Asia, and
South Asia *alone*, we have a textual tradition spanning the entire
process of the urban revolution. It's as if we had books from Gilgamesh's
time, or from the Shang emperors'. Isn't that even a little interesting?
I eventually concluded that the standard account wasn't true, and that we
don't really have the founders' grandparents' works. But in the course of
reaching that conclusion - which remains a disputed one, to say the least
- I found a still more bizarre conundrum in the archaeology of South
Asia. Above, I've emphasised the rise of inequality, rather than the rise
of (say) literature or law, in my descriptions of early civilisations.
That's because it's practically a given in the archaeological and
anthropological literature that civilisation *means* inequality. Unequal
malnutrition in children is a standard indicator, for example. It's
absent only in modern Scandinavia.
And, as it turns out, Harappa.
Harappa used to be stereotyped as a caste-ridden society. But during the
1970s and 1980s, that stereotype among many others was exploded. Scholars
started noticing that there was something *odd* about the continued
failure to find royal tombs. Then, that there wasn't much sign of social
differentiation in grave goods generally. For that matter, a meticulous
re-analysis of the records of digs at Mohenjo-daro showed every sign of
showing that gold and other presumed valuables were distributed *randomly*
among the dwellings there.
Civilisation without inequality. Not in the workers' paradise, but at the
very beginning. Not proven, no - but surely the most serious test case
And yet all we can find to talk about is the origins of Sanskrit?
Well, there's reasons for that. For one thing, obviously, who wrote the
texts and when is crucial at least to the issue of Gilgamesh's hymns, and
probably also to that of equality at Harappa. So the origins of Sanskrit,
while tangential, is hardly trivial to my interests.
For another, we're short staffed. I know of at most one or two people on
Usenet who've read the Harappan site reports: Ben Diebold, perhaps,
though for whatever reason he doesn't participate in these debates; and
Moin Ansari, also cc'd, who's studied them a lot more than I have but who
hasn't been free lately. As for the later reports on the Iron Age, unless
Mr. Bryant has read them, I seem to be alone on the nets. And the
millennium between the two? I just don't know. So there isn't much room
This post has three purposes, then. The first is to increase the
audience. Surely I can't be the only person who thinks these issues
matter? who wants to find out about them, and maybe do some research for
The second is to recruit my replacements. Don't any of you reading this
have any colleagues who can speak to these issues, archaeology professors
or graduate students familiar with South Asia? It's kind of sad that Mr.
Ansari and I, both amateurs, are representing their field to the nets.
My third purpose is to apologise. In the Usenet post I'm following up to,
I offered to provide information as current as I can on early rice and
iron in India, and on 2nd millennium BC geography and cultures of northern
India and Pakistan. It turns out I haven't the time for that; the real
world must reimpose itself eventually, and the book I'm working on has
nothing to do with archaeology. I intend to keep participating in
discussions, but I can't offer any more than my memories and what research
I've already done for at least a month. And even then, I'll have no
library access to many of the references given so far or below. (Don't
even ask about inter-library loan through the Chicago Public Library!)
So here's something of a consolation offer. This post attempts, besides
the cheerleading above, to do the following: collect some basic, current
references on the topics; and review two of these in detail, one of which
may well be unfamiliar.
Hope it's worth it.
Subject: 2. References on Harappa
I won't pretend I've suddenly become the expert on this civilisation.
Moreover, there doesn't appear to be a recent full-scale synthesis I'm
prepared to advertise.
But for the sake of completeness, I should point out the following references:
Meadow, Richard H., ed. 1991. Harappa Excavations 1986-1990:JA
Multidisciplinary Approach to Third Millennium Urbanism. Monographs in
World Archaeology No. 3. Prehistory Press. Madison, WI.
Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. 1991a. "The Indus Valley Tradition of Pakistan
and Western India." Journal of World Prehistory. 5:4:331-385.
These are from Ben Diebold's post, Message-ID
<4bul5h$2v6 at news.ycc.yale.edu>, December 28, 1995.
To all intents and purposes, the Meadow appears to be the most current
major work, the current synthesis, though it's mainly an interim site
report. I haven't examined it much at all, except for the Hemphill paper
previously discussed on these fora. Kenoyer's paper, which I've glanced
through but not read, shows every sign of being a very solid survey, and
dense with references, as befits the journal in which it appeared.
Mr. Diebold's post had a number of other references in it, and Moin
Ansari's bibliographic post, Message-ID
<4ct802$kfb at newsbf02.news.aol.com>, of January 9, 1996 has quite a few
more. I will gladly e-mail these to anyone who can't get them via
DejaNews, as well as my own prior bibliographic posting, Message-ID
<joe-2511960916490001 at josephb.tezcat.com> I think, previously on
sci.archaeology.moderated and INDOLOGY.
I did notice in my glances at the Meadow book that there seem to be, after
all, some signs of social stratification at Harappa; but I have no idea
how solidly founded these are, nor whether they in fact mean what they
seemed to at first glance. To the best of my knowledge, the question
remains open. In any event, the following paper title, found in one of
the books reviewed below, piques my interest considerably:
Possehl, Gregory L. 1991. "Revolution in the urban revolution: the
emergence of Harappan urbanism." Annual Review of Anthropology. 19:
Subject: 3. The Gangetic problem
I don't mean to imply by my remarks above that it's perfectly obvious to
everyone how urban origins theories and standard accounts of Gangetic
urbanism conflict. Indeed, my position is not shared by Romila Thapar,
whose 1984 book <From Lineage to State> remains the best synthetic study
of the first millennium I've seen.
It was also the first study to join the two subjects in a powerful and
effective way. Thapar didn't just apply the theories to her context; she
also solved, to my mind quite effectively, theoretical problems that had
remained open in the transition she titled her book after. Although her
focus is primarily that of a historian, she is also the best-informed
historian now working in India as far as archaeology is concerned. For an
elementary discussion of ancient India, the standard recommendation of A.
L. Basham's <The Wonder That Was India> probably sounds goofy, but is in
fact essentially sound (I believe there's an early 1980s revision); but
anyone who has enough Sanskrit terms to read it will benefit greatly from
In her wake, lots of other works appeared. I've previously referred to
those I'd seen in my 1986-87 research. It turns out others were being
published at the same time, notably (going by later citations; I still
haven't seen these):
Lal, Makkhan. 1987. "The stages of human colonisation in the
Ganga-Yamuna Doab: archaeological evidence." South Asian Studies. 3:
Erdosy, George. 1987. "Early historic cities of Northern India." South
Asian Studies. 3: 1-23.
idem. 1989. "Ethnicity in the Rigveda and its bearing on the question of
Indo- European origins." South Asian Studies. 5: 35-47.
Additional references, that I have seen, include:
Chakrabarti, Dilip K. 1988. Theoretical Issues in Indian Archaeology.
New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
This has separate chapters on diffusion; literature and archaeology;
geography; cultural evolution; agriculture; metallurgy; and trade. I
expect to find it of great value; see below for much more on Chakrabarti.
R. K. Varma. 1989. "Pre-Agricultural Mesolithic Society of the Ganga
Valley." Old Problems and New Perspectives in the Archaeology of South
Asia, edited by J.M.Kenoyer, Wisconsin Archaeological Reports Vol 2, 1989.
This is most recent paper I was familiar with on early settlement of the
Ganga (having heard the paper given in 1986). At the same conference and
in the same volume, by the way, the paper I've remembered or misremembered
as showing that rice caused the fall of Harappa:
Richard Meadow. 1989. "Continuity and Change in the Agriculture of the
Greater Indus Valley." Ibid.
Anyway. What seems clear from the books I *have* looked at is that the
second millennium BC, the crucial period whose chronology, ethnic
movements, settlement hierarchies, and who-knows-what-else will be
decisive in the judgement as to whether Gangetic urbanism is in fact
"pristine" - that millennium remains not only too little researched and
still less published, but that little is itself not adequately synthesised
in anything more recent than the Allchins' 1982 book, it appears. (That
book is, however, a fine guide.)
In particular, the <Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology> edited by A.
Ghosh, which I've previously mentioned, is good but not nearly enough. It
proves to be current only to the late 1970s though published in 1989, and
its organisation makes it difficult to pull together views of periods or
regions as pottery-typed cultures are privileged.
There is a solution, though. It involves the recent book on Gangetic
urbanism you probably *haven't* heard of: Dilip Chakrabarti's
<Archaeology of Ancient Indian Cities>.
Subject: 4. The Archaeology of Ancient Indian Cities
A cursory review.
This is an example of why I wish there were a real South Asian
archaeologist on the nets. I'm by no means equipped to give this book a
full review with appropriate scholarly approvals, but I'm about as
qualified as anyone available to explain why all the libraries out there
that've bought the other book I'm reviewing really should buy this one
As it is, while a variety of local libraries here in Chicago have
Allchin's new book (reviewed below), this one turned up only on a
shelf-reading at Loyola. Not Northwestern!
It's unfortunate, because while I'd have to give the Allchin book a slight
edge for the most cash-strapped library, Chakrabarti's is much better for
some purposes, and the two complement each other well.
Chakrabarti, Dilip K. 1995. The Archaeology of Ancient Indian Cities.
Delhi (and Bombay, Calcutta, Madras): Oxford. ISBN 0 19 563472 1.
This book was written 1992-93, on the basis (usually not readily detected)
of a 1972-73 dissertation at the University of Calcutta. Chakrabarti
went on from that dissertation to become a foremost opponent of
diffusionist arguments in South Asian archaeology (his explanations for
the native origin of iron are the standard ones still), based usually on
exacting knowledge of specific technologies, geographies, or whatever else
was germane. Here he comes full circle.
This is a ten-page review of theoretical issues, in which Chakrabarti
contrasts Gordon Childe with Adams, discusses a synthesis of sorts which
he found in Renfrew (though it derives from the work of Kent Flannery, I
gather), and finally says that although he intends to keep these
considerations in mind, his paramount definition for an urban setting is
II. Background and Origin of the Indus Civilization
Thirty-five pages of what Chakrabarti does over and over in this book,
namely an exhaustive review of available evidence with copious references,
are followed by a few pages in which he offers his own views on
causation. This is the chapter I read most closely, and the best place
for me to indicate one reason I'm biased in Chakrabarti's favour: he
writes clear, vigorous English, and calls a spade a spade. He is
trenchant in condemning careless work or thought, and clear in his praise
for those who merit it. He makes his own biases plain - it's clear that
he has no patience with the idea of Mesopotamian trade as a causative
factor in Harappan urbanism - and I'm not going to say he's right every
time. But he quotes generously from those he disputes, and summarises
their results concisely but fully.
Bibliography in South Asian archaeology is a work of suffering, in my
experience. What Chakrabarti does in this chapter, and throughout the
book, is gather all the references together, and summarise them. I know
of no other book which provides such full access to the archaeological
literature of early South Asian urbanism between two covers, and it's
complete with a (usually fair) critique.
It remains to get through the rest of the table of contents, and back
III. Harappan Settlements
This time, it's 53 pages of evidence and 18 of conclusions. The evidence
is surveyed by region, with the major sites described at length and
surface surveys and the like duly noted: North Afghanistan and
Baluchistan; Sind; Cholistan; Western Panjab; Rajasthan, Haryana, East
Panjab and U.P.; Kutch, Kathiawar and Mainland Gujarat. The conclusions
discuss site distribution and size; chronology; planning; and the "social
IV. Prelude to Early Historic Urban Growth
The first dozen pages discuss the decline of Harappa; I am embarrassed to
have to admit that I've forgotten his proposal, but again he begins with a
review of the evidence. Next follow 23 pages on the non-Harappan neolithic
and chalcolithic cultures of the rest of the subcontinent. Interestingly,
in the conclusion which follows, while he generally disdains trade as a
cause, here he attributes the flowering of these cultures throughout this
region around 2000 BC to trade with Harappa.
V. Early Historical Cities
And here they all are... I did notice one glaring omission.
Atranjikhera, whose excavation report I've previously referenced, gets
only one paragraph. This is an absurdity, given that that site is the
most extensively published and one of the most extensively excavated since
World War II in north India; I can only think the author took for granted
that his readers would already have a copy of the report.
Otherwise, I could only think "Had this only existed when I
started..." This time the review of the evidence is 72 pages, ranging
from the Northwest Frontier to Tamil Nadu and Assam, followed by a
discussion of the growth of urban civilisation, of town size and planning
(including textual discussion, unlike the rest of the book), and of the
character of the cities.
VI. Problems and Perspectives
A summary, focused particularly on the shortcomings of Indian archaeology
(a standard jeremiad) and also on causes of Gangetic urbanism.
This book didn't exist when I did my research. It does now. I recommend
it very strongly.
end part 1
Joe Bernstein, writer, banker, bookseller joe at sfbooks.com
speaking for myself alone http://www.tezcat.com/~josephb/
But...co-proponent for soc.history.ancient, now back under
discussion in news.groups!
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