Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Indus Valley Civilization and Cross-Cultural Contacts

Proto-Elamite bucranium or bovine head, a motif found on pottery (Potts 1999: 53)

During the third millennium BCE (between 3000 and 2000 BCE), early civilizations made contact in an area termed “Middle Asia” by the archeologist G. Possehl (2002: 215).  The Indus Civilization was the easternmost part of this area.  It also included the southwestern portion of Central Asia, which Possehl refers to as Turan; southeastern Iran and the western border of the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, known to Mesopotamians as Magan or Makan, as well as islands in the Gulf such as Bahrain; and Mesopotamia itself, the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.  Contemporary kingdoms to the west in Egypt and to the northwest in Canaan were peripheral to “Middle Asia,” although also in contact.

Gulf seal with bucranium (top center), anthropomorph (left), grid,
and scorpion (right), as well as bird (Kjaerum 1983: 37).
There is an Intercultural Style of objects carved in soft stones (including steatite, the material of most Indus seals), common to this area.  Certain motifs appear in this style in several locations.  There are scenes of combat with snakes, depictions of bulls including the zebu or humped bull (seen on some Indus seals), a lion-headed bird called Imdugud in Mesopotamia, depictions of huts or temples resembling the Indus VEST sign, plant-like forms including rosettes and palm trees, and geometric patterns such as grids, whirls, guilloche, and an imbricate motif (nested arcs) (Possehl 2002: 216-7).  The shared motifs may indicate a shared ideology of some sort.  Certainly, though, these are indications of contact and trade, much was which was apparently conducted via waterways.

An Indus bucranium on a pot shard (Shah and Parpola 1991: 374, Rhd-241).

During the Early Dynastic Period in Iraq, the lands of Magan and Meluhha occasionally appear in cuneiform literature.  The early Akkadian king, Sargon, ruled at the time when these lands were known (Possehl 2002: 218).  Copper was mined in Magan during this period and the same metal is mentioned in cuneiform documents as coming from Meluhha (2002: 220).  Other products from Meluhha include semi-precious stones such as carnelian (a red stone), lapis lazuli (a blue stone), and pearls.  A few wood products, a few animals, fresh dates, and some gold also came from Meluhha.  Many more products derive from Magan, including ivory, diorite (a hard, volcanic stone), semi-precious stones, red ochre, special types of wood or objects made of wood, goats, and gold dust (loc. cit.).  The Gulf was a center of this international maritime trade.

A zebu on a plaque from the Elamite Diyala Valley (Lamberg-Karlovsky and Potts 2001: 225).

Four depictions of boats are known from the Indus Valley, three from Mohenjo daro, one from Lothal (2002: 221).  There are many other boat depictions known from Mesopotamia, as well as some from the Gulf.  One witness to this trade comes in the form of stamp seals.  According to Possehl, over two dozen seals have been found in the Near East that either come from the Indus Valley or resemble Indus seals (2002: 221).  They date from the late third millennium to the Babylonian Kassite Period.  Some bear pictorial motifs that resemble those on Indus seals, while others have Indus script or symbols resembling those of the Indus.  Beads are another witness to inter-regional trade, especially beads of etched carnelian.  These were found in considerable quantities at Mohenjo daro, Harappa, Chanhujo daro, Kalibangan, Lothal, and Rojdi in the Indus Valley.  They also appear in Mesopotamia at Ur, Kish, Tell Asmar, Tell Abu Salabikh, and Nippur.  Others show up in Elamite cultural areas including Tepe Hissar, Shah Tepe, Susa, Tepe Yahya, and other locations.

Seal M-1111 from Mohenjo daro with inscription: FAT EX / STRIPED FAT CEE /
POTTED THREE / CRAB / POT (note how different the zebu is from the Elamite example).

Dice are another intercultural phenomenon, both in the cubical form known to the modern world, and “stick dice” (2002: 224).  Various objects of other types also occur in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and the Gulf: some types of pottery, a few figurines, spiral-headed pins of copper or bronze, , and Harappan weights.  Oddly enough, though, very little material from the west has been found in the Indus Valley (2002: 227).  Possehl notes six Gulf seals and six cylinder seals, a few metal objects, and the motif formerly described as Gilgamesh battling two animals.  In Mesopotamia, this scene typically shows a hero with a lion, a bull, or between two such animals.  The comparable Indus scene contains two tigers instead.
Panel from an inlaid harp from Ur, Mesopotamia, showing
"Gilgamesh" with two bull-men (Aruz 2003: 106).

Seal M-306 with hero between tigers, the "Gilgamesh" motif

Possehl notes one type of artifact that appears to derive from as far afield as the Minoan Crete culture (2002: 228).  The object is a ceramic ring with small cup-like elements attached, a ring-kernos.  The ring is hollow, the cups perforated at the bottoms so that liquid poured into the cups would also fill the ring.  This specialized vessel was later used in the Kernophoria, a Greek festival of the harvest.  Another archeologist, J.M. Kenoyer, cites the pictorial motif of bull leaping as well (2003: 408).  This peculiar activity is familiar to Westerners as characteristic of Minoan Crete.  But there are also at least two Indus seals that seem to bear the same theme (see M-312).  Kenoyer mentions another from Central Asia (2003: 409).

Seal M-312, possibly showing bull leaping.

The Indus Civilization also had contact with a Central Asian area generally termed Bactria Margiana, centered around the Amu Darya river.  This area and parts of eastern Iran form Possehl’s Turan.  The semi-precious stone lapis lazuli occurs in this area, which may account for the presence of Harappan artifacts.  But the earliest evidence of contact is the appearance of pottery with a stepped cross motif, a pattern later found both in Central Asia and in the Indus Valley.  From the Mature Harappan period, there is a stamp seal with two Indus signs from Altyn Depe in Turkmenia.  Another stamp seal is clearly of Indus origin, bearing both signs and the motif of the elephant, this object coming from Gonur Depe.  Moving in the opposite direction, one seal from Harappa bears an eagle that closely resembles seals from Gonur Depe (2002: 230).  The other side of the Harappan seal shows the stepped cross already cited.
Seal H-166A showing a bird (eagle?) with spread wings.
Elamite bird (eagle?) with spread wings on an axe head from
Tepe Yahya (Lamberg-Karlovsky and Potts 2001: 216).
Thus, although many of the details of the trade among the Indus Valley, the Gulf, Mesopotamia, and outlying regions remain unclear, the Harappans had far-reaching contacts during the Bronze Age.


Aruz, Joan, ed. 2003. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University.

Kenoyer, J.M. 2003. "The Indus Civilization," in Art of the First Cities, Joan Aruz, ed. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University. Pp. 377-380.

Kjaerum, Poul. 1983. Failaka / Dilmun, the Second Millennium Settlements, Vol. 1:1, The Stamp and Cylinder Seals. Jutland Archaeological Society Publications XVII:1. Moesgard, Aarhus: Jysk Arkaeologisk Selskab.

Lamberg-Karlovsky, C.C. and D.T. Potts. 2001. Excavations at Tepe Yahya, Iran, 1967-1975: The Third Millennium. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Possehl, G.L. 2002. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective.  Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

Potts, D.T. 1999. The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Shah, Sayid Ghulam Mustafa Shah and Asko Parpola. 1991. Corpus of Indus Seals and Inscriptions. 2. Collections in Pakistan. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

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