Uncovering the Secrets of the Indus Valley Civilization and Its Undeciphered Script

A century after the great Indus Valley civilization, its unique script and the 'godless' city of Mohenjo Daro were discovered, mysteries endure, but some insights have been gained

Qaseem Saeed
Ruth Schuster
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 The sun sets over the stupa at Mohenjo Daro
The sun sets over the stupa at Mohenjo DaroCredit: Sheema Siddiqui

KARACHI, TEL AVIV – Around the time the first pyramids were being built in Egypt, a “godless” modern city was arising in the Indian subcontinent. Even now, as Pakistan prepares to mark a century from the discovery of Mohenjo Daro by the banks of the Indus River, many of the mysteries about the Indus Valley civilization and its great cities remain unanswered, including the reason for their collapse in the second millennium B.C.E.

With baths and toilets in each house, communal trash disposal at the street corners, no less than 700 wells for fresh water and a sophisticated drainage system, Mohenjo Daro was among the biggest settlements of the Indus Valley civilization, which stretched over a million square kilometers in today’s Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. The civilization was evidently more advanced in 2500 B.C.E. in urban planning than most of the region’s cities in 2020. Also, finds in Mohenjo Daro, Harappa and other Indus settlements may help base an extraordinary theory: that Indus script, one of the oldest writing systems in the world, arose independently.

Walking through the grid streets of Mohenjo Daro, touching the Bronze Age walls built of baked bricks, it feels almost alive, as though the people had stepped out for a moment and are about to come home and pick up their business where they left it. The Great Bath, the only monument in the city, will fill again. Bullock-drawn carts will resume plying the bumpy roads and hearts will skip a beat at the beauty of the girls’ black eyes.

Modern city of Mohanjo Daro from 2,500 B.C.E.
Modern city of Mohanjo Daro from 2,500 B.C.E.Credit: Qaseem Saeed

Fleshing out this breathtaking imaginary revival will have to wait. Excavations throughout Southern Pakistan, including at Mohenjo Daro, are on hold presently, less because of the coronavirus and more because of funding issues and the condition of the soil. Archaeologists differ on whether the ground conditions argue for faster excavation or none. Meanwhile the battle over the discoveries at the extraordinary 4,600-year-old city, and their significance, rages on.

Mound of the Dead

The oldest civilizations were thought to be Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and eastern Asia. Then another came to light: the Indus Valley civilization.

The first Indus city to be discovered, serendipitously, in the nineteenth century, was Harappa, which would be systematically excavated much later. Mohenjo Daro was reported in 1922 by the Indian historian and archaeological expert Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay, who had been traveling to search for Buddhist relics. The Archaeological Survey of India initially called it “Moenjo Daro,” a Sindhi phrase meaning “mound of the Muhain (dead).” Later the name morphed to “Mohenjo Daro” – the “mound of happy voyagers”.

We have no idea what the once-prosperous city’s name was in its time. Even if inscriptions found in the city say what it was called, we wouldn’t know. Indus script remains to be deciphered.

However, we can say that the Indus Valley civilization, aka the Harappan civilization, is the earliest known urban constellation in the Indian subcontinent, and survived until at least 1,700 B.C.E. 

Sophisticated drainage system at Mohenjo Daro
Sophisticated drainage system at Mohenjo DaroCredit: Sheema Siddiqui

The excavations of Mohenjo Daro began upon its discovery but more professional archaeological explorations were carried out 1922-1930 under Sir John Marshall, the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (1906-1928).

It turned out that the Indus people not only had command of sophisticated urban planning but irrigated their crops, even growing rice; they had a command of metallurgy and (most agree) they could write, not that we know what they were saying.

Much is unknown about the spread of human advances versus independent development in multiple places. The innovations in the Indus Valley may have included irrigation, though perhaps it spread from Mesopotamia. Animal domestication in the Indus River Valley was also partly independent and partly a matter of diffusion. In the early Neolithic, the Indus people may have independently tamed the same animals as in the Near East: goats and cattle, then sheep, as well as local creatures such as the Indian aurochs – purportedly the ancestor of the modern zebu, and the water buffalo. This is supported by discoveries at Mehrgarh, a Neolithic farming village going back perhaps 10,000 years on the banks of the Bolan River in Baluchistan, Pakistan. Mehrgarh is about 280 kilometers from Mohenjo Daro.

To what degree animal husbandry and crop cultivation were independently developed in the Indus Valley and how much was learned from elsewhere remains debated. But clearly the Indus Valley people, Egyptians and Mesopotamians – all river valley dwellers – were among the first known to use systematic weights and measurement systems, contributing to domestic harmony and facilitating far-flung trade.

For the Indus, this standardization helped them establish an international trading network and to establish merchant colonies in foreign regions, as attested by the discovery of seals with Indus script as far away as the Arabian Gulf, the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and in Lothal, Gujarat, India.

Unicorn, elephant and ox-like beasts seen as animal motifs on Indus seals with Indus script
Unicorn, elephant and ox-like beasts seen as animal motifs on Indus seals with Indus scriptCredit: Technical Consultative Committee

Whispers in Indus script

But the evolution of the Indus script remains baffling. Early writing is commonly associated with the Sumerians along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia, the ancient Egyptians along the Nile, and the ancient Chinese along the Huang He River. But although it shares some elements with other early writing, the form of the Indus script has unique elements, suggesting it may have developed indigenously.

The earliest potters’ marks in the subcontinent date to 6,500 years ago and were found in Harappa, and clearer writing emerged around 5,300 years ago, according to Jonathan Mark Kenoyer of the University of Wisconsin, an expert on the Indus Valley. That is roughly the same period of proto-cuneiform emerging in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphic writing in Egypt.

The more orderly Indus script incorporating some of the early potters’ marks remained in use until about 1850 B.C.E., possibly longer in some pockets.

“Indus script is made up of a collection of pictographic signs and human and animal motifs, including the unicorn,” says Dr. Asma Ibrahim, director of the State Bank Museum and a renowned archeologist of Pakistan, who believes it was the earliest form of writing.

Bull seal with Indus script found at Mohenjo Daro
Bull seal with Indus script found at Mohenjo DaroCredit: Technical Consultative Committee

Most of the inscriptions are brief: five marks on average, and the longest found to date has just 27. They are found mostly on flat stamp seals, tools, tablets, ornaments and pottery, she says.

What any of it means is another matter. “Societies in the deep past have always been an enigma,” Dr. Kaleemullah Lashari – chairman of the Management Board for Antiquities & Physical Heritage, Government of Sindh tells Haaretz: It is difficult to explain artifacts and locations from the distant past because of the long disconnect between then and the present, he adds.

“In such situation the inscriptions are always greatly helpful in providing the bases for the understanding of the ancient belief systems, dynasties, administrative systems, ruling groups, governing laws, etc.,” Lashari says. “To their good fortune [at Mohenjo Daro] the excavators found a large number of seals and other objects comprising the Indus signs; but it has turned into their frustration, when these signs couldn’t be read or explained.”

Their brevity isn’t helpful. Elsewhere, early writing was used to prepare documents (from official records to gripes to hexes). Attempts to decipher Indus script go back to its discovery, Ibrahim says. “More than a hundred attempts of decipherment have been published,” she adds – and maybe, after all, progress is being made. Some scholars of Indus valley script believe it was generally used by the elite to record and control transactions of economic nature, as an administrative tool and for religious purposes. “Another group of scholars believe it was used as mark of identification, as is mostly found on seals. Those might have been used as amulets,” she adds.

Insights into Indus script, after all

No equivalent to the Rosetta Stone, key to interpreting ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, has been found. Yet through the fog of the ages, decades of analysis have achieved some insights.

Indus script was written from right to left, as are Hebrew and Arabic, according to Prof. Iravatham Mahadevan (who deciphered ancient Tamil-Brahmin inscriptions and died in 2018), based on “cramped” symbols on the left of some inscriptions, where the scribe evidently ran out of room. 

Atta Muhammad Bhanbhoro, a prominent Sindhi author, historian and translator, agreed: “Indus people were leftward writers. In the inscriptions on pottery and shell rods, the sign on the left is overlapped. It clearly shows that the sign on the right was inscribed first and it was followed by the sign on the left,” he wrote in his book “Indus Script.” That said, sometimes apparently the writing flowed in both directions.

The combinations of phonetic symbols, and pictographs of people, animals, buildings and even hills indicate that the writing was governed by grammar, Bhanbhoro wrote. “Some have geometric patterns mixed with the cursive signs that closely resemble [later] Roman characters as E, H, U, V, W, X and Y. There are linear signs I, II, III, IIII, IIIII, and so on which stand for cardinal numbers from 1 to 12 and 24,” he posited.

Among the anthropogenic images are an archer, a load carrier, a shield-wielding soldier and a praying man, he said. Bhanbhoro passed away on June 3, 2020, aged 90. 

In addition to grammar, there seems to have been a long-term consistency: “There is a very strange phenomenon in this script, that the seals from far below levels to upper carry almost the same pictographs,” Ibrahim adds.

At present, based on excavations and analyses of earlier survey materials, the belief is that the Indus script evolved in the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra River Valleys and Baluchistan, now in Pakistan, beginning in the Early Harappan Period.

Its independent development was postulated early on. In 1924, experts at the British Museum, C.J. Gadd and Sidney Smith studying photographs of the seals published by Marshall in the Illustrated London News (a weekly that appeared from 1842 to 2003) found no connection between Indus and the early writing systems of Sumer and Egypt.

Asma Ibrahim however suspects there was seep. “The Babylonians borrowed the Sumerian idiographic and syllabic script for writing their Semitic language. It is most probable that the same case was for the Indus script,” she says, adding that it has several other similarities to Sumerian pictographic writing.

It bears adding that a minority remains unconvinced Indus script is writing at all, in the sense that the symbols spell out phrases that would be used in speech. Mesopotamian cuneiform was used for basic accounting and was associated with ideology and political power. In Egypt the earliest writing was associated with royal burials and was the fief of elites. In ancient China, early writing was linked to communication with ancestors, elite culture and legitimization of both ideology and political authority. No specific association has been postulated for Indus script, though some wonder if the Indus script is an ancient, lost writing form of the classical Indo-European language Sanskrit

Painting in Mohenjo Daro Museum that depicts the trade at the gate of Mohenjo Daro
Painting in Mohenjo Daro Museum that depicts the trade at the gate of Mohenjo DaroCredit: Tauseef Razi Malick

Alternatively, maybe Indus script is an amalgamation of independently-formulated symbols and borrowing. As many as 17 out of 24 cursive signs and their variants in the Indus writing system are akin to Semitic signs and their variants – though in which direction the spread went, who can say. There were definitely trading ties and probably cultural influences between the Near East and the subcontinent.

“Seals from Indus Valley were also found from the Mesopotamian and Middle Eastern sites, and there were similar seals, following the design pattern, but with a different combination of signs,” Lashari tells Haaretz. “it is taken as evidence that the influence of the Indus culture was quite strong, and that it influenced the production of the seals in that region. Besides that, there are clear indications that the weights and measure system of Indus Valley is reflected in artifacts unearthed from Mesopotamian sites.”

‘Abraham’ statue in a godless city

The reverse side of the Pakistani 20-rupee note shows an image of Mohenjo Daro, since 1980 listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The people briskly exchanging the notes probably don’t even know the symbolism of its history as a prehistoric trading power on the banks of the mighty Indus River.

Among many other places, Indus seals were found in the oldest part of the city of Ur. “This ancient site of Ur is the birth place of Abraham the prophet (peace be upon him) and his birth even took place about 1800-1700 BC,” Bhanbhoro wrote

This is why some religious mindsets identified the “Priest King” of Mohenjo Daro – the sculpture of a seated male – as the Patriarch Abraham.

The Priest King is made of steatite (soapstone). His hair is combed back, his beard neat and trimmed (as some believe Abraham groomed his facial hair). He has a headband with a circular inlay on his forehead and a cloth is slung over one shoulder, a garb compared to ehraam (aka ihram), the plain robe Muslims wear while performing hajj, the holy pilgrimage. However, the Priest King’s cloth is patterned, a form that came to be associated with the traditional block-printed cloth in Sindh, called ajrak, which is sold in souvenir shops.

Not all archaeologists buy the theological theory behind the statue, especially since there is not a shred of evidence to back it up.

“There has been very interesting branch of learning during the past two centuries, called Biblical Archaeology, where the sites were sometimes associated with the stories from the Bible,” Lashari explains. “It is understandable that in its infancy, Biblical Archaeology supported a great number of speculations as correct, despite the fact that the scientific attitudes and the disciplines were discarded.”

For instance, he points out, when precisely Abraham lived is not established through a scientific measures. Secondly, the famous artifact, the Priest King, hasn’t been dated authentically, let alone to a time associated with Abrahamic tradition. Thirdly– the biblical interpretation of the statue assumes as fact that the story of Abraham was also equally important in the subcontinent. At this point, nobody serious is buying the notion, sums up Lashari, who on March 23, 2019 was awarded Sitara-e-Imitiaz, the third highest civil award, for his services to his field.

Another beguiling artifact unearthed at Mohenjo Daro is a provocative nude figurine made of bronze dubbed the Dancing Girl. Just 10.8 centimeters (4.25 inches) in height, she has small breasts, narrow hips, and long legs and arms. She wears a necklace and a stack of 25 bangles on her left arm, which rests on her outstretched left leg. She wears two bangles on her right wrist and two more above her right elbow: her right hand rests on her hip. Her head, with hair coiled in a bun, is tilted slightly backward and her left leg is bent at the knee as though about to tap to a dancing beat.

By the way, the Priest King and the Dancing Girl were taken in the 1930s by John Marshall and put on display at the National Museum in New Delhi. At the time of partition the experts and officials of both the newly constituted countries agreed to divide the cultural material among them, the so-called King Priest came to Pakistan, and the so-called Dancing Girl went to Bharat.

Despite the soubriquet of “Priest King” (or King Priest) for the male figurine, no traces of adherence to any religious ideology nor adoration of any monarch have been identified in Mohanjo Darom, according to archaeologists associated with the site. Nothing in the ruins smacks of palaces, temples, or monuments – other than the “Great Bath.” In a story on the site, National Geographic posits that the inhabitants had an ideology based on cleanliness, based on the uniqueness of the monumental Great Bath

Absent evidence of monarchy, Mohenjo Daro could plausibly have been akin to a city-state with proto-democratic rule, historians suggest.

It is difficult to reach any conclusions about the belief system in an area as vast as the Indus Valley, Lashari qualifies. “Uniformity in the material products doesn’t mean uniformity in superstitions,” he points out. Possibly a whole pantheon existed in the imaginations of the people. However, as things stand, “Not much can be said about the beliefs, myths and superstitions of the Indus Valley people until the script is somehow deciphered,” he says.

Indeed. “[Decipherment] will end the speculations about this great civilization, especially of origin of religion. It is [the] largest civilization of the world extending over 1 million square kms across the plains of the Indus River from Arabian Sea to the Ganges, with the largest population, of five million people,” Ibrahim says. “They had links with Gulf coast, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Oman and Bahrain. Once the script is deciphered, we will know about the structure of society in villages or towns, or across the greater civilization.”

A mysterious end

Why were the cities of the Indus civilization ultimately, if gradually, abandoned? There are still no answers for the ultimate breakdown of the Indus Valley civilization. Experts failed to find evidence of destruction. Possibly rivers changed course; and/or the climatic conditions changed. A paper published in Nature Scientific Reports in 2015 based on finds in Bhirrana, in India, suggests that among the stresses, dietary change with the arrival of rice from East Asia spurred a gradual process of de-urbanization.

Perhaps further excavation can provide fresh clues, and also shed more light on the origin of the Indus script. Indeed, more excavations may be crucial to understanding the people of the Indus Valley and hopefully, after all this time, finally deciphering that script, Ibrahim says. Conservation is also essential because the site is under threat from pollution and soil salination – and tourists. “The flow of the visitors, especially during festival days when thousands of people are walking all over, is a big threat to the remains,” she says.

But further excavation of Mohenjo Daro may never happen. “Due to the soil condition, and the rising water level it is not advisable to open more grounds, lower new trenches, as the unearthed remains are prone to the effects of weathering,” Lashari explains. “But the excavations are not the only means of investigation. It is the reason that the Chair of the Technical Consultative Committee for Mohenjo Daro has prepared plans for the new technologies, which are available, for augmenting non-destructive investigation.”

Planning is underway and funds should be made available soon for the purpose, he adds. Recently cores were extracted and are presently being studied, which will hopefully broaden our understanding of ancient Mohenjo Daro – and its end.