The Indus Valley Civilization: In Search of Those Elusive Centers and Peripheries

By Chris J.D. Kostman, M.A.

Originally published in JAGNES, the Journal of the Association of Graduates in Near Eastern Studies, Spring 1992


The Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization was an integral component of the Bronze Age "world economy" encompassing the Near East and South Asia. Beyond economic terms, however, this trade necessitated cultural contact and exchange of various types and degrees. An investigation of this exchange can aid in determining the centers and peripheries of this ancient civilization and shed further light on the intra- and inter-regional relationships of the far-flung and enigmatic Harappan phenomena.

During the fourth to second millennia B.C., a unique and enigmatic civilization rose up and flourished in the greater Indus Valley region of what is today Pakistan, northern India, and bits of adjacent Afghanistan. The existence and individuality of this civilization was not recognized until the 1920s, and the archaeological record has left behind far more questions than answers. With the Indus Valley script still undeciphered and the present day local governments not often amenable to foreign excavations, great mystery and debate still surrounds even the broad topics of the civilization's origins and subsequent demise, primary economic subsistence base, system of government and rule, and degree of social stratification. Also of primary interest, as well as the focus of this article, is the geographical extent of its cultural sphere and the even greater range of its interregional trade and exchange.

To begin to deal with the topic at hand, a consideration of what actually defines the unique character of the Harappan phenomenon would be in order. If listed simply, this would include:

  • Essentially polar-aligned pre-planned urban settlements, the few large sites usually divided into a lower town and an incorrectly labeled 'citadel.'
  • Frequent architectural use of mud brick platforms.
  • Fastidious, almost fanatical, attention to water control, including a plethora of hydraulic features such as drains, wells, sump pits, baths, and bathrooms.
  • Unique and undeciphered written script.
  • Consistent binary system of weights and measures.
  • Application of this binary measuring system in architectural features such as brick size.
  • Distinctive animal and human figurine assemblage.
  • Pottery unique in terms of manufacturing technique, decoration, shape, and style.
  • Virtually a complete lack of any military-related materials, both in terms of weapons and, probably, fortifications.
  • No palaces, forts, or other types of power center architectural constructions.

The Indus Valley civilization, at its height, encompassed a triangular area with approximately one thousand miles on each of the three sides. This would easily make it the largest of the world?s great early civilizations. However, far more specific data are needed to further define and discuss the location and role of the periphery of this civilization.

Equally important to an investigation of the periphery is an understanding of the power center or centers of the civilization in question. For the Indus Valley civilization, the major sites of Mohenjo Daro, located in Sind somewhat near modern day Karachi, and Harappa, located in Punjab near modern day Lahore and the Indian border, are generally referred to as the civilization's 'twin capital cities.' Indeed, Harappa is considered the type site, lending its name to the civilization, i.e., the Harappan Civilization.

A considerable body of circumstantial evidence identifies these two sites as dominant cities or powers in the Indus region. Factors such as their size, strategic locations, similarities to one another, and the appearance of the greatest diversity of materials in the archaeological record at these two sites are cited as evidence for this interpretation. However, conclusive evidence, such as palace or temple structures, literary archives, or enormous storage facilities, is not attestable at either site, nor at any other Harappan site. Acknowledging the role of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa as regional power centers seems fairly harmless, but the case for defining them as the social, economic, and political centers of this far flung civilization is not yet demonstrable. This begs the question: Without known centers, how does one begin to define or investigate the types of relationships and systems of interaction which existed between the centers and peripheries?

Questions regarding the rationale for the expansion of peripheries, as well as for long-range trade and interaction, are of course in order in an investigation of this nature. A primary, if not the primary, driving force would be a need for 'luxury goods,' raw materials, and other items not found in the riverine alluvial plain which made up the vast majority of the Indus Civilization. This is essentially identical to the cases of Egypt and Mesopotamia, wherein the predominant resource was mud. Where mud would not suffice, it was up to the initiative of the riverine peoples to look elsewhere for more optimal and/or desirable resources. In the Indus Valley, sought-after materials included copper, gold, silver, tin, jasper and agate cherts, carnelian, azurite, lapis, fine shell, steatite, antimony, and ivory. Forays would have been made towards and beyond the civilization?s peripheral areas to obtain these goods. At the minimum, then, we have an economic motive for interregional travel. Making the case for other rationales for travel or exploration beyond the central cultural sphere is more difficult, but equally worth consideration. Unfortunately this is beyond the scope of this article.

To facilitate the obtainment of the sought after goods, Harappan sites were located in such far flung locations as Sutkagan Dor in Makran as a source for ocean materials such as shell and for the site's proximity to Persian Gulf trade routes; Bala Kot in eastern Makran, which, like Sutkagan Dor, was a source for ocean materials and access to Persian Gulf trade routes; Lothal in Gujarat, India, which is usually considered the 'gateway to the east;' Shortugai in Badakhshan, Afghanistan, for its proximity to the lapis mines.

This last site, Shortugai, probably offers the best possible local application of center and periphery models. Its location far from the central Indus Valley can best, if not only, be explained in economic terms. The archaeological record, even without the benefit of written records, indicates that the Harappans set up and maintained a significant presence here designed nearly exclusively for the control and exploitation of the nearby lapis mines. Without this economic motivation, one can safely wonder if the Harappans would have had any reason whatsoever to have had a presence in the area.

Material evidence in the archaeological record indicates that through or beyond Shortugai and the other apparently peripheral sites, material and cultural exchange took place between the Indus Valley proper and such long distant locations as the Omani Peninsula, Sumer, the Iranian plateau, Afghanistan, and the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent.

A synthesis of the nature and content of the multi-faceted and overlapping exchange routes and partners is a difficult and perplexing project at best. Equally difficult to wade through are the hidden agendas and nationalistic biases of modern scholars of the topic. However, an outline of some of the major investigations into this exchange is in order at this point.

Arguing Against Foreign Trade

Nayanjot Lahiri's works seek to prove that the Harappans, at least those at the type site, had little or no need for long-range trade. By culling the excavation reports for the quantities and uses of all 'imported' materials, and then by studying the various gazetteers and geological studies of the region and its immediate hinterlands, she attempts to show that virtually all of the 'imported' goods could be accounted for within the Indus region proper. Thus she stakes a claim for the Harappans' ability to live and 'develop' without foreign trade, let alone foreign interaction. In a nutshell, Lahiri states that the Harappans had little or no need to expand or even acknowledge their peripheral neighbors:

The centrality of the urban centre of Harappa to the internal resources available in the upper Indus plains, the North West Frontier highlands and lowlands, Rajasthan and Sind has been highlighted. The point here is that although Harappa was located in a broad alluvial expanse, the range of raw materials it exploited with the exception of jade, were largely accessible in either (a) conjoining regions, the Derajat being one such example, (b) regions within the Harappan distribution area, such as Sind and Baluchistan, or (c) regions, which while being geographically outside the larger hinterland of the Bari doab displayed clear cultural contacts with the Indus civilization; Afghanistan and Rajasthan are two such areas (Lahiri 1990:431).

Getting more to her point, as well as revealing her not so hidden agenda, she continues:

The present discussion has sought to highlight the abundance of raw materials available to Harappa within the distribution zone of the civilization itself or along its peripheries. Clearly, the importance that has been attached by South Asian archaeologists to the regions west of Baluchistan, whether it is the rich sources of copper in Oman or the presence of carnelian in the Persian Gulf, is misplaced. While there may have been raw materials involved in the long distance trade between the Indus Valley, the Persian Gulf, Iran, and Mesopotamia, we see no reason to argue that Harappa or any other sites of the Indus Civilization were in any way solely or even significantly dependent on the regions to the west for such raw materials (Lahiri 1990:441).

It must be pointed out, however, that while Lahiri's observations may be true for the civilization's type site, this does not in any way necessitate their veracity for the other sites scattered across the approximately 425,000 square miles (Kenoyer 1987) of the entire civilization.

Intercultural Style Vessels

Now we turn from what is nearly a non-trading argument to an argument for unequivocal exchange between the Indus and its neighboring regions to the west, which is to say a discussion of the so-called 'Intercultural Style Vessels,' or chlorite/soft-stone vessels, as discussed by Phil Kohl and others.

Kohl points out that no other class of artifacts are as widely distributed in the mid-third millennium in West Asia (Kohl 1979:69). He makes two primary points about this trade: 'scale should not be confused with significance or the possible effects of trade on the various participating societies' (Kohl 1979:78). Secondly, 'trade should not be considered apart from the production and consumption of the goods that are exchanged' (Kohl 1979:78). Thus 'production, distribution, and consumption, in other words, are intimately inter-related, different aspects of a single reality' (Kohl 1979:81). Here Kohl paraphrases Karl Marx and uses this as a launching point to argue for various impacts of this trade on class structure, social mobility, and other various aspects of 'world economy' models and their applications to the ancient world. The importance of Kohl's arguments to the topic at hand is to point out that while Indus sites may not have needed long-range trade with the west for raw materials, there was, in fact, trade with the west which is evidenced by chlorite ceramics, and this trade had a definite impact on the participating cultures.

However the importance of this is uncertain as the appearance of the western chlorite pottery is minimal in the Indus Valley proper. None have been recovered at Harappa, for example. Their appearance at Mohenjo Daro and elsewhere in the Indus Valley, is interesting to note and may have broad ramifications. Thus whether the Harappans needed to trade with the west or not, they did do so, and trade of any kind necessitates cultural interaction.

Painted Grey Wares

Dr. Rita Wright has performed field research at Mehrgarh and Harappa in Pakistan, as well as on the Arabian peninsula, and has spent a large part of her archaeological career studying the phenomena of third millennium painted grey wares and their role in understanding cultural interaction across the Indo-Iranian borderlands and beyond. She divides the painted grey wares into two major groups: Faiz Mohammad and Emir, primarily differentiated by size and shape. She notes that "there are only a few sites on which the two groups overlap and in all cases the 'intrusive' group appears in smaller quantities" (Wright 1989a:140). Interestingly, though their stylistic traits differ markedly, the technology is essentially identical. Noting this, she suggests that 'their stylistic traits were subject to cultural boundaries in a way which technological ones were not' (Wright 1989a:146). Thus 'this study of the Emir and Faiz Mohammad ceramics... highlights the restriction of stylistic traits to eastern Iran in the case of the Emir, and to Pakistani Baluchistan in the case of the Faiz Mohammad. The technology, on the other hand, crossed these cultural boundaries and is present throughout the region, although a necessary component would have been craftsmen sufficiently skilled to master the techniques' (Wright 1989a:146). Therefore the evidence not only for trade, but for cultural exchange in the form of ceramic technology between the Indus and the west, is now attested.

Xancus Pyrum and Trade Routes Emanating from the Subcontinent

Silvio Durante's study (1979) of marine shells from India and their appearance in the archaeological record in such distant sites as Tepe Yahya and Shahr-i Sokhta in Iran, as well as in the Indus Valley, sheds light on the ancient trading routes of certain types of shells which are specifically and exclusively found along the Indian coastline proper. Following Phil Kohl's arguments, where shells were traded, so culture, technology, reli-gion, etc. must have followed.

Durante primarily discusses the marine shell Xancus pyrum and the fact that it was traded whole and intact, then worked or reworked at its destination site, perhaps then moving on to other locations. The importance of this specific shell is that 'Xancus pyrum has a very limited geographic distribution and thus has almost the same significance in the field of shells as that of lapis lazuli in the context of mineral resources as regards the determination of the possible routes along which a locally unavailable raw material is transported from a well-defined place of origin to the place where it is processed and, as also in the case of Xancus pyrum, consumed' (Durante 1979:340). Durante also interestingly points out that as the shells were traded as a raw resource for later working, the trade phenomena of 'increasingly high degrees of product finishing in order to add a surplus value to the goods' (Durante 1979:340) does not exist. Perhaps, as these shells crossed so many cultural hands, they were left unworked in order for the final owner or consumer to work the raw material into a style and usage specific to their region. Durante offers four possible trade routes from their gathering zone along the west and northwest Indian coast to destinations west: sea route direct to the Iranian coastal area; sea route to Sutkagen-dor and Sotka-koh on the Makran coast, then overland westwards; overland through the Indus plain and then through the Makran interior to Sistan; overland through the Indus Valley and then through the Gomal Valley to Sistan.

Thus we now have hard evidence for trade and cultural exchange, plus traceable routes for objects emanating from the farthest south eastern reaches of the Harappan cultural sphere to destinations far west of the Indus. There can be no doubt that the Harappans were part of multiple trading networks involving their immediately peripheral neighbors and others far beyond.

A Sumerian Periphery

Now to take this cursory investigation a larger step further afield, consider the irrefutable evidence for trade and interaction between the Indus and Mesopotamia which is to be found in the written records of the furthest west trade and exchange partners of the Harappans.

Numerous Mesopotamian documents, spanning several centuries, refer to the lands of Meluhha, Makkan, and Dilmun. Modern scholars identify Meluhha with the Indus Valley, Makkan with the Makran and Omani coasts, and Dilmun with Bahrain, Failaka, and the adjacent Arabian coastline. These three far-flung lands were important partners in the immense trade network in which Mesopotamia participated.

A brief overview of the major literary references includes:

  • Sargon's inscription referring to Meluhhan ships docked at Akkad.
  • References to a Meluhhan ship-holder and a Meluhhan interpreter.
  • Gudea of Lagash inscriptions: 'the Meluhhans came up (or down) from their country to supply wood and other raw materials for the construction of the main temple of Gudea's capital.'
  • References to luxury items being imported from Meluhha.
  • References to a Meluhhan workers village.

It is fascinating to note that by the Ur III Period, the Meluhhan (Harappan) workers residing in Sumeria had Sumerian names, leading Parpola, Parpola, and Brunswig to comment that 'three hundred years after the earliest textually documented contact between Meluhha and Mesopotamia, the references to a distinctly foreign commercial people have been replaced by an ethnic component of Ur III society' (Parpola et al. 1977:152). Here we have an undeniable economically-based presence of Indus traders maintaining their own distinct village in a distant peripheral location over a considerable span of time. While this presence does not entail the economic domination necessary for the application of center and periphery models, it is highly intriguing. Once again, the Harappans may not have needed to trade with the west, but there can be no doubt that they did so.

Indus Artifacts in Sumer

Additional evidence for long range exchange of some sort is the existence of limited unde-niably Indus artifacts elsewhere in the Mesopotamian archaeological record. Unfortunately these are few and far between and largely of useless stratigraphic value. Furthermore, the Indus seals and other artifacts are not clustered in any meaningful manner where they do have sound provenance. Their existence in this distant region, however, begs the question as to the means and implication of their transport into Meso-potamia. Did their 'exotic flair' give them value as luxury goods? Were they carried to their final destination by long-distance Harappan traders? If so, were these simply free spirited wanderers or members of a strongly economic enterprise designed to exploit peripheral regions and bring some sort of power, wealth, or prestige to their central homelands? Were the Harappans residing in Sumer solely responsible for the existence of these artifacts in Mesopotamia? Again, the Indus scholar is faced with many questions, but very few answers.

A Sumerian Presence in the Indus

It is fascinating to note that essentially no material remains have been found in an Indus setting with certain Mesopotamian origin. Why do Indus artifacts appear in Mesopotamia, but not vice-versa? The best explanation to date is that the Indus peoples traded for perishable materials, such as 'garments, wool, perfumed oil, and leather products' from Sumer (Dales 1979:144). While to a degree this seems logical, it is unset-tling to rely yet again on 'the accident of archaeology' as an explanation. One has to wonder why the Harappans would have imported leather items when the breeding and usage of cattle was central to their entire civilization. Why travel thousands of miles for something available down the street?

However, it is perhaps of greater interest to note that some objects of western influence do occur in the Indus Valley's archaeological record. For example, a gulf seal was found by S.R. Rao at Lothal, proof that this 'gateway to the east' was also in contact with Mesopotamia's Persian Gulf Dilmunite middlemen. Also, cylinder seals (a distinctly Mesopotamian invention) with Indus scenes thereon were found at Sibri and Kalibangan, inland sites recently far removed from the Persian Gulf trade routes. While the existence of Indus artifacts found in western settings is used to suggest Harappan traders living far from their homeland, these Mesopotamian or Dilmunite items are likewise used to infer the existence of western traders living in the Indus Valley. But as with so many other questions about the people of the ancient Indus Valley, we may be wondering for some time about the real meaning of these enigmatic objects.

Relocating the Center Altogether

Identifying Harappan sites in the Indus Valley proper is relatively simple, as is the identification of distinctively Indus objects found far afield in the west. Far more difficult is the conclusive identification of Harappan sites in the regions to the east of the Indus Valley. This is true because the vast majority of the sites in India are considered Late Harappan, rather than Early or Mature Harappan. What makes this trouble-some is that there seems to be no consistency in the usage of the term 'Late Harappan.'

S.R. Rao notes that "to deserve the term 'Late Harappan' it is essential that the inhabitants of the de-urbanized phase must have retained the core of Harappan achievements such as writing, use of the Harappan standard of weights and Harappan religious beliefs including the method of the disposal of the dead" (Rao 1982:354). Unfortunately, almost no one seems to follow this guideline. Despite agreement on the diagnostic traits of the Harappan Civilization, many archaeologists seem bent on labeling sites as 'Harappan' (whether Early, Mature, Late, or otherwise) which often exhibit not one of these basic traits. The sites so named are more likely Non-Harappan or, at best, Late-Harappan.

Further contributing to the problem of identifying a site as being 'Harappan' is the fact that "only about 3% of all the sites reported as being 'Harappan' have been excavated horizontally to the maximum of 20% of their area" (Jansen 1981:251). This problem in identifying Harappan sites becomes all the more difficult the further away the site is located from the Indus Valley proper.

Consider the work by Joshi, Bala, and Ram. By locating some 700 supposedly Harappan sites in India proper, they claim that the Indus Civilization encompassed 'an area of 1.3 million sq. km' (Joshi et al. 1984:511). Compared with Mark Kenoyer's figure of 425,000 sq. miles (688,000 sq. km.), this long-dead civilization seems to have grown by leaps and bounds! In fact, the three archaeologists use this new assessment of the geographical extent of the Indus Civilization to suggest "that instead of persisting with the older title, the Indus Civilization, we might as well call it the 'Saraswati Civilization' or 'Saraswati Culture'" (Joshi et al. 1984:513). So we now have a suggestion put forth not only for a dramatically larger cultural sphere, but for an entirely new center! With enough difficulty involved in defining the periphery of the civilization, this type of nationalistic relocation of the center of the Indus Valley civilization is not only asking for trouble, it is absurd.


When dealing with a civilization as vast as that of the ancient Indus Valley, with no intelligible indigenous written records to use as reference, any possibility of applying center and periphery models becomes increasingly complex. No all-encompassing economic theory can be put forth for a civilization without an absolutely certain center (or centers), nor an easily definable periphery. Certainly each 'peripheral' site, and that site's relationship with the central sites, must be considered on an individual or regional basis. Beyond that, the types of intercultural relationships which may have existed were no doubt hugely varied and multi-faceted: 'Patterns of cultural contact between the Indus civilization and the neighboring countries to the west (and east, I'd add) varied according to both time and space to the point that the archaeological picture as a whole will provide us with a spectrum of intermediary situations ranging between the opposite extremes of external colonialization and autonomous acculturation? (Tosi 1979:158). Or as Dales put it: 'The ultimate significance of inquiries such as this is not just to play intellectual games with bits and pieces of ancient castoffs and debris. ... What we would really like to know is the nature and extent of these relations. Just how cognizant were the citizens of each region of the peoples and cultures of the other? What degree of dependence—if any—as involved?' (Dales 1979:143). That, indeed, is the question at hand. Hopefully time and trowel will shed more light on the ingenious and enigmatic Harappans.

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