Harappa Excavations 1986-1990:
A Multidisciplinary Approach to Third Millennium Urbanism

Edited by Richard H. Meadow
Prehistory Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 1991.
x + 262 pp.; 137 illustrations, 37 tables, bibliographic references, no index; $33.00 @ 7530 Westward Way Madison, WI 53717-2009 (608)833-7955.

By Chris J.D. Kostman, M.A.
Department of Near Eastern Studies
University of California at Berkeley

Originally published in JAGNES, the Journal of the Association of Graduates in Near Eastern Studies, Winter 1993

Harappa Excavations is an all-inclusive interim report on the last five seasons of work at the Indus Valley Bronze Age site of Harappa, located in the Pakistani Punjab. Excavations were carried out under the auspices of the University of California, Berkeley, in conjunction with Pakistan's Department of Archaeology. These five seasons represent the most diversified and systematic approach to urban archaeological research in the context of the Indus Valley civilization. Because of the breadth of studies undertaken in this multidisciplinary approach to archaeology, this volume may well prove to be the only publication which deals with most all aspects of Harappan research under one cover. Future treatments by the Harappa team members will each deal largely, if not exclusively, with only single components of this research at the first site to be recognized as belonging to a unique and distinct riverine civilization in the Indus Valley. As such, Harappa Excavations represents an important and up-to-date introduction to the Indus Valley phenomenon, an indispensable research tool for serious scholars within this discipline, and a singular reference work on organizing and implementing a multidisciplinary archaeological expedition.

The volume includes contributions by thirteen scholars, ten of whom were members of the Harappa team 1986-1990 seasons. While all the chapters deserve consideration here, space limitations necessitate a limiting of remarks to a sampling of the chapters. "Complementary Approaches to Late Harappan Subsistence: An Example from Oriyo Timbo," by Seetha N. Reddy, seems rather incongruous, since it is based on work at another site, and a Late Harappan one at that. While the preface notes that this chapter was included for its relationship to the very useful chapter "Urban Palaeoethnobotany at Harappa," by Heather M.L. Miller, the connection has little relevance and the reader is left wondering if there is an alternative reason that might not better explain its inclusion. Other chapters, not discussed here, cover such topics as fish resources, faunal remains, the organization of ceramic production, and the history of research at Harappa. All are worth a close reading and will be useful in future research.

Chapter three, "Pedology and Late Quarternary Environments Surrounding Harappa: A Review and Synthesis," by Ronald Amundson and Elise Pendall discusses "pertinent pedalogical, geological, and paleoenvironmental studies in the vicinity of Harappa" (p.13). This comprises a review of other works combined with the scholars' in-country research involving the meandering of the nearby river Ravi, the soils and geomorphology around the actual site, stable isotope studies, and other related topics. It presents a picture of the environmental context of both modern and ancient Harappa and points future scholars towards numerous directions of promising research.

Chapter four, "Urban Process in the Indus Tradition: A Preliminary Model from Harappa," by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer attempts to construct a chronological framework for Harappa, provides a basic view of the settlement's evolution throughout this chronology, and places the site in the greater context of the Harappan civilization. Kenoyer first surveys the previous work at the site by M.S. Vats, R.E.M. Wheeler, and others, and comments on the observations they made about the chronology and development of Harappa. He then attempts to synthesize these efforts with those made by the Berkeley team in recent years. The result is a periodization of the site's chronological sequence into five time periods. While 33 radiocarbon samples allow some absolute dating, the periods are based largely on relative chronology. However, the effort is an important one and helps to present an organic view of the site in both space and time.

Chapter five, "Some Specialized Ceramic Studies at Harappa," is the primary contribution to the volume by the Project director, George F.Dales. In this chapter Dales goes beyond the traditional discussion of ceramics by including not only "typologies, chemical characterizations, and chronological sequences" but also "distribution patterns, contexts, and associations with other artifacts" (p.61). This multifaceted effort is based upon 614 complete vessels and over one million sherds, however Dales specifically refrains from inferring phases or periods from this voluminous bulk of material. This approach involves a more strict archaeological methodology than is generally utilized, especially in relation to ceramic finds. Dales' study encompasses not only the extensive pottery collection from the site, but also the figurines, stoneware bangles, and faience, all distinctive Harappan trademark products. Dales notes the presence of traits specific to the site such as the fascinating manufacturing method for female figurines. These objects were made in separate vertical halves that were later joined up the middle. This detail and others that Dales presents provides fascinating material for future scholarship and seems designed to arouse the curiosity of the specialist as well as the non-specialist reader. As champion of the multidisciplinary school, Dales no doubt hoped that articles such as this will encourage scholars from related fields to enter the fray with the perspective that their own discipline offers. It is this type of multi-faceted campaign that stands the best chance of unraveling the many enigmas surrounding South Asia's oldest civilization.

Chapter eleven, "Biological Adaptations and Affinities of Bronze Age Harappans," by Brian E. Hemphill, John R. Lukacs, and K.A.R. Kennedy, is the longest, most heavily researched, and most complete chapter included in the volume. Eschewing common practice, this trio performed the exhumation themselves and began their studies immediately. Their work resulted in this incisive 45 page contribution. Studies specifically dealt with the decline of dental health with the increase of reliance on agriculture, biological continuity and discontinuity at Harappa and within the Indus Valley as a whole. The work is detailed with 24 tables and 18 figures. That a manuscript of this caliber is even possible further solidifies the value of the multidisciplinary approach to archaeology.

Finally, Chapter thirteen, "Summaries of Five Seasons of Research at Harappa 1986-1990," recounts the bulk of the fresh information and tentative observations first presented in each season's preliminary report. This concluding chapter not only all but eliminates the necessity of researching each year's work in five different reports, but also gathers in one place the unfolding story of how the team developed and implemented the multidisciplinary approach to archaeological research which is the raison d'etre of both the team and this volume.

Harappa Excavations is a finely executed interim report and research tool. The 137 illustrations and 37 tables provide a wealth of at-a-glance information and reference materials. However, two additions to the volume would have further enhanced its reference value: a complete bibliography at the conclusion of the book, rather than separate and somewhat repetitive bibliographies for each chapter, and an index. While the volume is certainly functional without these features, they are sorely missed. Of course the very nature of archaeology is digging for information, so most scholars will be prepared for the efforts needed to fully utilize this important contribution to South Asian archaeology as a subfield and to the entire discipline as a whole.

More Archaeology Articles by Chris Kostman.