Finding the Indus Valley Civilization



It’s hard to imagine, but the world’s most spread out bronze age culture – The Indus Valley Civilization or the Harappan Civilization as we call it, seemed hidden for a millennia. It took a deserter from the East India Company, travelling across the North West – Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the 1830s to find the first traces of it. It took another 25 years before people figured what this was. And even then, the bricks of city the Harappans had built, got used for building railway tracks! Finally it was almost a 100 years before the first artefact was found, that the first great city of Harappa was discovered in 1921, and a civilization revealed!


The story of India’s greatest archaeological expedition – finding the many secrets of the grand Indus Valley or Harappan Civilization, that still continues, is riveting.

The Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), also called the Harappan Civilization, is the oldest known civilization to have existed on the Indian subcontinent. Famed for its great bath, well developed sewerage system, artefacts like the dancing girls, mother goddesses and seals, the civilization was way ahead of its time in urban planning, art and trade and reached its pinnacle between 2300 and 1700 BCE. The story of how it was discovered makes for an equally fascinating tale.

At its height, the civilization extended from Baluchistan in Pakistan in the west, to Uttar Pradesh in the east, Maharashtra in the south, and Afghanistan in the north. Although much is known about the site, a lot is still shrouded in mystery since the script used by the people hasn’t been deciphered. Some of the most important sites are Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Rakhigarhi, Lothal and Dholavira.

Extend of Indus Valley Civilization during the Mature Phase
Extend of Indus Valley Civilization during the Mature Phase

The civilization was first officially identified in 1921-1922. The discovery and interpretation of the various sites of the civilization has forever changed how India’s past was studied and understood. It also makes for a fascinating chapter in India’s modern history.

The first major IVC site to be officially identified was Harappa in 1921, followed by Mohenjo-Daro in 1922.

Great bath view, Mohenjodaro
Great bath view, Mohenjodaro

Locals living in the region may have been aware of the sites but lacked the knowledge and understanding to realise their historical and archaeological significance. The first Westerner to reach an IVC site and recognise its importance was James Lewis. A deserter from the East India Company Army, Lewis, who went by the pseudonym Charles Masson, travelled, excavated and collected antiquities through parts of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and Punjab in the 1830s. He described the ruins of Harappa in his book Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and The Panjab, published in 1842. Even though Masson recognised its antiquity, he didn’t realise just how ancient or significant it was.

In 1856, the British were constructing a railway line connecting the cities of Lahore and Karachi along the Indus River valley, when some of the workers discovered hundreds of thousands of fire-baked bricks which seemed to be quite ancient to them. Not realising its significance, the workers used many of the bricks in their construction!

Harappan seals like these were found at Lothal
Harappan seals like these were found at Lothal|Wikimedia Commons

Among the bricks, they also found some stone seals with intricate markings on them. All this preceded the formation of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which was established in 1861. Its first Director General, Alexander Cunningham, had visited an IVC site in 1853 and even interpreted a seal. He published his findings in 1875, but he believed the site to be of non-Indian origin. He thought it was a lost Buddhist city and failed to realise its actual antiquity.

Alexander Cunningham of the ASI
Alexander Cunningham of the ASI

Subsequently, archaeology in India moved at a sluggish pace for the rest of the 19th century, till Lord Curzon became the Viceroy of India and appointed John Marshall as Director General of the ASI. Marshall held this post from 1902 to 1928, one of the most productive periods in ASI’s history.

The early 20th century was also a period during which archaeology and the study of history was gaining attention globally, with significant excavations and discoveries taking place all over the world including Egypt, Greece, Turkey and Central America.

Marshall assigned Hiranand Sastri to survey Harappa and he was the first to recognise that it was of non-Buddhist origin and by implication more ancient. Marshall expropriated Harappa for the ASI and directed ASI archaeologist Daya Ram Sahni to excavate the site's two mounds.

RD Banerji
RD Banerji

At the same time, Mohenjo-Daro, which was further south along the Indus, came into prominence. Archaeologists D R Bhandarkar in 1911, R D Banerji in 1919 and 1922-1923, and M S Vats in 1924, were sent to the site to survey and excavate it. Banerji was also the first person to find congruence between the artefacts found at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa and postulated that the site was of ‘remote antiquity’.

Sir John Marshall
Sir John Marshall

All these factors and further conversations with archaeologists convinced Marshall of the significance and antiquity of the site and he made a public announcement in the Illustrated London News on September 24, 1924:

Not often has it been given to archaeologists, as it was given to Schliemann at Tiryns and Mycenae, or to Stein in the deserts of Turkestan, to (shed) light upon the remains of a long forgotten civilization. It looks, however, at this moment, as if we were on the threshold of such a discovery in the plains of the Indus.”

Under K N Dikshit, systematic excavations began in Mohenjo-Daro in 1924, which were continued by H Hargreaves and Ernest J H Mackay, and by 1931, much of Mohenjo-Daro had been excavated.

John Marshall is credited with the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization even though much of the field work in the form of exploration and excavation was carried out by Indian archaeologists. But without Marshall’s constant support and interest in the excavations, this discovery wouldn’t have been possible.

Granary and Great Hall on Mound F, Harrapa
Granary and Great Hall on Mound F, Harrapa

Marshall in his book from 1931 Mohenjo-daro And The Indus Civilization, states,

Three other scholars whose names I cannot pass over in silence are the late Mr R D Banerji, to whom belongs the credit of having discovered, if not Mohenjo-daro itself, at any rate its high antiquity, and his immediate successors in the task of excavation, Messrs M S Vats and K N Dikshit. ...no one probably except myself can fully appreciate the difficulties and hardships which they had to face in the three first seasons at Mohenjo-daro.

The discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation was a major breakthrough and even today teams of archaeologists working on sites scattered around a vast expanse of North- Western India are finding new facets of this great civilization, which continues to hide a lot more.

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