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How digging up the past helps us understand the present

Archaeological finds over the past decade throw more light than ever before on how we arrived at who we are today as a species and as a society

What did the ancients eat, how did they live, and what did they look like—these are all questions that have fascinated people. Seen here a site of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Photo: Getty Images
What did the ancients eat, how did they live, and what did they look like—these are all questions that have fascinated people. Seen here a site of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Photo: Getty Images

Early this August, a 2000-year-old snack bar, discovered in the ancient city of Pompeii, Italy, was opened to the public. When photographs of the fully excavated thermopolium, as the fast-food counter typically used by poorer ancient Romans is known, were released last year, they went viral. It was not just the first complete food stall unearthed but the pots also had remnants of pork, fish, duck and snails, giving us a glimpse into the food habits of ancient Romans.

In India, too, archaeologists have been at work—albeit quietly—digging up pieces of history in nondescript places that provide crucial glimpses of our past. So, the feeling was similar when, closer home, warrior chariots were unearthed for the first time ever in the subcontinent in Sinauli, Uttar Pradesh, or DNA analysis was conducted on a 4,500-year-old skeleton found in Rakhigarhi, Haryana. The latter was revealing as the DNA didn’t show traces of steppe ancestry, which forms the crux of the Aryan invasion theory. What did the ancients eat, how did they live, and what did they look like—these are all questions that have fascinated people. We would all like to know where we came from.

But history is a deeply contested topic these days. Often, there are efforts to force-fit findings about the ancients to suit a particular narrative—be it around consumption of meat or the validity of the Aryan invasion theory. In such a scenario, the role of the archaeologist becomes even more important in telling us how things actually were, and not how they should have been. Archaeological finds over the past decade throw more light than ever before on how we arrived at who we are today as a species and as a society. Lounge looks at some of the most significant discoveries and research of the past five years, many of which are still being analysed and debated by historians and archaeologists.

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What did the ancients eat?

Ceramics are the artefacts most often recovered from Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) sites—from decorated vases to drinking cups. Yet the conversation is mostly about their form and aesthetics, and not about their role as transmitters of culinary traditions. Did people in the Harappan civilisation eat beef and mutton? Does the handi we use today trace its origins to the Indus Valley? The answers to all these questions could just lie in the dishes and jars that are still being unearthed and examined.

Akshyeta Suryanarayan, who is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Nice, subjected 172 pottery fragments to ceramic lipid residual analysis—testing the shards to find chemical traces of what was in the pots, whether milk, meat or vegetables. It’s a technique that is not used much in South Asia.

Akshyeta Suryanarayan subjected 172 pottery fragments to ceramic lipid residual analysis. Photo: Cameron Petrie
Akshyeta Suryanarayan subjected 172 pottery fragments to ceramic lipid residual analysis. Photo: Cameron Petrie

“Ceramic is porous, and during its lifetime it absorbs some of the food that is cooked in it. In these pottery fragments, other studies from around the world have been able to identify products such as animal fats, plant oils and beeswax,” explains Suryanarayan. Using complementary techniques, it’s also possible to distinguish between the dairy fats of ruminant animals such as goat, sheep, cattle, and their carcass fats, as well as those of omnivores like pigs and birds. “Thus we can achieve quite a bit of specificity of what was contained in the vessels. However, we can only talk about products that were cooked or stored in vessels and cannot reconstruct recipes,” she adds.

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Suryanarayan has always been interested in the archaeology of food, for it brings together the environment, human body, cultural attitudes, emotions and politics. In 2014, she was part of an excavation in Jordan when she observed organic visible residue stuck to the vessel. “But there is so much invisible content in ceramic vessels too. Although this degrades over time, there are scientific ways of studying what was inside with biomolecular techniques, which have not been explored much in South Asian archaeology,” she says. This, together with her specialisation in the IVC during her master’s, set her on the path of ceramic lipid residue analysis.

Her doctoral thesis, completed in February 2020, was titled What’s Cooking In The Indus Civilisation? Investigating Indus Food Through Lipid Residue Analysis. She went on to co-author a study, Lipid Residues In Pottery From The Indus Civilisation In Northwest India, published in the Journal Of Archaeological Science. Investigations into the archaeology of food from prehistoric contexts are at a relatively nascent stage, which makes this thesis highly significant. She focused on ceramics from rural and urban settlements dating to the Mature and Late Harappan period (c. 2600-1900 BCE and 1900-1300 BCE), such as Alamgirpur (Meerut district, Uttar Pradesh), Masudpur (Hisar district, Haryana), Lohari Ragho (Hisar district), Khanak (Bhiwani district, Haryana), Farmana (Rohtak district, Haryana) and Rakhigarhi (Hisar district).

The Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the most complex Bronze Age civilisations, spread across large parts of modern Pakistan, north-west and western India, and Afghanistan. It existed from about 3300-1300 BCE, and is roughly separated into the Early, Mature and Late Harappan phases. Archaeologists are still trying to understand the diversity of crops and foods, and during which phase cultivation began—but the common thread through the phases is the ceramics.

For instance, ledge-shouldered jars were probably used to store liquids such as wine and oil. They have also found jars resembling the handis that are still used in Pakistan and north-west India. It’s a link between the past and the present.

In her thesis, Suryanarayan states that in previous studies of animal bones, 80% were of domestic animal species. Cattle were the most abundant, with sheep/goat accounting for 10-20% of animal remains. “The high proportions of cattle bones may suggest a cultural preference for beef consumption across Indus populations, supplemented by the consumption of mutton/lamb,” the study states. In other words, the Harappans seem to have had rather meat-heavy diets.

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Suryanarayan is currently working on sites in the Arabian Peninsula (United Arab Emirates and Oman), which had trade relations with the Indus Valley, and will be starting on Indus Valley Civilisation sites in Sindh, Pakistan. “The history of food in India is fascinating. Some things like ginger, brinjal and legumes have prevailed with time,” she says. “The value attributed to meat has clearly changed over time. If people are more accepting of such studies, it will help them appreciate how open our culture really was.”

Did Kanmer's residents have passports?

Modern-day passports represent belonging, access and protection—but civilisations always seem to have needed some markers of identity. And the earliest “passports” may have been in existence in the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC). At Kanmer, a small site that locals call Bakar Kot, in the Little Rann in Gujarat’s Kutch district, archaeologists have found three round seals (flat on the obverse and oval on reverse) of baked clay with the Indus Valley script that is yet to be deciphered.

“The most exciting discovery has been that of the seal impressions, which feature different signatures on the reverse. The Harappans of Kanmer might have hung these like pendants while travelling to different places for trade, almost like passports. This has not been discovered at any other site,” says Jeevan Kharakwal, director, Sahitya Sansthan (Institute of Rajasthan Studies) JRN Rajasthan Vidyapeeth, Udaipur, who has been working there since 2005. The site was once a thriving centre of handcrafted goods, such as steatite and faience beads and those made with semi-precious stones like carnelian, and agate.

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Identical seal impressions from Kanmer. Photo: courtesy Jeevan Singh Kharakwal
Identical seal impressions from Kanmer. Photo: courtesy Jeevan Singh Kharakwal

It started when a mound in Kanmer caught the eye of archaeologists. Two Indo-Japanese digs, between 2006-09 and 2015-16, offered some evidence of the connection between Sorath and Sindh Harappans. 

Kharakwal, who led both digs and is currently writing the second volume of his Kanmer report, says it is a multicultural site showing proof of habitation from the early third millennium BCE to the medieval period, with gaps in between. “Kanmer has a very strong fortification wall, with the base 20m wide, almost like Dholavira (a site at Khadirbet in Kutch). It begs the question why such a small settlement, home to less than 200 people, had to build such a strong fortification,” he says.

Kanmer is unusual for other reasons: While other Harappan sites have mounds with oval tops, this one had a depression in the middle. “We realised that a local rural Chalcolithic culture (around 4-2 BCE), popularly known as the Anart culture, existed here prior to the arrival of the Harappans,” says Kharakwal. Towards the final phase of the Harappan settlement of Kanmer, the influence of south-eastern Rajasthan’s Ahar culture is visible too in the presence of unique white-painted Black and Red Ware and gritty Red Ware. “The fortifications, however, were created by the Harappans, with there being evidence of repair work having been carried out on it,” he says.

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The seals feature different signatures on the reverse. The Harappans of Kanmer might have hung these like pendants while travelling to different places for trade. Photo: courtesy Jeevan Singh Kharakwal
The seals feature different signatures on the reverse. The Harappans of Kanmer might have hung these like pendants while travelling to different places for trade. Photo: courtesy Jeevan Singh Kharakwal

Within a 15km radius of Kanmer, archaeologists have found huge deposits of semi-precious stones like carnelian and agate, at Mardak Bhet in the Little Rann. They believe the Kanmer Harappans were trading this with other Harappan sites, procuring copper and other jungle products from the Aravallis, and exporting this further. The discovery of large number of drill bits of Ernestite, grinding stones, raw material for craft, finished and unfinished beads, massive ash deposit all clearly indicate presence of bead craft. It is possible that the strong fort wall was raised to protect such precious trade material and show supremacy to their neighbouring settlements, elaborates Kharakwal. “That is why the seal impressions become even more important. These seals acted as passports when they travelled,” he says. “More work needs to happen in Kanmer to record the different kinds of craft created there.”

Where warriors once lived

It was like a scene out of a movie—farmers levelling their land found skeletons and pottery in Sinauli, in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, in 2005. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was called in, and the team found 106 burials with gold bangles and semi-precious stone beads. They say the site is about 4,000 years old, dating to the Ochre Coloured Pottery culture (about 2100-1900 BCE), which was separate from but probably existed alongside the Late Harappan phase. The real breakthrough came in 2018-19, when an ASI team led by Sanjay Kumar Manjul, joint director, and Arvin Manjul, director, Delhi, discovered 10 burial pits with three warrior chariots, a copper decorated shield, a decomposed bow and an antennae sword with its hilt.

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Warrior chariots unearthed at Sinauli.
Warrior chariots unearthed at Sinauli.

“These kinds of artefacts have been discovered for the first time in the subcontinent. You can call it one of the discoveries of the century,” says Manjul. “Antennae swords have been found in several places in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab region, but never with a hilt intact. The entire composition of the pits shows that these people were involved in warfare.” Last year, the Union culture ministry declared 28.67 hectares in Sinauli a site of national importance.

Each burial pit has different characteristics. Six are wooden burials. Two of the wooden coffins are covered in copper sheathing decorations, while three others have steatite inlay designs. “There is also a cluster of pots with foodgrains and offerings to the dead,” says Manjul.

But what really grabbed attention was the cache of arms and the possibility that this was a ceremonial burial site for warriors. All three chariots found at Sinauli are open-faced, with two wheels, meant to be driven by one person. The wheels rotate on a fixed axle, which is linked by a long pole to a small yoke. “The axle was attached with a superstructure, consisting of a platform protected by side screens and a high dashboard. If we compare this with chariots from other contemporary cultures, such as Mesopotamian or Egyptian, you will realise how advanced the Sinauli one was,” says Manjul.

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Mesopotamians of the time used a four-wheel chariot, while Egyptians had spoke-wheeled ones. A two-wheeled chariot was advanced for the time. “If you see the detail of the chariot wheel, there is a triangular inlay copper design on the inside. When the wheel moves, it gives the impression of a radiating sun. It’s a fine example of master-craftsmanship,” he points out. Manjul explains that the long pole and small yoke are suggestive of a need to maintain some distance between the animal and the chassis. “So, it was likely a horse-drawn chariot. This validates mentions of warfare in Indian literature such as the Vedas,” he adds.

The discoveries continue. Last year, copper crowns and similar earthen pots were found on a farm in Chandayan, near Bharwana, 20km from Sinauli. “This area has a lot of potential for significant discoveries,” says Manjul.

When rhinos roamed the Konkan

Until 2017, archaeologists had to grapple with a huge gap in Konkan history—how had people shifted from the Stone Age to the advanced use of fused iron? They had proof that the coastal districts of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka had continuous human settlement through the historical, medieval and modern eras, but just couldn’t find evidence related to the prehistoric period.

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The link, it turned out, lay in the region’s rock art. Experts at the directorate of archaeology and museums, Maharashtra, had seen reports in Marathi papers about amateur historians finding petroglyphs—rock art created by chiselling or carving. The first of these was discovered accidentally in 1990, when road-widening work revealed carved lines. In 2017, the directorate sent a team to survey the region with the idea of preparing protection proposals, and has since discovered no less than 1,200-plus petroglyphs in 52 villages in the Konkan. This was done in coordination with Nisargayatri, a Ratnagiri, Maharashtra-based organisation dedicated to the preservation of rock art.

More than 1,200 such petroglyphs have been found in Ratnagiri district.
More than 1,200 such petroglyphs have been found in Ratnagiri district. (Amar Reddy)

“As historians and archaeologists, our basic job is to come up with chronograms or chronological histories of a place. In Konkan, we have evidence from the Lower Paleolithic period, with deposits going back to 80,000-90,000 years. But you expect some kind of natural transmission from the hunting gathering stage to organised human settlements, centred around agriculture. That transformation was not known,” says Tejas Garge, director at the directorate, who has co-authored the paper Petroglyphs In Konkan: Historiography, Recent Discoveries And Future Endeavours, (2018).

They surveyed three tehsils of Ratnagiri and found not just petroglyphs but also some stone tools that date back to a time between the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic. Many of these had been lying exposed on the bedrock of the laterite plateau, called sada in Konkani.

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“It seemed these petroglyphs were related to nature or animal worship, but didn’t show habitation. We were looking for a Stone Age society getting transformed into settled life. When we started excavating cave deposits in Sindhudurg in 2018-19 and then in 2019-20, we found similar stone tools and 1m-thick habitation deposits which are pretty good. It gives evidence of habitation around the petroglyphs,” explains Garge. The pandemic has slowed down the research work, but analysis of the stone tools continues apace at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Mohali, Punjab.

Since there is no depiction of domesticated animals, riders, metal weapons or anything that suggests agricultural activity, some of the petroglyphs can be tentatively assigned to the pre-pastoral Stone Age, when humans hunted, fished and foraged. “The rock art of central India and southern India is rich, and discoveries of petroglyphs from the Konkan may have been a link between these two,” says the report. They are also an authentic commentary on the man-land relationship during the so-called “Dark Age” [lack of evidence of a connecting era between two significant periods]  of the Konkan and provide evidence of human dynamism on the western coast, it adds. 

The 1,200-plus petroglyphs vary in size from a few centimetres to almost 18m. The carvings have been classified into six categories: animal figures; birds like peacock and large unidentified species; aquatic animals; amphibious animals; anthropomorphs; and abstract geometrical patterns. A group of nine carvings near the village of Deud in Ratnagiri includes a single-horn rhino, the deer family, and some unidentified animal forms.

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“All animal figures are animated; the rhino and deer seem to be leaping forward. Rhinoceros is now extinct in the area but it existed in the Deccan region as late as the Chalcolithic period,” states the report. There is now enough evidence to place these within 20,000 BCE to third century BCE. “This might predate the Indus Valley Civilisation. There is proof from sites in Gujarat that the rhino existed in western India, as did hippos. We can presume that the Konkan experienced a swampy landscape at one point of time. Right now, we have more questions than answers, but we are in the process of finding them,” says Garge.

Decoding the language of the Harappans

A software developer cracking part of a prehistorical mystery sounds quite fantastical but that’s what Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay has done. The 40-year-old Bengaluru resident has spent the last seven years researching structural and semantic aspects of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) script and finding shared words and roots between different ancient languages to find clues to help us explore the languages spoken in the IVC. In 2019, a Nature group journal published her first article about the logographic and semasiographic nature of Indus inscriptions. It categorises several Indus symbols into certain functional classes.

Mukhopadhyay has published another paper, suggesting that many Harappans may have spoken Proto-Dravidian, the language from which most of the south Indian dialects spoken today emerged. Her research indicates that pre-historic speakers of ancestral Dravidian languages lived in northern India, including the Indus Valley, and may have migrated from there.

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Ever since British army engineer Alexander Cunningham first published a drawing of a Harappan seal in 1875, many attempts have been made to decipher the script— to no avail. Experts wonder if the symbols are, in fact, pictograms and emblems, or whether they actually have a connection with a spoken language. This is why research like Mukhopadhyay’s offers hope, although the findings are still being debated by historians and linguists.

Ever since the drawing of a Harappan seal was published in 1875, many attempts have been made to decipher the script. Photo: Getty images
Ever since the drawing of a Harappan seal was published in 1875, many attempts have been made to decipher the script. Photo: Getty images

Mukhopadhyay’s interest in the IVC began when she ran into physicist Ronojoy Adhikari at a gathering in 2014. They discussed Adhikari’s work—he and his colleagues were applying novel mathematical concepts to the IVC script for syntax, image processing and corpus building. She was more intrigued by the semantics, what the words and images might actually mean. She left her day job as a software developer for 10 months in 2015-16 to devote her time entirely to research. She went back later, but continued her research.

Mukhopadhyay believed that studying the words shared by the IVC and other cultures they came in contact with might help. She started reading about ancient scripts and stumbled upon the process of decipherment of an ancient script called linear B, from 1200 BC. “Linear B was in a similar state as the Indus script is now. Two methodical approaches by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris led to its decipherment. I thought why not apply a similar approach with the Indus script,” she says. Mukhopadhyay used epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan’s digitised corpus of inscriptions as well as that of Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki.

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Since the IVC had a thriving trade relationship with the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia, Mukhopadhyay searched ancient Near-Eastern texts, hoping to find fossilised foreign words which had their origin in the IVC. “The logic is that when we import a foreign commodity that is not produced locally, we usually call it by its foreign name,” she says. She consulted Akkadian, Hurrian, Elamite, Iranian and Sumerian dictionaries and archaeological documents. Her work has culminated in a paper, Ancestral Dravidian Languages In Indus Civilization: Ultraconserved Dravidian Tooth-Word Reveals Deep Linguistic Ancestry And Supports Genetics, published this year in the peer-reviewed journal of the Springer Nature Group.

Mukhopadhyay’s paper analyses archaeological, linguistic, archaeogenetic and historical evidence to claim that the words used for elephant by many cultures of the time—“like “pīri”, “pīru” in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, the word “pîrus” for ivory recorded in 6 BCE Persian documents, and the words used in the Hurrian part of an Amarna letter from 1400 BCE—were all borrowed from “pīlu”, a Proto-Dravidian word for elephant. IVC residents used “pīlu” regularly, and it is also etymologically related to the Proto-Dravidian word “pal” for “tooth” and its alternative forms,” states the published paper.

Mukhopadhyay has also traced links between the variations on “pīlu” and the words used to describe splitting/crushing, tooth/tusk, as well as the “toothbrush tree Salvadora persica, which is a characteristic flora of the Indus valley, and whose roots and twigs have been widely used as a toothbrush in IVC regions since antiquity,” she writes. She has further proposed a related elephant-based etymology for another phytonym, the ‘pīlu’-based names of Careya arborea, a tree whose fruits are devoured by elephants. Mukhopadhyay emphasises that though the paper revolves around a single sound, ‘pīlu’, the wide application of this word as a zoonym, phytonym and toponym since antiquity are too significant to ignore while reconstructing our linguistic prehistory. Mukhopadhyay adds that the IVC was a multilingual civilisation, and might have hosted more languages than is imagined today. 

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