Indus seal

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, modern Pakistan, about 2600 to 1900 BC

Indus seal

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Some of the earliest evidence of the use of symbols and script in India, from the Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa.


An organized system of government and culture developed at around the same time in the river valleys of the Nile in Egypt, Euphrates in Mesopotamia and Indus in India and Pakistan. The best-known sites from this period in the Indus Valley are Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, though in recent years hundreds of other sites with similar cultural patterns have been discovered in India, including Dholavira in Kutch. This civilisation is currently thought to have extended from the north-western parts of the subcontinent to Gujarat, Haryana and Indian Punjab.

Unlike the other early civilisations in the world, these sites were not isolated city-states, but apparently part of an integrated and interconnected urban culture. There is also evidence of trade with central Asia, Sumer and Mesopotamia. Among the material remains are a wide variety of terracotta figurines, gold adornments, beads of gold and precious and semi-precious stone, ivory, terracotta and glass, a few bronze figures and vessels and thousands of small square and rectangular seals and their impressions. These seals are useful in reconstructing the economy, art and religion of India from 2500 to 1700 BC. They were probably used in trade, as they and their impressions have been found in lands further afield.

The patterns on the soft steatite stone were carved in intaglio, and then the finished seal baked to whiten and harden its surface. The designs often carry complex motifs of humans, animals and a uniform and developed pictographic script. Approximately 400 different signs have been catalogued, though despite scholarly efforts for nearly 80 years, it has yet to be deciphered. On most of these examples we can see the script above the animals. The finely modelled animals are often composite creatures, or at times partly human with animal features. Until the script is decoded, these seals suggest to us belief in the supernatural, the widespread nature of the Harappan civilization and the far-reaching trading relations they held with other ancient cultures in the world.

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Object details

Height: 2.4 cm
Width: 2.5 cm
Depth: 1.4 cm

 

Asia OA 1912.6-29.1;Asia OA 1912.5-7.1;Asia OA 1947.4-16.2, 4, 5, 8

Room 33: Asia

     

    Gift of the Director-General of Archaeology, India

    References

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    J.M. Kenoyer, Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization (Oxford, 1999)

    N. Lahiri, Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization was Discovered (London, 2005)

    J. McIntosh, A Peaceful Realm: The Rise And Fall of the Indus Civilization (New York, 2001)

    J. McIntosh, The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara, 2007).

    G. Possehl, The Indus Civilization: a Contemporary Perspective (Walnut Creek, 2002)

    R. Wright, The Ancient Indus: Urbanism Economy and Society (Cambridge, 2010)