Spring/Summer 02


Locating Indus Civilization Pyrotechnological Craft Production
by M.-L. Miller

Applying surface survey methods and geomagnetic techniques

Mark Smith and Heather Miller during 2000 excavations of copper working area, Mound E, Harappa

Pyrotechnology, the manufacture of objects or materials
using high temperatures, was part of everyday life for the Indus people of the third millennium bce. Both poor and wealthy wore ornaments and used vessels and tools made from materials transformed by fire, including terra-cotta, stoneware, copper and bronzes, silver and gold, glazed and unglazed steatite, and several types of faience.

My initial field research at the ancient Indus Valley city of Harappa concentrated on refining surface survey methods for the location of pyrotechnological manufacturing areas. I also employed geomagnetic techniques to pinpoint firing areas within the mounded, walled city core of this large and very disturbed site. My work was part of ongoing research by the Harappa Archaeological Research Project (HARP), directed by Richard Meadow (Harvard University) and J. Mark Kenoyer (University of Wisconsin-Madison), assistant director Rita Wright (New York University), under the auspices of the Pakistan Department of Archaeology. Craft production has been a significant focus of many aspects of HARP, and project members have investigated a variety of manufacturing techniques, production areas, and social aspects of production.

Terra-cotta pointed base goblets

Through surveys and from excavations, we knew that during the Indus Integration Era (ca. 2600­1900 bce), even smoky, hazardous firing areas were found within the walled centers of the Indus cities. My surveys further demonstrated that firing took place throughout the city of Harappa, not primarily in a single quarter. One of the goals of our continuing excavations of these production areas is to understand why these firing areas were and could be located in the city centers. The Indus Valley period floodplain is now buried by meters of silt, with only the mounded sites visible, but we know from work in other areas of the Indus region that firing areas for pottery and perhaps metals were also found in separate locations, far from habitations. Are these city-located potters producing some very special objects? Or is it just a question of long-term occupation of a location, with the city growing up around them?

Descending the steep slope near “Wheeler’s Deep Trench,” Mound AB

Looking more broadly across all types of crafts, there is evidence for some general patterning to the location of production. In line with findings from the German and Italian project at Mohenjo-daro, I found that working areas for Œreductiveš crafts (lithic and shell-working) tended to be found together, while pyrotechnological crafts (pottery, copper) were located primarily in discrete areas, away from other crafts. For example, my surveys at Harappa in 1994 and 1995 and excavations in 2000 showed that Integration Era copper melting occurred only in an area in the center of the south side of Mound E (See map of Harappa opposite); no other craft production took place there. HARP excavations in 1989 in the northwest corner of Mound E uncovered two different types of Integration Era pottery kilns, which may also have been used for figurines, but there was no evidence for any other crafts. In contrast, during my survey of the entire site of Harappa, most of the areas with any evidence for lithic production included debris from a variety of lithic materials and object types as well as shell-manufacturing debris. A small area in the center of Mound E, subsequently excavated by HARP, seemed focused on drill manufacture and drilling stages of production, but a variety of stone types and other materials (perhaps wood, ivory, shell) were being drilled.

Faience squirrel

These locational associations are important because they provide clues about relationships between craftspeople in different crafts, as well as insights into the Indus views of craft classifications. Crafts we might view as separate, such as chert drill manufacturing and agate bead making, or steatite seal making and faience tablet production, may have been practiced by the same Indus craftspeople. Alternatively, craft associations may reflect particular stages of production rather than the entire manufacturing process. Beads made by different craftspeople out of a wide variety of materials may have all been drilled by one ‘drilling’ specialist, as is seen ethnographically with stone bead manufacture in Khambat (Cambay), India. Pyrotechnological objects, such as steatite seals and faience beads, may have been produced by different people but fired together by a third ‘firing’ specialist, who might also have fired molded terra-cotta tablets, but not pottery. The relative values of the objects produced may also be important, with working areas for a variety of high value objects all located together. All of this is speculation at this point, but these questions will be increasingly interesting as we accumulate more data from craft working areas at Harappa and other sites.

Faience monkey

Overall, I think that the locational association of various Indus crafts has primarily to do with their production characteristics, and secondarily with the value of their end-products, but not with control over the end-products. There is still little evidence for direct control of production of any craft by an external (non-craft) elite group. Few if any seals or sealings are found in these areas, for example, and while it is not clear if these areas were also habitation locations, there is certainly no association with large buildings that may have been palaces, temples, or even community warehouses. This is surprising, given the complexity of these crafts and the relatively high value of many products, as well as their location within the walled city cores. Neither does direct control of raw materials appear to have been important within the Indus economic power structure, perhaps because multiple sources were available for most raw materials. However, indirect control through taxation of some kind seems likely.

Steatite disc beads

Finally, there is a very preliminary but intriguing pattern in the predominant location of craft production on the southern half of the city mounds. The exception is pottery firing, which is found in both northern and southern locations. Otherwise, the northern halves of mounds tend to have either private habitations or public buildings. This generalization is very broad and needs much more work, but if this pattern is verified, it is more likely due to socio-ritual reasons than functional restrictions. The southern locations are probably not based on the nature of prevailing winds (especially as many of these crafts are reductive, not pyrotechnological), but the northern pottery firings may be related to wind control. The location of the majority of the pyrotechnological crafts on the southern half of mounds may be in part related to their place in Indus cosmologies, particularly the role of materials transformed by fire. Future excavations and surveys at Harappa and other sites have a great deal to offer in our quest for knowledge about the Indus pyrotechnologies and their roles in Indus society.

Map of Harappa

Heather M.-L. Miller is the Cotsen Visiting Scholar for 2001-2002. She thanks the National Science Foundation, the Dales Foundation, HARP, and the Pakistan Department of Archaeology for providing support for this project. For more information about Harappa and the Indus Valley in General, see www.harappa.com, where new illustrated essays by Indus archaeologists are posted on a regular basis. Backdirt editors can be reached at ioapubs@ucla.edu