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Ratnagar S. 2016. Harappan archaeology. Early state perspectives. New Delhi: Primus Books. 326 p.

Massimo Vidale
p. 153-156

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  • 1 See also another of her articles published in 1996.

1The author, since her Enquiries in the political organization of the Harappan society (1991), has devoted a great part of her research to investigate the most relevant cruces of our limited understanding of the societies who developed in the Indus Valley along the 3rd millennium BC. This book is entirely aimed at going deeper into the still unresolved question of the nature and political forms assumed by Early Bronze Age states (or city-states) of the Harappan world,1 evidently in the light of a debate that in India (much less so in Pakistan) continues to be animated by contemporary political concerns. Shereen Ratnagar is one of the few scholars who dare to tackle systematically with this quite difficult and controversial issue, and her efforts deserve the utmost consideration.

2The logical sequence of the book, as the reader moves from chapter to chapter, is not immediately evident. Chapter 1 forms a separate part I. It starts with a detailed geographical introduction focusing on agriculture, water bodies and in general the economic resources of what she calls the Greater Indus Valley (her map 1). This chapter conveys an unusually dynamical picture of the geographical ecology of the region, debating its immense groundwater resources, manifold environmental changes affecting sea levels, river courses and siltation rates, microregional climates and ancient economic choices. At the end, there is an interesting excursus on the present state of knowledge on Indian buffaloes and their domestication.

3Then we move to a substantial but somehow heterogeneous part II, entitled “Historiography”, which contains chapters 2 to 4. It deals with (a) history of discoveries and quality of previous archaeological research; (b) perception of regional cultural variations; (c) a strong denial of gradualists views on the transition from the Early Harappan to the Mature Harappan (hereafter EH and MH) societies; (d) criticism of biased views by orientalists and nationalists on the Bronze Age civilisation of the Subcontinent; (e) a radical denial of the “no war” paradigm which sees Harappans as endemically peaceful populations who refused organised violence and weaponry. Ratnagar also recognises in the urban wall systems of the 3rd millennium BC many powerful forts; (f) the idea that the Harappan world was organised in early states, capable of inventing and maintaining centralised technologies and administration. Here the author begins considering, without elaborating the idea, that the Indus system of power might have been intrinsically heterarchic—a notion that will deserve in future much more discussion and insight. Note that, as point d. is concerned, the target of the author’s criticism are current efforts at “objectifying and memorializing the past” projecting an image of an immutable, long-persisting Indian tradition pushing its roots in the Bronze Age (we will return later to this point).

4In the attachment to chapter 3, we find a discussion (perhaps not strictly necessary) on the so-called Dancing Girl statuette found at Mohenjo-Daro, apparently proposed as an example of how western cultural prejudice may have deeply biased archaeological interpretation. And finally (g) a long rebuttal of the notion that the inner articulations of Harappan urban settlements reflected caste segmentation.

5After the first four chapters, one realises not only the actual link between parts I and II (and the rest of the book) but also the real aim of the volume: to build up a new complex picture of the Bronze Age of the Indus world, in which many traditional views are shaking, and many previous paradigms have already been subverted. Ultimately, Ratnagar sees herself as a proponent of “new interpretations that seek to replace existing theories or to fill in existing lacunae” (p. 253). The continuous pulse of the author to provide “final” words on a series of questions, on which she seems to have matured quite firm views, is quite transparent. Of course, how far she has been successful will be decided by the reader.

6In this light, I anticipate that my impression that Ratnagar may have conflated too much for an in-depth discussion; and obviously not all her arguments are new. For example, while I would fully subscribe (for many reasons) Ratnagar’s early state hypothesis, as well as to her radical criticism of the “no war” paradigm, I would not accept so easily her one-sided views of the Indus walls as purely military fortifications; nor it is easy for me and others to accept that “baked clay missiles” were left undisturbed for more than four millennia on floors near the parapets of Mohenjo-Daro’s “towers” (in my experience they were more probably a kind of insulation filling). Also, the violent transition from EH to MH settlements was an old battle horse of G. Possehl (1988, 2002), certainly not substantiated by careful consideration of the stratigraphic formation processes of the questioned sites.

7Also, the idea that the Indus walled compounds hosted different caste communities may still get some not-informed popular support, but is completely rejected by the most basic architectural and artefactual data, and now generally discred-ited; the hypothesis perhaps does not deserve 15 pages of accurate discussion.

8However, chapter 4 also re-proposes a very traditional viewpoint: Indus cities were dominated by “citadels” which were the seats of paramount rulers (p. 89). In the view of the present writer, these urban compounds had no “citadels”: Stratigraphy, in each case, showed that the most prominent mounds are higher and have higher walls just because they grew for centuries above the earlier seats of settlement of the EH periods. Thus, the height of these pristine elite compounds spoke of ancestry and prestige, not of political domination stricto sensu. With this, I do not deny that monumental walls and bastions were urban defenses; these erections sheltered the occupants from foreign raids and attacks, but also from unwanted visitors and internecine conflicts. Enclosures may also have been used to monitor for taxation flows of goods. Through the gates, these erections checked the inwards and outwards movement of traders, informants and servants, playing at the same time a crucial symbolic role in building identities and admission/exclusion rules.

9Part III (“Matters of State”, chap. 5 to 7) also collects a set of heterogeneous data: a traditional discussion of standardised base materials, measures and weights as evidence of state-level practices and institutions; a new discussion of Harappan urbanism, focused on the possible existence in the inner compounds of tribal networks, and the question of the interaction between persisting kin lineages and impersonal political organisation at Mohenjo-Daro. A discussion of the distribution of craft activities on surface and in the houses of the same city is far from conclusive, because of the lack of primary floors and dumping deposits in the houses, which, to a great extent, are filled with secondary and tertiary fillings. At Mohenjo-Daro, in fact, there is little or no relationship between the find spots of the objects and the architecture; floors appear to have been systematically damaged or entirely removed while re-structuring and rising the buildings above growing street levels, and it is for this reason that in the houses Marshall and Mackay found no fireplaces.

10Chapter 7 then faces what is perhaps the most impossible of our research paths: investigating the possibility that the Indus city-states, at least temporarily, were unified in a single supra-regional state. For this, Ratnagar compares the overall archaeological framework of the Indus Valley with Ancient Mesopotamia, searching in the plains of Iraq and Syria for local “citadels” and distinctive artefacts that might suggest centralised coordination and dominance. Even if the author clearly states that “what is meant is not the diffusion of a kind of town, but parallels in the ways that early states expand” (p. 155) the effort is obviously too ambitious, and the results remain suspended.

11In part IV, the next two chapters are gathered under the intriguing title of “Waterscapes”. Somehow forcibly, as chapter 8 deals with the ocean and the sea trade, while chapter 9 goes back to recurrent concerns in Indus archaeeology: urban tanks and storage of potable water, sewers, and waste water management. In the first one, the author summarises what written in another monograph on long-distance sea trade (Ratnagar 2006), adding some new comments on the effects of higher sea levels on the sea routes, navigation, and landing. In chapter 9, Ratnagar rejects Rao’s famous Lothal dockyard hypothesis, in favour of the idea of a large water reservoir; she also thinks that the sewers of Mohenjo-Daro and other sites were mainly meant for harvesting or disposing of torrential flash floods, rather than discharging household waste. Possible, but perhaps not in every case. The idea is a good one, also because in future it could be tested through micro-stratigraphic excavations in the drains followed by chemical tests (as she rightly proposes).

12In the chapters 10 to 12 of the last part V (“Dissolution”), the book summarises old and new theories advanced for explaining the end of the major Harappan urban sites after 1800/1700 BC. Again, the author systematically dismisses ideas of an enduring legacy that “in all aspects” would have linked the Bronze and the Iron Age social formations of India. As a paramount case, she focuses her criticism on the scholarly perception of the evolution agate bead industries in the Subcontinent (p. 221-231), coming to the not surprising conclusion that “archaeologists are not in any position to make assertions about hoary traditions” (p. 231).

13How could one disagree? The lack of specific updated archaeological and archaeometric studies, and the existence of enormous gaps in our developmental sequences, before everything else, suggest maximum caution. At any rate, paraphrasing a sentence by the author we have already quoted, we will continue looking at the diachronic evolution of crucial crafts in long-time perspectives, keeping firmly in mind that “what is meant is not the survival for millennia of the same technology, but parallels in the ways that non-industrialised technologies adapt and change in time.”

14The last chapter is dedicated to a careful evaluation of some recent contributions which, on the basis of several lines of evidence, emphasised the impact of the 4.2 kya megadrought event, and a general rain reduction, on the river courses of the Indus plains. A complex discussion here includes the question of the source flows of the Hakra-Ghaggar (p. 239-242), the local systems of atmospheric circulation versus the monsoon rains, the role of the western tributaries of the Indus, the relationships between unpredictable Indus floods and agricultural production, and husbandry as a continuous resilience choice by local farmers.

15In spite of what I consider suspended points and not a few diverging views, the book is much more useful than other general contributions aimed at summarising Indus archaeology and social structure that have been recently published. Well written and typographically curated, the book touches with authority and a widened scope many controversial points (also theoretical); and provides abundant references—even if somehow incomplete (just an example: in spite of Ratnagar’s important focus on craft production, Miller’s [2007] surface survey of craft areas at Harappa is ignored, together with the bulk of the German-Italian surveys and surface excavations at Mohenjo-Daro, which are quoted only as Bondioli et al. 1984, a preliminary presentation).

16To conclude, a personal recollection that contradicts what the author writes at p. 65, namely: “It is totally misleading for J. McIntosh to say... that being an army man Wheeler sought evidence for militarism.” Actually, Wheeler did.

17It was in the early 80s when with my German colleagues I used to spend long months at Mohenjo-Daro. I had the luck of walking for a couple of hours on various parts of the site with A.H. Dani, one of the most reputed students of R.E.M. Wheeler’s archaeological field school. We walked to the southeastern corner of the “citadel”, where the so-called fired bricks “fortifications” were in full sight. Professor Dani looked at me and said the following: “Wheeler brought me here, and told me: you dig here. When I will come back, I want to see the towers.” I believe that this piece of architecture was one of the various guarded gates... leading to a “citadel” that most probably never was.

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Bondioli L., Tosi M. and Vidale M.
1984 – Craft activity areas and surface survey at Moenjodaro: Complementary procedures for the reevaluation of a restricted site. In: Jansen M. and Urban G. (eds.), Interim report by the IsMEO-Aachen University mission. Vol. I: Pakistan 1982-1983: 9-38. Aachen: Forschungsprojekt Moenjodaro.

Miller H.M.L.
2007 – Associations and ideologies in the locations of urban craft production at Harappa, Pakistan (Indus civilization). Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 17,1: 37-51.

Possehl G.L.
1998 – Sociocultural complexity without the state: The Indus civilization. In: Feinman G.M. and Marcus J. (eds.), Archaic states: 261-291. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Possehl G.L.
2002 The Indus civilisation. A contemporary perspective. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Ratnagar S.
1991 Enquiries into the political organization of Harappan society. Pune: Ravish Publishers.

Ratnagar S.
1996 Ideology and the nature of political consolidation and expansion: An archaeological case. In: Claessen H.J.M. and van Oosten J. (eds.), Ideology and the formation of early states: 170-186. Leiden: Brill.

Ratnagar S.
2006 Trading encounters: From the Euphrates to the Indus in the Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford India Paperbacks).

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1 See also another of her articles published in 1996.

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Bibliographical reference

Massimo Vidale, Ratnagar S. 2016. Harappan archaeology. Early state perspectives. New Delhi: Primus Books. 326 p.”Paléorient, 45-1 | 2019, 153-156.

Electronic reference

Massimo Vidale, Ratnagar S. 2016. Harappan archaeology. Early state perspectives. New Delhi: Primus Books. 326 p.”Paléorient [Online], 45-1 | 2019, Online since 08 September 2021, connection on 21 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Massimo Vidale

University of Padova, Via 8 Febbraio 1848, 2, 35122 Padova – Italia

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