Category Archives: Student Blog Post 3

Modern impact of Indus Valley religion and ideology

The Indus Valley religion was widespread, and many of the basic tenets have found their way into modern day religions. During the Harappan period, Hinduism found its roots in the Indus River Valley region. Stonework found by architects has shown images of one of the Hindu gods known as the Shiva Lingam. There was also an animistic aspect of the Indus Valley religion, and this was determined after finding evidence of gods being depicted with bull-like horns and other animistic features. However, there is no evidence that a religious temple was built and existed in the Indus River Valley.

Almost everyone knows what a swastika looks like and if you ask someone on the street, they will most likely tell you that it was invented by Adolf Hitler during World War II. Sadly, they are wrong. There is evidence that the Indus River Valley was one of the first civilizations that used the symbol of the swastika. Historians have been unable to interpret in which way the Indus River Valley people used the swastika. This symbol was not used for anti-Semitic purposes by the Indus River Valley people, unlike Adolf Hitler, who gave the symbol its infamous reputation. Rather, it was used as common symbol by many Southeast Asian civilizations at the time. However, the purpose of the symbol and the reason for its use cannot be determined by the evidence found that support the existence of this civilization.

There is also evidence to show the Buddhism may have acquired some of its roots in the Indus River Valley. Many of the statues found by archaeologists were in positions that can now be determined as yoga positions. The movements in yoga are closely related to the positions required for meditation in the Buddhist style. There are also early examples of Jainism. One such object is a four-faced human seal, which is a common symbol used by the religion of Jainism. This religion believed strongly in non-violence.

The Indus Valley religion helped define a civilization that existed thousands of years ago, as well as many of those that came after it. Some of the religions that the Indus River Valley civilization influenced were Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Some artifacts have also shown images of the swastika being portrayed; however, very little evidence has been found to help historians understand why and how this symbol was used by the people of the Indus Valley civilization. Due to the vast size of this group, its religious outreach was extensive as it expanded and influenced religions that are still presently followed by modern day religious people.

Thoughts on Social Stratification of Cities

I would like to talk specifically about social stratification as it relates to the city we’ve discussed in class, Kot Diji. We discussed that in this case, social stratification was evident in where people lived. Elites lived ‘up high’ and not in the center of the city, and the ‘have-nots’ live below, in the center and low point of the city. I thought this was particularly interesting in thinking about where people live in American cities today. In many cities the rich or ‘elite’ live in the suburbs, the outer parts of the city, and the poor, those who can’t afford to leave the inner city remain in the center, concentrated part of the city. But is this always the case? It seems to often be the way things are, but in many cases people still flock to the city. For example, people flood into New York City every year, trying to find studio apartments downtown and working to get as close to the ‘action’ of the city as possible. So what is the difference between cities that poor people can afford to leave and cities where people are saving up money to be able to move into the city? Unfortunately, I do not have an answer for this. The point of my post is not to solve this riddle, in fact I know very little about migration in and out of various cities, but it is an interesting thing to ponder. Does it have to do with the economy of the city? Perhaps cities like New York continue to be successful and the industries the city relies on continue to thrive. And maybe cities where people prefer to live in the outskirts are cities that are less successful in their industries. Maybe it has to do with the structure of the city. Places with a lot of upper class businesses and corporations might be more appealing to live in. Or maybe it has to do with how old the city is. Maybe all cities go through a cycle (much like the cycles we’ve discussed that civilizations go through) and we see a disparity because of the point of the cycle each city is at. Or perhaps some cities are built on the ‘coolness’ of the city, on the whole image and idea of living at the heart of a city, right in the middle of the action (like New York City), and others are just cities that naturally emerged and have reached a decline of course. As I said, I’m no expert on this topic, and maybe there is an answer that I don’t know, but I thought that the stratification of Kot Diji was an interesting springboard to think about today’s cities.

Do We Really Learn From Our Mistakes?

One of the more obvious things that we may note about these ancient states as we continue with the class is that they are clearly no longer around in the present. Of the many striking similarities that are shared by these ancient states- urban centers, proximity to large bodies of water, hierarchical social structure, etc etc- the most obvious, which frankly goes without saying, is they have all in their own time collapsed into obsoletion and destruction. Now, ignoring the fact that thousands upon thousands of years is an almost inconceivable amount of time for any one state to last, why is it that so many ancient states have succumbed the same pattern of rising and falling? And why have all the succeeding states done it too?

We’ve discussed it before in class: some problems arise, the government (or whatever the ruling political/social power may be in a given case) attempts to fix it, and then fixing it creates more and bigger problems in its wake. These mistakes are fixed, which creates more mistakes, and so on and so forth until the state and the state’s society has incidentally run itself into the ground. It’s happened time and time again, though not necessarily for the same reasons. For the Egyptians, it may have been the crumbling of centralized power; for the Romans, it may have been because they stretched their resources too thin. It’s likely that a lot of different problems compounded themselves to form the inevitable statewide catastrophe, but it has always been the same case of issues stacking on top of other issues until finally the whole thing self-destructs. One could find evidence of this in pretty much any single ancient (or more recent, perhaps) state upon giving it a closer look.

So then the real question is this: are we doomed to repeat ourselves? Do we learn from history? Sure, we can take a cue from the ones who came before and attempt to rectify the same problems they encountered, but there are always bound to be new problems. No city, empire, civilization, or state has ever lasted forever. Personally, though, I think we could. That’s what makes archaeology so important. Studying the past is a really big deal! There is still so much that we do not understand about who we, as humans, came to be in the place and time that we are now. And if we want to avoid making the mistakes of our ancestors both distant and relatively near, then we’ve got to take an unbiased look at what they did, how they lived, and where they went wrong. I think we owe it to them to learn from their mistakes, if only so that in another two thousand years when scientists are exploring where we went wrong, they’ll have an idea of what not to do.

Under the Weather

So far, every ancient state we have studied has not only arisen by a river or another body of water, but they also have used the different weather phenomena associated with their perspective rivers to their advantage.  Rivers can provide many resources such as food, water, and transportation, but the implications they have for agriculture cannot be overlooked.  One of the classic theories about how ancient states emerged was that irrigation supports more intensive agriculture, which supports a larger population.  Then, elites arise to control the irrigation and its products.  I would argue that without rivers and weather phenomena, irrigation might not be possible.  Without irrigation factoring in, ancient states might not have arisen.  Other factors could have made the push, but rivers could have been the tipping point in some circumstances.

In Egypt, we saw the control of the Nile and its inundation was of great importance.   Even today, infrastructure like the Aswan High Dam reinforces Egyptians extreme efforts to tame the Nile.  In the documentary, Egypt Uncovered: Chaos and Kings, we saw that early Egyptians encountered the chaos of the untamed Nile.  Unpredictable flooding could destroy land and crops.  On the plus side, the flooding regularly replenished the soil with nutrients, leaving fertile farmland behind.  Learning to predict and control the flooding cycles (with infrastructure like irrigation) of the Nile helped Egyptians to take full advantage of the soil.  The consequent agricultural success contributed to Egypt’s flourishing.  However, when the Nile was less predictable, famine contributed to its demise.

Mesopotamia also made use of its rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris.  Especially in the southern plain, where rainfall was low, control of water made all the difference.  Mesopotamians relied on human intervention to get water where they needed it to go.  Irrigation canals made this possible, and water could be available for agriculture and other needs.  In Mesopotamia, we can see the hydraulic origins of complexity at work.  Building such canals required cooperative labor and at least some central control.  Farmers also became reliant on the canals, so leaders could step in, exploit control over the canals, and increase their authority.

Finally, in the Indus Valley, monsoons were the weather phenomena of importance.  They provide most of the water that is in the ecological system.  Because of these storms, the land is extremely fertile.  Fertile land allows for more intensive agriculture, which can support a larger population that often contributes to the formation of ancient states.  Furthermore, the monsoons have a fairly regular seasonality and are very predictable, so farmers can take full advantage of them.

Ancient states were under the influence of the weather.  They often flourished around bodies of water and used the associated weather to their benefit.  This is only one similarity among ancient states.  While they may vary in many ways, there are also similarities.  As we continue to explore more ancient states I am sure that more patterns will become apparent.  While living in different regions, environments, time periods, and cultures, we are all human.

Harappan language and architecture

What intrigues me about the information presented on Harrapa is how much remains unknown.  While we know (in comparison) quite a bit about the ancient trade routes, exports, and urban planning, the very way any of this was communicated is completely unknown.  It seems incredible that in this advanced time of research and discovery that something so fundamental to an ancient culture can be unknown, especially with other ancient states’ (Egypt) written language being very well understood.  It was interesting to learn that clear reasons have been outlined to explain why the language remains undeciphered, mainly that the underlying language is not known, the average inscription length is too short, and no bilingual text has been discovered.  Also, it is hard to even fathom learning a language made of more than four hundred different symbols.  The apparent fact that the two inch square seals – the only evidence of Harappan writing – were made in specialized workshops makes me wonder how integral the written language was to common people, or people not involved directly in trade.  Today it seems hard to imagine a functioning society without a commonplace script.

Another interesting aspect to our study of Harappan culture is how little we know about the language is contrasted with how much we know about the architecture.  While the language has died out the architecture, urban planning, and even brick manufacturing is remarkably similar today as it was thousands of years ago!  It is very neat to see the cultural continuity as displayed in the geometric and logical blueprint of streets and the immense usage of fired mud bricks (even the mud brick kiln is made of mud bricks).  One detail I found myself wondering about was the specific dimensions of the individual bricks.  The way I understood it, they measure the same all over the region, across hundreds of sites, millions of bricks, and even into today.  What is it about these dimensions that made the bricks so versatile?  Why not produce different sized bricks for different sized buildings or different requirements of structural integrity?  It didn’t sound like there is any evidence of Harappan people ever manufacturing bricks of different measurements, not even earlier on.  This is intriguing because we often find there is an evolution, a progression, in style, size, composition, etc. such as with the Egyptian pyramids.  How is it that they got it right the first time?

While some is known about ancient Harappan culture, even more remains a mystery.  This is what makes it interesting and difficult to compare it with other ancient states.

Dependence on and Control of Water

Many of the first societies in Africa and Asia were greatly dependent on nearby water sources for their survival. I can’t imagine how nervous these people must have felt having their lives dependent on the natural processes associated with water, as these processes can be so unpredictable. The societies in the major regions that we have studied so far, that is, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley, all flourished because of their proximity to water sources. But, as we have learned, they also experienced hardships because of the unpredictability of nature.
For example, those who occupied the Nabta Playa for thousands of years deserted the site after the lake dried up. The ancient Egyptians relied heavily on the Nile for their livelihood, as their were no other major water sources in Egypt to depend on. Each year the Nile flooded, and deposited silt and mud, which made the land fertile. When flooding was low, it had a devastating effect on ancient Egyptians. With low flooding, less fertile land was available on which the Egyptians could plant their crops. This low flooding induced starvation, which can be seen in the depictions on the Causeway to the Pyramid of the Unas. In contrast, when the Nile experienced too much flooding, the high waters delayed harvests, destroyed settlements, and destroyed stored food.
In Mesopotamia, Mesopotamians had access to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. But, the Northern Plain in Mesopotamia only became fertile during the fall when it rained. The demonstrate importance of rain to the Mesopotamians, they even had a word, isohyet, which referred to geographic lines of various amounts of rainfall. One of the causes of the collapse of the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia has even been attributed to the region experiencing a dry period. And in the Indus Valley, many settlements were constructed along the Indus river and its tributaries. The water in the Indus Valley was governed by the monsoons that the area experienced each year from May to September. This monsoon flooding assisted in the fertility of the land in the region, but could also have adverse effects, as it could bring too much water into the area and destroy the Harappan settlements.
To ease some of the stress from the unpredictability of these natural water processes, these early societies developed means to control the water that they had access to. In ancient Egypt for example, over a span of 10 years, a team of 500 laborers built a dam to control the annual flooding of the Nile. But, before it was even finished, it was destroyed by the water it was built to control. Mesopotamians were able to expand agriculture into areas where agriculture previously would not have been possible using irrigation. The Harappans in the Indus Valley devoted much of their time and labor to the control of water. They dug irrigation canals to avoid experiencing too little or too much water. Alleys in Harappan settlements contained drains as a means of avoiding the buildup of water.
It is truly remarkable how these early societies were able to take nature into their own hands with these water controlling technologies.

Elites and the State

Elites are one of the largest factors in ancient states. A society has to have marked social stratification, or elites, to constitute as an ancient state. Over the duration of this class, I have been pondering what separates elites in a state level society and those from a non-state society, such as as chiefdom. After all, chiefdoms have social stratification, practice agriculture and have many of the characteristics an ancient state has. The main difference between chiefdoms and states (in my opinion) is that they do not have the full governmental authority that states do. Thus, where do elites come into play? As far as I can tell, what really separates the two is that  status is able to to be inherited in a state-level society. This is a big deal, as it is in part what gives these elites both the power and authority required in a state.
Having solved this first inquiry, the logical response to is to consider what causes status to become hereditary. The archaeological evidence for this factor is clear enough, when infants and people without signs of having done physically labor begin to be buried with increasingly elaborate grave goods, this indicates inherited status. What I would like to know, is what caused people to decide that it was acceptable to pass down status. How can someone untried be trusted to lead an entire nation? What gave King Tut the right to rule? He was only eighteen, and he did nothing to earn this right, he just so happened to be the son of the previous pharaoh. Pharaohs make a tad more sense, as they had divine right, but then I suppose that most civilizations gave their elites the divine right to rule. If the elites themselves were not divine, they at least were chosen by a divinity. This idea proceeded for centuries, even past the Middle Ages. Back to the original question, where did this divine right come from? In egalitarian societies, this sort of business could never have happened, as everyone was equal, and if someone gained a higher status, it did not automatically pass to that person’s children. However, as elites steadily gained more power, perhaps even mere associate with the elite (such as being apart of their family) made them indirectly famous, as it does today.

When elites began to wield authority, it is only natural they would have done everything in their power to make their child or family carry on their lineage. Besides a normal parental interest in their child’s life, the elite is also able to raise his or her child in a manner he or she sees fit, thus keeping a continual social order. While this may happened very gradually, once the effects snowballed, they were unstoppable. Once people may have begun to realize that an untried person was trusted to rule, the system was in place, and it is very difficult to oust someone with ultimate power.

Understanding Cultures through Language

Writing and more specifically languages have always intrigued me. The fact that there are more than 6,000 distinct, active languages in the world is astounding to me. Even more incredible is the fact that some of these languages have been around for thousands of years! Unfortunately some languages, like Yiddish for example, are dying out. Dying languages are languages that no one really speaks anymore. Or, an older generation speaks it, but the younger generation does not and this way the language will die when the older generation does. Another possibility is when the younger generation only knows a little bit of the language, but not fully and in that way, they cannot carry on the language and all the traditions that go along with it. This instance pertains to me: I know a little bit of Yiddish, but not enough to continue or pass it on to my children. It makes me sad knowing that soon after my grandmas generation is gone, so too will this language.

Every language comes with its own distinct background and culture. Maybe that is part of the reason why this stuff intrigues me so much. It is very interesting to know that even though we came from the same origin, we come from different places. Let me explain: the human species originated on the African continent. From this, we dispersed and settled the rest of the world: almost on every other continent. From these different places came different cultures and hence different languages. A language is such a big part of one’s culture. Without it, how would we communicate with one another? Daily life would not be what it is today and the world as we know it, would be completely different.

Part of what makes a language a language is its script; the written form of the language and the letters that compose it. Something I found interesting was the fact that the ancient state of the Indus valley has a written form, but archaeologists to this day have not deciphered its script. Unlike ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs, this code has not been cracked. In this sense, there is still so much to learn about the Indus valley culture and way of life, from its script. The script has 417 distinct symbols and the average length of a word is five signs, with the longest having 17 signs. Archaeologists understand it to be a mix of sounds and concepts. Maybe one day we will crack the script code and understand a world not previously known to us.