The Indus

Andrew Robinson

Reaktion Books 2021
A book review by Danny Yee © 2024
Covering the civilisation rather than the river, The Indus is an accessible overview of one of the most mysterious of ancient urban cultures.

Robinson is not an Indus expert, but he has a background on south Asia and on scripts and writing. And he does an excellent job not just of summarising the basic evidence, but of pulling together different interpretations, pointing out how speculative some of them are, and keeping the reader aware of the broader historiographical context.

He begins with an account of the discovery and excavations of Indus sites, then proceeds thematically, starting with the best-evidenced areas: architecture, arts and crafts, and agriculture.

"The seals, bricks and other objects from the two sites ... were physically compared by Marshall, Sahni and Banerji ... It was quickly apparent ... that Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had to belong to the same culture or civilization. As Marshall put it: 'One of the most striking facts revealed by the excavations is the complete uniformity of their culture. Though these two spots are some 400 miles apart, their monuments and antiquities are to all intents and purposes identical.'"
"Also puzzling, in addition to the dearth of commercial buildings, is the absence of reliable evidence for Indus palaces and temples. One would have expected the Indus rulers, assuming they existed, to have housed themselves on the 'citadel' mounds, and that their residences would conform to certain elements common to rulers' residences in other ancient civilizations"
"Kenoyer estimates that 480 working days would have been required to make the belt of 36 drilled beads found at Allahdino, from the initial heating of the carnelian to its final polishing."
"Cattle, goats, sheep and dogs had undoubtedly been domesticated. Cattle — that is, the humped zebu, the non-humped bull and the water buffalo — were the most important of the domesticated animals."

The evidence suggests Indus merchants travelled to Mesopotamia, rather than the other way around; there was also a fully-fledged Indus settlement at Shortugai, on the Oxus (Amu Darya), fully 600 kilometres from Harappa and presumably a trading post of some kind.

"There is no sign in the bones of the skeletons that some individuals were better nourished than others: everyone, not just an elite, seems to have enjoyed access to a sufficient and balanced diet. Nor is there much display of personal wealth in the graves (in utter contrast to the graves of Mesopotamia and Egypt)"

It is harder to say much about religion: "In the absence of a decipherment of the script, religious explanations have conveniently filled some yawning gaps in scholarly understanding. But is this wise?"

And Robinson ends with some topics that are perhaps the most fascinating but also the most speculative.

The decline and disappearance of the Indus civilisation remains mysterious: "floods, diseases, earthquakes, trade disruptions, foreign immigration and perhaps a diminished central authority unsupported by military force are all in play".

There have been many purported decipherments of the Indus script, none of them stand much scrutiny: "If excavations yield substantial new discoveries of inscriptions, especially a significantly longer text ... there is a reasonable prospect of a widely accepted, if inevitably limited, decipherment."

An array of differences "more or less disproves that the Indus civilization might have been the progenitor of the Vedic culture, or indeed vice versa", but Indus artefacts suggest some clear links to Hindu ritual and symbolism.

This is supported by a chronology, a few useful maps, and a nice selection of halftones, mostly of artefacts and sites. The Indus was the best one volume book on the subject I could find.

February 2024

Related reviews:
- books about India + Indian history
- books about Pakistan + Pakistan history
- more ancient history
%T The Indus
%A Robinson, Andrew
%I Reaktion Books
%D 2021 [2015]
%O paperback, references, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9781789143850
%P 208pp