A mystifying script
Why did the Indus love baths and unicorns?
BY TIM APPENZELLER
Four thousand years ago, the world's
first known billboard looked down on
one of the world's first great cities. The
imposing stone metropolis, now called
Dholavira, sat on an island in a salt marsh
in northwestern India. Three sets of walls
enclosed it, and its gates opened onto broad
plazas, bustling workshops,
and busy markets. The 9-foot-
wide wooden sign, remnants
of which were found a decade
ago, may have hung on a central tower, where its 15-inch
white gypsum letters would
have proclaimed to all literate
citizens and visitors ... well,
that's where the picture blurs,
because today, no one can
read the ancient script.
What name or slogan loomed over
Dholavira is just one of the many puzzles
of the ancient Indus civilization, which
flourished along the modern Indus River
and a now vanished river to the east between 2600 and 1900 B.C. The Indus
erected half a dozen major cities of brick
and stone boasting amenities unmatched
in the ancient world, including sewers and
baths. Digging into mounds that now entomb these cities on the dusty plains of
Pakistan and northwestern India, archaeologists have found exquisite jewelry, statuary, and ceramics decorated with
real and fanciful animals, including unicorns by the hundreds.
But they have found little to reveal the beliefs that sparked the culture and held it together for 700 years until it withered, perhaps because shifting rivers
flooded some cities and
parched others. Those secrets
may be uncovered when archaeologists can finally read
the script that adorned that
ancient billboard--but perhaps not even then.
Gentle people. The news
of the Indus Valley cities
reached the modern world 75
years ago in the pages of the Illustrated London News, where British archaeologist John
Marshall announced the discovery of a civilization that turned out to be as old as
Mesopotamia. Many scholars expected the
ruins would reveal a culture much like it.
But the more Marshall and his successors
dug, the less the Indus culture looked like
other Bronze Age societies. "There's no evidence for armies or war or anything like
that," says archaeologist Jim Shaffer of Case
Western Reserve University.
Nor is there any sign of grandiose
rulers. "There was no cult of the individual," says Harvard University's Richard
Meadow, who is excavating an Indus city
called Harappa, in modern Pakistan.
There are "no fancy burials, no monumental displays of wealth."
Somehow, without war or charismatic
strongmen, the Indus people imposed their
culture across a territory larger than France.
Everywhere, their builders made bricks in a
length-to-width-to-height ratio of 4 to 2 to
1, a signature of Indus construction. Tax collectors used standardized weights to assay
goods, potters turned out identical designs,
and the elite carried soapstone seals, embossed with Indus script and animal designs, to stamp trade goods. "They also had
tremendous craft technology, if not the best
craft technology in the Bronze Age," says
Shaffer. In city after city, the Indus people
built deep, brick-lined wells, smelted and
cast copper and bronze, and made jewelry.
The cohesion of the Indus culture may
have been rooted in commerce. "Possibly
it was a large economic empire with a
strong sense of national ethos," says R.S.
Bisht of the Archaeological Survey of
India, who heads the excavations at
Dholavira. The Indus people sought raw
materials, including metals and semi≠precious stones, from as far away as
Afghanistan, and their ships carried beads,
bangles, and other products up the Persian
Gulf to the cities of Mesopotamia. These
trade links might have kept the elite of the
far-flung Indus realm in close touch.
Others think something more esoteric
must have held the Indus culture together. "In the absence of a political elite,
of a standing army, one is left with the
symbolica system of beliefs," says Shaffer. But decades of digging have revealed
nothing like the elaborate temples of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Clean freaks. Still, the cities do hold
clues, says archaeologist Gregory Possehl
of the University of Pennsylvania. When
it came to sanitation, the Indus people
seem to have been as obsessive as modern
Americans. Ubiquitous wells and bathsmany private houses had them"make
a strong case that people there were re≠
ally into water, symbolically and in terms
of purification," Possehl says. The Great
Bath at Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan, 40 feet
long and 8 feet deep, may have been the
Indus equivalent of a temple.
Water wasn't the only force in Indus
spiritual life. Seals and tablets found in the
ruins depict unicorns, three-headed buffaloes, and encounters between humans,
gods, and beasts. "If we could unravel
these folk tales," says Possehl, "we could get into the ideology of the Indus people."
The inscriptions might helpif archaeologists could read them. Archaeologists
think that some of the writing identifies
the seal's owner. In other cases, the procession of symbols, which look tantalizingly like real objectsa trident, a fish, a
two-handled jarmay narrate a story.
Would-be decipherers have published
more than 50 claims of success, but most
scholars think the Indus code is yet to be
cracked. So far, no one has found anything like the Rosetta stone that unlocked
the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt: a
bilingual inscription with both the undeciphered script and a known script.
But where there are ruins, there is
hope. Archaeologists are digging deeper
at Harappa and other sites. What they
find may, finally, give a voice to the