Mohenjo-daro meaning ‘Mound of the Dead Men’ is an archaeological site in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. Built around 2500 BCE, it was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation, and one of the world’s earliest major cities, contemporaneous with the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Minoan Crete, and Norte Chico. Mohenjo-daro was abandoned in the 19th century BCE as the Indus Valley Civilization declined, and the site was not rediscovered until the 1920s. Significant excavation has since been conducted at the site of the city, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. The site is currently threatened by erosion and improper restoration.
The city’s original name is unknown. Based on his analysis of a Mohenjo-daro seal, Iravatham Mahadevan speculates that the city’s ancient name could have been Kukkutarma (“the city [-rma] of the cockerel [kukkuta]”). Cock-fighting may have had ritual and religious significance for the city, with domesticated chickens bred there for sacred purposes, rather than as a food source. Mohenjo-daro may also have been a point of diffusion for the eventual worldwide domestication of chickens.
Mohenjo-daro is located west of the Indus River in Larkana District, Sindh, Pakistan, in a central position between the Indus River and the Ghaggar-Hakra River. It is situated on a Pleistocene ridge in the middle of the flood plain of the Indus River Valley, around 28 kilometres (17 mi) from the town of Larkana. The ridge was prominent during the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, allowing the city to stand above the surrounding flood, but subsequent flooding has since buried most of the ridge in silt deposits. The Indus still flows east of the site, but the Ghaggar-Hakra riverbed on the western side is now dry.
Mohenjo-daro was built in the 26th century BCE. It was one of the largest cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization, which developed around 3,000 BCE from the prehistoric Indus culture. At its height, the Indus Civilization spanned much of what is now Pakistan and North India, extending westwards to the Iranian border, south to Gujarat in India and northwards to an outpost in Bactria, with major urban centers at Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Lothal, Kalibangan, Dholavira and Rakhigarhi. Mohenjo-daro was the most advanced city of its time, with remarkably sophisticated civil engineering and urban planning. When the Indus civilization went into sudden decline around 1900 BCE, Mohenjo-daro was abandoned.
Rediscovery & Excavation
The ruins of the city remained undocumented for around 3,700 years until R. D. Banerji, an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India, visited the site in 1919–20 identifying what he thought to be a Buddhist stupa (150–500 CE) known to be there and finding a flint scraper which convinced him of the site’s antiquity. This led to large-scale excavations of Mohenjo-daro led by Kashinath Narayan Dikshit in 1924–25, and John Marshall in 1925–26. In the 1930s major excavations were conducted at the site under the leadership of Marshall, D. K. Dikshitar and Ernest Mackay. Further excavations were carried out in 1945 by Mortimer Wheeler and his trainee, Ahmad Hasan Dani. The last major series of excavations were conducted in 1964 and 1965 by George F. Dales. After 1965 excavations were banned due to weathering damage to the exposed structures, and the only projects allowed at the site since have been salvage excavations, surface surveys, and conservation projects. In the 1980s, German and Italian survey groups led by Michael Jansen and Maurizio Tosi used less invasive archeological techniques, such as architectural documentation, surface surveys, and localized probing, to gather further information about Mohenjo-daro. A dry core drilling conducted in 2015 by Pakistan’s National Fund for Mohenjo-daro revealed that the site is larger than the unearthed area.
Architecture & Urban Infrastructure
Mohenjo-daro has a planned layout with rectilinear buildings arranged on a grid plan. Most were built of fired and mortared brick; some incorporated sun-dried mud-brick and wooden superstructures. The covered area of Mohenjo-daro is estimated at 300 hectares. The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History offers a “weak” estimate of a peak population of around 40,000.
The sheer size of the city, and its provision of public buildings and facilities, suggests a high level of social organization. The city is divided into two parts, the so-called Citadel and the Lower City. The Citadel – a mud-brick mound around 12 metres (39 ft) high – is known to have supported public baths, a large residential structure designed to house about 5,000 citizens, and two large assembly halls. The city had a central marketplace, with a large central well. Individual households or groups of households obtained their water from smaller wells. Waste water was channeled to covered drains that lined the major streets. Some houses, presumably those of more prestigious inhabitants, include rooms that appear to have been set aside for bathing, and one building had an underground furnace (known as a hypocaust), possibly for heated bathing. Most houses had inner courtyards, with doors that opened onto side-lanes. Some buildings had two stories.
In 1950, Sir Mortimer Wheeler identified one large building in Mohenjo-daro as a “Great Granary”. Certain wall-divisions in its massive wooden superstructure appeared to be grain storage-bays, complete with air-ducts to dry the grain. According to Wheeler, carts would have brought grain from the countryside and unloaded them directly into the bays. However, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer noted the complete lack of evidence for grain at the “granary”, which, he argued, might therefore be better termed a “Great Hall” of uncertain function. Close to the “Great Granary” is a large and elaborate public bath, sometimes called the Great Bath. From a colonnaded courtyard, steps lead down to the brick-built pool, which was waterproofed by a lining of bitumen. The pool measures 12 metres (39 ft) long, 7 metres (23 ft) wide and 2.4 metres (7.9 ft) deep. It may have been used for religious purification. Other large buildings include a “Pillared Hall”, thought to be an assembly hall of some kind, and the so-called “College Hall”, a complex of buildings comprising 78 rooms, thought to have been a priestly residence.
Mohenjo-daro had no series of city walls, but was fortified with guard towers to the west of the main settlement, and defensive fortifications to the south. Considering these fortifications and the structure of other major Indus valley cities like Harappa, it is postulated that Mohenjo-daro was an administrative center. Both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro share relatively the same architectural layout, and were generally not heavily fortified like other Indus Valley sites. It is obvious from the identical city layouts of all Indus sites that there was some kind of political or administrative centrality, but the extent and functioning of an administrative center remains unclear.
Water Supply & Wells
The location of Mohenjo-daro was built in a relatively short period of time, with the water supply system and wells being some of the first planned constructions. With the excavations done so far, over 700 wells are present at Mohenjo-daro, alongside drainage and bathing systems. This number is unheard of when compared to other civilizations at the time, such as Egypt or Mesopotamia, and the quantity of wells transcribes as one well for every three houses. Because the large number of wells, it is believed that the inhabitants relied solely on annual rainfall, as well as the Indus River’s course remaining close to the site, alongside the wells providing water for long periods of time in the case of the city coming under siege. Due to the period in which these wells were built and used, it is likely that the circular brick well design used at this and many other Harappan sites are an invention that should be credited to the Indus civilization, as there is no existing evidence of this design from Mesopotamia or Egypt at this time, and even later. Sewage and waste water for buildings at the site were disposed of via a centralized drainage system that ran alongside the site’s streets. These drains that ran alongside the road were effective at allowing most human waste and sewage to be disposed of as the drains tool the waste most likely toward the Indus River. It is theorized that the job of keeping the pipes clean and from getting piled up was either a job for slaves, or captured enemy soldiers, with others who believe it was a paid job for citizens of the city.
Flooding & Rebuilding
The city also had large platforms perhaps intended as defense against flooding. According to a theory first advanced by Wheeler, the city could have been flooded and silted over, perhaps six times, and later rebuilt in the same location. For some archaeologists, it was believed that a final flood that helped engulf the city in a sea of mud brought about the abandonment of the site. Gregory Possehl was the first to theorize that the floods were caused by overuse and expansion upon the land, and that the mud flood was not the reason the site was abandoned. Instead of a mud flood wiping part of the city out in one fell swoop, Possehl coined the possibility of constant mini-floods throughout the year, paired with the land being worn out by crops, pastures, and resources for bricks and pottery spelled the downfall of the site.
Numerous objects found in excavation include seated and standing figures, copper and stone tools, carved seals, balance-scales and weights, gold and jasper jewellery, and children’s toys. Many bronze and copper pieces, such as figurines and bowls, have been recovered from the site, showing that the inhabitants of Mohenjo-daro understood how to utilize the lost wax technique. The furnaces found at the site are believed to have been used for copperworks and melting the metals as opposed to smelting. There even seems to be an entire section of the city dedicated to shell-working, located in the northeastern part of the site. Some of the most prominent copperworks recovered from the site are the copper tablets which have examples of the untranslated Indus script and iconography. While the script has not been cracked yet, many of the images on the tablets match another tablet and both hold the same caption in the Indus language, with the example given showing three tablets with the image of a mountain goat and the inscription on the back reading the same letters for the three tablets. Pottery and terracotta sherds have been recovered from the site, with many of the pots having deposits of ash in them, leading archeologists to believe they were either used to hold the ashes of a person or as a way to warm up a home located in the site. These heaters, or braziers, were ways to heat the house while also being able to be utilized in a manner of cooking or straining, while others solely believe they were used for heating. Many important objects from Mohenjo-daro are conserved at the National Museum of India in Delhi and the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi. In 1939, a representative collection of artefacts excavated at the site was transferred to the British Museum by the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India.
Mother Goddess Idol
Discovered by John Marshall in 1931, the idol appears to mimic certain characteristics that match the Mother Goddess belief common in many early Near East civilizations. Sculptures and figurines depicting women have been observed as part of Harappan culture and religion, as multiple female pieces were recovered from Marshall’s archaeological digs. These figures were not categorized correctly, according to Marshall, meaning that where they were recovered from the site is not actually clear. One of said figures, pictured below, is 18.7 cm tall and is currently on display at the National Museum of Pakistan, in Karachi. The fertility and motherhood aspects on display on the idols is represented by the female genitalia that is presented in an almost exaggerated style as stated by Marshall, with him inferring that such figurines are offerings to the goddess, as opposed to the typical understanding of them being idols representing the goddess’s likeness. Because of the figurines being unique in terms of hairstyles, body proportions, as well as headdresses and jewelry, there are theories as to who these figurines actually represent. Shereen Ratnagar theorizes that because of their uniqueness and dispersed discovery throughout the site that they could be figurines of ordinary household women, who commissioned these pieces to be used in rituals or healing ceremonies to help aforementioned individual women.
In 1927, a seated male soapstone figure was found in a building with unusually ornamental brickwork and a wall-niche. Though there is no evidence that priests or monarchs ruled Mohenjo-daro, archaeologists dubbed this dignified figure a “Priest-King.” The sculpture is 17.5 centimetres (6.9 in) tall, and shows a neatly bearded man with pierced earlobes and a fillet around his head, possibly all that is left of a once-elaborate hairstyle or head-dress; his hair is combed back. He wears an armband, and a cloak with drilled trefoil, single circle and double circle motifs, which show traces of red. His eyes might have originally been inlaid.
A seal discovered at the site bears the image of a seated, cross-legged and possibly ithyphallic figure surrounded by animals. The figure has been interpreted by some scholars as a yogi, and by others as a three-headed “proto-Shiva” as “Lord of Animals”.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler was especially fascinated with this artifact, which he believed to be at least 4,500 years old. The necklace has an S-shaped clasp with seven strands, each over 4 ft long, of bronze-metal bead-like nuggets which connect each arm of the “S” in filigree. Each strand has between 220 and 230 of the many-faceted nuggets, and there are about 1,600 nuggets in total. The necklace weighs about 250 grams in total, and is presently held in a private collection in India.