November 23, 2008

On the Coast of Harappan Times


During a trip to Pasni in 1984, I had attempted to locate an ancient Harappan settlement of Sokhta Koh. Based on scanty information gleaned through Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s “Indus Civilisation,” I had attempted an exploratory foray “some 8 miles north of Pasni,” as the book stated. Breakdown of an ill-suited Suzuki pick-up and a near shoot-out with heavily armed Baluchi tribesmen was what came out of that sojourn. A decade later, I got another opportunity to visit Pasni in connection with an Air Force assignment. After a few abortive attempts at locating the site, I was glad to bump into Jemadar Musa, belonging to the semi-nomadic settlement of Sindi Passo in the vicinity of Sokhta Koh. He was sure about the settlement of the “matkah wallahs” as he put it and, after a couple of minutes drive from his village, he led me to the site. My first impression was that the hill had been aptly named Sokhta Koh (meaning “burnt hill”) and, that Musa’s na├»ve description of the ancient settlers could not have been better. I visited the site almost daily for about a week and have been able to put together an amateur account of the observations along with aerial and on-site pictures.

The site was first discovered by an American archaeologist George F Dales in 1960, while exploring estuaries along the Makran coast. A similar site at Soktagen-dor lies about 30 miles inland, astride Dasht River, north of Jiwani. Their position along a coastline that was possibly much farther inland goes well with evidence of overseas commerce in Harappan times. These coastal sites were also the source of some exotic shells used for bangle jewellery by the Harappan elite.

Sokhta Koh is an outcrop of rock in the Shadi Kaur (river) valley, surrounded by jagged, stratified hills north of Pasni. Presently, the river flows just next to the site while loops of old riverbeds meander nearby. Small rivulets and nullahs mostly fed by rainwater, empty into Shadi Kaur, itself rather anaemic in this stark and dry countryside. The nearby present day settlement of Sindi Passo is sustained by small-time agriculture, with barley crop livening up the cheerless landscape, as it must have done several millennia ago.

While the hill is about three kilometres in circuit, the habitable remnants of the visible settlement towards the east occupy about 17 hectares. The settlement itself is difficult to appreciate from the ground since no structures stand out in relief. Except for a few sporadic digs, the site has not been extensively excavated.

Aerial View

I got an opportunity to photograph the site from the air with a hand-held camera. This became possible since the site is near the holding point for recovering aircraft. Dry ravines, which mark out the northern and southern boundaries, traverse the site. Also visible are several circular features that, as later survey revealed, were signs of open-pit ovens buried under rubble. Another noteworthy point is the lack of visible evidence of walled fortification from the air, although traces of a portion of a wall are visible; this may have been a compound wall defining functional or social spaces in a portion of the settlement.

Buildings


In the absence of detailed digging, little can be said about the architecture and buildings. However, at several places, erosion by elements reveals remnants of rooms in which stratified rock was used as a base, over which mud or mud-brick walls were raised. Absence of baked bricks, despite a well-established pottery industry, indicates that rainfall may have been low and hence not a threat to mud structures. Riverine flooding, if any, was also probably not a factor due to the siting of the settlement atop hillocks. The foundations indicate that the buildings were aligned along the cardinal points of the compass. Foundations of approximately 70 buildings can be counted from aerial pictures of the site. (Reconstruction of settlement in adjacent picture has been done on the basis of foundations visible in preceding picture.)

Pottery

The site is strewn all over by thousands of potsherds which constitute the visible detritus of the extinct settlement. The sherds are of kiln-baked ware that includes jars, plates, pierced colanders, lids with knobs and fine terra cotta bangle-shaped pieces. The pottery is wheel-turned and mostly pink, with a few buff samples. Some wares, particularly jars, have a reddish glazed band around the neck. The designs are a decorative feature of most pottery and are only of black colour. Designs are restricted to geometrical shapes and include horizontal lines of varying thickness, fish scale patterns, intersecting circles, comb-like patterns and wavy lines. Human and animal motifs are notably absent. Pottery styles suggest that the site was contemporaneous with major cities of Mature Harappan Phase (2600BC-1900BC).

Out of the samples collected, two very interesting ones stand out. One is the broken rim of a jar with etched marks in the shape of the letter ‘V’ and several oblique and vertical strokes, possibly a potter's insignia. On another sherd, small fingerprints over wet paintwork are evident, perhaps those of a child who may have been playing around. The complete absence of toys, seals, statues and jewellery, at least at the uppermost level, indicate a rather utilitarian environment, though it is also possible that these may have been scavenged over the millennia. Further excavation is bound to reveal at least some elements that might mitigate the seeming socio-cultural isolation of this Harappan outpost.

Excavation of Storage Jar

After rummaging through the debris for several days, I, along with our very keen and perceptive squadron lascar, the late Salahuddin, came across a circular patch of earth with a somewhat different hue. On scratching the surface, I discovered the rim of what seemed like a pottery vessel. Further digging revealed a large jar (about 70 cms high, 45 cm wide) with a pointed bottom, carefully propped by potsherds. While trying to access the jar, the area around it had to be dug out as well. This resulted in another bonus, as a rock base of two walls emerged, making it out to be the corner of a courtyard in which the vessel had been placed. The jar was of course full of mud, but a few bones were also found in it. It is possible that the jar may have found a secondary use as a rubbish bin! Jars of similar shape have been found at several Indus sites. (The jar was handed over to the Mr Rafique Mughal, then Director General of the Department of Archaeology and Museums.)

Discovery of Copper Seal

A decade later in 2004, during yet another surface survey, I came across a fragmentary copper seal, which was found broken and now resembled a heart shape. In its original shape it was about 3cm square. It had a four-foil design with concentric-circles. The seal had a pierced knob at the back for passing a cord through it. Copper seals are rare artefacts at Indus sites so this one, from a far-off coastal site, was indeed an unusual find. (The seal was handed over to the co-Director of Harappa Research Project, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, for further analysis at University of Wisconsin, Madison.)

Abandonment and Relocation

Sokhta Koh may have been abandoned due to recession of the coast caused by forces of nature in several ways. Firstly, deposition of alluvial soil into the harbour, by Shadi River would have caused gradual silting over centuries. Secondly, sea wave action would have deposited sand into the harbour accentuating the previous effect. Finally, geological plate tectonics, which is an active phenomenon along the Makran Coast, is likely to have caused catastrophic uplift, heaving the estuary floor and leaving the dockyard with a lowered water level. It is speculated (by this writer) that Sokhta Koh was then abandoned and the locals moved south to a new location of Prahag, near the present day town of Pasni, at the mouth of Shadi Kaur. The site at Prahag is littered with potsherds, like its predecessor.

Challenges for Future Explorers

A coastal site is unique in many ways and, from the standpoint of an archaeologist, it offers many prospects. Location of a dockyard or other maritime wherewithal, discovery of hitherto unknown designs of sea-going vessels marked on pottery or in the shape of toys, and studies of the extent of maritime trade and cultural exchange with the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, are some possibilities at Sokhta Koh. It would also be worthwhile gauging the extent of political integration of far-flung peripheries like Sokhta Koh, by comparing designs of artefacts and degree of their standardisation compared to the Harappan heartland. Sumerian, Elamite and Iranian influences on local customs and myths could be better understood, given their relative proximity to the Makran Coast. It is also not too far-fetched to imagine evidence of bilingual commercial transactions in the shape of clay tablets etc, that may be found in a coastal settlement like Sokhta Koh – a “Rosetta Stone” perhaps, that could help break the code of the enigmatic Indus script.

© M KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the daily newspaper, The News International, 17 May, 1996.

2 comments:

  1. Just a cheeky comment that you must have had a lot of time to kill in those Pasni postings :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. So good of you to hand the copper seal to Kenoyer!!!
    Must have been a difficult decision.
    Do you know Harappa.com's Facebook site?
    http://www.facebook.com/AncientIndus
    (Hope to see you there, Wim)

    ReplyDelete