Civilizations in Contact

Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Research topics - Jane McIntosh

The First Civilizations in Contact: Mesopotamia and the Indus


Photo of model bullock cart.

Model of a bullock cart found in the
Harappan town of Nausharo.

As early as the 7th millennium BCE, exchange networks connected Near Eastern communities with those in the Iranian plateau, Turkmenia and Baluchistan; these are marked by the presence of Near Eastern domestic plants and animals right across the region and by the distribution of such materials as obsidian, turquoise, seashell and lapis lazuli well outside their source areas.

In areas of rich agricultural potential, notably southern Mesopotamia, settlement led to huge population growth and the concomittent development of more complex social organisation. Such areas lacked many of the resources that their societies required, which included metals by the 6th millennium, and there was a growing demand for prestige materials that could display personal and community status.

Photo of terracotta tablet depicting a Harappan river boat.

Moulded terracotta tablet depicting
a Harappan river boat.

During the 4th millennium, towns developed across the area from Mesopotamia to Baluchistan, located to control the sources of desirable raw materials and the routes along which such goods were traded. The emergence of the Harappan civilization in the Indus basin and the Akkadian empire in southern Mesopotamia in the later 3rd millennium BCE led to a radical transformation in which these two states acted like magnets, drawing the resources of the entire region preferentially towards themselves. While both states continued to obtain resources from places that could only be reached overland, a new maritime route through the Gulf became the centre of the network, allowing direct communications between Mesopotamia and the Indus and the bulk transport of commodities. This shift brought the cultures of the Gulf into the heart of the international trade network. In contrast, while towns across the Iranian plateau and in southern Central Asia continued to trade with each other, they were no longer central to the long-distance network, and many declined in prosperity.

Drawing of Akkadian seal showing water buffalo.

Sealing of a scribe employed by the Akkadian
king Sar-kali-sarri. Water buffalo, depicted
here, were brought to Mesopotamia by the
Harappans. Drawing by Audrey McIntosh.

Both the scale and the nature of the trade had now changed, with substantial amounts of precious materials, such as lapis lazuli, and huge quantities of everyday commodities, such as grain, textiles, timber and metal ores, being imported and exported by the major players. To ensure reliable and regular supplies new mechanisms were introduced and earlier embryonic ones perfected. These included the establishment of trading enclaves, and even towns, in distant lands; the negotiation of long-term trading agreements with communities in areas rich in desirable resources; the regularisation and formal organisation of pre-existing supply lines, such as those maintained by the movements of transhumant pastoralists; and the sending of minatory or punitive military expeditions. The evolution of increasingly sophisticated maritime technology played a major role in the development of this trade.

Research Aims and Achievements

My long-term study of the development of this trade network will involve many lines of research, outlined below. My work during the first three years of the project has focused on three of these; I shall continue to work on these and my other proposed topics in the future.

Current work

  • Investigating the currently obscure benefits that the Harappans derived from their participation in the Gulf trade network.
View of the lower Euphrates river in Summer.

A view of the lower Euphrates river in Summer. From Ridpath History of the World 1914.

While the Harappans are known to have exported many commodities to Mesopotamia, there is no evidence of what they received in exchange, and no obvious gaps in their procurement network that Mesopotamia is likely to have filled. One possibility is woollen textiles, a major Mesopotamian export that would have left no archaeological trace. Wool-bearing sheep had been bred in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BCE but, although they quickly spread through Europe and into the steppe, it is not known if they spread east before the 2nd millennium BCE. An initial study of published faunal data indicates that the Harappans were probably not raising sheep for wool and therefore may not have had wool-bearing sheep, so Mesopotamian woollen textiles may well have been a desirable import. Further work is now required to follow up this promising initial result with further investigations from a number of angles.

  • Following up the elusive but growing evidence of connections between Africa and South Asia and investigating what part the Harappans played in these.
Drawings of sorghum, finger millet and cowpea.

Sorghum, finger millet and cowpea, some of the crops introduced from Africa to South
Asia in Harappan times.

The presence of African crops in the Indus region by 2000 BCE reveals contacts of some sort between Africa and South Asia. Indirect and direct routes by which this transmission might have occurred were investigated: it became clear that by far the most probable mechanism was direct seaborne expeditions by the Harappans to the African coast. Further work will now be undertaken on the possible nature and implications of this connection.

  • Studying the images and texts on Harappan seals and sealings and considering the inferences that can be drawn from their nature and distribution.
A selection of seals with animals designs.

A selection of seals with animals designs. The unicorn (top left) is extremely common,
and may represent authority within the Harappan bureaucracy, while the less common
bison (lower left), the design most commonly found outside the Harappan realms,
may have been associated with traders.

Seals played an important role in the administration and trade of early societies. Analysis of many features of the images on Harappan seals suggests that the information they encapsulated enabled the seals to be used as badges of office within the Harappan socio-political organisation. In contrast, the texts are much more varied though also structured, and various features of Harappan seal text use indicate that they recorded personal information, relevant to the seals' use in economic and personal contexts. A major study of the structure of Harappan seal texts and comparison with the regular patterns identified in a large corpus of seal texts from other parts of early Afroeurasia allows the general content of some segments of the Harappan seal texts to be suggested: this may contribute to the gradual decipherment of the Harappan script, as well as shedding light on the economic use of seals in the Harappan trade and internal distribution networks. This study is on-going.

Proposed future work

  • Using GIS technology to look in more detail at settlement and infrastructure in Gujarat, the Harappans' interface not only with the Indian Ocean but also with neighbouring Indian cultures.
Photo showing brick foundations of a warehouse in Lothal.

The brick foundations of a warehouse (destroyed by fire) at the important trading and
industrial town of Lothal in Gujarat.

Photo showing part of a gateway in Dholavira.

Part of a gateway in Dholavira, the Harappan city that dominated Gujarat. This region
provided the interface between the Indus realms and the lands with which the
Harappans traded by sea.

  • Assessing the role of the Harappans in the development of the maritime network.
  • Comparing and contrasting the interactions of the Harappans and the Sumerians/Akkadians with the people of the copper rich lands of the Oman peninsula.
  • Synthesizing the new settlement and off-site data that have been accumulating in recent years from throughout the region, in order better to understand the trading systems of the 4th and 3rd millennia and the transformations that occurred with the emergence of the southern Mesopotamian and Harappan states.
  • Undertaking a major study in collaboration with Paul Lunde to investigate the spread of cultivated plants from the regions in which they were first domesticated into other parts of the world, and the economic and other effects of this spread on the recipient communities. My part of the study will initially focus on plants domesticated in Afroeurasia before 1000 BCE.

Photos so marked courtesy of Images of Asia Used by permission.