Ancient Lothal

Ancient Lothal

Sunday, February 14, 2010


The meaning of Lothal (a combination of Loth and (s) thal) in Gujarati to be the "the mound of the dead" is not unusual, as the name of the city of Mohenjodaro in Sindhi means the same. People in villages neighbouring to Lothal had known of the presence of an ancient town and human remains. As recently as 1850, boats sailed up to the mound, and timber was shipped in 1942 from Broach to Saragwala via the mound. A silted creek connecting modern Bholad with Lothal and Saragwala represents the ancient flow channel of a river or creek.[1] When India was partitioned in 1947, most of the sites, including Mohenjodaro and Harappa, came to be located in the state of Pakistan. The Archaeological Survey of India undertook a new program of exploration, and excavated many sites across Gujarat. Between 1954 and 1958, more than 50 sites were excavated in the Kutch {see also Dholavira}, and Saurashtra peninsulas, extending the limits of Harappan civilization by 500 kilometres (310 mi) to the river Kim, where the Bhagatrav site accesses the valley of the rivers Narmada and Tapti. Lothal stands 270 kilometres (170 mi) from Mohenjodaro, which is in Sindh.[2] It has also been speculated that owing to the comparatively small dimensions of the main city, Lothal was not a large settlement at all, and its "dock" was perhaps an irrigation tank.[3] However, the ASI and other contemporary archaeologists assert that the city was a part of a major river system on the trade route of the ancient peoples from Sindh to Saurashtra in Gujarat. Cemeteries have been found which indicate that its people were probably of Dravidian, Proto-Australoid or Mediterranean physiques. Lothal provides with the largest collection of antiquities in the archaeology of modern India.[4] It is essentially a single culture site—the Harappan culture in all its variances is evidenced. An indigenous micaceous Red Ware culture also existed, which is believed to be autochthonous and pre-Harappan. Two sub-periods of Harappan culture are distinguished: the same period (between 2400 and 1900 BCE) is identical to the exuberant culture of Harappa and Mohenjodaro.

Town planning

A flood destroyed village foundations and settlements (c. 2350 BCE). Harappans based around Lothal and from Sindh took this opportunity to expand their settlement and create a planned township on the lines of greater cities in the Indus valley.[7] Lothal planners engaged themselves to protect the area from consistent floods. The town was divided into blocks of 1–2-metre-high (3–6 ft) platforms of sun-dried bricks, each serving 20–30 houses of thick mud and brick walls. The city was divided into a citadel, or acropolis and a lower town. The rulers of the town lived in the acropolis, which featured paved baths, underground and surface drains (built of kiln-fired bricks) and a potable water well. The lower town was subdivided into two sectors — the north-south arterial street was the main commercial area — flanked by shops of rich and ordinary merchants and craftsmen. The residential area was located to either side of the marketplace. The lower town was also periodically enlarged during Lothal's years of prosperity.
Lothal engineers accorded high priority to the creation of a dockyard and a warehouse to serve the purposes of naval trade. While the consensus view amongst archaeologists identifies this structure as a "dockyard," it has also been suggested that owing to small dimensions, this basin may have been an irrigation tank and canal.[3] The dock was built on the eastern flank of the town, and is regarded by archaeologists as an engineering feat of the highest order. It was located away from the main current of the river to avoid silting, but provided access to ships in high tide as well. The warehouse was built close to the acropolis on a 3.5-metre-high (10.5 ft) podium of mud bricks. The rulers could thus supervise the activity on the dock and warehouse simultaneously. Facilitating the movement of cargo was a mud-brick wharf, 220 metres (720 ft) long, built on the western arm of the dock, with a ramp leading to the warehouse.[8] There was an important public building opposite to the warehouse whose superstructure has completely disappeared. Throughout their time, the city had to brace itself through multiple floods and storms. Dock and city peripheral walls were maintained efficiently. The town's zealous rebuilding ensured the growth and prosperity of the trade. However, with rising prosperity, Lothal's people failed to upkeep their walls and dock facilities, possibly as a result of over-confidence in their systems. A flood of moderate intensity in 2050 BCE exposed some serious weaknesses in the structure, but the problems were not addressed properly.

Economy and urban culture

he uniform organization of the town and its institutions give evidence that the Harappans were a very disciplined people.[10] Commerce and administrative duties were performed according to standards laid out. Municipal administration was strict — the width of most streets remained the same over a long time, and no encroached structures were built. Householders possessed a sump, or collection chamber to deposit solid waste in order to prevent the clogging of city drains. Drains, manholes and cesspools kept the city clean and deposited the waste in the river, which was washed out during high tide. A new provincial style of Harappan art and painting was pioneered — new approaches included realistic portrayals of animals in their natural surroundings, including the portrayal of stories and folklore. Fire-altars were built in public places. Metalware, gold and jewellery and tastefully decorated ornaments attest to the culture and prosperity of the people of Lothal.
Most of their equipment—metal tools, weights, measures, seals, earthenware and ornaments—were of the uniform standard and quality found across the Indus civilization. Lothal was a major trade centre, importing en masse raw materials like copper, chert and semi-precious stones from Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, and mass distributing to inner villages and towns. It also produced large quantities of bronze celts, fish-hooks, chisels, spears and ornaments. Lothal exported its beads, gemstones, ivory and shells. The stone blade industry catered to domestic needs—fine chert was imported from the Sukkur valley or from Bijapur in modern Karnataka. Bhagatrav supplied semi-precious stones while chank shell came from Dholavira and Bet Dwarka. An intensive trade network gave the inhabitants great prosperity—it stretched across the frontiers to Egypt, Bahrain and Sumer.[9] One of the evidence of trade in Lothal is the discovery of typical Persian gulf seals, a circular button sea.

Declining years

While the wider debate over the end of Indus civilization continues, archaeological evidence gathered by the ASI appears to point to natural catastrophes, specifically floods and storms as the source of Lothal's downfall. A powerful flood submerged the town and destroyed most of the houses, with the walls and platforms heavily damaged. The acropolis and the residence of the ruler were levelled (2000-1900 BCE), and inhabited by common tradesmen and newly built makeshift houses. The worst consequence was the shift in the course of the river, cutting off access to the ships and dock.[11] Despite the ruler leaving the city, the leaderless people built a new but shallow inlet to connect the flow channel to the dock for sluicing small ships into the basin. Large ships were moored away. Houses were rebuilt, yet without removal of flood debris, which made them poor-quality and susceptible to further damage. Public drains were replaced by soakage jars. The citizens did not undertake encroachments, and rebuilt public baths and maintained fire worship. However, with a poorly organised government, and no outside agency or central government, the public works could not be properly repaired or maintained. The heavily damaged warehouse was never repaired properly, and stocks were stored in wooden canopies, exposed to floods and fire. The economy of the city was transformed. Trade volumes reduced greatly, though not catastrophically, and resources were available in lesser quantities. Independent businesses caved, allowing a merchant-centric system of factories to develop where hundreds of craftsmen worked for the same supplier and financier. The bead factory had ten living rooms and a large workplace courtyard. The coppersmith's workshop had five furnaces and paved sinks to enable multiple artisans to work.[12]
The declining prosperity of the town, paucity of resources and poor administration increased the woes of a people pressured by consistent floods and storms. Increased salinity of soil made the land inhospitable to life, including crops. This is evidenced in adjacent cities of Rangpur, Rojdi, Rupar and Harappa in Punjab, Mohenjo-daro and Chanhudaro in Sindh. A massive flood (c. 1900 BCE) completely destroyed the flagging township in a single stroke. Archaeological analysis shows that the basin and dock were sealed with silt and debris, and the buildings razed to the ground. The flood affected the entire region of Saurashtra, Sindh and south Gujarat, and affected the upper reaches of the Indus and Sutlej, where scores of villages and townships were washed away. The population fled to inner regions.

Later Harappan culture

Archaeological evidence shows that the site continued to be inhabited, albeit by a much smaller population devoid of urban influences. The few people who returned to Lothal could not reconstruct and repair their city, but surprisingly continued to stay and preserved religious traditions, living in poorly-built houses and reed huts. That they were the Harappan peoples is evidenced by the analyses of their remains in the cemetery. While the trade and resources of the city were almost entirely gone, the people retained several Harappan ways in writing, pottery and utensils. About this time ASI archaeologists record a mass movement of refugees from Punjab and Sindh into Saurashtra and to the valley of Sarasvati (1900-1700 BCE).[14] Hundreds of ill-equipped settlements have been attributed to this people as Late Harappans—a completely de-urbanised culture characterised by rising illiteracy, undiversified economy, unsophisticated administration and poverty. Though Indus seals went out of use, the system of weights with an 8.573 gram (0.3024 oz avoirdupois) unit was retained. Between 1700 and 1600 BCE, trade would revive again. In Lothal, Harappan ceramic works of bowls, dishes and jars were mass-produced. Merchants used local materials such as chalcedony instead of chert for stone blades. Truncated sandstone weights replaced hexahedron chert weights. The sophisticated writing was simplified by exempeting pictorial symbols, and the painting style reduced itself to wavy lines, loops and fronds.

Science and engineering

A thick ring-like shell object found with four slits each in two margins served as a compass to measure angles on plane surfaces or in the horizon in multiples of 40 degrees, up to 360 degrees. Such shell instruments were probably invented to measure 8–12 whole sections of the horizon and sky, explaining the slits on the lower and upper margins. Archaeologists consider this as evidence that the Lothal experts had achieved something 2,000 years before the Greeks: an 8–12 fold division of horizon and sky, as well as an instrument for measuring angles and perhaps the position of stars, and for navigation.[15] Lothal contributes one of three measurement scales that are integrated and linear (others found in Harappa and Mohenjodaro). An ivory scale from Lothal has the smallest-known decimal divisions in Indus civilization. The scale is 6 millimetres (0.2 inches) thick, 15 mm (0.6 inches) broad and the available length is 128 mm (5.0 inches), but only 27 graduations are visible over 46 mm (1.8 inches), the distance between graduation lines being 1.70 mm (0.067 inches) (the small size indicates use for fine purposes). The sum total of ten graduations from Lothal is approximate to the angula in the Arthashastra.[16] The Lothal craftsmen took care to ensure durability and accuracy of stone weights by blunting edges before polishing.[17]
For their renowned draining system, Lothal engineers provided corbelled roofs, and an apron of kiln-fired bricks over the brick face of the platform where the sewerage entered the cesspool. Wooden screens inserted in grooves in the side drain walls held back solid waste. The well is built of radial bricks, 2.4 metres (7.9 ft) in diameter and 6.7 metres (22 ft) deep. It had an immaculate network of underground drains, silting chambers and cesspools, and inspection chambers for solid waste. The extent of drains provided archaeologists with many clues regarding the layout of streets, organization of housing and baths. On average, the main sewer is 20–46 cm (7.8–18.1 inches) in depth, with outer dimensions of 86 × 68 × 33 cm (34 × 27 × 13 in). Lothal brick-makers used a logical approach in manufacture of bricks, designed with care in regards to thickness of structures. They were used as headers and stretchers in same and alternate layers. Archaeologists estimate that in most cases, the bricks were in ratio 1:0.5:0.25 on three sides, in dimensions which were integral multiples of large graduations of Lothal scale of 25 mm (1.0 in).

Religion and disposal of the dead

he people of Lothal worshipped a fire god, speculated to be the horned deity depicted on seals named Atha (Athar) and Arka, which is also evidenced by the presence of private and public fire-altars where sacrifices of animals and cattle were apparently conducted. Archaeologists have discovered gold pendants, charred ashes of terra-cotta cakes and pottery, bovine remains, beads and other signs that may indicate the practice of the Gavamayana sacrifice, associated with the ancient Vedic religion.[19] Animal worship is also evidenced, but not the worship of the Mother Goddess that is evidenced in other Harappan cities—experts consider this a sign of the existence of diversity in religious traditions. However, it is believed that a sea goddess, perhaps cognate with the general Indus-era Mother Goddess, was worshipped. Today, the local villagers likewise worship a sea goddess, Vanuvati Sikotarimata, suggesting a connection with the ancient port's traditions and historical past as an access to the sea.[20][21] But the archaeologists also discovered that the practice had been given up by 2000 BCE (determined by the difference in burial times of the carbon-dated remains). It is suggested that the practice occurred only on occasion. It is also considered that given the small number of graves discovered—only 17 in an estimated population of 15,000—the citizens of Lothal also practiced cremation of the dead. Post-cremation burials have been noted in other Indus sites like Harappa, Mehi and Damb-Bhuti.[22] The mummified remains of an Assyrian and an Egyptian corpse were also discovered at the mound.