Chalcolithic (Bronze) Age

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CHALCOLITHIC (BRONZE) AGE After the initial domestication of plants and animals during the Neolithic period, settled communities in different geographical areas of South Asia began to develop regional cultures that archaeologists group together on the basis of shared pottery styles and technology, subsistence strategies, settlement organization, economic structure, and sociopolitical organization. Although these cultures continued to use stone tools, they also developed copper and eventually bronze metallurgy, leading early scholars to coin the term "Chalcolithic" (copper-stone) to differentiate them from earlier Neolithic and Paleolithic cultures. Some regional cultures remained basically unchanged for hundreds of years, but in other areas they developed trade networks with adjacent regional groups and eventually became integrated into complex chiefdoms or state-level society. Baluchistan and the piedmont along the western edge of the Indus Valley saw the emergence of numerous different regional cultures around 5500 to 4500 b.c. The regionalization process began around 3500 to 3200 b.c. in Gujarat and Rajasthan and 2200 b.c. in the Deccan region of peninsular India. During and after the decline of the Indus civilization (1900–1300 b.c.), copper-using cultures were present in the upper Gangetic Plain, such as the Ochre Colored Pottery culture, the enigmatic Copper Hoards culture, and the early phases of the Painted Grey Ware Culture. The final phases of the Painted Grey Ware culture see the introduction of iron and represent the final stage of Chalcolithic cultures in the northern subcontinent around 1200 to 800 b.c.

Northwest Region

The regional cultures of the greater Indus Valley and Baluchistan, as well as parts of Kutch, Saurashtra, and Gujarat, all contributed to the eventual emergence of the Indus Valley civilization. Because no single site can produce all of the relevant information needed to understand the larger region, archaeologists often group the information of different sites together and refer to them collectively as a cultural phase. For example, many distinctive cultural phases based on pottery styles, figurines, and burials can be identified at Mehrgarh and Nausharo. These sites are located at the interface between Baluchistan and the Indus Valley and some of the cultural phases (Kechi Beg, Damb Sadaat, Faiz Mohammad, etc.) relate to the Chalcolithic cultures of Baluchistan, while others (Hakra, Amri, Kot Diji) relate more to the Indus Valley. Since no state-level society emerged in Baluchistan, the following discussion will focus only on the Indus Valley, using examples from specific sites and phases.

The Ravi Phase (3500–2800 b.c.) is named after the earliest occupation levels at the site of Harappa, located on the Ravi River. The processes represented in the Ravi Phase are found throughout the northern Punjab, but similar processes are seen at sites in Cholistan, Sind, Baluchistan, and Gujarat, each of which can be identified as distinct phases (Hakra, Bannu, Balakot, Amri, Sothi, Anarta, etc.). The Kot Diji Phase (2800–2600 b.c.) is named after a site that is located just across the Indus from Mohenjo-Daro in Sind. The cultural processes represented in the Kot Diji Phase are found at sites throughout the central and northern Indus Plain, including the regions along the Sarasvatī-Ghaggar-Hakra River that flows to the east of the Indus. During this period of regionalization, Chalcolithic cultures developed the essential subsistence and resource base needed for urban society as well as the trading networks and technologies needed to maintain a complex economic system. Eventually they evolved into highly stratified societies, probably organized as chiefdoms, with the ability to control access to essential resources and maintain a strong political and religious structure, setting the foundation for the formation of urbanism and state-level society.

Ravi Phase (3500–2800 b.c.)

Excavations in the lowest levels at the site of Harappa in the Punjab have provided evidence for the early Chalcolithic communities who lived on the alluvial plain. The early village grew to around 10 hectares and was possibly divided into two settlements separated by a gully. Houses were oriented north-south and east-west, and were constructed using wood and reeds with mud-plastered walls. Hand-formed irregularly shaped mud bricks appear to have been used for pottery kilns in the early period; later, more uniform mud bricks were used for building houses. The bricks measured 4 × 9 × 16 inches (11 × 23 × 40 centimeters), which corresponds to the ratio of 1:2:4. The Ravi Phase may be interpreted as the beginning of a long tradition of brick proportions that became widespread throughout the Indus Valley.

Wheat, barley, and possibly wild grasses similar to millets were cultivated on the fertile alluvium. The most important domestic animals were the humped cattle, the sheep, and the goat. Some pigs and other wild animals were hunted, and there is evidence for fishing and hunting of small game and birds. A wide variety of crafts were developed at the site, including textiles, probably made from cotton or wool. Specialized crafts include bead making, using locally available terra-cotta and exotic stones, such as carnelian, various types of agate and jasper, amazonite, and lapis lazuli. Steatite beads (yellowish to gray colored steatite) were bleached and fired with both clear and blue-green glazes. The range of objects produced in different varieties of raw material (either terra-cotta or hard stone beads) demonstrates the presence of some social stratification

All pottery from the early Ravi Phase was hand formed, but in the later levels some of the pottery was made using a slow potter's wheel. The forms include heavy coarse-ware cooking vessels and finely made pots with polychrome decorations, using white, brown, red, and black pigments. Painted motifs include fish-scale and intersecting circle designs as well as the pipal leaf motif that becomes diagnostic of later Kot Diji and Harappa Phase pottery. Grayish black to gray brown chert from Baluchistan was used to make blades and blade tools, including microdrills for the perforation of stone beads, wood, or shell. Bone tools, such as spatulas, awls, arrow points, and perforated disks were also produced. Copper was not very common, but some fragmentary arrow points and awls have been found. Terra-cotta bangles and shell bangles from the marine shell Turbinella pyrum (identical to the shell used in the Neolithic at Mehrgarh) were also made at the site. Terra-cotta bull figurines and a fragment of a terra-cotta cart suggest that the people of Harappa were among the first to develop wheeled carts for transporting goods across the plains. The numerous varieties of raw materials from distant areas provide evidence for extensive trade contacts with the seacoast, which was over 500 miles (800 km) to the south, and sources of copper, grinding stone, and semiprecious stones that were 60 to over 300 miles (100 to over 500 km) to the north and west.

No burials have been found in the Ravi Phase at Harappa, but early burials with a few ornaments and pottery have been found in the early Chalcolithic levels at Mehrgarh (Period III, 4000 b.c.). Terra-cotta animal and female figurines at Harappa may represent votive images. A bone button seal with a geometric pattern that resembles a swastika may be the earliest evidence for the use of this motif in the Indus Valley. Prefiring "potter's marks" have been discovered on the base and lower body of some vessels and generally consist of single or double strokes or "v" or "x" motifs. Postfiring graffiti that includes many single and some multiple signs represents an early form of the Indus. Some of these graffiti signs are unique to Harappa, while others are common throughout the Indus Valley during this same time period.

During this same general time period, many other sites with similar cultural developments were established along the edges of the Indus Valley and also in the core regions: Amri to the south, Mehrgarh and Nausharo in the Kachhi Plain, Gumla and Rehmandheri in the Gomal Plain to the north, and Sarai Khola in the Taxila Valley. In Gujarat the local Chalcolithic cultures were also emerging and have been discovered at the sites of Loteshwar, Datrana, Nagwada, and Prabhas Patan.

Kot Diji Phase, 2800–2600 b.c.

This cultural phase is very important because it represents the initial phase of urbanism in the Indus Valley, prior to the establishment of the major Harappa Phase cities. Numerous sites throughout the central and northern part of the Indus Valley provide evidence for this phase. At Harappa, the Ravi Phase settlement grows to over 25 hectares in area, and there are two distinct walled mounds. The perimeter walls were constructed from mold-made mud bricks, 10 × 20 × 40 centimeters (1:2:4 ratio), using clay collected around the site, as well as from more distant sources. Bullock carts would have been needed to bring mud bricks from surrounding villages, and the presence of many different types of toy carts and wheels indicate that this technology was well developed at Harappa. Mud-brick houses were also made with smaller mold-made bricks (1:2:4 ratio) and were oriented along the cardinal directions. Houses were arranged along the sides of wide streets with large sump pots and hearths located in specific areas of the houses, often adjacent to the street. Although no formal drains have been found at Harappa, they are reported from the site of Kalibangan during the Kot Diji phase and were made from baked brick. Most pottery was made on the wheel, and new vessel forms and decorations at Harappa are similar to styles found over a very large area of the Indus Valley. Short-rimmed globular vessels with sandy slip on the exterior are one of the diagnostic forms found at Amri, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, Kot Diji, Harappa, Kalibangan, and Rehmandheri. The use of polychrome decorations declined and a new style of red-slipped pottery with bold black painted designs became widespread. The most common motifs are the intersecting circle, fish-scale design, pipal leaf, and a distinctive form of buffalo-horned deity.

Trade networks expanded to the south to bring gray-brown and tan cherts from the Rohri Hills to the northern Indus Valley. Larger grind-stone fragments indicate the increase in shipping of heavy goods along the rivers and plains using boats and bullock carts. Copper objects became more common, with distinctive copper arrow points that may have been traded from the Ganeshwar-Jodhpura culture in the northern Aravalli Hills to the west. Bead making, bangle production and other specialized crafts begun in the Ravi Phase became more highly refined, and new technologies were developed at Harappa and other sites during the Kot Diji Phase. The first high-quality faience beads were produced during this period, along with large quantities of white steatite disk beads. Trade in carnelian, agate, lapis lazuli. and marine shell continued to grow, and new varieties of colored stones indicates the demand for more diverse and exquisite objects. During this period the earliest gold sequins and beads are found at Harappa. Other sites such as Kunal in India have revealed hoards of gold and silver jewelry that demonstrate the emergence of highly stratified social and economic communities.

Economic stratification is also reflected in the use of weights and seals. A cubical limestone weight corresponding to the standard weights that became widespread during the Harappan period has been found at Harappa, indicating control of trade and possibly taxation. Glazed square steatite button seals with geometric designs have been found at Harappa and most other Kot Dijian sites. A unique find at Harappa is an unfinished, broken square seal with an elephant motif and a perforated knob on the back. Another important discovery in the same levels is a clay sealing of a square seal with script. This sealing indicates that inscribed seals were being used to seal containers or storerooms. Seals with both animal motif and script have not yet been found, but they become the standard form of seal during the later Harappa Phase. Potter's marks continue to be produced using many of the same signs found in the Ravi Phase. A new type of potter's mark, incised on the outside of molds for making large jars, consists of multiple signs that may in fact be a form of script. The emergence of an early Indus script has been identified at Harappa based on the fact that postfiring graffiti becomes more standardized, and for the first time we see single and multiple signs that appear identical to later Indus script.

During the Kot Diji Phase there is evidence for the emergence and spread of regional ideologies that show important similarities in terms of painted motifs on pottery, styles of terra-cotta animal and human figurines, and geometric designs on seals. Very distinctive styles of female figurines, often referred to as Mother Goddesses, have been reported from the Chalcolithic levels at Mehrgarh and Nausharo and throughout the Zhob and Loralai Valleys in Baluchistan. Some female figurines found at Harappa show distinctive painted ornaments and patterned textiles, but others are almost identical to figurines from the sites of Gumla and Rehmandheri in the Gomal Valley, as well as from Sarai Khola in the Taxila Valley. Painted bull and wheeled sheep figurines may have been used for votive offerings or as toys for children.

Although no burials from the Kot Diji Phase have been found at Harappa, burials at Mehrgarh date to the same general period. In contrast to the earlier Neolithic burials, the Chalcolithic (Period III, c. 4000 b.c.; and Periods V–VII, c. 3500–2500 b.c.) burials show decreasing amounts of burial ornaments. At the same time, the figurines are depicted with many necklaces and elaborate headdresses. The changes in burial tradition may represent a major shift in beliefs about the afterlife or the need to keep wealth in circulation for the benefit of the living.

Chalcolithic of Western and Central India

The Chalcolithic cultures of western India are found in a vast geographical area covering the Deccan Plateau, the entire Gujarat, and parts of southern Rajasthan. Earlier discussions of pottery sequences have now been replaced with a grouping of major sites and cultural developments according to phases, similar to those discussed for the Indus Valley region. The Chalcolithic period is broken down into three subdivisions based on the most recent excavations. The Early Chalcolithic (3200–2600 b.c.), which includes the early Ahar and Banas cultures of central Rajasthan, as well as the early Ganeshwar-Jodhpura culture in the north. The Mature Chalcolithic (2500–2000 b.c.) is best represented at sites such as Balathal and Gilund, but also includes the Ganeshwar-Jodhpura culture in the north. The Late Chalcolithic (2000–1700 b.c.) corresponds to the final phases of the Harappan and the Late Harappan period of the Indus Valley. Other cultural phases that represent regional aspects of the Chalcolithic in Gujarat and the Malwa and Deccan Plateaus are the Savalda Phase (2200–1800 b.c.), Gujarat Late Harappan Phase (1800–1600 b.c.), Malwa Phase (1600–1400 b.c.), Early Jorwe Phase (1400–1000 b.c.), and the Late Jorwe Phase (1000–700 b.c.). This last phase overlaps with the Iron Age Megalithic cultures and eventually the Early Historic Period.

The geographical diversity of western India, the variable rainfall patterns, and the orientation of major river systems allowed the development of regional cultures that were distinct, but that shared some basic similarities in technology and subsistence as well as levels of social complexity. Most of the region is covered by fertile black cotton soil (regur) that is highly water retentive; agriculture can be practiced as a result of the summer monsoon without additional irrigation, though there is some evidence for the construction of small irrigation canals at some sites. Slash-and-burn agriculture may have been practiced in some regions, and opportunistic agriculture was probably carried out along oxbow lakes and riverbanks.

The subsistence economy was based on a combination of farming (wheat, barley, and millet) and animal husbandry (cattle, with some sheep and goat), supplemented by hunting and gathering. The major ceramic tradition is painted black on red pottery, but there are also numerous regional pottery styles that serve to differentiate each major phase. Lithic technology included a stone blade industry, using agate and chalcedony as well as locally available cherts, and ground stone objects such as adzes and axes, as well as mortars and grinding stones. There is only a limited use of copper, and in the absence of any furnaces or manufacturing evidence, it is thought that the copper objects were traded from the Ganeshwar culture of the northern Aravalli or obtained from Harappan sites in Gujarat and Sind. Evidence for cotton, flax, and silk have been discovered at Inamgaon. As at Harappa, the silk thread was used for stringing beads and was made from local wild tussar silk.

During the Chalcolithic, houses were generally built using either a rectangular or a circular floor plan. The lower walls were packed mud and stone, and the upper part of the building was made with reed walls, plastered with clay, and thatch roofs. In some sites such as Kaothe there are circular pit structures for dwelling and storage, as well as for keeping chickens. At the site of Balathal, a monumental fortified enclosure dating to around 2400 b.c. (the same time as the Harappa Phase) was discovered at the center of the settlement. Massive walls constructed of stone rubble with clay and mud-brick filling enclosed an area of approximately 600 square yards (500 square meters). Several large residential structures, found outside the fortified building, have small rectangular rooms used for hearths or storage. A north-south street runs through the settlement and would have accommodated two-way cart traffic. Evidence for the use of carts is based on an inscribed pot from Inamgaon that shows a two-wheeled frame cart pulled by a pair of humped bulls. A fortification wall made of stones set in mud mortar may have enclosed the entire settlement. At the site of Gilund, a large enigmatic building with numerous internal divisions is dated to the Mature Chalcolithic. It was made with parallel internal subdivision or walls that may have been used for storage but were later filled with debris. The precise function of the Gilund structure is unknown. A later pit dug into the building during the Late Chalcolithic period contained numerous clay sealings from geometric stamp seals, and this may indicate that some communities at the site were involved in the control of trade. At present it is not clear what the trade items may have been or with whom they were trading.

Terra-cotta bull figurines, as well as male and female figurines, have been found at most sites and may have been used as votives, as was common throughout the Indus Valley. Chalcolithic burials are quite simple, and during the Savalda Phase at Kaothe, both adults and children were buried beneath or between the huts, laid in extended supine position, in an oval pit with no grave goods. During the Malwa Phase, burials found scattered in the habitation areas of the site at Inamgaon and Daimabad consist primarily of children interred in urns with pottery, ornaments, and tools as burial offerings. In the Jorwe Phase, urn burials became more common, but only a few examples of adult burials have been found. During this phase we also see extended burials oriented north-south, with small pottery vessels as offerings. The feet of adults were usually cut off below the knee, except for the elite burials, which were placed in four-legged clay coffins with pottery offerings.

None of these communities developed into state-level society, but some sites such as Inamgaon, Balathal, and Gilund appear to have been stratified, and possibly were politically organized as chiefdoms. The Chalcolithic cultures of central India show a sudden decline around 1000 b.c., probably due to increased aridity. Though some settlements, such as Inamgaon in the southern Deccan, continue to be inhabited until around 700 b.c., many other regions appear to have been abandoned. Iron-using peoples who built megaliths began to arrive in the Deccan around 800 b.c., and they may have been instrumental in the final demise of sites such as Inamgaon.

Jonathan Mark Kenoyer

See alsoHarappa ; Indus Valley Civilization ; Mohenjo-Daro ; Neolithic Period


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