Week I


Key Works:

  • Terra Cotta Female Figurine
  • The City of Mohenjo-daro
  • Shiva Seal (La Plante, Asian Art, Fig. 1.4b, p. 6)

    READING: La Plante, Asian art, pp.4-8.



    NOTES: Here the central issue is, what function, or role, art plays in the Indus Valley Civilization? Given what remains from this region, urban civic architecture and urban planning are important. For all lectures, exams, etc. you will be asked to know the information which is bolded in these outlines. In each case know how the terms can be used to explain the work of art.


    Civilization, then...arose in an urban environment or something approaching it. While there is no agreement among scholars on a precise definition (of civilization).....there is general acceptance of a purely arbitrary yardstick in the Old World: namely the presence of a system of writing.

    Some other characteristics often mentioned that might form the basis for definition of civilization are:

    1. An urbanized society, with emphasis not upon our image of a city (which is not present, for instance in the early Chinese or Japanese civilizations or in Egypt), but rather upon the existence of social units of considerable size and complexity which evoked a whole series of new institutions and social patterns to make this way of life possible. Social stratification is commonly singled out as one distinctive feature.

    2. A territorially based state (as opposed to kinship-based tribal units) exercising political and military authority through appropriate institutions and through a code of laws imposed from above, in contrast to the custom law and public opinion sanction of village societies.

    3. A symbiotic economy based on centralized accumulation of capital and social surplus through tribute or taxation, in order to support an essentially parasitic social body, and also on extensive division of labor and numerous resultant full-time craft specialists which make the city a market center for the surrounding area. Long-distance trade in luxury items is a consistent feature, though not a criterion, since it can occur at earlier levels though usually on a smaller scale.

    4. Advances toward exact and predictive sciences, usually involving a calendar, mathematics and writing.

    5. Impressive public works and monumental architecture are commonly cited as evidence of civilization, more specifically as symbolizing the presence of the less tangible criteria above, such as concentration of capital, or new patterns of thought or of social organization. However, it can be demonstrated that extensive construction is not everywhere proof of complex sociopolitical organization, and thus should never be a sole criterion.

    It should be stressed that these different proposed attributes of civilization take different forms in the various early experiments in urban life and by no means provide a uniform blueprint of the actual picture the world over.

    Because the appearance of urban life constituted such a major change in human relationships; because it led to or was correlated with what is considered as "civilization"; and because in the Near East at least, the focus of Western attention, it has seemed to take form quite suddenly; so the concept of "Urban Revolution" has gained some currency. It was originally proposed by the influential British prehistorian V. Gordon Childe as a counterpart to his "Neolithic Revolution" and presumably as an event (change) equally decisive in human history. It does not, however, represent such a major reorientation of total human life as does food production, and certainly in the New World, where the rise of urbanism may be a longer, slower process, the concept of a "revolution" would not likely have been formulated.

    Adapted From: Chard, C., Man in Prehistory, New York, nd., pp. 221-222.

    SIVA SEAL (LaPlante, Asian Art, Fig. 1.4b)

    Seals such as these date from between c.2500-1500 BCE and were found in considerable numbers in sites such as the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. They are inscribed in a still undeciphered local script; figures and animals are carved in intaglio on their surfaces. This one depicts a male figure seated cross-legged in a yoga-like position, surrounded by animals, and wearing a horned hat. The association with animals and the seated position suggest that this is a depiction of a holy person (shaman?) and a precursor of the images of Siva, an important Hindu god who has been worshipped since at least as early as second century CE and whose powers were thought to be procreative. (See section on Ellora.)

    From: Linduff, K.M., "Siva Seals, " in Art Past/ Art Present, by D. Wilkins, B. Schultz, and K. Linduff, New York, 2000, 4th ed.

    Ancient India: the Indus Valley Civilization--Mohenjo-daro

    Excavation of Mohenjo-daro was begun on a grand scale from 1922-1927 under Sir John Marshall of the Archaeological Survey of India, and since 1931 a number of other teams have worked at the site. The ancient center uncovered there rises 40 feet above the surrounding plain over what is believed to be 100 feet of stratified settlement debris dating from the period of occupation between about 2500 and 1500 BCE. The highest point of the center rests atop on an artificial platform of mud and mudbricks.

    Marshall's team excavated a series of buildings on the site, the most spectacular of which is the Great Bath. This monument measures 40 feet by 30 feet and was sunk about 8 feet below the surface of the surrounding pavement. The Bath was built from meticulously laid bricks set in gypsum plaster over a waterproof bitumen layer. A nearby well provided the water which could be emptied through a massive corbeled drain.

    The lower, eastern part of the city had a grid of streets and lanes roughly oriented north-south and east-west, with blocks of houses entered through narrow lanes. Although the houses varied in size, they all had rooms arranged around a central courtyard, usually with a well in a small room off the court and a bathroom and latrine draining through the wall, either into a soak pit or a covered drain under the street surface. Some houses were of two stories, with brick stairs and tubular drainpipes extending from the upper story. Plumbing installations for the provision of water, bathrooms with polished brick floors, and exterior drains are some of the most remarkable features of the site, and are without parallel in other early historic societies.

    Although there are public buildings on the mounded platform including a large granary and the Great Bath, for instance, no obvious large community temple has so far been located at Mohenjo-daro. The entire raised portion of the center has been thought of as a monumental sacrificial ritual center. Recent architectural analysis of earlier excavations in the lower town has located the site of a possible "Tree Temple". At other related sites, fire altars have been identified both in private houses and in their upper platform areas with areas for people to congregate. Emphasis on fire and water in ritual activity is central to two major religions which emerge in the region--Vedic Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.

    Inside the houses themselves are often found small, terra-cotta figurines of women. Small and elaborately dressed, these figurines are found in great numbers and are thought to be part of private devotion to the powers of fertility of women observed among families at home. Emphasis on the procreative powers of the female continues in both Hindu and Buddhist iconography.

    Numerous inscribed soapstone seals have been found in the debris of the settlement and the majority of them have an animal and a short inscription engraved on them. Carved in fine-grained steatite, they are rectangular or square, unlike their cylindrical Mesopotamian counterparts. The most frequently depicted is the bull, the beast of burden revered in later Hindu India, shown in profile. The example reproduced here depicts a ithyphalic male figure wearing buffalo horns, seated in the position of yogic meditation and surrounded by animals. Is he a pre-Vedic rendering of the god Siva, the "Lord of the Animals", who was thought to have procreative powers, or a chief with concerns for appeasing the wild kingdom?. The language and writing still defy translation, although nearly 4,000 inscriptions have now been identified. We do know, though, that seals were used for administrative purposes such as sealing bales of merchandise and for marking fireclay boxes as they were put into furnaces for firing. It is likely, therefore, that the inscriptions recorded the personal names and official administrative titles of their users.

    Mohenjo-daro one of a group of sites identified as the Indus Civilization. Many sites are divided into two major areas--a lower, usually eastern, section of domestic buildings, craft workshops, and private shrines; and an elevated section sometimes reinforced with walls, in the west, containing public, ritual buildings. The extensive and consistent use in these sites of a writing system, of modular sizes of baked brick for ordinary houses as well as public buildings, in layout of settlements, in pottery styles, in systems of weights and measures all provide strong evidence of a central administrative control over production and distribution of goods and services in the sites. Such a body probably controlled trade within the Indus Valley and outside at least as far as Mesopotamia. Such sites emerge along the Indus Valley at about 2500 BCE and begin to disappear by about 1500 BCE.

    The Indus sites lack, however, royal burials, great funerary structures, monumental art and other symbols of prestige and authority. There is evidence of importation of raw materials, exotic stones, gold, copper and tin, but very few manufactured or prestige goods from outside are found in the ancient Indus Valley. The absence of larger and more ornate houses and exotic luxury goods suggests that there was no wealthy class. So it would seem that the usual model of a kingdom or empire, headed by a priest-king and supported by a royal clan holding authority through dynastic succession, does not apply in this case as it does in ancient palace-temple societies of Egypt, Mesopotamia and China and Meso-America.

    Moreover, there is little evidence of military influence as consistently found in those other ancient empires. The central sector of the sites seem to define social and functional space, not one to defend citizens from external enemies. Why these centers began to collapse so dramatically around 1800 BCE is often explained as a result of natural events such as earthquakes known to change the course of the rivers causing its population to desert Mohenjo-daro (and other settlements) and their ancient riverbeds.

    From: K. Linduff,"Mohenjo-daro," in Art Past / Art Present , by D. Wilkins, B. Schultz, and K. Linduff, New York, 4th ed. 2000.