Amongst a century of detritus at the BBC there lies some buried treasure. Between layers of fake news, preachy left-wing documentaries and un-funny comedy, the BBC’s iPlayer hides a gleaming gem of an old archaeology series. Each compact 30-minute episode follows the historical investigations, carried out both here and in distant parts of the Empire, of Sir Eric Robert Mortimer Wheeler CH CIE MC TD FRS FBA FSA.
Recently the BBC showed a box set documentary entitled ‘Treasures of the Indus’ where posh, silly, tinged schoolgirl Sons Datta ‘discovered and revealed’ lots of things we already knew thanks to the heroic efforts of her predecessor Sir Mortimer Wheeler in a 1957 classic documentary.
Sir Mortimer opened with tiles showing the most mysterious language of the ancient world which no one can read or understand. Using other artefacts, the narrator explained womenfolk of those who understood it wore few clothes but much jewellery. They venerated bulls and worshipped a god usually shown seated with the right hand on the knee and an elaborate hairstyle platted down the back.
Four thousand years ago these people lived in an extraordinary metropolis called Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province just a few miles away from the present course of the mighty Indus river. The camera moved away from the exhibits and to a river bank where men and boys in baggy clothes and fully-covered women looked out over a small number of wooden boats plying the backbone of West Pakistan as the Indus weaves her 1,000 miles from the Himalayas (pronounced Him-arl-ears) to the Arabian sea.
In its day, the Indus Valley civilisation spread over a much bigger area than the contemporary river valley civilisations of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.
Mohenjo-daro was one of the two main cities of this little-known civilisation. The ruins pictured were of clay brick-built walls, many reduced by the passage of the aeons to a couple of feet in height.
A besuited Sir Mortimer, in light tie and with a kerchief peeping from the top pocket addressed the camera from a studio in London afore a giant but simple map of the Indus. Discovered as recently as 1922, research has shown the civilisation lasted from before 2,500 BC until about 1,500 BC. One hundred sites have been discovered. Sir Mortimer retired to the map and informed us of the city of Harappa, the same size as Mohenjo-daro but with little to see today. Most of the Indus Valley civilisation was of villages, the origins of which were a mystery.
Filming returned to West Pakistan with Sir Mortimer inviting us towards archaeology and a little reasonable imagination. Aerial photography (taken from a biplane with Sir Mortimer in goggles and a leather helmet, one hopes) showed excavated areas amongst the red desert sand and tamarisk scrub one hundred and twenty miles upcountry from Hyderabad. About three or four miles in circumference, only about a twelfth of the site had thus far been excavated. A wide, straight main street had been uncovered with excavated walls well above the height of a native travelling by wooden wheeled cart and twin scrawny oxen. A scene that has scarcely changed in the last four millennia. Excavated terracotta models (probably children’s toys) showed exactly the same type of cart, even down to the size and position of the vertical spas used to hold its load.
At the junctions of roads and lanes in Mohenjo-daro’s symmetrical layout stood guardrooms, still used by 1950s watchmen.
A plan made of the site showed a chequerboard plan, the result, Sir Mortimer concluded, of a civil architect whose word was law. A contrast, as every Puffin knows, to the irregular meandering structures of Mesopotamia’s Ur.
Side lanes were made of high, blank walls, devoid of decoration or individuality, easily four times higher than a native even when wearing his Patkae turban. There were few doors and fewer windows.
Walls were made of baked brick in the English bond manner. That is, alternate courses of overlapping large and small bricks (headers and stretchers) with mud mortar in between. Upper stories are assumed to have been made of timber which hasn’t survived.
What few windows there were, appear to have been filled with gratings made from moulded mud.
A much reduced Sir Mortimer appeared at the site. Bereft of his usual magnificent bouffant, appearing emaciated and with a moustache sans handlebars, one suspected the great man had been shorn on account of the overpowering heat and diminished by a severe bout of Rawalpindi-belly.
In sensible shoes, long stockings, baggy shorts, a khaki shirt and oil cloth hat, the presenter was pictured entering a typical house. Inside, a section of mud plaster had survived. A courtyard with a porter’s lodge faced a doorway where a small boy, naked from the waist up and wearing a turban, took a salute from the visitor as he entered. After exchanging a few pleasantries in (presumably) rusty prep school provincial Urdu, Sir Mortimer followed a corridor leading to the centre of the house which, en route, passed a bathroom holding a well.
While smoking a pipe, Sir Mortimer stood in the main courtyard surrounded by various rooms for sleeping, eating and cooking. More recent visitors to Pakistan might not help but conclude the natives lived rather better 4,000 years ago than they do today. In a corner, a brick staircase led to a vanished wooden upper story. What of the people who trod those stairs?
Statuary has survived. A portrait bust in soapstone showed a lightly bearded gentleman with a shaved upper lip, perhaps trimmed by the same battered bronze razor which sits in the Karachi museum. His closely cropped wavy hair was tied into a bun at the back of the head.
Figurative representations of the female form showed the ladies in plain clothes but bedecked in jewellery and elaborate headdresses.
Sir Mortimer introduced a Pakistani girl with her raven hair in a bun, not under the modern-day obligation to keep her locks covered for danger of tempting a man. The girl admired herself in an ancient bronze mirror while applying necklaces of semi-precious stones about her slender olive-skinned neck and fitting bronze broaches to her hair. Gold bangles had been popular too. Sir Mortimer became over-excited and insisted girdles upon the young kunwari, similar to those found on excavated terracotta models. Small pots for black eyeshadow and bronze sticks for application showed the ladies’ interest in make-up. Nail cutters and combs had also been excavated and, on a more homely note, needles and buttons – even a baby’s feeding bottle with a snout to suckle on.
Children’s toys included a string-operated nodding ox, marbles and games pieces shaped as if diminutive pawns for chess or draughts. A clay tablet was decorated into squares for a gaming board. Sir Mortimer reminded us that when bored with games it’s time to bring on the dancing girls and this is where the archaeologist came into his element.
The Dancing Girl (pictured below) was one of the most remarkable finds from Mohenjo-daro and was not only allowed out of her bulletproof case but was manhandled by a gleeful Sir Mortimer. The figure concerned, a naked girl bedecked in jewellery down her left arm is literally priceless and stayed behind six inches of armoured glass during ‘Treasures of The Indus’..
No such constraints for Sir Mortimer. One can imagine him striding into the museum between tiffin and chai (in pith helmet and baggy shorts) and insisting, after offering a cheroot to the curator, “Old bean, get the dancing gal out of the strong room and in front of the camera. There’s a good chap.”
During the original transmission, back in London and before a bachelor pad Bakelite 8″ TV set, Mr Terry Thomas will have been taking notes as Sir Mortimer explained,
One of the most remarkable finds from Mohenjo-daro, she hadn’t got [rafish pause] many clothes on but carries all of her wealth on her left arm. And with her saucy look and easy posture, she really is a charmer.
Having regained his composure, Sir Mortimer moved on to more statuary; a box for a caged bird, dogs’ paw prints on wet brick and a little dog with a big collar.
So much for the contents of the house, what about the upstairs? Elsewhere on the site were the remains of an upstairs lavatory, a rarity in Pakistan 4,000 years later. However, slits in wall suggested it emptied into open drains in the street rather than into a proper sewer. The drains led to brick-built manholes where, presumably, ‘municipal sanitary squads’ lurked. Dung wallahs in my day. (House points deducted from any Puffin thinking of Dan Dann the lavatory man from ‘Carry On At Your Convenience’.) Turning off the main street were the remains of a shop with shaped resting places on the floor for giant pots where the shopkeeper placed his wares.
Some of the pot-making kilns were outside the city but others sat within. Sir Mortimer pointed out the dimensions of one such facility beneath a recent sign stating ‘pottery area’ in Urdu. Incidentally, if I recall correctly, potters were near the bottom of the heap in the Subcontinent, only one step up from Junglies (‘country’ people).
The pots were wheel-turned and red in colour. Small ones as well as large, many embossed with a small but fine potter’s mark. Minute pieces were a child’s set copied from large originals.
A pin-thin Sir Mortimer with emaciated sparrows legs showing between stock tops and explorer-short bottoms (perhaps, as many an English travelling gentleman before and since, having made the mistake of trying the ice cream at Peshawar Souk) took time out from squatting on the WC to show some identical contemporary pottery made in the villages near Mohenjo-daro in the 1950s.
On a recce to one such village pottery, less than a mile from the excavations, the wheels were still foot-operated. Dug into the ground, a native sat on the floor and pedalled with his feet while shaping with his hands. Finished pots had similar hatched decorations as those on display in the Karachi museum. Also in the museum, ancient sets of weights that could still be used accurately on jeweller’s scales partly reconstructed from the old artefacts.
Near the Mohenjo-daro shop was a guard room before an enclosure, now bare sand and a few stones. Dehydrated and beginning to hallucinate due to his bad case of Waziristan ring-piece, Sir Mortimer announced the dusty space had once held a sacred tree. The enclosing building had been a temple with two stairways leading to a room whose purpose could be deduced from a sculptured figure found there – a pain-faced monkey god squatting as if in the emergency European cubicle of the old Lahore airport Comfort Class lavatories. Another figure found there represented a priest.
We would know more about their religion if we could read their script which consisted of 396 unknown pictographically depicted symbols. The camera panned across a fish, a sun and a wheel. Unlike any known script, until the discovery of a Rosetta Stone-type bilingual inscription, it was unlikely to be translated. Interestingly, it read backwards and forwards with, at the end of one line, the next symbol in the sequence being immediately below on the next line. And was kept on seals smaller than a matchbox with designs of animals below the pictographic text.
Besides animals, there were patterned seals, such as multiple crosses, a spread eagle and even a swastika (pronounced by Sir Mortimer as swas-tea-ka). Is he repressing something?
A common image, as if religious imagery, showed a beast before a sacred brazier.
A religious statue showed a three-headed beast. Another, a seated figure, was perhaps the prototype of the Hindu god Shiva? The strongest evidence of religious activity was a citadel built on the highest point of the ruins, an artificial hill which once dominated the city.
The platform of mud-brick and mud stands 30ft above ground and is now dominated by a Buddhist stupa built more recently, but still when the Romans occupied England, and therefore when Mohenjo-daro was already 2,000 years old. In the shadow of the Buddhist monument, amongst the ruins of the earlier citadel, lies one of the site’s most remarkable buildings. A ceremonial bath, presumably used for ceremonial cleansing. Without the invention of the arch, the bath’s outlet was a tall but narrow tunnel roofed with flat bricks. Water came from a well and ran onto small bricks tightly packed together to make a watertight floor. Nearby, eight rooms were arranged for privacy around a central passage. Each room had a staircase to an upper level. Lighting was provided by an oil lamp held in a wall niche. Again waterproofed by close-fitting brickwork, water for ceremonial washing was carried away down a drain. Were these the dwelling places of priestly rulers who governed the Indus Valley civilisation?
Grain was the city’s wealth as it fed citizens and was used to pay taxes. The front of the municipal granary was faced with timber which had quickly decayed, suggesting the builders were newcomers unused to the climate. Above, a loading platform where sacks of grain were hauled up and stacked inside. Two natives demonstrated its use.
Excavation revealed the granary was of crisscross passages circulating air to preserve the grain. Other agricultural relics included a quern, for rubbing grain or spices, and actual grain preserved because it had been burned through the ‘carelessness of some ancient housewife.’ The grain came from villages up and down the Indus Valley and was presumably brought in ships similar to those captured in images found scratched on pieces of pottery. What is now tamarisk scrub and desert was in those days more fertile. Indicative of more than just a movement in the course of the Indus, Sir Mortimer suggested a change in the climate. For those excavated seals had also shown jungle animals including rhinoceros and elephants.
Back in the citadel, defensive towers with connecting ramparts had been found recently. Stones to use as missiles had also been discovered. Sir Mortimer enthusiastically threw some for the cameras. Not a military civilisation, unearthed weapons were neither strong nor warlike but flat with plain blades.
Despite that, the priestly rulers held sway in Mohenjo-daro for over 1,000 years – as if from the Norman Conquest to Sir Mortimer’s present day – with no sign of any change in their habits or way of life.
Back in the London studio, a much healthier-looking Sir Mortimer wondered how this vast and elaborate organisation came into being. We don’t know, but it seems to have derived from the villages in the Baluchistan hills and owed its prosperity to the plains about the Indus. In the spring, a great flood comes down the valley, swollen by thawing winter snows, fertilising the great valley but challenging the valley dwellers to civilisation.
An isolated people, a seal from the Indus Valley had been found in
Mesopotamian Ur dated to approximately 2,350 BC. Likewise, a box shaped like a textured hut from Mesopotamia was found at Mohenjo-daro and Mesopotamian rolled seals were discovered among the square style of Mohenjo-daro.
Well established by 2,500 BC and lasting for 1,000 years with few contacts beyond its borders, the valley dwellers led monotonous but peaceful lives. The detritus of centuries had bricks laid on top. Wells were extended upwards with the growing detritus and looked like factory chimneys when excavated by archaeologists to the original level of habitation.
However, about 1,500 BC the civilisation came to a sudden, violent end. Before the invention of CGI, we must listen to Sir Mortimer wearing his serious face and telling a good tale.
Smoke and fire rise above the streets. Swordsmen are led by a swaying figure in an outlandish chariot. Arrows are discharged in the direction of panic-stricken groups of fleeing citizens. Dreadful sounds ring out around the city’s wells. An invading mob tramples natives into the sand.
“A burley fellow with a raised sword turns into the well house stairs and cuts down a woman who is struggling up them. She falls backwards, across the steps and the ravaging horde sweeps on. The story I’m telling you is not a fantasy.”
“Rather, a literal interpretation of the revealed evidence. Thirty-four centuries after it happened, the archaeologists of the 20th century found the bones of the massacred. Mute evidence of how an age-long civilisation had perished within the hour.”
The evidence agrees with the earliest literature of India, The Rigveda. Sir Mortimer happened to have a copy handy, next to his big relief map of India. The Rigveda – in the traditional and symbolic manner one expects of priestly rulers, potters and junglies – tells of the Indus Valley being invaded by the Aryans. Mobile and city-less, those Aryans overpowered the long-static citizens who they invaded.
The Aryan war god, Indra, the forked destroyer, shatters hundreds of ancient castles and rends forth as if age withering a garment. A 1944 discovery of Mohenjo-daro’s walls and towers went far to confirm the literal truth of the Indian epic tradition.
Climatic, economic and political deterioration may have weakened the Indus Valley civilisation but its ultimate extinction came at the hands of an Aryan invasion. Although sand and dust cover the ruins, enough remains to tell us of the character of one of the earliest civilisations of the world and its demise.
Seventy years later, Sir Mortimer’s broadcast gives a prescient warning of the consequences of decline and unopposed invasion.
In the present day, when fake media can’t cope with women having babies and men having penises, they’re not going to be able to cope with a violent Ayran invasion, no matter how long ago and how strong the evidence. The BBC website now blames this sudden end on blocked drains, a recession in Mesopotamia and the gentle breeze along the Indus (from the foothills of the Himalayas) containing one extra part per billion of carbon dioxide.
Ourselves and Sir Mortimer know better.
© Always Worth Saying 2023