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  • The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective
  • Monica L. Smith
The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Gregory L. Possehl. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002. 280 pp., paperback. $32.95. ISBN 075-910-172-8.

It is a marker of the increasing visibility of South Asian archaeology that there are now textbooks on the subject for undergraduate audiences, the most recent of which is Gregory Possehl's The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Drawing on a lifetime of research on the Harappan (Indus) culture of the regions now encompassed in Pakistan and western India, Possehl's book is a welcome and affordable addition to the comprehensive literature. Although it was purposefully written to be a textbook, the volume contains many features that make it a suitable reference volume for anyone working in Asia and especially for those interested in the Bronze Age. Its organization and the repetition of themes, along with cross-referencing within the volume, make it particularly useful for nonspecialists who may want to read selectively about aspects such as ritual, writing, and exchange.

Throughout the book, Possehl seeks out the humanity of the Indus people rather than treating the era as a mysterious collection of artifacts. The physical environment is presented as challenging and diverse, in which entrepreneurship and problem solving were valued traits. The evocative language enables us to picture the skills and labor needed not only to create abstractions such as cities but also real commodities like bricks, food, pots, and textiles. The book begins by showing how the people of the Indus area consisted of interdependent agriculturalists, traders, and herders, a theme repeated throughout the volume. Chapter 1 also has biographical sketches of the main individuals who have contributed to Indus studies, highlighting the many important contributions of local and foreign scholars over the past century. The tone of the chapter is rather measured; especially in a book written as a course text, one might wish for a somewhat more dramatic introduction of this rich Bronze Age cultural tradition with its walled cities, elaborate craft traditions, undeciphered script, and curiously absent elites (to date, while there have been labor-intensive portable goods throughout Indus sites, there are no fancy burials or elaborate temples).

Chapter 2 examines the beginning of the Indus age by placing the region in a broader Old World context, emphasizing how food production became and remained the critical factor in increased social complexity. Many archaeobotanists and faunal analysts have worked in the Indus area, and Possehl draws on the work of individuals such as Richard Meadow, Lorenzo Costantini, [End Page 293] and Steven Weber to propose that subsistence strategies were not based on a simple adoption of the Near Eastern domesticates of wheat, barley, cattle, sheep, and goats. Instead, faunal evidence and local environmental conditions suggest that the domestication of some species, particularly cattle and wheat, was likely to have been accomplished locally.

The full flavor of the Indus culture is discussed starting in chapter 3, focusing especially on what Possehl calls the "four aspects of Indus ideology." First, he notes that conscious nihilism and renewal were practiced on a large scale, using as one example the urban site of Mohenjo-Daro, which appears to have been established on the plains as a new habitation with planned components including a street grid, monumental platforms, and elaborate drainage. Second, the Indus culture had a considerable fascination with water, for which Possehl borrows from Michael Jansen the term "wasserluxus" to describe the Indus peoples' careful attention to the construction of drains, wells, and bathing platforms, as well as the frequent appearance of the water buffalo in iconography. Third, the Indus was a time of technological sophistication and innovation, including the development of a writing system, metallurgy, maritime technology, and lapidary arts including beads and intricate stone seals. Finally, Possehl highlights the way in which cities were a focal point for both ideology and skilled craft production. The Indus culture had at least five cities, including the relatively newly discovered sites of Dholavira, Rakhigarhi, and Ganweriwala, in addition to the well-known Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, which remain the most extensively excavated urban zones. A discussion of these and other sites including Possehl...


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