Life in Ancient Cities

Life in Ancient Cities

What was life like in the earliest cities created by humankind? This question has been pondered by archaeologists and historians for centuries. With modern technology, scientific explorers have been able to gain insight into the past.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Sociology, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History


Harappan Seals

Harappan steatite seals often included images of animals or other decorations and script. It is speculated the seals were used by merchants to identify packages.

Photograph by James P. Blair
Harappan steatite seals often included images of animals or other decorations and script. It is speculated the seals were used by merchants to identify packages.
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What was life like in the earliest cities created by humankind? This question has been pondered by archaeologists and historians for centuries. With modern technology, scientific explorers have been able to gain insight into the past. Looking at one of these early civilizations in particular offers an illuminating view of early urban life.

The Indus Valley civilization (circa 3300–1700 B.C.E.), also known as the Harappan civilization, was one of the earliest urban civilizations, roughly contemporaneous with those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. It was located in what is now Pakistan and northwest India, on the flood plain of the Indus River.

Although the Harappans had a written language, the Indus script remains undeciphered. Most of what is known about their culture and civilization comes from the ruins of their two largest cities: Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Both cities cover somewhat less than 2.6 square kilometers (one square mile). Mohenjo-daro has been estimated to have had a population of around 40,000 or more; Harappa was likely around the same.

The Harappan cities did not have palaces or temples, and show no evidence that the society was ruled by hereditary potentates like kings and queens. They may have been governed by elected officials or other elites, such as merchants or landowners.

The cities, located about 644 kilometers (400 miles) from one another, were generally similar in layout. Each city was laid out in a grid-like pattern oriented on a north-south axis. One portion of each city consisted of a citadel mound complex (an area with public buildings raised about 12 meters, or 40 feet, above the floodplain), and a lower town that appears to have been mostly residential.

The citadel mound complex at Mohenjo-daro was oriented on a north-south axis and was about twice as long as it was broad. It appears to have been protected by a wall and fortified with towers made of baked brick. The citadel complex included a structure called the Great Bath, as well as a granary, a residential structure, and assembly buildings.

The Great Bath, which was apparently used for ritual bathing or cleansing, measured around 84 square meters (904 square feet) in area and was about 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) deep. The Great Bath was made watertight through the use of finely cut bricks, gypsum, and bitumen tar.

One of the more significant features of Harappan cities was their sophisticated water supply and waste extraction systems. In Mohenjo-daro, water was supplied from some 700 wells to both public and private facilities.

Most houses in the lower town had their own bathrooms; many had their own wells. The bathrooms were typically arranged against the house’s outside wall so both the bath and the toilet could discharge into the municipal sewage network. This municipal sewage network consisted of covered sewers built under the streets with removable covers for access for cleaning. In places where the effluent had to traverse long distances, sump- or cess-pits were provided.

Harappan houses were generally made of brick and varied in size, from single rooms to larger multistory houses with a central courtyard. Some of the larger houses may also have had an open upper deck. Access to the houses was from side streets; the only openings to the main streets were for sewage discharge. Wooden frames were used for doors and windows.

In addition to residences, the lower town housed workshops for artisans, such as dyers, potters, wheelwrights, and the like. In some cases, they were integrated with the residential areas, but in others they were segregated as worker districts.

The primary building materials in Harappan cities were sun-dried and burnt bricks. A standardized brick with a ratio of 4:2:1 appears to have been common across several cities. Brick was generally laid using alternating rows of bricks laid lengthways and sideways, referred to today as an “English bond.”

Staples of the Harappan diet included wheat and barley, as well as rice. The Harappans also grew and ate a variety of vegetables and fruits, including peas, dates, mustard, and sesame. Cattle, domestic fowl, and other animals, including some wild animals, provided meat. The Harappans also ate fish and shellfish, both fresh and dried.

Harappans used clay or terra-cotta pots, plates, cups, bowls, vases, and flasks for food storage and cooking. Some appear to have been handmade, but others were manufactured using a potter’s wheel. In addition, the Harappans had plates made from copper and bronze. Artifacts made from gold, bronze, tin, lead, and other metals suggest that the Harappans were skilled metallurgists.

In this regard, one of the most significant finds from Mohenjo-daro is a 10-centimeter (four-inch) tall bronze sculpture of a dancing girl. The “Indus Dancing Girl” depicts a girl wearing arm jewelry, right hand on her hip, and left leg thrust forward. It is considered significant not only because it demonstrates that Harappan metal-workers were familiar with metal blending and casting techniques, but also because it shows that the culture was sufficiently advanced that dance was well-developed as art or entertainment. Other forms of entertainment were a variety of games and toys, including oxcarts with moveable parts, board games, and six-sided dice.

Among the more common artifacts from the Harappan cities were seals made from steatite, a form of talc. The seals typically had images of animals or other decorations. The seals would have been made on a clay tag or pottery and used by merchants to authenticate, or identify, a package. One famous seal depicts Pashupati, which may have been an early representation of the Hindu god Shiva. It shows Pashupati with a horned headdress and a crescent moon on his forehead; the figure is in a yoga-like position.

Some Indus Valley seals have been found in Mesopotamia, evidence that trade with remote areas was an important aspect of the Harappan economy. In addition to Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley civilization was part of a trading network that included Afghanistan, Iran, and Oman. Perhaps because of these trading networks, the Harappans were among the first to develop a system of standardized weights and measurements. The weights were in the shape of small cubes or hexahedrons. The smallest was about 0.87 grams (0.03 ounces) and the most common was about 13.7 grams (0.48 ounces). It is possible they were used in trade and for determining taxes.

Investigations into the Harappan civilization are ongoing. Since 1986 excavations in the Indus Valley under the auspices of the Harappan Archaeological Research Project have made many important discoveries. Artifacts may be found on display at the National Museum in New Delhi, India, as well as museums throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Freddie Wilkinson
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Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

April 4, 2024

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