The Asia Society's current exhibition, "Great Cities, Small Treasures: The Ancient World of the Indus Valley," provides a fascinating first look at a long-lost civilization from an area in what is now Pakistan (the exhibition is presented in honor of Pakistan's 50th anniversary). The show has a strong archaeological emphasis, with 100 carefully chosen objects -- unicorn seals, a feline mask, a monkey amulet, terracotta figurines and painted pottery, and jewelry of gold, semiprecious stones and beads.
During its 700-year existence (2600-1900 BCE), the Indus Valley culture differed markedly from its neighbors in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was an orderly, peaceful urban culture. It did not have a highly stratified society with kings or priests, no elaborate burial sites, huge temples or luxury palaces. Buildings were modest, but had amenities like drains, gutters and underground runoffs for waste water, and were arranged on a grid of orderly streets apparently planned by a master architect or builder.
The influence of the Indus Valley was huge during its heyday. Its territory encompassed more than twice that of contemporaneous Egypt, and cities such as Mohenjo-daro or Harappa had over 80,000 inhabitants. It traded overland and by boat, reaching many thousands of miles away. Yet we know little about this civilization.
That's mainly because its language remains indecipherable, its logosyllabic pictographic structure (similar to that of contemporary Dravidian in Southern India) defying all attempts at clarification.
The valley was discovered accidentally in 1851 by British adventurers who were exploring the Middle East. Later, the British raided the brick-clad ruins for material for the bed of a railroad. More recently Indus Valley bricks have been used in constructing modern Pakistani cities.
Archaeologists were latecomers to the ruins, and excavation started only in 1920, mainly through American efforts. More than 1,500 sites spread over thousands of miles were discovered. Progress continues but is slow; sand must be hand-sifted to prevent losing minute artifacts.
Nevertheless, there have been interesting discoveries. We now know the people of the Indus Valley were highly skilled in metalworking, using a great many stone-piercing and shaping tools. The many bangles and beads that were found indicate a sophisticated sense of color, joy in ornamentation and skill in design and execution.
Pottery developed early, and there is evidence of technologically advanced kilns. Jars of all sizes and shapes, mostly from funereal sites where they were filled with foodstuffs, are colorfully painted with intricate geometric designs. During the later Indus period the decorated pot disappears; instead, surviving examples retain only their natural color. Writing appears on many of the objects, leading archaeologists to conjecture that literacy was common.
Bangles of seashells were worn by men as well as women on wrists, forearms, upper arms and sometimes along the entire left arm. Members of the upper classes wore bronze and sometimes gold bangles.
Beads seem to have been popular, as in many ancient societies. Regrettably, during the political separation of India and Pakistan, some bead necklaces were themselves literally divided in half, splitting the jewelry into childsize proportions and compromising its esthetic value.
Also found was a vast array of female terra-cotta figurines. They have strangely protruding eyes, are heavily garlanded and have aggressively pointed breasts -- suggesting use in fertility rites. Mother goddess symbols, while predominating at larger sites away from the Indus Valley, are not common here.
Our clearest picture of the Indus Valley culture comes from its fired steatite seals. The seal was very important to merchants, and its loss would have been as serious to them as the loss of a credit card would be to us.
Usually these finely styled highly ornate seals feature a line of type along the top and a stylized male animal figure in the center. The zebu bull, widely used to pull Indus Valley carts and a symbol of the most powerful clan in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, is prominent. Other important symbols were the water buffalo, the tiger and the elephant, which was celebrated as the remover of obstacles. Each animal form is strongly rendered, often with astonishing detail.
The use of the unicorn, a mythological animal in Asia as in Europe, was also common. The horn of the Indus Valley unicorn does not protrude from the center of its forehead; rather it emerges heavily curved from back of the head.
Trade was enormously important for the economic well-being of the Indus community. Extremely fortunate in having basic precious and semi-precious metals nearby, it was able to supply not only its own tradespeople and jewelers but exporters as well. The Indus civilization traded pickled vegetables and fruits, honey and wine, transported in storage jars, for pearls, dates and incense.
What led to the demise of Indus Valley civilization? We can only conjecture -- at least until archeologists decipher the Indus language. Some theorists suggest that it was the silting up of the important Saraswati River, others suggest a change in the trading patterns of the region.
We hope that more treasures in all their beauty and diversity will be uncovered from the Indus Valley, and that we'll be able to see these artifacts in our museums soon.
"Great Cities, Small Treasures: The Ancient World of the Indus Valley," Feb. 11-May 3, 1998, at the Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue at 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.