The Chalcolithic & Bronze Age civilizations geographically closest to the Harappan or the Saraswati-Sindhu civilization were the twin Eastern Iranian civilizations of Helmand and Halil Rud/Jiroft and the Central Asian civilization of BMAC spread over the southern margins of Turkmenistan & Uzbekistan and as far east as Tajikistan.
We have discussed the genetic evidence which showed profound Harappan influence in Helmand and BMAC while the aDNA from Halil Rud civilization, situated in the Kerman province of modern Iran, further west of Shahr-i-Sokhta, remains to be sequenced and published.
After having had a look at the genetic data that supports an Out of India migration into these adjacent regions of Eastern Iran & Central Asia, it would be in the fitness of things to also have a brief encounter with the archaeological evidence that can prop up the above said genetic evidence.
The archaeological data is much varied and quite interesting. However there is a lot more to learn and perhaps we have so far just scratched the surface.
Helmand & Halil Rud
The twin civilizations of Helmand and Halil Rud, situated to the west of the Harappan civilization, were not known until a few decades ago and even today we know very little about them. In many ways, we know even less about them than what we know about the Harappan civilization itself.
From what we know it is fairly clear that both of these Eastern Iranian civilizations preceded by several centuries the BMAC civilization and were roughly contemporaneous with the Harappan civilization. All of these southern civilizations, including the Harappan, are in turn considered to have played a defining role in the formation of the BMAC, a proposition which has been confirmed by ancient DNA evidence.
Both the Helmand civilization and its western neighbour, the Halil Rud civilization were intimately in contact with their geographically massive eastern neighbouring civilization of the Harappans.
In order to avoid an unduly long post, I shall limit myself over here to the very intriguing linkages of Harappans with the Helmand civilization only.
Helmand & Harappan
(Burnt Building, Shahr-i-Sokhta)
The Helmand civilization centred on the river Helmand which flows from Afghanistan into Sistan province of Eastern Iran. We know atleast two of its major sites – Mundigak in Afghanistan and Shahr-i-Sokhta in eastern Iran.
The genetic evidence from Shahr-i-Sokhta, the biggest Helmand site, confirms that the relations with the Harappans were quite strong with nearly half of all ancient samples from that site considered to have been migrants from the Harappan region, especially from Baluchistan and the rest of the ancient samples showing admixture from these migrants.
According to the French archaeologist, Jean Francois Jarrige, the principle excavator of Mehrgarh, as stated in this article, the foundation of Mundigak, the other Helmand site, can be interpreted as the settling of people from Baluchistan of the Mehrgarh Chalcolithic tradition and the remains of Period I at Mundigak fit almost perfectly the cultural assemblage of Mehrgarh Period III.
It is also signiﬁcant that the pottery of Mundigak I, the earliest occupation of the “Helmand” cultural complex, corresponds to the Mehrgarh III pottery, in technique—quality of the paste and manufacture— as well in the shapes and decoration, probably within a phase dated to the end of the 5th millennium. The pottery of Mundigak I-II (ﬁ g. 2: 3-5, 7-8) can also be related to the context of Balochistan ceramic productions, especially from Mehrgarh IV around 3500 BC. (link)
The foundation of Mundigak, incidentally dates to around 5000 BC and is therefore significantly older to the foundation of Shahr-i-Sokhta, its sister site in Helmand more than 400 kms to its west, whose earliest dates go only upto 3300 BC and where we have already seen that the Harappan or Baluchistani migrants were already present from the earliest period.
While , “..there is general agreement that Shahr-i Sokhta and Mundigak have the same material culture including similar buff ceramic material, validating the existence of a Helmand Valley archaeological culture at the time corresponding to Period I at the former and Period III at the latter…” it also needs to be understood that “Shahr-i-Sokhta I nonetheless has inter-regional connections that are not recorded at Mundigak. In particular, a series of objects point to contacts to the west…”(link)
With regard to Shahr-i-Sokhta, which in its most expansive phase was atleast around 150 hect. it should be noted that “…Shahr-i-Sokhta I is the foundation period of this site and that no other site (or no context at this site) has been observed thus far in Seistan with older archaeological deposits. Since no evidence for an older settlement is observed in this region, the most rational reconstruction is that Shahr-i Sokhta was founded by communities coming from (an)other area(s) in the late fourth millennium BCE.” (link same as above).
An important provenance study of the Shahr-i-Sokhta ceramics also indicated a strong influence from the west from the Baluchistani region and Mundigak. Almost all of the deluxe pottery that was found at the site and associated with elite graves was of non-local origin and were imports from the Iranian and Pakistani Baluchistan region.
The authors of this study also observe, “The possibility indeed remains that, for instance, the cultural assemblage at Mundigak, or a part of it, belonged to people who later moved to Shahr-i-Sokhta.”
We have already noted earlier how, Mundigak itself likely derives from the Mehrgarh Chalcolithic tradition of Pakistani Baluchistan. This tradition, also known as Damb Sadat or Quetta pottery tradition is one of the 4 major early pottery traditions of Early Harappans.
The strong eastern provenance of the Helmand civilization can be further appreciated when we see the following material and non-material connections with the Harappan civilization.
The cermaics from Shahr-i-Sokhta show similarities with more than 1 type of ceramic traditions of the Early Harappans. There are similarities with the Quetta or Damb Sadat pottery tradition and infact the earlier Helmand site of Mundigak is even considered by some as part of that early Harappan Quetta tradition and established by migrants from people of the Chalcolithic Mehrgarh tradition, as already noted.
Besides, there is a Southern Baluchistan pottery tradition known as the Nal which is part of the Amri-Nal culture with Amri tradition extending into Sindh and Northern Gujarat. This Nal pottery is also quite prominent at Shahr-i-Sokhta. Finally, there are also some pottery samples which have been considered to be of the Kot Diji tradition, an early Harappan culture of Greater Punjab region and thus from the very heart of the Harappan culture.
A motif found on the potteries at Shahr-i-Sokhta is the pipal leaf motif. According to archaeologists Vidale and colleagues,
Pipal leaves are a distinctive motif of the pre-Indus ceramic complexes across wide regions of the Subcontinent; they become very common in the Kot Dijian phase (approximately 2800-2600 BCE), and often appear on the famous verres ballon of the Helmand civilization. The variant with the symmetrical swirling elements is well-known at Kalibangan, in Haryana, where it occurs in different versions, painted or incised in a plastic state. Besides such a possible link with Kalibangan and Haryana, similar sherds are reported from an enormous region, stretching from Kech Makran, Period IIIb (about 2800-2600 BCE) to Mundigak.
This type of figurine and its fragments, long considered as a Harappan artifact, is not just limited to the Harappan zone where it is found at Mohenjo-Daro and Dholavira but also at Helmand sites of Mundigak and Shahr-i-Sokhta and also in BMAC at Gonur (reference).
Since this figurine likely gives a very important insight into the socio-cultural and religious aspects of the people to whom it belonged, the fact that it was not limited to the Harappan region but was also present in Eastern Iran and Central Asia further supports the argument of shared socio-cultural and religious beliefs and values among the people of these civilizations in the Bronze Age.
(Priest-King figurine from Dholavira)
Connected with similar figurines found during the Kot Dijian phase in Northern Baluchistan
“… Shahr-i Sokhta is the only site in the eastern Iranian plateau where such terracotta cakes, triangular or more rarely rectangular, are found in great quantity. Their use, perhaps by families or individuals having special ties with the Indus region…The most important group of incised terracotta cakes comes from Lothal, where the record includes specimens with vertical strokes, central depressions, a V-shaped sign, a triangle, and a cross-like sign identical to those found at Shahr-i Sokhta.”
Stamp seals found at Shahr-i-Sokhta are found all across the Harappan horizon including in its eastern sphere at several sites in Haryana such as Bhiranna & Banawali.
(courtesy : link)
Steatite Disk Beads
“The beads found at Shahr-i Sokhta, in contrast (taken from the collection in CCXV, cut 3), were morphologically identical to the Indus specimens; the chemical characterization showed minor variations from the Indus beads…ﬁ-red steatite disk beads could have been locally produced at Shahr-i Sokhta with a distinctively Indus technique. ”
” Etched carnelian beads, another indicator of Indus trade and exchange activities, are reported from Mundigak. A possible ivory bead was reported at Shahr-i Sokhta...”
“… the overall similarity of the ceramic containers suggests a parallel adaptation, based upon shared know-how, for coping with common problems of rodent infestations in the “domestic universes” of the two civilizations.”
Gaming pieces, dice and gaming boards
This was something spread across a wider region and included even Mesopotamia.
(courtesy – link )
The architecture of Shahr-i-Sokhta is not very well understood but from what little we know, it appears that the planning of the houses mirrored those of the Harappans.
The third millennium b.c. dwellings consisted of mud-brick buildings formed by rather asymmetrical groups of square rooms. The basic ground-plan was rectangular in shape and covered an area of 90–150 sq m laid out around a courtyard from which the only door providing access to the exterior opened towards the east…At Shahr-i Sokhta access to the ground ﬂoor was through the external wall or from one side of the internal courtyard.
Compare the above description with the description of the typical Harappan house,
Houses range from 1-2 stories in height, with a central courtyard around which the rooms are arranged…Stairs led to the upper stories through a side room or the courtyard…
The burials at Shahr-i-Sokhta mostly consisted of simple burial pits but it also consisted of brick lined graves.
(A pit burial from Shahr-i-Sokhta)
(Typical pit burial from Rakhigarhi)
Pit Burials and Brick lined graves are also a feature of Harappan burials. Most Burials at Harappan sites are oriented North or northwest. Although, the orientation of Shahr-i-Sokhta burials is not clear, the burials from the Necropolis of Gonur in BMAC, which is said to be majorly influenced by Shahr-i-Sokhta, show a North to Northwest orientation. So a similar burial orientation at Shahr-i-Sokhta is quite possible.
Another burial practice that the Harappans shared with the people of the Helmand civilization is the Cenotaph or the symbolic burials which consisted of an empty burial filled with burial offerings but devoid of any human remains.
(A cenotaph burial from Gonur)
Such a peculiar type of burial was found among a small percentage of burials at Shahr-i-Sokhta and at the site of Gonur in BMAC as well as across most of the Harappan sites. At Dholavira, for example, the Cenotaph burial features prominently.
A review of the animal remains found at Shahr-i-Sokhta indicates that while sheep and goats consituted the majority of domestic animals, cattle consituted the next big number and that among the cattle, the Zebu clearly predominates.
Based on the animal remains as well as the cattle figurines,3/4th of which were of Zebu, it appears the dominant form of cattle at Shahr-i-Sokhta was of the Zebu type, further confirming the strong eastern provenance of this major Helmand site.
The above brief review should make it clear that the links between the Helmand civilization and the Harappan is quite substantial and fully corroborates the major presence of Eastern migrants as deduced by the ancient DNA samples from Shahr-i-Sokhta.
Saraswati & Helmand
(The Helmand river)
It may be pertinent to note here that the ancient Saraswati river of the Rig-veda has been identified with this very same Helmand river rather than the more natural identification with the Ghaggar-Hakra by some Indologists. Their contention is that the incoming Indo-Aryans first settled on the Helmand river in Afghanistan whom they named as Saraswati. This is based on the argument that the Avestan Harahvaiti, whom they say is none other than Helmand, is the exact cognate of Rigvedic Saraswati. Hence, in a Aryan Migration model this very same Helmand river was also the Rigvedic Saraswati.
However, no archaeological evidence to support such west to east movement has been presented.
On the other hand, some scholars have argued, on more reasonable grounds, that the movement of people appears to have been from East to West, based on Rigvedic and Avestan evidence. There was civilization in the core Harappan regions of Greater Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Western UP which parallels the early Vedic geography. Similarly, there was a civilization on the Helmand river closely related to the Harappan civilization, which mimics Avestan geography. And the balance of evidence, as presented here and in the previous post, clearly indicates migration from the Harappan zone into the Helmand basin.
Could this archaeological and genetic phenomenon be related to the migration of early Iranians westwards after their separation from the early Vedic people ? And might this be how, the name of Vedic Saraswati, on the dried up bed of which majority of Harappan settlements now stand, was transposed by the migrating Iranians onto the Helmand river ? Most assuredly, this is a far more sound argument that what the invasionists have been able to muster.
It may also be noted that in the Rigveda, the camel is an exotic animal and is mostly associated with the Iranian kings who bring it as a gift to the Indo-Aryan Purus. Camel is also said to have played a major role in the economic and social life of the Andronovo cultural horizon also associated with Indo-Iranians. The latest archaeological and genetic data shows that the earliest evidence of camel domestication comes from Eastern Iran and SW Central Asia from where it most likely spread across Central Asia and the steppe.
The Importance of Shahr-i-Sokhta
Shahr-i-Sokhta as a site shows us several features which can an decisively help us in identifying the place of origin of the Indo-Europeans, a subject that remains quite contentious to this day.
According to a widely accepted proto-Indo-European reconstruction the word for wool is said to have been known to the PIE people before their separation and hence they are believed to have been rearing sheep for wool. The earliest archaeological evidence of woollen textiles anywhere across Eurasia is found at none other than the site of Shahr-i-Sokhta.
Wine-making is also said to have been known to Proto-Indo-Europeans and it is also attested at Shahr-i-Sokhta.
One of the burial types found at Shahr-i-Sokhta which becomes very common in the BMAC domain is the catacomb burial.
(Schematic of a catacomb burial from Shahr-i-Sokhta)
Quite pertinently, one of the successor cultures of the Yamnaya on the steppe is the culture known as the Catacomb culture which is considered by some European archaeologists as Indo-Iranian. The Yamnaya culture is also amazingly enough also known as the Pit-Grave culture.
This steppe catacomb culture’s origins are likely later than the earliest catacomb burials found at Shahr-i-Sokhta itself.
Infact, archaeologists had already noted decades back that,
A more complex type of grave has a pit opening into an underground chamber dug in the clay. At Shahr-i Sokhta it has been found to have been used for multiple burials accompanied by richer grave goods. The shape closely recalls that of the later catacomb graves of southern Siberia and Soviet Central Asia, though it is too early to say whether there is a common ideological background behind this convergence.
If the catacomb culture of the steppe was Indo-Iranian, it certainly needs explaining as to who the people in Eastern Iran and Central Asia during the Bronze Age were that were also practicing the catacomb burial.
EDIT :- It appears that wool only makes it appearance on the steppe among these catacomb burial people. So we see Shahr-i-Sokhta has catacomb burials and evidence of wool at an earlier date and then we see the apperance of catacomb burials on the steppe who bring wool to the steppe.
The use of wool in textile production started later than linen, only becoming common in the later fourth and third millennia (Sherratt 1981, 1997a, 539; Barber 1991, 137; McCorriston 1997, 519; Good 1999). As for the Eurasian steppe region, our previous research led to the conclusion that the use of wool ﬁbres can be ﬁrst recorded in western areas of Eurasia only by 2500–2000 cal BC among Catacomb-Grave culture people, and in eastern areas between1800–1500 cal BC among Timber-Grave and Andronovo culture peoples (Orﬁnskaya et al. 1999; Shishlina et al. 2001).
Continuing this subject, in the next post we shall focus on the Jiroft or Halil Rud civilization.