Deciphering the Indus Valley

Around 2500 BCE, the first cities appeared on the banks of the Nile in Egypt, at the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and in the valley of the Indus River in what is now Pakistan and northwest India India.

Thanks to the Old Testament, traveling museum exhibitions, and popular media, most of us know a little about the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.  We have clear images in our heads of mummies, the pyramids, the Sphinx, King Tut and Nefertiti. Assyria, Nebuchadnezzar, and the hanging gardens of Babylon are familiar names.

But how much do you know about the Indus Valley civilization?  My guess is, not much.  No one does.

Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization are not glamorous.  There are no palaces, no temples, no public monuments. (There was, however, piped water. Given a choice, would you rather have pyramids or plumbing?  Me, too.)  Centered on two main cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Dara, the remains of the culture are scattered over an area of 1.2 square kilometers.  The cities are laid out in a grid design that feels familiar to anyone who knows the American Midwest.  The buildings are made of uniform brick and are relatively unadorned.  (Sounds like Chicago, doesn’t it?)

Also unlike ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, scholars have not deciphered the Indus Valley script.  With no public monuments and no preserved documents, most of our examples of the script are limited to very short samples contained on the small engraved seals that are the most typical artifact of the Indus Valley civilization.* Not a great sample for a project that depends on the numbers. **  As Rajesh Rao makes clear in this TED talk, it’s the kind of challenge a computer programmer can’t resist:

* These seals range in size from three-quarters of an inch to an inch and a half square, and are engraved with lively and often beautiful images of animals (real and imaginary), heroes and gods.

** In fact, some scholars have huffed and puffed and claimed that it isn’t a script at all.


  1. Gayathri Ananth on April 1, 2012 at 3:46 am

    Hai Mrs.Pamela,

    I feel happy about visiting a website about History especially because it belongs to a lady historian. I am fascinated about the Indus valley civilisation & its script which still remains a mystery. I am also interested in world History but my knowledge about the same is very poor. I look forward to receive educating mails from you; of course only if you are interested in having contact with me who is interested yet ignorant about the subject. Thank you.

    • pamela on April 1, 2012 at 11:05 am

      Gayathri: I’m glad you found History in the Margins and hope you continue to enjoy it. Today’s blog post is a carnival of links to posts by other historians.

  2. Gayathri Ananth on April 3, 2012 at 5:56 am

    Thanks for your reply Mrs.Pamela. Out of my own interest I have prepared a document which includes my views in addition to the already existing views of experts about that the Indus valley civilisation coud have been a Tamil (Dravidian) civilisation. If you are interested in going through the same & if you can suggest / encourage me as to what to do further with the document, I would like to mail you the PDF form of the document. Thank you.

  3. Gayathri Ananth on April 5, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Hai Mrs.Pamela,
    I am a little disappointed that you have not given any reply to my previous request in this page dated April 3, 2012 at 5:56 am. May be you were busy. I will NOT feel dejected in case you give a negative answer. So please do reply. Thank you.

  4. Gayathri Ananth on April 6, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Thank you Mrs.Pamela for your loving reply through e-mail. I can understand how busy you must be regarding your book project. In case you find time, in future, to review my document; please do inform me. Thank you.

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