Cache of Seal Impressions Discovered in Western India Offers Surprising New Evidence For Cultural Complexity in Little-known Ahar-banas Culture, Circa 3000-1500 B.C.

Find Provides New Insight into Widespread Trade, Cultural Exchange in Region

03 JUNE 2003, PHILADELPHIA, PA—Excavating at the ancient town of Gilund in southern Rajasthan, India, one of the largest sites of the little-known Ahar-Banas culture, archaeologists led by teams from the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Deccan College, Pune, India have discovered a bin filled with more than 100 seal impressions dating to 2100-1700 B.C. The existence of the seals, and their particular styles, offer surprising new evidence for the apparent complexity of this non-literate, late and post-Indus Civilization-era culture, according to Dr. Gregory Possehl, UPM curator and excavation co-director.

Dr. Possehl, collaborator Dr. Vasant Shinde of Deccan College, Pune, India, and their teams made-up of professionals and students from around the world, have conducted excavations at Gilund over four seasons, beginning in 1999. The team is working to understand the social life, history and agricultural developments of these peoples, separated by about 200 miles of largely mountainous and desert-like regions from the powerful Indus Civilization that had its heyday 2500-1900 B.C. They came upon the bin with its seal impressions in the 2002-2003 season completed in February.

The bin was in a large building that has not yet been completely excavated but is known to be larger than 25 x 60 feet, composed of parallel walls of well-made sun-dried brick. The size and nature of the building suggests that it was a "public" structure, with walls ranging in width from about 30 to 49 inches, and spaces between them about the same width. The presence of the bin within the space between two of the walls, and other signs of occupation, including pits and living debris, indicate that the long, narrow "rooms" were used for storage. While the exact nature of the commodities stored in the warehouse is not known, agricultural or animal products, possibly valuable processed items like ghee, oil and textiles, seem likely, according to Dr. Possehl.

Clay, nature's soft and plentiful sealant, has been used by people for millennia to keep containers closed. Seals, on the other hand, frequently decorated with symbols to indicate a person or persons and used to make seal impressions that lay claim or suggest special rights to a container's contents, suggest a more stratified society. While no actual seals were discovered at Gilund, the unexpected collection of so many seal impressions strongly points to the presence of a populate of elite citizens who used stamps as identification of themselves and their elevated status--and who marked commodities that were stored in this building under their control. A large oval shaped bin about 5 feet deep and 2.5 feet in diameter at its midpoint, to keep the seal impressions in--and potentially keep others from duplicating specific impressions for their own use--further indicates the elitist nature of this warehouse.

The impression designs, according to Dr. Possehl, offer additional evidence for a more worldly-wise culture than was formerly assumed to exist at Gilund. The impressions found in the bin were made from seals both round and rectilinear. The design motifs are generally quite simple, with wide-ranging parallels from Indus Civilization sites such as Chanhu-daro, Pirak, Kot Diji and Nindowari , 400 to 500 miles away. There are also distinct parallels with seals from another cultural group archaeologists call the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), from as far away as Central Asia and northern Afghanistan, 1,000 miles to the northwest.

"Gilund is providing us with good evidence for a stratified society that had wide-ranging contacts between the peoples of western India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia just at the end of the third millennium and the beginning of the second millennium," noted Dr. Possehl. "Archaeologists have known for a number of years that the so-called BMAC peoples were in Sindh and Baluchistan, as well as Iran, and even as far south as the Arabian Gulf. This, however, is the first time that such evidence has come from so deep within India, significantly expanding the geographic picture of a critical period of regional change, when the once-powerful Indus Civilization is undergoing a process of transformation."

That transformation, Dr. Possehl notes, eventually led to the abandonment of the great Indus cities, the simplification of the Indus people's socio-cultural system, the loss of much of their technological virtuosity, and an end to their system of writing and measurements.

"Learning more about how cultures like the Ahar-Banas and BMAC interacted with the Indus Civilization may help to broaden our understanding of the rise, and fall, of great civilizations of the world," said Dr. Possehl.

Excavations at Gilund will resume next winter, when the archaeologists will explore the wall or walls discovered last season around the site to determine if the town was fortified. They will also further explore the large public building where the impressions were found, seeking further evidence of the building's function.

Funding for the Gilund Project was made possible by grants from the National Science Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, private donors, and Deccan College, Pune, India.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at http://www.penn.museum.

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