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Bricks, Beads and Bones The Harappan Civilisation- NCERT Notes UPSC

Apr 01, 2022

Bricks, Beads and Bones The Harappan Civilisation- NCERT Notes UPSC

The Indus valley civilization is also called the Harappan culture. Archaeologists use the term “culture” for a group of objects, distinctive in style, that are usually found within a specific area and period of time. These distinctive objects include seals, beads, weights, stone blades and even baked bricks.

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  • There were several archaeological cultures in the region prior to the Mature Harappan. 
  • These cultures were associated with distinctive pottery, evidence of agriculture and pastoralism, and crafts. 
  • Settlements were generally small, and there were virtually no large buildings
  • It appears that there was a break between the Early Harappan and the Harappan civilisation, evident from large-scale burning at some sites, as well as the abandonment of certain settlements.

Subsistence Strategies

  • Mature Harappan culture developed in some of the areas occupied by the Early Harappan cultures and shared common subsistence strategies.
  • They ate a wide range of plant and animal products, including fish. 
  • Their dietary practices have been reconstructed from finds of charred grains and seeds.
  • Grains found at Harappan sites include wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea and sesame
  • Millets are found from sites in Gujarat
  • Finds of rice are relatively rare.
  • Animal bones found at Harappan sites include those of cattle, sheep, goat, buffalo, pig and of wild species such as boar, deer, gharial, fish and fowl.

Agricultural Technologies

  • Seals and terracotta sculptures indicate that the bull was known and that oxen were used for ploughing.
  • Terracotta models of the plough have been found at sites in Cholistan and at Banawali (Haryana)
A Terracotta Bull

A Terracotta Bull

  • Evidence of a ploughed field at Kalibangan (Rajasthan) associated with early Harappan levels. They had two sets of furrows at right angles, suggesting two different crops grown at the same time.
  • Most Harappan sites are located in semi-arid lands, where irrigation was probably required for agriculture.
  • Traces of canals have been found at the Harappan site of Shortughai in Afghanistan, but not in Punjab or Sind. 
  • It is also likely that water drawn from wells was used for irrigation.
  • Water reservoirs found in Dholavira (Gujarat) may have been used to store water for agriculture.

Mohenjodaro: A Planned Urban Centre

  • The settlement is divided into two sections, one smaller but higher and the other much larger but lower, designated as the Citadel and the Lower Town respectively.
  • Buildings of the citadel were constructed on mud brick platforms and it was walled.
  • The Lower Town was also walled. Several buildings were built on platforms, which served as foundations. 
  • The settlement was first planned and then implemented.
  • Bricks were of a standardised ratio, where the length and breadth were four times and twice the height respectively. 
  • Such bricks were used at all Harappan settlements.
Layout of Mohenjodaro

Layout of Mohenjodaro

Laying Out Drains

  • The planned drainage system was one of the main features of Harappan cities.
  • Roads and streets were laid out along an approximate “grid” pattern, intersecting at right angles, streets with drains were laid out first and then houses were built along with them.

Domestic Architecture

  • The Lower Town at Mohenjodaro provides examples of residential buildings. 
  • Many were centred on a courtyard, with rooms on all sides. 
  • The courtyard was probably the centre of activities. 
  • There are no windows in the walls along the ground level. 
  • The main entrance does not give a direct view of the interior or the courtyard.
  • Every house had its own bathroom paved with bricks, with drains connected through the wall to the street drains.
  • Some houses have remains of staircases to reach a second storey or the roof. 
  • Many houses had wells, often in a room that could be reached from the outside and perhaps used by passers-by.
  • Total number of wells in Mohenjodaro is estimated to be about 700.

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The Citadel

  • The Warehouse, a massive structure of which the lower brick portions remain, while the upper portions, probably of wood, decayed long ago and the Great Bath.
  • The Great Bath was a large rectangular tank in a courtyard surrounded by a corridor on all four sides.
  • There were two steps on the north and south leading into the tank, which was made watertight by setting bricks on edge and using a mortar of gypsum. 
  • There were rooms on three sides, in one of which was a large well.
  • Water from the tank flowed into a huge drain. 
  • Across a lane to the north lay a smaller building with eight bathrooms, four on each side of a corridor, with drains from each bathroom connecting to a drain that ran along the corridor. 
  • The uniqueness of the Citadel suggests that it was used for special public purposes.

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Tracking Social Differences


  • The dead were generally laid in pits. Sometimes, there were differences in the way the burial pit was made, in some instances, the hollowed-out spaces were lined with bricks.
  • Some graves contain pottery and ornaments, indicating a belief that these could be used in the afterlife. Jewellery has been found in burials of both men and women.
  • In the mid-1980s, an ornament consisting of three shell rings, a jasper (a kind of semi-precious stone) bead and hundreds of microbeads were found near the skull of a male.
  • In some instances, the dead were buried with copper mirrors.
  • On the whole, it appears that the Harappans did not believe in burying precious things with the dead.

Looking for “Luxuries”

  • Objects were luxuries if they are rare or made from costly, non-local materials or with complicated technologies.
  • Little pots of faience (made of ground sand or silica mixed with colour and a gum and then fired) were probably considered precious because they were difficult to make.

A Faience Pot

  • Rare objects made of valuable materials are generally concentrated in large settlements like Mohenjodaro and Harappa and are rarely found in smaller settlements.
  • Gold too was rare and precious, all the gold jewellery found at Harappan sites was recovered from hoards.

Finding Out About Craft Production

  • Chanhudaro was exclusively devoted to craft production, including bead-making, shell-cutting, metal-working, seal-making and weight-making.
  • The variety of materials used to make beads: 
  • Stones like carnelian (of red colour), jasper, crystal, quartz and steatite. 
  • Metals like copper, bronze and gold.
  • Shell, faience and terracotta or burnt clay.
  • Some beads were made of two or more stones, cemented together, some of stone with gold caps. 
  • The shapes were numerous – disc-shaped, cylindrical, spherical, barrel-shaped, segmented.
  • Techniques for making beads differed according to the material.
  • Steatite, a soft stone, was easily worked. 
  • Some beads were moulded out of a paste made with steatite powder, which permitted the making of a variety of shapes
  • The red colour of carnelian was obtained by firing the yellowish raw material and beads at various stages of production.
  • Nodules were chipped into rough shapes, and then finely flaked into the final form. 
  • Grinding, polishing and drilling completed the process.
  • Specialised drills have been found at Chanhudaro, Lothal and recently at Dholavira.
  • Nageshwar and Balakot were specialised centers for making shell objects, including bangles, ladles and inlay, which were taken to other settlements.

Identifying Centres of Production

  • Raw materials such as stone nodules, whole shells, copper ore; tools; unfinished objects; rejects and waste material, are some of the best indicators of Craftwork.
  • For instance, if a shell or stone is cut to make objects, then pieces of these materials will be discarded as waste at the place of production.
  • Larger waste pieces were used up to make smaller objects, but minuscule bits were usually left in the work area.
  • Apart from specialised works, craft production was also undertaken in large cities like Mohenjodaro and Harappa.

Strategies for Procuring Materials

  • A variety of materials was used for craft production. While some such as clay were locally available, many such as stone, timber and metal had to be procured from outside. 
  • Terracotta toy models of bullock carts suggest that this was one important means of transporting goods and people across land routes. 
  • Riverine routes along the Indus and its tributaries, as well as coastal routes were also probably used.

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Materials From the Subcontinent and Beyond

  • The Harappans procured materials for craft production in various ways. 
  • They established settlements such as Nageshwar and Balakot in areas where shell was available. 
  • Shortughai, in far-off Afghanistan, near the best source of lapis lazuli, a blue stone that was apparently very highly valued.
  • Lothal was near sources of carnelian (from Bharuch in Gujarat), steatite (from south Rajasthan and north Gujarat) and metal (from Rajasthan).
  • Another strategy was to send expeditions to areas such as the Khetri region of Rajasthan (for copper) and South India (for gold). 
  • These expeditions established communication with local communities. 
  • Finds of Harappan artefacts such as steatite micro beads in these areas are indications of such contact. 
  • There is evidence in the Khetri area for the Ganeshwar-Jodhpura culture, with its distinctive non-Harappan pottery and an unusual wealth of copper objects. 
  • It is possible that the inhabitants of this region supplied copper to the Harappans.

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Contact with Distant Lands

  • Copper was probably brought from Oman. Chemical analyses have shown that both the Omani copper and Harappan artefacts have traces of nickel, suggesting a common origin.
  • A large Harappan jar coated with a thick layer of black clay has been found at Omani sites. 
  • Mesopotamian texts datable to the third millennium BCE refer to copper coming from a region called Magan, perhaps a name for Oman.
A Harappan jar found in Oman

A Harappan jar found in Oman

  • Mesopotamian texts mention contacts with regions named Dilmun (probably the island of Bahrain), Magan and Meluhha, possibly the Harappan region.
  • They mention the products from Meluhha: carnelian, lapis lazuli, copper, gold, and varieties of wood.
  • It is likely that communication with Oman, Bahrain or Mesopotamia was by sea. 
  • Mesopotamian texts refer to Meluhha as a land of seafarers, ships and boats are depicted on seals.
Seal depicting a boat

Seal depicting a boat

Seals, Script, Weights

Seals and Sealing

  • Used to facilitate long-distance communication.
  • Each bag of goods was affixed with some wet clay on which the seal was pressed.
  • If the bag reached with the seal intact, that meant it wasn’t tempered.
  • Sealing also conveyed the identity of the sender.

An Enigmatic Script

  • Harappan seals usually have a line of writing, probably containing the name and title of the owner. 
  • The motif (generally an animal) conveyed a meaning to those who could not read.
  • Most inscriptions are short, the longest containing about 26 signs. Although the script remains undeciphered to date, it was evidently not alphabetical (where each sign stands for a vowel or a consonant) 
  • It has many signs – somewhere between 375 and 400.
  • The script was written from right to left.


  • Exchanges were regulated by a precise system of weights, usually made of a stone called Chert and generally cubical, with no markings.
  • The lower denominations of weights were binary (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. up to 12,800), while the higher denominations followed the decimal system.
  • Smaller weights were probably used for weighing jewellery and beads. 
  • Metal scale pans have also been found.

Ancient Authority

  • There are indications of complex decisions being taken and implemented in Harappan society. For example, the extraordinary uniformity of Harappan artefacts is evident in pottery seals, weights and bricks, which were of uniform ratio throughout the region.

Palaces and Kings

  • A large building found at Mohenjodaro was labelled as a palace by archaeologists, but no spectacular finds were associated with it. 
  • A stone statue was labelled the “priest-king”. This is because archaeologists were familiar with the Mesopotamian history and its “priest-kings” and have found parallels in the Indus region.

A “Priest-King”

  • Some archaeologists believe that Harappan society had no rulers and that everybody enjoyed equal status.
  • Others feel there was no single ruler but several, that Mohenjodaro, Harappa and others had separate rulers. 
  • However, similarity in artefacts, the evidence for planned settlements, the standardised ratio of brick size hint towards a single state.

The End of the Civilisation

  • By 1800 BCE most of the Mature Harappan sites in regions such as Cholistan had been abandoned. 
  • Simultaneously, there was an expansion of population into new settlements in Gujarat, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.
  • In the few sites that continued to be occupied after 1900 BCE there was a transformation of material culture, marked by the disappearance of the distinctive artefacts of the civilisation – weights, seals, special beads. Writing, long-distance trade, and craft specialisation also disappeared.
  • House construction techniques deteriorated, and large public structures were no longer produced. 
  • Artefacts and settlements indicate a rural way of life in what are called “Late Harappan” or “successor cultures”.
  • These changes may have been due to climatic change, deforestation, excessive floods, shifting and/or drying up of rivers, to overuse of the landscape.

Discovering the Harappan Civilisation

Cunningham’s Confusion

  • Cunningham, the first Director-General of the ASI, began archaeological excavations in the mid-nineteenth century, his main interest was in the study of the Early Historic and later periods. 
  • He used the accounts left by Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who had visited the subcontinent between the fourth and seventh centuries CE to locate early settlements.
  • A site like Harappa, which was not part of the itinerary of the Chinese pilgrims and was not known as an Early Historic city, did not fit very neatly within his framework of the investigation. 
  • Harappan artefacts were found fairly often during the nineteenth century but Cunningham did not realise how old these were.
  • Cunningham was given a Harappa seal, but he tried to place it within the time frame with which he was familiar because he thought that Indian history began with the first cities in the Ganga valley.

A New Old Civilization

  • The importance of the findings was realized when seals were discovered by Daya Ram Sahni in layers that were definitely much older than Early Historic levels
  • Rakhal Das Banerji found similar seals at Mohenjodaro, hinting that these sites were part of a single archaeological culture.
  • In 1924, John Marshall, Director-General of the ASI, announced the discovery of a new civilisation in the Indus valley.

New techniques and Questions

  • An extensive survey in Kutch has revealed a number of Harappan settlements and explorations in Punjab and Haryana have been added to the list of Harappan sites. 
  • Kalibangan, Lothal, Rakhi Garhi and most recently Dholavira have been discovered, explored and excavated.

Problems of Piecing Together the Past

  • It is not the Harappan script that helps in understanding the ancient civilization, but the material evidence like pottery, tools, ornaments, household objects etc.

Classifying Finds

  • Recovering artefacts is just the beginning of the archaeological enterprise.
  • Archaeologists then classify their finds in terms of material, such as stone, clay, metal, bone, ivory, etc. 
  • The second, and more complicated, is in terms of function, for instance, whether an artefact is a tool or an ornament, or both, or something meant for ritual use.
  • Archaeologists also try to identify the function of an artefact by investigating the context in which it was found was it found in a house, drain, grave or in a kiln
  • Sometimes, archaeologists take recourse to indirect evidence. For example, there are traces of cotton at some Harappan sites, to find out about clothing we have to depend on indirect evidence including depictions in sculpture.

Problems of Interpretation

  • Early archaeologists thought that certain objects which seemed unusual or unfamiliar may have had a religious significance. 
  • These included terracotta figurines of women, heavily jewelled, some with elaborate headdresses, regarded as mother goddesses. 
  • Rare stone statuary of men in an almost standardised posture, seated with one hand on the knee – such as the “priest-king” was also similarly classified.
  • In other instances, structures have been assigned ritual significance. These include the Great Bath and fire altars found at Kalibangan and Lothal.
  • Attempts have also been made to reconstruct religious beliefs and practices by examining seals, some of which seem to depict ritual scenes.
  • Others, with plant motifs, are thought to indicate nature worship. 
  • Some animals – such as the one-horned animal, often called theunicorn” – depicted on seals seem to be mythical, composite creatures. 
  • In some seals, a figure shown seated cross-legged in a “yogic” posture, sometimes surrounded by animals, has been regarded as a depiction of “proto-Shiva”, an early form of one of the major deities of Hinduism. 

A ‘Proto-Shiva” seat

  • Conical stone objects have been classified as lingas.

Timeline: 1: Major Periods in Early Indian Archaeology

  • 2 million BP (before present): Lower Palaeolithic 
  • 80,000: Middle Palaeolithic 
  • 35,000: Upper Palaeolithic 
  • 12,000: Mesolithic 
  • 10,000: Neolithic (early agriculturists and pastoralists)
  • 6,000: Chalcolithic (first use of copper) 
  • 2600 BCE: Harappan civilisation 
  • 1000 BCE: Early iron, megalithic burials 
  • 600 BCE-400 CE: Early Historic

Timeline 2: Major Developments in Harappan Archaeology


  • 1875: Report of Alexander Cunningham on Harappan seal.

Twentieth Century

  • 1921: M.S. Vats begins excavations at Harappa.
  • 1925: Excavations begin at Mohenjodaro.
  • 1946: R.E.M. Wheeler excavates at Harappa.
  • 1955: S.R. Rao begins excavations at Lothal. 
  • 1960: B.B. Lal and B.K. Thapar begin excavations at Kalibangan.
  • 1974: M.R. Mughal begins explorations in Bahawalpur.
  • 1980: A team of German and Italian archaeologists begins surface explorations at Mohenjodaro. 
  • 1986: American team begins excavations at Harappa.
  • 1990: R.S. Bisht begins excavations at Dholavira.

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