The History of Bricks: The Indus Valley

From Mesopotamia, brick-making spread to Egypt, Persia and to the Indus Valley, in what is now part of India and Pakistan. The Indus Valley is traversed by the Indus and Saraswati Rivers, covering 1.6 million square kilometers. As with many archaeological ‘finds,’ this one was accidental, in addition to unusual: the find was an entire civilization. In 1856, John and William Brunton, British engineers, were overseeing the building of a stretch of the East India Railway Company railroad from Karachi to Lahore, up near the Himalayas. They needed ballast for the project and had learned of the ancient ruins of Brahminabad nearby. Workers came upon quantities of fired brick there and, subsequently, used it for ballast. More bricks were found near the village of Harappa, in present-day Pakistan, along the Ravi River, where villagers had been using them themselves for some time. As it turns out, the bricks the Brunton brothers commanded for use on the railroad amounted to 150 kilometers of ballast. Unbeknownst to them, they had stumbled upon remains of the Indus Valley Culture, a rich and ancient culture. However, this pilfering did great damage to these ancient ruins. Today, the Harappa site is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. At the time of the discovery, the area was the domain of India; however, after India was partitioned by the British, this terrain was split between Pakistan and India. So, during the initial discovery period, it was part of the British Raj. When archaeologists got around to figuring out what they had on their hands, they had a field day. It was an enormous find. Expeditions into the Indus Valley are still being carried out today. According to archaeologist K. Kris Hirst, the Indus Valley Civilization spans the following time periods:

  • Early Harappan 3500-2700 BCE
  • Early Harappan/Mature Harappan Transition 2800-2700 BCE
  • Mature Harappan 2700-1900 BCE
  • Late Harappan 1900-1500 BCE

The culture’s eventual demise was the result of flooding, geological activity, and changing trade routes. During the early days of the archaeological digs, certain names are associated with work there, including archaeologist Madho Sarup Vats, who worked on the Archaeological Survey of India during the 1920s and 30s and Sir John Hubert Marshall, archaeologist and Director General of the Indian Archaeological Service. Aside from the original peoples from neolithic times, the cloth from which these  people were cut has remained a matter of controversy. Theories abound: they spoke proto-Brahmi, or proto-Dravidian, or Sanskrit. There is no consensus, no definitive answer; it’s all part of the Aryan controversy: one side and the opposing view. What is known is that there were three classes of people, elite (religious), tradesmen, and poor. The cultures pivoted upon clay, literally and figuratively. The main type of dwelling, Harappan house, was of ingenious design and the bricks they were made with have lasted thousands of years. Homes had indoor and outdoor kitchens and were made of fired or sun-dried bricks. The photo above shows an example of an ancient well and the brick drainage canals in Lothal, India, a port city which used kiln-fired brick extensively in its ancient dockyards. Its inhabitants learned that fired brick was more impervious to tidal waters. Each city in the region was surrounded by a brick wall, which helped control trade and flooding, according to Wikipedia. “The Harappans were great city planners. They based their city streets on a grid system. Streets were oriented east to west. Each street had a well-organized drain system. If the drains were not cleaned, the water ran into the houses and silt built up. Then the Harappans would build another story on top of it. This raised the level of the city over the years, and today archaeologists call these high structures “mounds”.

In The Indus Civilization: a Contemporary Perspective, by Gregory L. Possehl, the author states that funnel-shaped updraft kilns were used for firing clay, however, I am, as yet, unsure whether this type of kiln was used to fire bricks or ceramics, in general. He does say, though, that “millions of bricks” are among the ruins at Mohenjo-daro, in present-day Pakistan, a little excavated site which is garnering more attention. The photo to the right shows the Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro. It has been subject to debate, but most now seem to agree that it was used for ritualistic bathing, much like the Hindu practice today. The bath is basically a water tank made of brick. It was meant for public use and it’s the earliest example of such a facility, measuring 12 x 7 meters, with a depth of 2.4 meters. Truly impressive…the number of bricks needed for such a project takes my breath away. One of India’s largest archaeological sites centers on the city of Dholavira. It is in the province of Gujarat today and during the monsoons it is surrounded by water. Dholavira’s remains were found in 1967 and it is considered a model city. It boasts a towering citadel, an acropolis, and a huge reservoir, all made of stone — the only major city of the Indus Valley Civilization not made of brick. The photo below shows a model of the city.

As with ancient Mesopotamia, the wonders of the Indus Valley are spellbinding. It is a civilization built upon oceans of brick which have withstood every test of time…enduring testimony to the industry and esthetics of an intriguing people.


About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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