Mehrgarh is a quaint and obscure settlement of historical importance in the Kachhi-Bolan Plain in Balochistan. Lying on the western Banks of the Bolan River, it opens into the South Asian landmass through the famous Bolan Pass.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries in British India were characterized by rapid industrialization and the subsequent railway projects, supplementing that industrialization. They were a means of colonial exploitation but what those railway projects also ushered in, can very well be considered the ‘Golden Age of Indian Archaeology’. These railway projects required excavations, and those excavations not just expanded upon the pre-existing histories of the Indian Subcontinent but also uncovered an entirely new civilization, namely the Indus Valley Civilization. Mehrgarh, about 10 km south of Dadhar in the Kachhi District of Balochistan however, evaded this Golden Age. It was not until 1968, after the British Colonialists had left, that Sardar Ghaus Baksh Raisani drew the attention of archaeologists to a mound near his winter residence on the Banks of the Bolan River. This brought Mehrgarh into archaeological limelight (Singh, 2009, p. 95).
Following up on Raisani’s tip, the French archaeological mission led by the husband and wife team of Dr. Jean-François Jarrige and Catherine Jarrige arrived at the site of Mehrgarh in 1974. The French mission in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology of Pakistan carried out excavations at the site. The excavations revealed a western branch of the Indus Valley Civilization, covering an area of about 250 hectares. The discoveries were even older than the digs that were found in the famous settlements of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Excavations and the subsequent archaeological sequencing revealed settlements that ranged from Chalcolithic (c. 3500-2500 BC) to Aceramic Neolithic (c. 6500-6000 BC) periods.
When compared with other archaeological sites, the mounds in Mehrgarh aren’t structurally impressive like those of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. They are low, spatially scattered, and their stratigraphy is not neat. The stratigraphy instead of following the common phenomenon of stacking of successive settlements over the preceding ones like most ancient archaeological sites, in Mehrgarh, exhibits more of a spatial spread. In other words, settlements in Mehrgarh were created through occupation of different areas of the site in different times. The excavation conducted by the French Mission found archaeological remains left by a continuous sequence of occupations from the 8th to the 3rd millennium BC (Jarrige, 2006), this makes Mehrgarh significant. Firstly, this broke the pre-existing notions that believed the sites in the Indus Valley Civilization were not older than 4000 BC. Secondly, the Indus Valley Sites were interpreted as a result of an eastern diffusion of an Iranian or Central Asian model, related to civilizations of the Mesopotamians and the Elamites. However, discoveries at Mehrgarh, redirected the South Asian Historiological approach to accepting a more indigenous origins of the Indus Valley Civilization. In addition to bringing about this missing link, Mehrgarh also provided the presence of early agricultural and husbandry practices in South Asia, contemporary to the first Neolithic agricultural villages that emerged between 8th and 6th millennium BC in West Asia. This puts Mehrgarh alongside the likes of other Neolithic villages across the world that functioned as the radix of human civilization like Jericho and ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, Tepe Guran and Ali Kosh in Iran, Çatal Hüyük in Turkey, Cayonu in Syria, Spirit Caves in Thailand and the Neolithic and Mesolithic sites of the Ganga System in India. These recent discoveries were groundbreaking for studies in South Asian archaeology. The people of Mehrgarh were growing barley and wheat. They reared cattle, sheep and goats. This implied the Mesolithic and Neolithic sites of the Ganga system with their specific aspects, such as the availability of wild rice, can’t be studied within a purely ‘Indian’ context. The Ganga and Indus Systems were not disjoint as previously believed, but related. In the north-western part of the subcontinent, communities were involved as early as the 8th millennium BC in farming activities. They were growing cereals and had domesticated local wild animals (Jarrige, 2006).
Archaeologists who have conducted excavations in and around Mehrgarh, divide the chronology of the settlements primarily into eight periods, that are the further categorized (Kenoyer, 1995).
Period I A – The Aceramic Neolithic Period (c. 6500-6000 BC)
The oldest period of permanent human settlements found in Mehrgarh Mound 3 (MR3), it was the pre-pottery era that exhibited the initial presence of the mudbrick houses. It is in this period that Agriculture and Animal Husbandry has been recorded. Stone tools and objects were used, and the application of stone grinding and polishing is found. Straw baskets were used and lined with naturally occurring bitumen for water-proofing. The presence of cemeteries, with jewels, objects and animals alongside the buried, has also been noted in Period I A, indicating that the people of Mehrgarh believed in afterlife. This also indicates that there was the presence of some religion. These human remains in cemeteries also exhibit a presence of ‘proto-dentistry’ and is the oldest evidence in human history of the drilling of teeth in a living person.
Period I B – The Early Ceramic Neolithic Period (c. 6000-5500 BC)
Also from Mehrgarh Mound 3 was Period I B which came after Period I A. Period I B is characterized by introduction of the first coarse chaff-tempered ceramics – the elementary and first forms of pottery. Floors were made of packed and rammed earth and sometimes were also covered with red ochre. The buildings also become multi-roomed, and a pattern of four and six-roomed buildings is followed. The presence of elements like fireplace and other domestic remains suggests that four roomed buildings were used as residences while the six roomed buildings, devoid those elements, were used as functional buildings such as granaries etc. The fire pits in the residential buildings were filled with clay balls and pebbles which were used as a source of indirect heating (Jarrige, 2006). The presence of jewelry that included mineral and copper beads and shellwork is also noted. The jewelry also constituted the earliest instance of the usage of cotton fiber which was used to string the copper beads. In terms of the shellwork found in Mehrgarh, the variety of mollusk species shows evidence for the exploitation of several different coastal areas for its collection. This indicates the use of this jewelry as commodities that were traded from distant coastal regions into Mehrgarh (Kenoyer, 1995).
Period II – The Ceramic Neolithic Period (c. 5500-4500 BC)
The settlements in Period II move from Mehrgarh Mound 3 to Mehrgarh Mound 4 (MR4). The pottery and ceramic wares in this period were widespread and had now become characteristic aspects of the civilization. The buildings in Period II became larger and more compartmentalized. The walls of the clay houses were plastered on the inside as well as outside. However, in Period II, the number of shell artifacts drops considerably, and most burials show very few grave goods and no examples of objects placed alongside the dead. This may represent a significant change in socio-religious ritual traditions, and only some tradition of including shellwork is retained. There is significant decline of polished and ground stone tools towards the end of Period II.
Period III – The Early Chalcolithic Period (c. 4500-3500 BC)
In the late 5th millennium BC comes Period III, and the settlement at Mehrgarh changes location to Mehrgarh Mound 2 (MR2). Period III marks the departure from the Neolithic Stone Age to the use of metal, mostly copper and bronze. However, beadwork from Lapis Lazuli rocks is introduced and the production of white steatite ceramic beads was retained from the Neolithic era. These beads were now glazed and were produced en masse. An increase in stature of people was also observed upon analysis of the human remains, in comparison to earlier periods. This meant better agriculture, better availability of nutrition and general prosperity in this period.
Period IV-VIII – From the Chalcolithic Period (c. 3500-2500 BC) to the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age (c. 2000-1500)
Periods IV-VI in Mehrgarh mark the shift of the settlement to Mehrgarh Mound 1 (MR1). This was the very mound which was identified by Sardar Ghaus Baksh Raisani where the first excavation work was conducted by the French Mission. In Phase IV, Mehrgarh ushers into the Mature Chalcolithic Period. This coincided with the Early Harappan Phase of the Indus Valley Civilization, exhibiting similar traits. In Phases V-VI Mehrgarh shows contacts with cities in Indus Valley Civilization as well as cities in Eastern Iran like Sahr-i-Sokhta, forming a transitional conduit between the two civilizations. The ceramic figurines, especially of the female deity become more intricate and distinctive.
However, in Period VII (2600-2000 BC), Mehrgarh is abandoned and the settlement shifts 8km to the south to Nausharo, a Mature Harappan site and merges into the Indus Valley Civilization. Period VIII (c. 1900 BC) is the last period of Mehrgarh, and is found at the Sibri Cemetery, located 8 km away. This phase was associated with both Central Asian and South Asian ancient civilizations. Sibri is part of the Nausharo Culture mound of the Indus Valley Civilization.
With its arid, mountainous terrain and extreme climate, the Kachhi-Bolan Plain in Balochistan with its inhospitable environment may not provide much, but this region has been the cradle of a civilization that has played an indispensable part in not just South Asian history but also human history as a whole.
Singh, Upinder. 2009. “A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century”.
Jarrige, Jean-François. 2006. “Mehrgarh Neolithic”.
Costantini, Leonardo. 1984. “The Beginning of Agriculture in the Kachi Plain: The Evidence of Mehrgarh”.
Allchin, Bridget. 1985. “South Asian Archaeology 1981: Proceedings of the Sixth Conference of the Association of South Asian Archaeologists in Western Europe”, pp. 29-33. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. 1995. “Shell Trade and Shell Working During the Neolithic and Early Chalcolithic at Mehrgarh, Pakistan”.
Jarrige, Jean-François, Catherine Jarrige, Richard H. Meadow, and Gonzague Quivron. 1995. “Mehrgarh: Field Reports 1974-1985 from Neolithic Times to the Indus Civilization”.
UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). “Archaeological Site of Mehrgarh”. unesco.org. https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1876/
Jarrige, Jean-François. 2006. “Mehrgarh Neolithic”. pp 141, 142, 148
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/