(Book extract) Invisible Women of Prehistory by Judy Foster

An extract from Invisible Women of Prehistory : Three million years of peace, six thousand years of war

by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet

The Indian Neolithic Period (9,000–5,000 BP)

The earliest evidence of the Neolithic in the Indus River Valley lasted for 2,000 to 3,000 years, and may have spread from Anatolia through Iran. By 6,000 BP agriculture had spread throughout India. The Indus River area was the area most suited to agriculture, the growing of wheat and barley, and the domestication of cattle, sheep and goats. Women produced painted pottery.

 

The Mehrgarh civilization
The most important Neolithic site in India is the recently rediscovered city of Mehrgarh situated near the Bolan Pass in Baluchistan, which is in north-west subcontinental India near the Iranian border. The city evidently covered an area of 250 hectares along the banks of the Bolon River. Mudbrick houses occupied the site, with each layer of houses built over a previous level as at Çatal Hüyük. Recent excavation levels reveal that this city was occupied well into the historic Indus civilisation.

1. Group of clay bird goddesses from Mehrgarh

(8,000 BP)

2. Two clay bird goddesses, 8,000 BP

(Source 1–2: Mahmood, Mahmood, 2009)

3. A female figurine from Mehrgarh,

5,000 years old, National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi

4. A figurine from Mehrgarh, c. 3,000 BP

(Source 3–4: Wikimedia Commons, 2013)

5. Romanian figurine (note the similarity to an

Old European snake goddess), front and side

views, Romania, 7,800 BP

(Source: Gimbutas, Marija, 1991)

All line drawings © Judy Foster, 2013

Archaeologist J.F. Jarrige began to excavate Mehrgarh in 1974 and archaeological work lasted until the end of the 1980s. There are a number of reports providing details of the prehistory of Mehrgarh, including those of Gregory Possehl (1982) and Dilip Chakrabarti’s Oxford Companion to Indian Archaeology (2006). These reports record the five earliest levels of Mehrgarh occupation which fall within the Neolithic period.

Level one (11,000−9,000 BP)

This date equates Mehrgarh with Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia. There is evidence here of the earliest domestication of barley, cattle, sheep and goats. Around 9,000 BP rice cultivation is apparent, watered by an early form of irrigation. Houses with a number of rooms, including storerooms, were made of mudbricks with floors covered in reeds. They were interspersed with open spaces, possibly courtyards used for domestic functions, rituals and burials. Some houses featured interconnecting rooms and doors with lintels. One large broken pot, decorated with external ridged lines and an interior design of a snake, was found along with several complete goblets and other beautiful painted vessels. The reports make no mention of the city layout at this point.

Tools included microliths, harvesting tools, a few stone vessels, and some unbaked clay figurines but no pottery. Burials contained grave goods including goats, baskets of food, and lumps of red ochre. Shell, dentate shells, calcite beaded necklaces, mother-of-pearl and shell pendants, steatite beaded belts, anklets of calcite beads, bone rings and, sometimes, turquoise and lapis lazuli beads which could have been traded from Afghanistan, were also found in graves. Some burials were contained within specially constructed low brick walls, and occasionally bodies were compacted to make room for later burials. Nothing is known as yet about the sex or status of the dead. Terracotta human figurines (probably representing the female principle) are significant at this time, with one well-executed example with a tubular body, pinched nose, and legs joined, suggesting a new form of imagery emerging.

These figurines depicted women with long hair and garments decorated with raised designs of flowers reaching to the ground, their arms positioned to draw attention to exposed breasts.

Level two (9,000−7,500 BP)

A small copper ingot and two beads were found, as well as a terracotta bead incised with a design which could have been used to make patterns on wet clay. Wheel-made pottery made its appearance alongside earlier handmade pottery. Cotton was apparently grown under irrigation, and trade was very important to the economy. Red ware pottery featuring pipal leaves was common, while the first use of fired grey pottery items was evident. Distinctive female figurines from this period displayed carefully modelled complex hairstyles, round heavy breasts and joined legs.

Gregory Possehl’s 1982 account reports that there was also evidence of an early form of dentistry with artificial drilling on the teeth of some individuals. It is thought that the method of drilling using flint drill bits was similar to the technique used for making holes in beads. There is no further evidence of dentistry after 6,500 BP. According to the original report in Nature, A. Coppa et al “describe eleven drilled molar crowns from nine adults discovered in a Neolithic graveyard in Pakistan that dates from 7,500 to 9000 years ago… [providing] evidence for a long tradition of a type of proto-dentistry in an early farming culture.” 
(This period equates to level one at Harappa)

Level three (7,500–5,500 BP)

There was an indication of possible changes to social organisation, for example, a large complex of storerooms suggested a surplus of crops. There was more craft specialization including bow drills, suggesting shell engraving; and terracotta crucibles with traces of copper indicated copper smelting which was most likely used in jewellery, as no war weapons were reported. Wheel-made pottery featured a variety of regional designs. A few terracotta humped cattle were found, and were perhaps of religious significance as they had been at Çatal Hüyük. Terracotta female figurines retained the tubular body but one type of image now featured broad hips, and cloth draped around the waist, while a second style had a similar-shaped head with pinched nose, pendulous breasts, broad hips and legs joined together.

Level four (5,500 BP)

Although houses were similar to those in the past, rooms were now interconnected through doorways with wooden lintels which could be quite low in height as they were earlier in Çatal Hüyük. There was one room which may have had a special purpose, according to Dilip Chakrabarti. It contained grinding stones, pestles, a storage jar, a large broken basin with ridges and snake decorations inside, fine undamaged goblets, beautifully painted vessels, blades, bones, and various kinds of pottery. He also noted a new form of tubular-shaped terracotta female figurine, still with joined legs, featuring large coils of hair on each side of the head, incised eyes, and strands of necklaces around neck, large breasts and hips.

Level five (5,300–4,500 BP)

Brick walls were no longer associated with burials. Dilip Chakrabarti describes how the heads of bodies were carefully placed on brick ‘pillows’, laid east-west, and sometimes turned to face the south. There was only one collective burial. The first sign of the importance of women was demonstrated by the inclusion of two painted wheel-made pots as grave goods. Another grave contained a circular, compartmented stamp-seal of copper/bronze placed near the woman’s head. Jewellery was often included in grave: necklaces and head ornaments, and sometimes pendants of semi-precious stones worn with or without the necklaces, were placed on what were presumably female graves. People’s teeth were in good order because of a naturally high incidence of fluoride in the local water. Mahmood Mahmood refers to the importance of the female figurines over this period as representing the earliest form of the ‘matriarchal’ goddess Indria (Early Harappa period).

Mehrgarh level five evidence gradually disappears at about the same time as the beginning of the mature stage (classic period) of the Harappan civilisation (4,800–3,900 BP) and it is also around this time that Indo-European influences began to appear in the Indus Valley. Although the pre-Indus civilisation is dated to between 5,500 and 5,000 BP, the brief glimpse of Mehrgarh that is available at this time is not extensive enough to discern the signs of change into a hierarchic society. In fact at level five (4,000 BP) there is not much change, but at level six (3,500 BP) the first signs of Indo-European influences are immediately apparent. For example, a large pottery kiln suggests pottery production for a market economy. Pottery had always been a specialized craft/skill practiced exclusively by women in the past but now it appears that they may have had to work for others.

 

 

1. Two terracotta female figurines from Early Harappa/Late Mehrgarh

2. Female figurine with painted features

(Source 1–2: Clark, Sharri R., 2001)

3. Female figurine, Late Harappa/Early Mohenjo-daro period

4. Female figurine with infant from Early Mohenjo-daro period

5. The famous Dancing Girl, Late Mohenjodaro/Early Historic period

6. Early example of the Indus script

Source 3–6: Kenoyer, J.M., 2008–2010)

All line drawings © Judy Foster, 2013

 

Extract taken from Invisible Women of Prehistory

PP 185-189, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, Australia, 2014

Read Meet Mago Contributor Judy Foster.

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