Biology and Burials

Wednesday, 09 July 2003

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The biology, health, biological affinities, and mortuary practices of the Harappan Tradion.


One of the most enlightening and problematic expressions of identity is burial practice. Burials link several lines of inquiry into a single research object. They represent a single or small series of closely linked events. Biology, art, religion, communication, society, and personal psychology can all ideally be preserved in or represented by burials. A burial can be a snapshot of a people and their culture.

Distortions in the information recovered from mortuary contexts originate from multiple sources. Culture dictates whether the dead are buried, cremated, exposed, or some other disposal method. It says who is buried where and with what. These variations depict culture and ethnicity. Culture, the very thing under study can distort the archaeological record. These dictates of culture may misrepresent the cultural and social environment of the living. Additional care in the use of data recovered from mortuary contexts must be exercised.

Research into the burial practices of the Harappan Civilization has thus far been limited. The most limiting factor has been the distribution of burials between a relatively small number of sites at which burials have been identified. An additional complication is that at no site have a sufficient number of burials been examined. Three types of burials can be identified. Types include extended, fractional, and cremation burials.

The extended burial is the most numerous and the most widespread. Four variations of this type of extended burial were identified. These variations include: empty, brick lined, wooden, and plain. Fractional burials are apparently secondary burials of various types.

If one were to chose a single term to describe Mature Harappan burials it would be unostentatious. There are no hoards of gold or pyramids. The primary types of artifacts recovered from burial contexts include: ceramics and some personal ornaments. The remains of fowl and sheep were recovered from burials at Harappa and Lothal (Rao, 1973).

Since the beginning of excavations at Harappa, two separate cemeteries have been identified. Both cemeteries are to the south of the site. Cemetery R37 is older and more distant. Cemetery H was built between the R37 and the settlement. The total burial recovery from Harappa is 196.

At Harappa all primary burials are rectangular pits oriented north/south. Shafts were often reused several times, with new graves often cut into old. This pattern is similar, though less extensive, to the reuse pattern reported by Leanord Woolley concerning his discoveries at Ur (1934).

Burial treatments were variable and include mudbrick tomb lining, wooden coffins, straw and reed mat wrapping. Vats and Marshall reported post cremation burials at Harappa. Wheeler (1968) dismissed Marshallís suggested cremations without any real reason or contrary evidence. Cremations have also been reported at Sutkagendor, Damb Buthi, and Mehi (Rao, 1973). The brick lined burials are similar to those at Nal in Baluchistan, Shahi-tump and Musyan in western Persia (Wheeler, 1968; Rao, 1973). At Nal, were found brick lined tombs, both fractional and complete burials, and no grave goods but personal ointments.

A single wooden coffin was discovered in Cemetery R37 at Harappa. The coffin was constructed of 3.81cm thick rosewood planks and was equipped with a lid of deodar wood, from the Himalayan foothills (Rao, 1973). The burial was that of a woman and was adorned with a copper ring on the middle finger of the right hand (Rao, 1973). Wheeler (1969) noted a similarity between this burial and Sargonid wood coffin burials from the Royal Cemetery at Ur. There is a superficial resemblance, however, there is no definitive link which can be drawn between them.

The Mature Harappan cemetery R37 at Harappa was discovered by Shastri in 1938. It is located to the south of Mound AB, on slightly raising ground. Two mudbrick buildings were found within the cemetery (Kenoyer, 1998). Wheeler (1968) reports that graves were built up slightly, one with mud brick. It has been dated to the Mature Harappan due to a thick layer of Post-Harappan debris that was found covering cemetery. Composed mostly of ceramics, the debris can be dated easily due to 40% goblet content (Wheeler, 1968). Several mudbrick walls and foundations from the Late Harappan cut into the cemetery resulting in the destruction of many burials.

Mature Harappan burial goods consist primarily of ceramics and personal adornments. The majority of ceramics recovered from mortuary contexts at Harappa were unslipped and undecorated (Dales, 1991). Most of the decorated ceramics are from the lower levels (1991). Some decorated ceramics from later burials were painted with up to half a centimeter of gypsum. Personal ornaments include ear and finger rings of copper, shell bangles, steatite disk bead anklets and necklaces, carnelian, faience, gold, and lapis lazuli beads. Other goods include: handled copper mirrors, an antimony rod and a shell spoon (Rao, 1973).

Many burials of the Harappan Civilization had between one and five small beads at the waist. High wear, low numbers, and small size suggests they were worn as amulets, probably under the clothing. A few males had beads around neck or at chest and a similar purpose is indicated (Kenoyer, 1992). A small, dark stone truncated cone with a single line etched around the top and worn as a pendant around neck has been discovered exclusively with female burials (Kenoyer, 1992).

The Late Harappan Cemetery H is located between Cemetery R37 and Mound AB on a slightly raised plain at Harappa (Rao, 1973). It covered more than 3000sqm with two distinct layers (Rao, 1973). The Post Harappan Cemetery H is characterized by a total lack of Harappan ceramics. The lower Stratum II (H2) consisted of about out two dozen extended burials with heads to east and flexed knees. The burials contained a somewhat crude red ware apparently unrelated to Mature Harappan ceramics. The ceramics are similar to that recovered at Lurewata and Ratha Theri in Bahawalpur State. The upper Stratum I (H1) consisted of pot/jar burials. These fractional burials were of urns containing skulls and a few long bones. The urns and associated ceramics were a more elaborate form of the red ware from Stratum II.

Much has been made of the burials recovered at Mohenjodaro. The burials were dated by Marshall to both the Mature and Late Harappan. No cemetery or Pre-Harappan interments have been discovered. Marshall (1931) felt that the remains were intentionally interred soon after death and had not been not disturbed by weather or animals.

A single Mature Harappan burial was found at Mohenjodaro. In Courtyard 13, House III, Section A, HR Area, a secondary burial was recovered (Pl. XLIII d). House III dates from the Mature Harappan. The burial consisted of a skull in a broken pot and a small amount of fragmentary bone. Mature Harappan burial goods recovered from Mohenjodaro include: ceramics, ivory bits, miniature vessels, balls, beads, chert flakes, a shell spoon.

A single burial was recovered in, the appropriately named Deadmanís lane in HR Area, Section A (Marshall, 1931). In the Late Period the lane was built over with houses (1931). This interment represents a Late Period floor burial which intrudes into the Mature Harappan street (1931).

A mixed sex group of six burials were excavated from Lane 4 between House XVIII and House XXXIII, VS Area. One is of a child. These are intrusional interments from the Post-Harappan, are similar to the Deadmanís Lane burial.

Hargreaves reported the discovery of 13 adult and one child (Pl. XLIII a and Pl. XLVI a and b) in Room 74, House V, HR Area, Section B (Marshall, 1931). Post-Harappan burial goods at Mohenjodaro include: shell balls, inlay, animal vertebrae ceramics and personal ornaments including shell and copper bangles, copper finger rings, copper and faience beads. Marshall (1931) assumes same origin as Lane 4 and Deadmanís Lane burials.

A Mature Harappan cemetery was discovered at Kalibangan. It was located southwest of the settlement, and dates to the Kalibangan II Period, Mature Harappan (Tharper, 1975). Burials are divisible into three groups: pot, empty, and extended inhumations (Tharper, 1975). Pot burials consist of an oval or circular pit within which an urn containing the remains of the decedent (Tharper, 1975). Extended inhumation was in rectangular or oval pits with the head to north Empty graves are structurally identical to the extended inhumations but lack a body. Goods were deposited in the rectangular pits, then left unsealed long enough for deposit of sand and clay to be deposited (Tharper, 1975). They were later deliberately filled with cloddy earth (Tharper, 1975). Grave goods for all types included personal ornaments and a quantity of ceramics.

Graph of # ceramics in the Kalabangan burials

 A distribution of the number of ceramics in each extended burial. The highly simoid shape of the curve indicates a classic Bronze Age civilization with elites and commoners. The commoners were divisible into two classes; a common lower class and a far smaller class of professionals.

One unique extended burial was that of an elderly man. He was interred in a brick lined tomb of the same size as the other extended burials. The bricks used were 40x20x10cm mud bricks, the same kind used in the construction of the walls. The bricks were covered with 2cm of mud plaster. He was found with 72 ceramic vessels, the largest number of ceramics discovered with any Harappan burial.

The Neolithic site of Margarh shows genetic relationships with central and eastern Asia and lacks genetic association with the successive populations of the Indus Valley (Lukacs, 1983). Burzahom, a Mature Harappan neolithic site shows cultural affinities with central Asia and China (Sharma, 1998). Recovered skeletal remains, however, depict a biological affinity with the R37 remains from Harappa (Lukacs, 1983).

The cemetery located at Kalabangan contained far to few interments to account for more than a small fraction of total deaths. Most of the individuals interred in the cemetery at Kalabangan died of abnormal causes, including: hydrocephally, fire, accident, and a copper axe. Possible explanations include: another disposal location or cremation.

Cemetery R37- Harappa- Mature Harappan

south of Mound AB

designated by Shastri

Shastri- 1939- unpublished

Wheeler- 1946


Mughal- 1966

106- all pre UCB

38 male

55 female

13 indeterminate

look at Gupta et al 1962

UCB- 1987-88

90 burials

19 male

29 female

42 indeterminate

burials- all primary burials are rectangular pits oriented north/south

some shafts reused

thick layer of debris over site of cemetery- mostly ceramic- 40% goblets

4a- coffin


4b- head to south

in foundation trench for mudbrick wall

127a- coffin- head to north but facing east

3 shell bangles on left mid biceps

4 shell bangles on left forearm

steatite disk bead anklet

carnelian and lapis lazuli beads at waist between pelvis and shell bangles on forearm



147a- coffin- head to north- adult male

cut off at lower legs due to the foundation trench for a mudbrick wall

steatite micro beads and 3 shell circlets at right temple of head

steatite disk beads under jaw to right

shell bangle fragment on left forearm and right forearm

carnelian bead at right hand and femur


148a- coffin


194a- face down to east- left arm to west- right arm to east bent to north- right leg bent over 194b


196a- coffin- head to north facing east


Cemetery H- Harappa- Late Harappan

Vats 1940

between Cemetery R37 and Mound AB

Stratum I- H1- pot/jar burials

Stratum II- H2- earth burials

Marshall- Chapter VI Disposal of the Dead

H307a- fractional burial

figure 2- image of a H2 burial

similar burials in Baluchistan at:

Nal- Jhalawan District

no grave goods but personal ointments

both fractional and complete burials

Also Musyan in western Persia

Shahi-tump- near Turbat- LOOK!!!

Mohenjodaro- Harappan

Sewell and Guha 1931

Guha and Basu 1938

Marshall- Chapter VI Disposal of the Dead

intentionally interred soon after death

not disturbed by weather or animals

(Also not robbed)

Burial No. 3- Courtyard 13, House III, Section A, HR Area

House II dates from Intermediate Period

secondary burial


skull in broken pot

fragmentary bone, large amount of ceramics and small objects

ivory bits, miniature vessels, balls, beads, chert flakes, a shell spoon

a squat carinated decorated vessel


Room 74, House V, HR Area, Section B

13 adult and one child


Pl. XLVI a and b

interred with personal ornaments

shell and copper bangles

copper finger rings

copper and faience beads

seal No. 80

Marshall assumes same origin as Lane 4 and Deadmanís Lane burials

excavated by Hargreaves

6- Lane 4 between House XVIII and House XXXIII, VS Area

includes one child

2 skeletons are covered by animal vertebrae

shell ball

3 pieces of shell inlay

Late I or Late II intrusional interments

1- Deadmanís lane, HR Area, Section A

lane built over in Late Period

burial from beneath floor of house in Late I or Late II

Kalibangan- Harappan

Lal 1962

Lal and Thaper 1967

Tharper 1975

Sharma 1982

Lothal- Harappan

Rao 1979 and 1985


Kashmir Valley

Kashmer Neolithic

~2920 to 1700 BCE




from 3 to 70 ceramics

fall into two discrete groups

0-8 and 15-70

(Sample not large enough to enable anything other than provisional conclusions)

height by sex

male- 1.55 to 1.75

female- 1.45 to 1.55

lifespan- 55 to 60

The cemetery located at Kalabangan contained far to few interments to account for more than a small fraction of total deaths. Most of the individuals interred in the cemetery at Kalabangan died of abnormal causes, including: hydrocephally, fire, accident, and a copper axe. Possible explanations include: another disposal location or cremation.



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This site was last updated 07/09/03