2. First Cities

3000–1000 BC

The emergence of cities and states was one of the most significant changes to happen in human society after the development of agriculture. The ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Harappan civilisations created some of the world’s first cities. All three civilisations shared an important geographical feature – they were located in fertile river valleys that could produce plentiful crops. Objects made by the people who lived and ruled in these first cities and states provide glimpses into their lives and concerns.

Bringing larger populations to live together in one place required new ways to keep them cohesive and make them function. It led to the development of bureaucracy, priesthoods, and a ruling class. With government came administration and an invention that changed the world – writing. Some of the earliest writing emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Harappa.

Not all ancient societies were urban. Most people lived in farms and villages, or as nomads. Importantly, both types of societies were capable of producing striking objects that would have required sophisticated technology.

Objects in conversation: The world’s first citizens

These two statues represent citizens from two of the world’s oldest cities. We may not know the names of these women, but both were thought significant enough to have their images carefully crafted.

The lives of women are often ignored in the story of the first cities or alternatively, they are reduced to either mother goddesses, or being overtly eroticised. This was the case with the ‘dancing girl’ figurine when it was discovered in the 1920s.

Recent research in Mesopotamia has shed light on the lives of women. Written texts tell us that they could buy and sell property, act as guarantors, participate in court cases, and play an important role as priestesses.

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'Dancing Girl' figurine (replica)

Bronze
About 2500 BC
Mohenjodaro, Sindh, Pakistan
National Museum, New Delhi

 

With her head tilted back and her right hand placed on her hip, the stance of this young girl exudes confidence. When discovered in 1926 she was named the ‘dancing girl’, however, this may not be her profession. An alternative reading is provided by the fact that while her left arm is adorned with a series of bangles, her right only has two, perhaps leaving it free to undertake some form of labour. She may represent an attendant, guardian or even be a children’s toy.

Statue of a woman

Gypsum
About 2400 BC
Iraq
British Museum

Many statues representing both men and women have been discovered in the early cities of ancient Mesopotamia. They are frequently discovered at sacred sites and probably represents donors to the temple. These statues would stand in perpetual prayer on behalf of the individuals that they represented.

The woman represented here wears a long, fringed garment and her eyes were originally inlaid with precious stones. Her eyebrows meet in the middle, which was considered a sign of great beauty.

The Harappan civilisation – the Indus valley

Emerging in around 3000 BC, the Harappan civilisation at its height covered over 500,000 square kilometres of what is now Pakistan and northwest India. The civilisation is celebrated for its town-planning, trading networks and metalwork. The remarkable uniformity in the planning of the cities, monumental architecture, networks of canals and standardisation of weights and measures, reveal the existence of complex systems of human organisation and governance. Yet the precise nature of that state – how it was governed, or the role played by religion – like many other aspects of this extraordinary civilisation, remains a mystery.

 

Harappan brick

Terracotta
About 2500–1800 BC
Mohenjodaro, Sindh, Pakistan
CSMVS, Mumbai

Archaeologists have discovered over a thousand cities and towns dateable between 3000–1700 BC across the regions of Gujarat, Sindh, Balochistan, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. Baked bricks, like this example, were used to construct houses in the larger Harappan cities, while sun-dried mud bricks were used for houses in smaller towns. The cities themselves were built on massive mud-brick platforms and are famous for their beautifully conceived granaries, reservoirs, wells, and streets lined with drains.

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Harappan head (replica)

Limestone
About 2500 BC
Mohenjodaro, Sindh, Pakistan
National Museum, New Delhi

 

This stone head is one of the few sculptural depictions of a person found in Harappan culture. He has a closely cut moustache and beard, and his wavy hair is pulled into a bun. Originally the sculpture’s eyes would have been inlaid. We do not know the identity or profession of the man. Although a similar figure has been referred to as a ‘Priest King’, little evidence has been found suggesting either how Harappan society was governed, or the existence of a priest class.

Mesopotamia – the land between two rivers

Mesopotamia is the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and covers what is now Iraq, northeast Syria and part of southeast Turkey. Around 5000 years ago, Mesopotamia witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation: small agricultural settlements evolved into large cities of between 30,000 and 40,000 people. One of the most famous is the city of Ur in what is now southern Iraq.

The Standard of Ur

Wood, shell, limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen
2600–2400 BC
Ur, Iraq
British Museum

This richly decorated box shows two sides of city life, war and peace. On the ‘peace’ side, the king banquets with other nobles, probably priests, while farmers and fishermen bring them food in tribute, including produce and fish, sheep, goats and oxen. This is a demonstration of the social hierarchy of the cities in Mesopotamia. The artist has made the figure of the king much larger to emphasise his pre-eminence.

While one side of the Standard shows the ruler running a flourishing economy, the other shows him with the army he needed to protect it. On the ‘war’ side the king watches as captive enemies are led to him. Below are depictions of the city’s army. These include some of the earliest representations of a chariot.

The luxury materials used to make the Standard reveal the extent of Ur’s trade: the lapis lazuli probably comes from Afghanistan and the shells from the Gulf.

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Plaque of a king

Grey limestone
2450 BC
Iraq
British Museum

This plaque shows Enannatum, ruler of Lagash, an important city-state in Mesopotamia. A cuneiform inscription identifies him as the king, and he is depicted with his hands clasped in an act of worship. The object was originally fixed to the wall of a temple. Temples were the most important buildings in early cities because they were dwellings for the gods. It was the king’s responsibility to provide the gods with housing and regular meals in the form of offerings.

Ancient Egypt – the River Nile

The ancient Egyptian civilisation began in around 3150 BC and lasted until it was conquered by the Romans in 30 BC. The pharaoh was the central religious and political figure in Ancient Egypt – responsible for making laws, collecting taxes and defending Egypt against its enemies. Life in ancient Egypt was shaped by the River Nile – in addition to being an important transport route, it also provided water for crops, fish, mud for making bricks and reeds for making papyrus.

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Relief of Mentuhotep II

Limestone
2055–2004 BC
Deir el-Bahari, Egypt
British Museum

                                         

This relief shows the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II (reigned 2055–2004 BC), whose name means ‘Montu is satisfied’; receiving the blessings of the falcon-headed god of war Montu (now largely destroyed). Mentuhotep II’s reign was marked by intense military activity. He is credited with having reunited Upper and Lower Egypt, and reopening trading links with the Levant. To further solidify his power, Mentuhotep II reorganised the administrative structure of Egypt, installing governors to limit the power of provincial officials.

Soul House

Fired clay
1991–1802 BC
Egypt
British Museum

This clay model of a two-storey dwelling represents a typical Egyptian house, its courtyard filled with offerings of bread, meat, fish and vegetables. This example is a ‘soul house’. Unlike Egypt’s elite, ordinary Egyptians could not afford mummification, tombs or elaborate funerary offerings. Instead, their burials were accompanied by pottery models, providing essentials such as food and shelter for the next life.

Transport and Trade

These three river valley civilisations did not exist in isolation but traded widely with other peoples by both land and sea. Harappan seals have been found in Mesopotamian cities such as Babylon, suggesting the two cultures exchanged goods and materials.

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Harappan seal found in Iraq

Steatite
2500–2000 BC
Found in Hillah (Babylon), Iraq
British Museum

These seals were found in the nineteenth century in the ruins of the early cities of Ur and Babylon in the Middle East, over 3,000 kilometres away from where they were made in South Asia. They initially baffled archaeologists as they did not resemble other Mesopotamian seals. Later, with the discovery of Mohenjodaro and Harappa where such seals were common, it was conclusively shown that Harappans must have had long-standing trading relations with cities in Mesopotamia. Ships sailed long distances, carrying goods and people between both places. These seals probably belonged to merchants who made their living through trade across the Indian Ocean.

Circular Harappan Seal

Steatite
2500–2000 BC
Found in Ur, Iraq
British Museum

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Model boat

Clay
2500 BC
Ur, Iraq
British Museum

 

This model is probably a representation of a boat used to navigate the reed marshes of southern Iraq. Larger vessels of the same style and manufacture were used to travel long journeys between the cities of the Middle East and South Asia, by following the coast of the Indian Ocean. This model demonstrates the significance of boats during both life and death: it may have been intended for use in the afterlife to ferry goods to the dead.

Miniature cart (reconstructed)

Terracotta
About 2500–1900 BC
Harappa, Punjab, Pakistan
CSMVS, Mumbai

Harappan carts, like this example, were designed to carry heavy loads and passengers, while others are made for speed and can accommodate only one or two riders. Harappan cities had well-developed trade systems reliant on rural agricultural communities, mines and contact with areas from where important resources could be sourced. Pack animals, riverboats and carts were used for transport.

 

Humped bull with gold horns

Banded agate and gold
Harappan period, About 1800 BC
Pur village, Bhiwani Khera, Haryana, India
Haryana State Archaeology and Museums

Several Harappan sites have yielded gold jewellery that was often found in burial contexts. Much of this jewellery was made of expensive materials, which were imported from different parts of the world. The recent discovery of the tiny bull found in Haryana reveals gold horns, which were also common in West Asia. It is made of banded agate, which was quarried in distant places such as Gujarat and Maharashtra. The two rings from Bhiwani Khera are made of closely coiled gold wires creating spirals, a motif that can be seen in comparable pieces from Anatolia (now Turkey) dated to the third millennium BC. The gem-set ring contains precious stones, including coral, suggesting trade links with coastal regions.

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Gold rings

Gold wire
Harappan period, 2000–1700 BC
Pur village, Bhiwani Khera, Haryana, India
Haryana State Archaeology and Museums

Gem-set ring

Gold with coral and precious stones
Harappan period, 2000–1700 BC
Pur village, Bhiwani Khera, Haryana, India
Haryana State Archaeology and Museums

Harappan weights

Chert
2200–1700 BC
Mohenjodaro, Sindh, Pakistan
National Museum, New Delhi

 

Trade in early cities required standardised weights and measures. Cube-shaped weights have been found at nearly every Harappan site and they are remarkably consistent. Large weights measure things in decimal increases, but smaller weights break units down to an eighth or even a sixteenth portion. This precision and uniformity of weights across sites is compelling evidence for the presence of regulatory authorities for commerce and governance in Harappan society.

Writing

All three river valley civilisations developed their own systems of writing, initially to aid in administration and trade. Mesopotamia is known for its cuneiform (wedge-shaped) writing, while ancient Egypt is famed for its hieroglyphs. Over 400 different signs and 4000 inscriptions on Harappan seals have been catalogued, although they still remain undeciphered.

Cuneiform tablet

Clay
About 3000 BC
Iraq
British Museum

The first writing in Iraq was created to administrate economic resources and the large numbers of people living in cities and states. The earliest known documents, like this one, are bureaucratic records. This tablet is a record of grain transactions – it lists units of two types of grains, written in two different counting systems. The symbols were impressed on damp clay with a reed and were read from right to left, top to bottom.

Hieroglyphic tablet for sacred oils

Calcite
2686–2134 BC
Egypt
British Museum

 

This tablet is engraved with columns of hieroglyphs, which developed as a writing system over 5,000 years ago in Egypt. This document was made to serve a religious purpose and lists the sacred oils that were used in Egyptian burial rituals. The text combines both visual representations and phonetic symbols. Each engraved column contains the name of one of the seven sacred oils, and below each name is the hieroglyph of an oil jar.

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Bull-like composite creature and ‘script’

Steatite
2200–1800 BC
Banawali, Haryana, India
Haryana State Archaeology and Museums

Seals and their impressions are a distinctive part of Harappan culture. Despite the shallowness of the carving, the animal forms are rendered with remarkable skill. By far the most popular symbol was the ‘unicorn’, which is more likely to be a humpless bull in profile. Seals sometimes also show composite creatures, made up of different animals and plants, which perhaps had a symbolic meaning. Rhinoceros and elephants have also been found on seals, indicating that their habitats once extended further west than they do today.

Rhino and ‘script’

Steatite
2700–2000 BC
Harappa, Punjab, Pakistan
National Museum, New Delhi

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Harappan bull or ‘unicorn’ seal with censor and ‘script’

Steatite
2500–2000 BC
Mohenjodaro, Sindh, Pakistan
National Museum, New Delhi

Beyond the city

Not all ancient societies were urban, even though they may well have been in contact with those who chose to live in cities. In South Asia, beyond the cities of the Harappan civilisation, people in what is today Maharashtra and Bengal created sophisticated objects made of bronze. Similarly, in northern Europe and Iran people were using metal to create weapons and tools. Meanwhile, the Olmecs, often referred to as the ‘mother culture’ of Central America, developed scripts, monuments and calendar systems that would have a huge influence on later civilisations such as the Maya and the Aztec.

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Rhinoceros

Bronze
1500–1050 BC
Daimabad, Maharashtra, India
National Museum, New Delhi

                       

This copper cart is one of a set of four, the others are modelled into an elephant, buffalo and a chariot drawn by two bullocks. These carts are too small to be visible to the public in a procession and too heavy to be used as toys. They are most likely expensive grave goods or ceremonial replicas. This rhinoceros bears some similarities with depictions on Harappan seals. Yet no major Harappan-style cities have been found in Maharashtra.

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Humped Bull

Copper
2000–1500 BC
Khajrabheri, West Midnapur, southwest Bengal, India
Archaeological Survey of India, Kolkata Circle

 

Southwest Bengal is yet to reveal any traces of elaborate construction or specific trade that characterises ‘urban civilisation’. The landscape and natural resources of the region may have been more conducive to a nomadic rather than a sedentary lifestyle. Despite not living in cities, the people of ancient Bengal did possess the technology to produce elaborate metalwork, including this remarkable interpretation of a humped bull. It was probably cast flat in an open mould.

Fish-tail dagger

Flint
2400–2000 BC
Denmark
British Museum

 

The Neolithic and Bronze Age periods in Europe saw the development of specialised tools, including daggers, which were knives or weapons with a pointed blade made out of stone. This example is made of dark yellow flint, a stone favoured because it splits relatively easily into thin, sharp splinters. With a triangular fish-tail handle and a peculiar seam detail, the flint has been worked with remarkable craftsmanship in order to make this tool to look like a bronze dagger.

Cast axe-head

Tin bronze inlaid with silver
2500–2000 BC
Made in Iran, found in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan
British Museum

Ancient Iranian craftsmen were highly skilled at casting metal weapons and seals, and carving stone vessels. This ceremonial cast axe head is from eastern Iran but was found on Pakistan’s northwest frontier. The decoration of this axe head shows a boar attacking a tiger which is, in turn, attacking an ibex. Tigers are now extinct in Iran. The use of silver inlay is very rare in this period, making this item almost unique.

Mask Pendant

Jade
1400–400 BC
Oaxaca, Mexico
British Museum

This mask was probably used as jewellery or part of a headdress. The full lips, narrow eyes and wide nose are typical Olmec stylistic features. The Olmec ruled in Mexico from about 1400–400 BC. They built the first cities in Central America, developed writing, and erected monumental sculptures and temples. The mask is made of green jade which was considered a potent embodiment of growth, fertility and the renewal of life in Mesoamerican cultures.