It was once of the earliest and possibly one of the most important civilisations in history but there is still a lot we don’t know about its centrepiece — the lost city of Mohenjo Daro. And the race is on the save its remains and better understand the mysterious society that built it.
Mohenjo Daro was the centre of a powerful ancient civilisation and one of the world’s earliest cities. The Bronze Age metropolis flourished around 3000BC in what is now India and Pakistan before its inhabitants mysteriously disappeared.
Some 5000 years on archaeologists believe the ruins could unlock the secrets of the Indus Valley people who occupied the once advanced city.
From its remains, we know they were skilled urban planners with a reverence for the control of water. According to archaeologists Mohenjo Daro — or “mound of the dead” — boasted flushable toilets and a water and waste system to rival many in modern Pakistan.
The ruins were first discovered around 1920 when an officer at the Archaeological Survey of India stumbled upon a flint that dated much further back than the Buddhist shrine he was identifying. In the following 50 years, large-scale excavations unveiled the giant grid of the roughly 5000-year-old metropolis.
Largely due to its ancient nature, there is still a lot we don’t know about the city and those who occupied it, including its original name. The remains lack palaces, temples, or monuments that could offer a glimpse into the makeup or hierarchy of the society. According to researchers, there has been no record of any obvious central seat of government or evidence of a king or queen who presided over the city.
Today researchers warn that unless something is done to protect the ruins, which are already suffering neglect and worn by erosion, it will fade to dust and obscurity and never take its rightful place in history.
“Everybody knows Egypt, nobody knows Mohenjo Daro, this has to be changed,” says Dr Michael Jansen, a German researcher working at the sun-baked site on the banks of the Indus river in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province.
Jansen is at the forefront of a new effort to promote the site internationally while finding ways to protect what is left.
Threats from heat stress to Islamic State
In summer temperatures can soar above 46 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit). “There is enormous thermo-stress,” says Jansen, adding that salt from the underground water table is also damaging the ruins.
But it’s more than just the weather and time, the biggest challenge remains Pakistan’s international image, tarnished by terrorism, corruption, poverty, and insecurity.
Pakistan’s bloody fight against militancy has also raised the spectre of destruction by an Islamist group, much like Islamic State destroyed the ruins in Syria’s Palmyra.
“Foreigners are afraid to visit Pakistan and the site because of the chronic issue of law and order”
What’s more damaging, though, are the ordinary citizens. As more visitors make their way to Mohenjo Daro, littering is becoming more commonplace in the once-pristine region. During the Sindh festival in February 2014, swarms of workers and electricians climbed all over the site to set up stages, put up tents and install huge lights—hammering them all into the delicate ancient ruins.
“It’s like you are jumping on the bed of a 5,000-year-old ailing patient,” Sardar Ali Shah, cultural minister in Sindh province, told AFP about the 2014 revelries.
The Role of Technology
Jansen and his Friends of Mohenjo Daro society aim to promote the site internationally, with plans to recruit Pakistanis around the world for conferences, seminars and debates.
Dr Kaleem Lashari, chief consultant to the Pakistani government over Mohenjo Daro, said they will also digitally archive the Indus script — which has never been deciphered — in hopes that making it accessible will increase the site’s profile.
At the site itself, he said, technical reviews are being held to examine the water logging issue and other ways to shore up the ruins, while exploring new, modern technology that allows researchers to ascertain what lies beneath the surface in the portions of the city not yet excavated.
Despite the many unanswered questions about the ancient society, scientists are not bidding to excavate more of the site until they can curb the abuse it faces. “It is actually preserved when it is buried,” Harvard University’s Dr. Richard Meadow says. Researchers would rather preserve the ruins than satiate their curiosity because, if the ruins wear away, Mohenjo Daro’s history will fade to dust with it.