Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.
This week concludes a Special DfB series on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. If the planet provided a place to build, humans have tried to live there. Most are aware of the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, these civilizations well-documented by both themselves and a host of archeologists that have studied them. But, there was a third great flowering of society, a contemporary and possibly older one that remained hidden until recent times. This society obtained a high degree of societal and technological advancement but due to its location and yet undecipherable writings continues to offer an enigma. Welcome to, the Indus Valley.
The Indus Valley Civilization
Major fresh water rivers provide the food required to birth civilizations. In ancient India, the Indus and now dried Ghaggar-Hakra rivers formed one such fertile valley that provided sustenance to millions – far beyond the populations of Egypt of Mesopotamia. It is this burst of human life that formed into the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC from here forward) between 3300 – 1300 BCE.
The IVC flourished for nearly two millennium and then, dissipated. It is likely that climatic shifts in the position of the Indus River and subsequent drying of the Ghaggar-Hakra led to this sudden change – no food, no way to support the civilization (this is a common reason for the sudden collapse of the Mayan culture as well). What was left in the wake of the IVC is a puzzle and a mystery that continues to baffle.
You see, the Indus built hundreds of villages and cities spanning through modern day India, Pakistan and as far as Afghanistan. Cities capable of housing tens of thousands, sometimes within a single structure. Well-planned cities with straight streets and defined sections for housing and public services (such as baths). Cities with plumbing equivalent to what we now use. Heated baths. Advanced metallurgy, art, pottery and jewelry. And, metallic seals that bear a form of pictographs that defy decryption.
The Indus had no known king or standardized religious influence yet they used a uniform system of urban development and planning, brick sizes, weights and measures and general equality amongst all members of society that suggests a ruling body of some form that continues to elude discovery. Or perhaps it is right in the open and simply hard to believe.
The largest of the Indus cities was rediscovered in 1922 when an officer of the Archeological Society of India was led to a mound by a Buddhist monk that believed it to be a stupa (reliquary for Buddhist icons and artifacts). The mound proved to be part of an extensive complex forming the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro.
Mohenjo hosted a central market, multi-storied housing (a rarity of the ancient world), a major public bath with a
hypocaust (which would allow for heating), large assembly halls and a massive residential structure in the upper part of the city capable of housing 5000 residents. Perhaps the worlds first apartment complex.
Artifacts found at Mohenjo show a complex and diverse society. A statue found here called The Dancing Girl elicits the idea of a free and relaxed society while a soapstone bust is reminiscent of those found depicting rulers throughout the ages – however, like all Indus complexes, there is no evidence of palaces, temples, rulers or priests. Is it possible that one of the first societies was egalitarian? A free and open democracy? The thought is an intriguing one and if true would make the Indus unique among ancient cultures.
So, how do we turn all of this into story? First, we shift the setting from the real world to that of story and then blend in a point of pure fiction associated with the site. Easy, right?
The Iron Thunderbolt
Whenever a point of history is questionable or difficult to define fertile ground exists for pseudo-history and its cousin, pseudo-archeology. In the case of Mohenjo-Daro, this comes in the form of something called the Iron Thunderbolt.
According to a Hindu religious text called the Mahabharata, powerful beings flying in blazing luminous vehicles carried an energy weapon capable of destroying cities and even entire cultures known as the Iron Thunderbolt.
Pseudo-historians grabbed hold of this idea and used a few unrelated (and debunked) points of Mohenjo history, such as flattened bodies holding hands in the street and glassified pottery remnants (baked to such a state by natural heat) to create a theory involving aliens, atomic weapons and an ancient war that led to the destruction of the Indus culture. Fantastical claims are always suspect and perfect fictional fodder.
Let me hurl an idea at you – an Iron Thunderbolt if you will.
For hundreds, possibly thousands of years the Overlords have ruled the land, the people and history with an iron fist. The cruelty of the Overlords is such that few oppose them and those that do suffer horrid public executions that encourage others to conform out of fear. Conformity is paramount to slavery but the alternative is worse.
From this world rises our hero, brimming with primal motivation to risk his life to free the land.
Against all efforts of the Overlords, there exists a whispered legend. In the long ago time, before the now, a place and a people existed that defied the Overlords advances by use of a powerful weapon. An Iron Thunderbolt. At some point, these mighty people fell to a natural catastrophe and they and their weapon vanished.
The Overlords covertly seek the weapon. A secret society of resistance seeks it as well. And it is out there. Waiting.
But is the real weapon the Iron Thunderbolt or the idea of a free and open society? Both are waiting in Mohenjo and it is up to you and your hero to decide which will truly free the oppressed from the grip of the Overlords.
In the twilight between history and pseudo-history, story thrives. What do you think? Other ideas come to mind? Any thoughts on Mohenjo and the Indus culture? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This post is the final one for the series on places. Next week we’ll move on to a new subject with tales of cannibalism, burials, the wicked and disease – the dark side of character and culture that harbors the visceral elements of story. I hope you’ll join me.