Visiting Research Scholar Spotlight: Marta Ameri


The Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilization covered an area of over one million square kilometers in South Asia during the third millennium BCE. Excavations at sites in modern-day India and Pakistan have revealed an impressive civilization characterized by a shared material culture and extensive trade networks. One fascinating example of this shared material culture is the extensive corpus of miniature arts — seals, seal impressions and molded tablets — found at sites throughout the Greater Indus Valley. These are small objects, but they remain, especially if you are an art historian like me, some of the best tools we have for understanding Harappan culture and society.

Visual culture plays an important role in how societies define themselves. Our perception of our world is colored by everything from the paintings and photos we hang in our homes to the ads that line the roads on our way to work. Life in the ancient world was probably not much different. It is likely that the iconography embedded in the seals, sealings and tablets of the Indus Valley played a significant role in the visual codification of Harappan culture. Yet, the fact that the Indus script remains undeciphered, paired with the lack of comparable iconography in contemporary or later contexts, poses significant challenges for the interpretation of these materials.  With these limitations in mind, I approach the seals, sealings, and tablets of the Indus valley as elements in a visual system that used specific imagery to convey meaning or information to an informed viewer.

While visual analysis and iconographic studies of material culture are invaluable tools in studying the ancient world, they have often been overlooked in the study of South Asian archaeology. As an art historian working on the seals and other miniature artworks of the Indus Valley (or Harappan) Civilization, I utilize methodologies typically used in the study of Mesopotamian art, particularly the stylistic and iconographic study of seals and seal impressions, to analyze artifacts from the Harappan world in an attempt to gain a better understanding of this enigmatic culture. In my time at ISAW, I have been working on an article that examines the ways in which small differences in the iconography of the seals and molded tablets may be representative of larger differences in regional or personal identity. I have also started work on a larger book project on Indus seals. That volume is framed as a series of explorations of how varied art historical and archaeological methodologies can be used to interpret the visual and practical aspects of seal production and use in prehistoric South Asia.

Read more about Marta Ameri's work and research on her biography page