Revisiting Harappan Iconography

Seals, Sealing and Tablets as Small Windows onto the Indus Valley Civilization

Marta Ameri

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar


During the second half of the third millennium BC, the Harappan civilization covered an area of over one million square kilometers in South Asia, extending from the Afghan highlands to Western India. Excavations sites in modern-day India and Pakistan like Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, and Dholavira have shown that this impressive civilization was characterized by a shared material culture and extensive trade networks. A 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. The iconography of the Harappan world embedded in these objects includes a number of iconic characters, scenes, and narratives. While there is no question that these images played an important role in the visual codification of Harappan culture, the fact that the Indus script remains undeciphered, paired with the lack of comparable iconography in contemporary or later contexts, poses significant challenges to their interpretation. This talk focuses on the role that seals, sealings and tablets play in codifying the visual vocabulary of the Harappan world and on how the imagery they bear may have conveyed information to an informed viewer.

Marta Ameri is an art historian and archaeologist whose work focuses on the art and archaeology of prehistoric South Asia and its connections with Middle Asia and the Gulf Region. She received her BA in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College and her MA and Ph.D. in Art History and Archaeology from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 2010. She is currently Assistant Professor of Art History at Colby College, where she teaches courses focusing on Ancient, Medieval and Islamic Art.

Her research explores the development of cultures as well as the connections between them through a lens that is guided primarily by art historical practice, but also takes into account the strong theoretical and methodological approaches of archaeology, anthropology, and historiography. Her dissertation catalogued and examined a group of seals and seal impressions found at the late third millennium Ahar-Banas Culture site of Gilund in Western India. Her current research focuses on the visual analysis of seals of the Indus Valley Civilization.

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