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Discovery of Sprawling Ancient Burial Site Sheds Light on Early Indian Civilization

In 2019, a team of scientists embarked on an excavation project in the remote village of Khatiya in the Kutch region of India, unaware that they were about to stumble upon a remarkable discovery. What they initially thought was an ancient settlement turned out to be a sprawling burial site, offering invaluable insights into one of the world’s earliest urban civilizations. Led by archaeologist Rajesh SV from the University of Kerala, this excavation endeavor has since revealed approximately 500 graves belonging to the Indus society, also known as the Harappan civilization.

The Indus society, characterized by austere farmers and traders residing in walled, baked-brick cities, rose to prominence around 5,300 years ago in the north-western regions of present-day India and Pakistan. Over the past century, researchers have unearthed up to 2,000 sites associated with this remarkable civilization.

Situated near Khatiya village in Gujarat, India, this burial ground is believed to be one of the largest “pre-urban” cemeteries of the Indus society discovered to date. Scientists estimate its usage spanned approximately 500 years, from 3200 BC to 2600 BC, with the oldest graves dating back approximately 5,200 years.

The ongoing excavations have revealed an array of burial artifacts, including more than 100 bangles and 27 beads made of shell. Among the discoveries are ceramic vessels, bowls, dishes, pots, small pitchers, beakers, clay pots, water cups, bottles, and jars. Notably, some graves contain beads crafted from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone. These graves possess distinctive features, such as sandstone-lined burial shafts that vary in shape—some oval, others rectangular. Smaller graves indicate the burials of children, while most adult bones have dissolved due to the acidic soil.

This discovery has been met with enthusiasm by the scientific community. Brad Chase, a professor of anthropology at Albion College, Michigan, has described it as “hugely significant.” It appears to be the largest pre-urban cemetery in Gujarat, potentially providing diverse grave types that can enhance our understanding of pre-urban society in the region.

Previous excavations in the Punjab region of Pakistan provided some insights into the burial practices of the Indus people. These funerals were characterized by simplicity compared to the lavish burials of elites in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Deceased individuals were typically wrapped in textile shrouds and placed in rectangular wooden coffins. Pottery offerings were common, with the grave pit often filled before the coffin’s placement. Some people were buried with personal ornaments like bangles, beads, and amulets. Women were occasionally buried with copper mirrors, while adults were laid to rest with various vessels associated with serving and storing food. Notably, no significant wealth accompanied the deceased, and most displayed signs of good health, with some evidence of arthritis and physical stress.

Despite these discoveries, numerous mysteries surround the Indus civilization, including the enigma of their undeciphered writing. The massive burial ground in Gujarat raises further questions. Was it a communal resting place for nearby settlements? Could it have served as a sacred cemetery for nomadic travelers, given the presence of lapis lazuli likely sourced from distant Afghanistan? Or was it a “secondary” burial site? Researchers remain hopeful that continued excavations may reveal answers to these questions, including potential nearby settlements.

The mysteries of the Indus civilization persist, and this winter, scientists plan to explore a site north of the cemetery near Khatiya in the hopes of uncovering a settlement. Whether or not a settlement is found, these ongoing excavations promise to shed more light on one of the earliest civilizations in the Indian subcontinent.