Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

If Rita Wright is a Genius, Why Can’t She Write?

Rita Wright, The Ancient Indus: Urbanism, Economy, and Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Reviewed by John Bedell

Mohenjo-daro "priest king"Rita Wright is a highly regarded archaeologist who has worked in Pakistan, Iran, and Oman, and a certified genius, winner of a MacArthur fellowship when she was just four years out of graduate school. So when I saw her new book about the Indus Valley civilization on the shelf at my library, I snatched it up. I find the Indus Valley civilization fascinating. The great brick cities, dating to about 2600 to 1900 BC, with their sophisticated sewers and giant baths; the untranslatable written language; the artistic vocabulary unlike that of any other culture; the mysterious disappearance of the whole culture within a few decades, leaving herders and scattered villages. Since the last thing I read about it was Mortimer Wheeler’s book from 1968, I was eager to find out what has happened in Indus studies since.

Argh. This thing is the most indigestible gruel of academic jargon, confused syntax, and tedious disorganization I have tried to force down in years, possibly since I left graduate school. Every sentence is clumsy except the ones that are straight on clichés, like “The explorations and excavations undertaken by Indus scholars in the past fifty years have revolutionized our understanding of this great civilization” (21) and “In conclusion, important changes took place during the Pre-urban period” (104). Out of cliché mode, Wright never uses an ordinary word when she can think of a convoluted academic expression that would mean the same thing. For example, instead of “seashells” she says “marine resources (evidence of marine shells)”. She seems to have a particular loathing of the words “farming” and “agriculture,” preferring “agropastoral economy,” a locution that appears on almost every page. People do not trade or exchange gifts, they “particpate in widespread interaction spheres.” The thing is littered with the ugly, unnecessary transitional phrases beloved of Freshmen – “As discussed earlier,” “Additionally,” “Of additional significance”, “Finally, as I mentioned in the introduction to this chapter”, “With respect to the alignments of settlements,” “In conclusion.”
Rita Wright went to Wellesley and Harvard, and her writing is so bad it makes me wonder about the quality of education they offer.

map of the Indus CivilizationAcademic writing is usually defended, when it is defended, as somehow necessary because of its increased prec
ision. I suppose Wright would say that “agropastoral economy” is more precise than the alternatives, because the dwellers in Indus cities had important connections with the wandering herders who inhabited much of the semi-desert terrain around them. But Wright’s writing is anything but precise. The thickets of her interlocking phrases are so dense that they lead even her astray, producing nonsense like “Agriculture and other forms of pastoralism.” (93) I have found several sentences that make absolutely no sense because of some syntactical flaw. As in, “With the exception of Harappa, two of the settlements on the Ravi were small towns that had been occupied in the Pre-Urban.” (128) No, it doesn’t mean any more in context. Consider this gem:

Since Mehgarh’s initial settlement at around 7000 B.C., between Period IV and Period VII, the overall size and number of nearby settlement and those beyond Baluchistan increased (see Chapter IV). (71)

Periods IV to VII span 3200 to 2500 BC, and Mehgarh was founded, as you might guess, in Period I, so the presence of the “initial settlement” and the 7000 BC date in a paragraph otherwise devoted to periods IV through VII is rather puzzling. Or it would be puzzling if you hadn’t already had enough experience of Wright’s prose to realize it is just another dumb mistake. Mehgarh is a very important neolithic site to which Wright devotes a whole chapter, so this didn’t happen because she was trying to cram too much into a paragraph. It happened because she cannot hear what she is saying. And while I am on the subject, Wright has a thing for completely uninformative tables, but a table laying out the dates and important developments in Mehgarh I to VII would have come in handy.

Indus Seal with a "unicorn" and Indus textWhen hard-boiled academic writers like Rita Wright try to communicate with ignorant mortals on lower planes, they frequently get confused about what they need to explain. Parts of this book are written at an Archaeology 101 level, complete with tables telling us that wool comes from sheep and grapes are used to make wine. But in other places the terminology is impenetrable. Especially when she writes about ceramics, Wright deploys words of breathtaking obscurity like “carination” and “legitation” – I had to look both of those up. Sometimes she uses a word dozens of times before finally deciding to define it; “agropastoral economy”, her favorite, is defined on page 166. I wonder if some of this results from bad editing at Cambridge University Press. Perhaps some poor junior editor was told to “do what you can” with an indigestible manuscript from Wright, resulting in this mishmash of the overly technical and the insulting.

The individual sentences and paragraphs, though awful enough, are not the only problem. The book seems organized to maximize the tedium. We start with a short history of archaeology in the Indus region, which passes over telling exciting stories about notable archaeological characters in favor of spare lists of settlements and the dates when they were excavated. Then we have a bewildering and completely inconclusive sketch of the evidence for how the local climate has changed over the past 10,000 years. Wright does not try to draw any simple conclusions about how climate change influenced the course of civilization, which I think is a good thing, but it does render this whole section rather pointless. By the time Wright actually gets to expounding some archaeology, most readers will have given up and tossed the book into the “to be sold if possible and thrown away if not” pile.

But enough on the appalling writing! What does the genius archaeologist have to tell us about the Indus Valley Civilization?

Not much.

Really. Not that Wright doesn’t pass on a lot of information. But she is the sort of rigorously positivistic scientist who finds it very difficult to say anything with certainty. It is, after all, difficult to draw firm conclusions about human behavior from potsherds and mud brick walls, beyond the obvious facts that the people in question made pots and built with mud brick. Those fun expositions of human sacrifice on megalithic altars, dancing shamans, or tribes of beaker-carrying, bow-wielding, chariot-riding warriors invading Bronze Age Britain owe a lot to the imagination of the writer, and there are often much more prosaic explanations for the things we see in the ground. Not that the exciting explanations might not be right – I think there was a lot of  human sacrifice, cannibalism, and warfare, and migration in prehistory. But it is very hard to tell for sure.

Harappa "granary"Forty years ago, the writers of popular archaeological books thought they knew a lot about the Indus Civilization. The big Indus cities that they knew, Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, were built of fired bricks, laid out in grid plans, and equipped with impressive networks of water wells and sewers. The bricks were all made in standardized molds. The cities are divided into separate neighborhoods, each neighborhood surrounded by a wall. One of the biggest structures in Mohenjo-daro is a sort of swimming pool called the Great Bath. Harappa boasts a strange structure divided into narrow rooms that was called the Granary (right). Combing all this with what we know of later Indian civilization, they imagined a world obsessed with cleanliness and strictly ruled by a priestly elite, perhaps with a Priest King at the top. The Great Bath showed that purification by water was central to their rituals, as it is in modern Hinduism. The Granary showed that the economy was partly socialistic, with the grain supply controlled by the priests; long-distance trade, for example with Mesopotomia, was also under priestly control. Warfare was unimportant.

brick drain in HarappaWright would accept hardly any of this. Microscopic study of soil from the “Granary” produced no evidence of grain, so she doubts that is what the building was used for. She notes that there is no building in any Indus city that everyone accepts is a temple, which makes her wonder how we know that priests were powerful. There were certainly no palaces, so she dismisses the notion of Priest Kings. Yes, the sewers are impressive, but that could just be for practical reasons. (She doesn’t mention it, but the other great sewer builders of ancient times, the Romans, had no particular religious obsession with cleanliness.) She rolls her eyes at the endless debate among Indian academics over whether certain images in Indus art depict the god Shiva. How, you can hear her saying, could anyone possibly know?

One of the more interesting parts of Wright’s book considers how the highly skilled craft workers of the Indus were organized. They were masters of some quite sophisticated technologies that had been developed over hundreds of years. Consider the long carnelian beads that were traded as far as the Mediterranean. Manufacturing the beads was a complex process that required three separate heatings of the stone, and multiple steps of grinding, drilling, and polishing – somebody who tried this estimated that even for experienced workers it would take about 14 hours per bead. It was once assumed that these masters worked for the temples, but Wright sees no evidence of this. The craft workshops are in modified houses, within residential neighborhoods, and there are no seals or other signs of officialdom.  Most of them, she argues, worked in family businesses. Some of their skills, she suspects, were family secrets, passed down the generations and jealously guarded from outsiders, which is how many crafts are organized in India and Pakistan today.

I suppose this is where the “genius” part comes in. For a scientist as rigorous as Wright, it is nearly impossible to say anything about the past at all, so these conclusions about the organization of skilled trades come across as major advances – never mind that they are much less comprehensive and interesting than the old reconstructions that she has dismissed.

Indus Seal depicting mythical sceneWright devotes a long chapter to careful consideration of the evidence for Indus religion. Since there are no temples, except for maybe the Great Bath, this evidence is all iconographic: statues made of ceramic or stone, terra cotta masks, and especially the images carved on square stone seals. Wright thinks this material resembles contemporary materials from Mesopotamia more than later Indian religious art, so she is not impressed by arguments about proto-Hinduism. After several pages of acute description of the imagery and densely written theoretical work, she manages to produce this statement about the religious world of the Indus artists:

. . . an Indus pantheon of gods and goddesses, heroes and humans together engage in actions in a natural and supernatural world. . . . (293)

Could there possibly be a more generic, less interesting conclusion about an ancient religion? Those words describe the beliefs of almost everyone in Eurasia who lived before Buddha and Christ. And yet Wright seems to think she has offered a “more robust alternative” to the picture of cleanliness-obsessed, priest-dominated, proto-Hinduism imagined by Wheeler. Really she has offered nothing at all. Perhaps she is right, and the evidence does not allow us to go beyond her basic conclusions, but it seems odd that she does not realize how much she has given up.

Part of the fascination with the Indus civilization comes from the suddenness of its end. Some time around 1900 BC, all of the great cities went into decline. Parts of the cities were abandoned, and within the still-occupied portions, the sewers were no longer cleaned out, the larger houses were divided into smaller structures by shoddily made walls, and the evidence for long-distance trade dries up. By 1700 BC the cities had all been abandoned. And it wasn’t just the big cities; the careful surveys Wright describes have shown that many villages were also abandoned. In some regions the total area of all the known settlements fell by 80 percent. The two main theories of why have been environmental change and invasion. The modern peoples of northern India speak Indo-European languages, and they also have historic traditions that describe invasions by “Aryans” from the north. So, naturally, earlier historians and archaeologists thought that a wave of peoples from the north invaded ancient India, bringing their languages with them and disrupting Indus civilization. Wright says this notion “can be put to rest,” and there certainly is not much archaeological evidence for it. But, as I ask all the time, if there were no invasions, how did the languages spread?

That leaves environmental change, and we know that the modern Indus valley is drier than it was 4000 years ago. Two of the major rivers of Indus times have completely dried up. There are two problems with this as an explanation for the demise of Indus culture. First, the Indus city dwellers were masters of irrigation technology, and there still is and always has been enough water flowing down the Indus to sustain a large population with no rain at all. Second, the evidence for the dating of these environmental changes is all over the place, with estimates ranging from 4000 to 500 BC.

So we are left, as with so many things Wright discusses, with no explanation at all. It is rather depressing, really, to learn how little of what we once thought we knew about the Indus stands up to rigorous scrutiny. But that is what genius does, I suppose, and one can imagine a book that explained all this in a fascinating way, chipping away brick by brick at our old imaginary reconstruction of Indus culture and showing how little we really know. But that book will have to be written by someone other than Rita Wright.

May 26, 2010

Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro

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