The excavation yielded 53 burials, six of which were unearthed in 2014-15; the remaining in the 2015-16 digging season. The necropolis, dated to between 2,500 BC and 2,000 BC, or the Mature Harappan Period, sprawls under a 1 hectare patch of land that has long been under cultivation by present-day residents of Rakhigarhi. Some of the graves contained full skeletal remains, and have been classified as primary burials; in others, only a few human bones were found along with votive pots (secondary burials); in yet others, only pots were found (symbolic burials that suggest that the person died elsewhere, and was symbolically interred here).
In all, the excavation unearthed at least 46 sets of complete or partial skeletal remains — 41 in primary burials; five in secondary burials. The researchers subcategorised the primary burials into “typical” and “atypical” cases. Typical cases — single bodies buried in supine position inside a plain pit — outnumber atypical ones, which have brick-lined graves, multiple bodies, or prone-positioned burials.
Of the 46 sets of skeletal remains, 37 were subjected to anthropological examination and DNA tests. Seventeen were determined to be over 18 years of age (adults); eight were “sub-adults”, that is, younger than 18; and the ages of 12 could not be determined. Two of the sub-adults were children aged between 2 and 5 years. Of the 17 whose sex could be determined, seven were found to be males, and 10 were females.
The findings were analysed at Deccan College, Pune, and at the DNA lab at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. Deccan College has a research collaboration for the Rakhigarhi project with the College of Medicine at Seoul National University, and the DNA tests were conducted at the Hyderabad lab by South Korean scientists. The DNA was extracted using a new technique that involves rupturing the petrous bone, a small bone between the jaw and the ear. Only teeth or jaw bones have so far been considered for extracting DNA.
Dr Dong Hoon Shin, one of the South Korean scientists, posted online that the investigation involved, “1) gross anthropological study (determination of sex and age, identification of any pathological signs in bones, forensic investigation for race determination, etc.); 2) paleoparasitological study (analysis of soil sediments on hipbones, determination of any presence of parasite eggs, drawing of tentative conclusions on parasitic infection of Harappan people); 3) aDNA mitochondrial, Y-chromosomal, autosomal and stable-isotope analyses (obtainment of information on maternal and paternal lineages); 4) first-ever facial reconstruction of approximately 4,500-year-old Harappan person (based on DNA and forensic data…).”
This isn’t the first time that such burials have been found at a Harappan site — the most signficant necropolis was found in Harappa itself; burial grounds have also been discovered in Lothal (Gujarat); Kalibangan (Rajasthan); Farmana (Haryana), Sanauli (UP), and during a previous Archaeological Survey of India excavation in Rakhigarhi in 1997-2000.
It is important to note, however, that the numbers of known Harappan sites are over 2,000, and funerary findings are, therefore, still sparse. While Harappan studies have focused primarily on urban design, crafts and trade, funeral customs say a lot about a community, what its people value, its social heirarchy, gender relations, and how it treats its children. Forensic-anthropolgical studies of remains can reveal much about what a people ate, their longevity, and why and how they died. Studies of funeral customs can reveal links between peoples across space and time.
There are five big known centres of the Harappan civilisation — three in Pakistan (Harappa and Ganweriwala in Punjab, and Mohenjo Daro in Sindh), and two in India (Dholavira and Rakhigarhi). While the study authors are careful to underline that “the Harappan Civilization’s normative form or forms of body disposal remains unclear to us, (and) we have to allow for the possibility that diverse groups… had distinctive mortuary customs”, in Rakhigarhi, a distinctive practice was “the burial of the body without any process of reduction”.
The paper has noted pit burials with multiple bodies, and prone (face down) burials as significant departures from other Harappan necropolises. Most burials pits, however, had only set of remains, and the body was fully extended in the supine (face up) position, with the head to the north. Some graves had pots in them, others had none.
In some graves, some votive pots had animal bones, which may have been from meat placed with the body as an offering to the dead. In secondary burials — pots containing human bones — the remains bore no signs of charring, thus ruling out cremation as a practice.
One atypical burial contained five sets of remains in one pit. According to the study, all were buried at the same time — the two skeletons found in the pit, that is primary burials, were excellently preserved, and appeared to be male. The others were secondary burials, and contained human bones in pots. This multiple-individual grave had a higher number of “grave goods” than in any other burial pit found at Rakhigarhi.
What the finds indicate
The burial structures and grave goods of the Rakhigarhi necropolis were “determined to be generally humble in nature”, says the study, with their differences being “possibly reflective of ritual status and/or the dynamic situation prevailing at the time of the individual’s death”. Brick-lined burials (as opposed to plain pits) were among the most elaborately constructed graves, and possibly implied a high social or ritual status.
Significantly, every individual found in a brick-lined pit was determined to be female, leading the study authors to ask whether these women played a special role in the community. Brick-lined graves also included more votive pots than did typical interments; however, women in typical burials got fewer votive pots than men, leading the study to ask if there were “discriminatory” attitudes toward women in general.
Prone-position bodies, a rarity in archaelogical finds, are usually held to be those that the community did not like. However, in Rakhigarhi, these individuals seem to have got elaborate burials with numerous grave goods. Two burials had been done on a bed of pottery, which may be indicative of high social status.
Combined with other finds, including a goldsmith’s workshop, a complex of mud-brick structures, and the usual Harappan antiquities — potsherds, terracotta, agate and steatite beads, stone and copper artefacts — the necropolis confirms the earlier belief that there was a sizeable community at Rakhigarhi.— With Anjali Marar in Pune