Biggest Ivory Workshop in Ancient World Discovered in Pakistan

Italian and Pakistan archaeologists visit ancient Bhanbhore city on February 8, 2020 (Photo Courtesy: Consulate general of Italy Karachi)

More than 40 kilograms of ivory fragments unearthed in renewed excavation of the ancient port city of Bhanbhore’s Islamic period – and this was just the industry’s dumping ground

By Qaseem Saeed and Ruth Schuster Mar 05, 2020

KARACHI, Pakistan – Archaeologists revisiting the ruins of the 2,100-year-old port city of Bhanbhore in Pakistan’s Sindh province say they have found evidence of the biggest-ever ivory carving industry in the ancient world, certainly in the Islamic period.

No less than 40 kilograms (nearly 90 pounds) of ivory shards from workshops that date to about 800 years ago have been unearthed in the ruins of the ancient city – and that’s just what the workmen of antiquity were throwing out.

The excavators didn’t find finished ivory goods this time around, the archaeologists elaborate. “It’s like the waste coming out of a carpentry workshop,” archaeologist Simone Mantellini of the University of Bologna tells Haaretz.

The latest excavation of Trench 9 at the site, halfway between the Bhanbhore grand mosque – one of the earliest in the region – and its southern gate, began in 2017, about a century after the city’s scientific exploration began. The new dig is a joint project of the Sindh government’s Department of Culture and Antiquities and the Italian Foreign Ministry, through the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan.

The new exploration is led by the latter’s professor emeritus Valeria Piacentini with Mantellini and Agnese Fusaro, an archaeologist and ceramics specialist at the University of Barcelona.

The discovery in Trench 9 “is definitely the largest ivory workshop discovered in the world,” Mantellini says. Yet he suspects the ivory dumps found so far – detritus from a massive industry of carving elephant tusks during the Islamic period – is just the beginning: Archaeologists have only uncovered just a small part of the industrial area, he tells Haaretz.

Fragments of ivory, evidence of a vast ivory industry in Islamic-period Bhanbhore Muhammad Qaseem Saeed

No similar ivory deposit or workshop has been found elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent. This discovery is unique, the archaeologists say.

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On the mouth of the Indus River

Millennia after the event, it is hard to nail down the oldest cities and civilizations in the world. Intense settlement certainly began over 9,000 years ago, based on finds around the Mediterranean – including in Israel and Turkey – and the Indian subcontinent too. Settlements have been found in Balochistan, western Pakistan, that also date to around 9,000 years: they may have been the harbinger of the Indus Valley Civilization (also called the Harappan Civilization). That spanned today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, and is thought to go back around at least 7,500 years.

Discovered by accident in the mid-19th century, the ancient city of Harappa is located in modern Pakistan. About 400 kilometers (250 miles) away from Bhanbhore in Sindh province are the spectacular ruins of Mohenjo Daro, dated to at least 4,500 years ago and one of the biggest known settlements of the Indus Valley Civilization. Mohenjo Daro was abandoned in the 19th century B.C.E. as that civilization declined, possibly due to climate change and drought. Interestingly, the site’s original name was Moen Jo Daro, which in the Sindhi language means “Mound of the Dead.” Later, when the qualities of the infrastructure left everyone slack-jawed, it was changed to “Mohen Jo Daro” (“Mound of Happy People”).

Bhanbhore was founded rather later, in the first century B.C.E., at the mouth of the Indus River, about 65 kilometers east of Karachi. Founded during the Scytho-Parithan period, it continued throughout the Hindu-Buddhist period and the Muslim period, until collapsing in about the 13th century. Its name was not lost, though: Popular Pakistani folklore names Bhanbhore as the hometown of Sassi, the “Juliet of Sindh,” and Punno, her Romeo, who was a trader.

The city’s excavation began under Ramesh Chandra Majumdar in 1928, which was of course before the subcontinent’s partition into Pakistan and India. Following partition in 1947, extensive excavation of Bhanbhore resumed, this time under the direction of famed Pakistani archaeologist Fazal Ahmed Khan from 1958 to 1965.

Excavating Trench 9 at Bhanbhore Muhammad Qaseem Saeed

For all that Bhanbhore isn’t directly on the open sea, its strategic location on the Indus River delta apparently made it a major port and commercial hub in antiquity, trading with peoples around the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Bhanbhore also featured a large fortified citadel around 14,000 square meters in area. Previous excavations found buildings and streets beyond the walled city as well.

The city has also been tentatively identified as the starting point for the spread of Islam in Sindh during the Early Medieval period.

In 711, Sindh province was conquered by Arab forces under the command of Muhammad bin Qasim. Piacentini of the Sacred Heart university has suggested that Bhanbhore is the “missing” town of Debal through which bin Qasim entered Sindh. His theory is based in part on the theoretical unsuitability of alternative sites due to climatic conditions and unfavorable terrain. Not everybody agrees with his interpretation.

A broken pawn

Ancient Bhanbhore evidently had a brisk economy and, based on the evidence now found of the vast ivory industry, Mantellini thinks that working elephant tusks may have been a central pillar of its prosperity. He adds that earlier excavations in the 1950s and ’60s did find some finished ivory pieces.

The Bhanbhore industry couldn’t possibly have been making goods just for the locals, even if they decked themselves out in elephant teeth from head to toe. The volume was simply too big, and there is ample evidence of far-reaching trade.

Beautifully decorated redware pottery vessel with spout, Bhanbhore Sindh Cultural Dept

What were they making? It’s hard to know just from the junked fragments, but Mantellini thinks Bhanbhore’s main industry was ivory jewelry. Among other things, the archaeologists found corners knocked off squares – in other words, if you join the corners together, you get a shape like a square-shaped donut. This looks like detritus from the making of ivory rings, he suggests.

They also found what seems to be an unfinished pawn from a chess set. “Maybe it broke during processing and was discarded,” Mantellini postulates.

Where might the ivory for all this industriousness have originated? The townsfolk were unlikely to have husbanded vast herds of elephants. The ivory was probably brought in, possibly from India, Mantellini suggests.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, ivory was akin to gold and silver in value. It was a luxury item, from the Indus Valley and the Mediterranean to the Roman world. The sheer extent of the Bhanbhore ivory industry indicates that during the Islamic period, and certainly during the 12th and early 13th centuries, the town was prosperous – an impression bolstered by the imported items they got in exchange for their precious ivory. Or at least its elite were probably wealthy: as is the norm, the city’s culture was likely stratified, with richer classes and poorer ones, Fusaro points out.

Made in China

One of the surprises modern archaeology has sprung is the sheer extent of trading in antiquity. It seems to have started even before anybody could engrave a cuneiform order into a tablet. For instance, obsidian from Anatolia was found at the 9,000-year-old Neolithic settlement in Motza, by Jerusalem. The shiny volcanic glass may not have been traded directly, but may have wended its way over years or even centuries from its origin to its deposition point. Even so, people and goods were clearly getting about more than we might have expected in the Neolithic period, and within a few thousand years merchandise was being briskly traded by sea and land throughout the ancient world.

So ancient Bhanbhore evidently exported worked ivory and in exchange seems to have gotten a wealth of items – including glassware, which doesn’t seem to have been manufactured locally but to have been made in the Near East, possibly Syria, Fusaro says.

A more definitive hallmark of international trade is foreign pottery. Huge amounts of pottery were found in Bhanbhore from the Islamic period, from the early eighth century to possibly the late 12th or early 13th centuries, Fusaro tells Haaretz. Some is simple, coarse ware, but some exhibits more skillful manufacturing technique, such as decorated water pots with spouts.

Some pottery was apparently made locally – the redware, found throughout the excavation area. “The most interesting thing is that the shapes [of redware] continue to this day,” Fusaro enthuses. “We can see a very interesting continuity of tradition throughout the centuries.”

She herself coined a name for another apparently local product, “grayware,” which exhibited a higher standard of manufacturing than the redware. Producing grayware required technological prowess, Fusaro explains: “You have to control the atmosphere and temperature perfectly during the firing process in the kiln.”

Common decorations on the grayware included engravings and rouletting – a kind of stamp decoration. The potters would also burnish the pottery surface to make it shiny, practically metallic in appearance. Clay vessels would have been markedly cheaper to produce than prized actual metal, she points out.

But other pottery was imported, including from India. The surface treatment, decoration and shaping are typical of eastern Gujarat, she says, qualifying that the origin isn’t sure at this stage. Yet other pieces originated in Iraq and Iran: the Iranian pottery has been dated to the 10th and 11th centuries.

Pottery “basket”, Bhanbhore Sindh Cultural Dept

Possibly the finest pieces came from China. The archaeologists found vessels made of porcelain, a fine-grained white clay that can be fired very thin. They also found a large number of Changsha jars, which were like a packing crate in the ancient Asian world, Fusaro explains to Haaretz.

Changsha jars were used to transport goods – rather like amphorae were used in the Levant and Europe to move olive oilwine and garum. (A whole hold-full of Changsha jars was discovered in the “Belitung shipwreck” – an Arabian dhow that apparently foundered off Indonesia while sailing from China toward Africa around the year 830. The Changsha jars found in that wreck in 1998 were made in China but decorated in Islamic fashion.)

There may also have been a major earthquake in the late Islamic period: the Indian subcontinent is seismically frisky and there is some evidence that Bhanbhore was stricken from time to time and was all but destroyed in around 280. If so, it was rebuilt.

In the late 12th century, however, Bhanbhore seems to have entered into its final decline.

Apparently the river delta was silting up, as river deltas do, and the locals began fixing pottery, Fusaro says – an indication that trading had also dried up. As drought struck the land, the Indus River changed course and Bhanbhore found itself sitting on a silted creek. And its people left.

Nobody lives there anymore and the site is protected by the Sindh government. Bhanbhore may possibly gain protection from UNESCO too: the discovery of the gigantic ivory industry may well have boosted its chances of gaining coveted World Heritage status. For now, it’s on the tentative list

Built on the mouth of the Indus River, Bhanbhore had been a busy port before the delta silted up Muhammad Qaseem Saeed
Ruins at Bhanbhore Muhammad Qaseem Saeed

Qaseem SaeedHaaretz Contributor