A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Trekking through dangerous territory to unravel ancient Indus trade routes
The author, with local guards, explored the Las Bela District of Baluchistan, Pakistan, for sources of soapstone (steatite), commonly used at the ancient Indus city of Harappa. (Courtesy Randall Law)
As i hiked up a steep mountain trail in the Safed Koh (White Mountains) one peaceful afternoon in August 2001, I thought about how the terrain was not much different from the Sierra Nevadas, near where I used to live in Tahoe. The pine-covered slopes, waterfalls, and outcrops of bare gray rock all felt familiar. But I was in Pakistan's Kurram Tribal Agency, just a few miles from the Afghanistan border. Joining me on the trail were a half-dozen heavily armed Frontier Police and local Pashtun tribesmen. Despite their AK-47s, they were a fun group who showed me which berries were good to eat and how to make chewing gum from pine sap. Traveling with this small army made me feel a little self-conscious, but the Pakistani authorities never would have let me visit the area without it—not that I would have wanted to. Some years before, a geologist I knew in Peshawar had been kidnapped there and held for ransom. And I had heard worse stories. Thankfully, we reached my destination, 10,000 feet up among the misty ridgetops, without incident. Afterward, local villagers generously feted my guards and me with a feast of roasted mutton. As I munched on pieces of pata tikka (liver wrapped in mutton fat), I reflected on my good fortune. Still, I didn't realize just how good it was. Later that same year, the battle between U.S. forces and al-Qaeda fighters erupted at Tora Bora, about 10 miles away on the Afghan side of the Safed Koh. The whole area has been off-limits to researchers ever since.
I had hiked into the Safed Koh range not in search of a lost city or some rare jewel, but to gather samples of soapstone. Steatite, as it is known to geologists, is just one of several dozen varieties of rocks and minerals that archaeologists have excavated at Indus civilization (ca. 2600–1900 B.C.) cities such as Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, Dholavira, and Rakhigarhi. Indus craftsmen used those raw materials to create myriad tools and some of the most exquisite ornaments in the ancient world. Scholars believe that the civilization's wealth and power were, to a significant extent, based on controlling the stone and metal goods trade through networks known to have extended as far as Mesopotamia. What is not known is exactly where these raw materials came from. My excursion to the tribal areas was part of a new, large-scale project to identify the geologic sources of those materials and figure out how the Indus people acquired rocks and minerals over time. During the past decade, I have climbed down into deep pits to retrieve carnelian nodules, crawled up talus slopes to obtain vesuvianite, and walked many miles through narrow gorges searching for chert and alabaster. I have also hauled a backbreaking amount of stone and paid a ransom to airlines in overweight baggage fees. And sometimes I've needed armed guards. All of this was necessary to move beyond decades of speculation about where the Indus people obtained these vital raw materials.
Randall Law is a lecturer and honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.