This phrase from a French documentary about the Indus Valley civilization that screened Sunday night. Quite a large slice of the program concerned a site at Dholavira in Gujarat, now a virtual island with the Arabian Sea to the west and the two marshy arms of the evocatively named Rann of Kutch to the north- and south-east. Dholavira is remarkable for its stone constructions of vast reservoirs which may have been public baths; indeed, according to this view, the Indus Valley civilization was 'about' water. The French film makers characterized the people as democratic, egalitarian, peaceable, game-playing, ecologically aware ... noble antiques, perhaps.
It twigged something in my mind and, today, I went back to some books I've owned since the mid-sixties: Leonard Cottrell's 2 volume Penguin Book of Lost Worlds (1966). I had some vague memory of a completely different take on the Harappans, as they're sometimes also known, after one of their main cities. Cottrell writes: Part of its fascination lies in the grim fact that it appears to have foreshadowed some of the economic features of the totalitarian state ... the barrack-like buildings, the huge granaries, and the raised platforms on which rows of workmen pounded grain all suggest a life of controlled communal activity. Cottrell hedges this rather large claim about with many qualifications but you can still tell that he thinks it's probably more or less true.
It's a bit like the debate about the even earlier city states in Turkey, which some archaeologists have characterized as insect like cellular structures full of terrified humans propitiating strange gods, and others as idyllic shrines to the great Mother Goddess. Goddess worship has also been alleged in the Indus Valley; and at Dholivera was found a large sign (13 characters) that was once fixed over one of the gates to the city, which suggested that there might be enough in it to begin the decipherment of their mysterious script - but alas, no. The writing, if that's what it is, remains, like Cretan Linear A, unreadable. The brilliant English linguist Michael Ventris was said to be about to tackle the Indus Valley signs when he died in a car accident in the early 1950s. Since then, no-one has come close.
But one thing leads to another and wandering in cyberspace I found an article in The Hindu about a recent find in the south of India. It's a celt, an ancient worked stone tool, with four of the signs carved into it. The first of these has been tentatively translated as the name of the god Murukun and this is further held, by some, as proof that the language of the Indus Valley was an early form of Dravidian. The Indus Valley fascists/lotus-eaters' civilization disappeared about the time of the Aryan invasions from the north in the second millennium BC. Again, the experts are split: some say that the people of the Rig Veda put the Indus people to the sword, others that it was more a case of accommodation and assimilation than of conquest.
I like better what the Frenchman said: the people began to live in a manner less visible to archaeology.