When we try to understand past civilizations, we usually focus on political structures and religious rituals - the sorts of things that form the cultural backbone of a fledgling society. But humans know how to mix in a little play with all that work...and in this mysterious, 4000 year old civilization on the Indus River Valley, playing with toys might have been far more important than we ever imagined.
Archaeologists look for clues that point to religious ceremonies or wealthy elites in ancient civilizations. Temples or palaces are great indicators of how a given society was organized, and we've found good evidence of these places in long distant civilizations like those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica. But one culture just doesn't fit the pattern: that of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, the 4000 year old cities of the Indus River Valley, located in modern Pakistan.
Indeed, these civilizations are just generally mysterious. Unlike other millennia-old culture, we have no idea what language they spoke or who their modern descendants might be. The people of the Indus might have had a system of writing, but it apparently wasn't used for any inscriptions longer than 17 characters, and most examples are found on tiny clay pieces that were tossed into ancient garbage tips.
Places like Egypt or China are brimming with massive monumental architecture and huge pieces of art - the biggest work we've ever discovered in the Indus is a small, life-size bust of a bearded man. Archaeologists dubbed him the "Priest King", but that might have been more out of desperation for something recognizable in the Indus culture than anything else.
The Indus Valley cities were remarkable engineering achievements, clearly planned cities that showed architectural understanding that the rest of the world would take many hundreds, if not thousands, of years to rediscover. And yet there's nowhere that archaeologists can point to and say definitively that it was the seat of political power or religious observance, and that has frustrated archaeologists greatly.
But we might know one thing about the Indus - they enjoyed playing with toys. Archaeologist Elke Rogersdotter has taken this even further, pointing out that huge clusters of toys are found in specific parts of the ancient Indus cities, almost like there were designated play areas. A tenth of all findings in the Indus cities are play-related, which includes toys as well as game pieces like dice.
According to Rogersdotter, these toys might offer our best chance yet of understanding the mysteries of the Indus River Valley:
"The marked quantity of play-related finds and the structured distribution shows that playing was already an important part of people's everyday lives more than 4,000 years ago. The reason that play and game-related artefacts often end up ignored or being reinterpreted at archaeological excavations is probably down to scientific thinking's incongruity with the irrational phenomenon of games and play. The objective of determining the social significance of the actual games therefore, in turn, challenges established ways of thinking. It is an instrument we can use to come up with interpretations that are closer to the individual person. We may gain other, more socially-embedded, approaches for a difficult-to-interpret settlement."