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Lipid residues in pottery from the Indus Civilisation in northwest India

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  • Akshyeta Suryanarayan
  • Miriam Cubas
  • Oliver E. Craig
  • Carl P. Heron
  • Vasant S. Shinde
  • Ravindra N. Singh
  • Tamsin C. O'Connell
  • Cameron A. Petrie


Publication details

JournalJournal of archaeological science
DateAccepted/In press - 10 Nov 2020
DateE-pub ahead of print - 9 Dec 2020
DatePublished (current) - Jan 2021
Number of pages16
Early online date9/12/20
Original languageEnglish


This paper presents novel insights into the archaeology of food in ancient South Asia by using lipid residue analysis to investigate what kinds of foodstuffs were used in ceramic vessels by populations of the Indus Civilisation in northwest India. It examines how vessels were used in urban and rural Indus settlements during the Mature Harappan period (c.2600/2500–1900 BC), the relationship between vessels and the products within them, and identifies whether changes in vessel use occurred from the Mature Harappan to Late Harappan periods, particularly during climatic instability after 4.2 ka BP (c.2100 BC). Despite low lipid concentrations, which highlight challenges with conducting residue analysis in arid, seasonally-wet and alkaline environments, 71% of the vessels yielded appreciable quantities of lipid. Lipid profiles revealed the use of animal fats in vessels, and contradictory to faunal evidence, a dominance of non-ruminant fats, with limited evidence of dairy processing. The absence of local modern reference fats makes this dataset challenging to interpret, and it is possible that plant products or mixtures of plant and animal products have led to ambiguous fatty acid-specific isotopic values. At the same time, it appears that urban and rural populations processed similar types of products in vessels, with limited evidence for change in vessel use from the urban to the post-urban period. This study is a systematic investigation into pot lipid residues from multiple sites, demonstrating the potential of the method for examining ancient Indus foodways and the need for the development of further research in ancient organic residues in South Asia.

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© 2020 The Author

    Research areas

  • Foodways, Lipid residues, Indus civilisation, Vessel use, Pottery, Urbanism, Climate change

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