The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro - Who Was She?

A 4500 Year Old Sculpture Dances Her Way into Our Imaginations

Dancing Girl from Mohenjo-Daro
Dancing Girl from Mohenjo-Daro. 2500-1500 BC. Copper. 14 cm high. Found in 1926 in a house in Mohenjo-daro. National Museum of New Delhi. Jen with modifications by Ismoon

By and large, Indiana Jones notwithstanding, archaeologists deny any real attraction for specific artifacts. It's the assemblage, we'll argue, the collection of artifacts from any one site that is really interesting. It's the context, we'll say, the location of the artifacts within a particular room or area or part of the world, that fascinates us. No, no, it's the settlement patterns, the way the assemblage fits, or doesn't fit, the prevailing theory of the way humans organize their living areas.

Well, that's all true, most of the time. But sometimes, we are lucky enough to run across a single artifact that seems to speak to us across the ages, seems to express a culture both distant and not so far away from our present day, in one lovely concrete moment.

Breaking the Mold

So it would seem to be the case with the 'dancing girl,' a 10.8 centimeter (4.25 inch) high bronze statuette, sculpted using the cire perdu (lost wax method around 2500 BC, and found in a house at Mohenjo-Daro, Pakistan by excavator D.R. Sahni during the 1926-1927 field season.

The "Dancing Girl" is a free-standing bronze figurine, with about 25 bangles on her left arm, and holding a small bowl in her right hand. She has a relatively short trunk and long legs and arms; her head is tilted slightly back and her left leg is bent at the knee. Her right arm is bent, with her hand placed on the back of her hip, that hand apparently clenched around an object, perhaps a baton, which is now missing.

She wears a necklace with three large pendants, but is otherwise naked.

The lost wax method used by the metallurgist involved carving the sculpture out of wax, then covering it in wet clay. Once the clay was dried, holes were bored into the mold and the mold was heated, melting the wax. The empty mold was then filled with a melted mixture of copper and tin.

After that cooled, the mold was broken, revealing the lady.

Archaeologists in Love

She was British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler's favorite statuette, as you can tell in this quote from a 1973 television program:

There is her little Baluchi-style face with pouting lips and insolent look in the eye. She's about fifteen years old I should think, not more, but she stands there with bangles all the way up her arm and nothing else on. A girl perfectly, for the moment, perfectly confident of herself and the world. There's nothing like her, I think, in the world.

John Marshall, one of the excavators at Mohenjo-Daro, described her as a vivid impression of the young... girl, her hand on her hip in a half-impudent posture, and legs slightly forward as she beats time to the music with her legs and feet...

The artistry of this lovely statuette crosses time and space and speaks to us of a seemingly unknowable, but at least fleetingly recognizable past. As author Gregory Possehl says, We may not be certain that she was a dancer, but she was good at what she did and she knew it.

Is the Lady African?

The ethnicity of the woman depicted in the figure has been a somewhat controversial subject over the years since the figurine was discovered.

Several scholars, such as ECL During Casper, have suggested that the lady looks African. Recent evidence for Bronze Age trade contact with Africa has been found at Chanhu-Dara, another Harappan Bronze Age site, in the form of pearl millet, domesticated in Africa about 5000 years ago; and the burial of a woman from Africa. See Kennedy and Possehl for further information.

The quotes from this article come directly out of the book by Gregory L. Possehl called The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective, available from Altamira Press, and published in September 2002. Thanks to Dr. Possehl, who provided the (original) graphic and the permission to use extended quotes about the delicate lady.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Indus Valley, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Craddock PT. 2015. The metal casting tradiitons of South Asia: Continuity and innovation. Indian Journal of History of Science 50(1):55-82.

During Caspers ECL. 1987. Was the dancing girl from Mohenjo-daro a Nubian? Annali, Istituto Oriental di Napoli 47(1):99-105.

Kennedy KAR, and Possehl GL. 2012. Were There Commercial Communications between Prehistoric Harappans and African Populations? Advances in Anthropology. p 4. doi: 10.4236/aa.2012.24020

Kenoyer JM. 1998. Seals and sculpture of the Indus cities. Minerva 9(2):19-24.

Possehl GL. 2002. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Walnut Creek, California: Altamira Press.

Prakash B. 1983. Metallurgy in India through the ages. Bulletin of the Metals Museum of the Japan Institute of Metals 8:23-36.

Sadasivan B. 2011. The Dancing Girl: A History of Early India. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.