Excavating at Nagardhan


What happens at an archaeological excavation site? How does an excavation proceed? Abhiruchi Oke gives us a glimpse into that world with the excavation site she assisted at Nagardhan village.

An archaeologist is someone whose career lies in ruins!!

I got to know about the fascinating world of archaeology when I was in the eighth standard, and it left a lasting impression on me. I ended up pursuing it for my higher studies and as a career choice; fortunately, my parents lent full support. My graduation was in history, but I simultaneously did a certificate course in archaeology at the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (Mumbai University). Later on, I pursued a Master’s degree at the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute (DCPRI), Pune.

Excavation is always the most interesting aspect of archaeology, and naturally it attracted me the most. Luckily I got to participate in the excavations held at Chandore (Maharashtra), Rakhigarhi (Haryana), and Nagardhan (Maharashtra). I would like to share my experiences from the excavation at Nagardhan, a village near Ramtek, Nagpur.

The Nagardhan experience

Previous studies have identified the present village of Nagardhan possibly as Nandivardhana, the capital of the Vākāṭakas, an important but poorly understood dynasty that ruled in the fifth century. Our history lessons in school do not do full justice to this dynasty. I witnessed a glimpse of the glory of the Vākāṭakas through the excavations held at Nagardhan, which was a joint venture by the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums (Nagpur), the government of Maharashtra, and my alma mater, DCPRI. Dr. Virag Sontakke, Dr. Shrikant Ganvir and Dr. Shantanu Vaidya were the excavation directors. I can’t feel more privileged to have been a part of this massive excavation; it was a dream come true. I am thankful to the directors for appointing me as one of the trench supervisors.

Just as I had studied and gathered, the excavation was a team effort which not just unearthed antiquities, but also trained beginners, students, and even the trench supervisors. The entire experience of excavation unfurled itself to me like a movie or a novel. We were all expected to be very methodical, which made us learn scientific aspects, and cultivated a multidisciplinary approach, and imparted training in leadership and management. Initially it was all intimidating, but we ended up having the best camping experience. As in other disciplines, practical and applied archaeology is different from the theoretical one. Learning at the site is more creative and can teach important life lessons such as patience, discipline, sense of responsibility and team work, which are skills crucial not just for professional growth, but also for personality development.

Excavations at Nagardhan also introduced us to lifestyle in a village. We, the students from metro cities, took a while to adjust to village life, but the time spent there was memorable, and made us aware of the fact that each place has its own culture and mind-set. Every morning before sunrise, we would gather at our site. Being the trench supervisor, I too made it a point to be present, inspect and prepare a mental chart before the workers showed up. We worked in shifts, which were arranged keeping the intense afternoon heat in mind. Help from local people ensured that excavation work proceeded smoothly. Vocabulary from the local dialect enriched my knowledge of Marathi, my mother tongue.

The people of Nagardhan were very generous to us; they offered us their delicious local dishes, and also made us a part of their festive celebrations. It was in a good measure the positive response from local labourers that made it possible for us to carry out this mammoth task, which also forged a special bond between us. Contrary to popular imagination, excavation is not just digging and taking buried objects out, it is rather a systematic approach to uncovering material objects and contextualising them. It is a series of techniques which include prior research, basic knowhow of mathematics, geometry, geography, and masonry work. Beside these, tackling daily finds (the number could cross a hundred on a lucky day), their documentation, photography and digitisation, are essential parts of the process. Acquaintances turned into friends as our hectic days with colleagues and freshers ended with feasting together and playing card games and Uno, before we crashed into our shared chambers, in anticipation of new finds at the next dawn. I will always cherish the bonds and relationships made there.

The actual excavation

The site is divided into nine localities, which yielded archaeological evidence of various periods, indicating that the site was under occupation for a long time span. Prehistoric stone tools, early iron age objects, Mauryan and Pre-Sātavāhana, Sātavāhana, Vākāṭaka and early medieval period artefacts established the chronological sequence for the Nagardhan site. Material unearthed included stone objects, coins, sealings, terracotta objects, structures, etc. The most important discovery at the site was a sealing of Queen Prabhāvatīgupta found in the middle of massive structures, which suggest that she might have resided here. Another highlight of the excavation was huge pots, possibly funerary, placed in an inverted position.

Stone images of Vishnu, Ganapati, Narasimha and Lajja-Gauri were found at the site. Carnelian, agate and quartz beads in different shapes were also recovered from the excavation. Sandstone tiles with various motifs were also present. Terracotta objects such as bangles, pendants, beads, gamesmen and wheels were found in excessive quantity. Two religious terracotta objects of Gaupati and Naigameshi (goddess of child-birth) were important discoveries which help us to understand the religious beliefs of the Vākāṭakas. Faunal remains included tortoise, porcupine, wild buffalo, birds etc., while burnt remains of food grains were also recovered. The excavation yielded confirmatory evidence of the status of Nagardhan as the capital of the Vākāṭaka dynasty, thus opening the doors of further research on this powerful dynasty of ancient India. My involvement and participation in revealing a small bit of the history of the Vākāṭakas through excavation will be a highly memorable experience in my life.

Abhiruchi Oke

Abhiruchi Oke is currently Project Supervisor at EKA Archiving Services Pvt. Ltd. She did her M.A. in Archaeology from Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, and later acquired a P.G. Diploma in Museology and Conservation from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai.