The fascinating world of archaeology


The field of archaeology in India still exhibits a colonial hangover. While there are arguments in favour of it, it’s now time that archaeology comes out of the ‘official’ and colonial straitjacket, and becomes more inclusive, says Dr. Kaushik Gangopadhyay.

One fine afternoon, I was visiting an archaeological site in Bihar. There is an old man in the village, Rambabu, who had been associated with the archaeological excavations at the site. He had a kind of a scrap-book with him, in which he had made drawings of the trenches and of the important antiquities. He took us around and showed the important spots, and described the different cultural layers at the site.

I recall that very fine afternoon and my encounter with this gentleman, as I write this review of archaeology in India. I realise that a review of archaeology in India cannot be easily written by one person in its complex totality. In the global scale we are now confronting so many ‘archaeologies’ that it makes us realise that a study of the past, from the perspective of the evolution of human culture all over the globe, should be undertaken at the very local and regional scale. Prof. K. Paddayya, Professor Emeritus, Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute (DCPRI), Pune, has indicated that only 15%-20% of the land surface of the Indian subcontinent has been surveyed. This means that more surveys to locate archaeological sites at different natural and administrative divisions of our country needs to be pursued. Considering the number of professional archaeologists involved in this task at the moment, it is almost impossible to achieve this goal.

However, everything is not so bleak and there are several silver linings to this problem. We have a huge amount of digital technology available to us to document our heritage. We have also user-friendly resources such as ‘Google Earth’ which can be used to document the archaeological remains. Our phones are able to track such objects through GPS, take good photographs, and also share them with social media groups. Mobile apps can be used to explain objects and displays at the museums. In short, human and artificial intelligence is able to ‘map’ our heritage and preserve and share and disseminate knowledge over a much wider platform than it was available 20 years earlier. However, here, I will focus on what we need to overcome and achieve, in terms of explorations and management of our cultural heritage.

It is said that we are living in the post-modern and post-colonial times. If archaeology was essentially a product of modernism, then how should we as archaeologists react to the intellectual movement of post-modernism, either in art or literature, or should we silently bypass it? Secondly, we are still grappling to overcome our ‘colonial’ mindset that observes our cultural heritage and preservation of it from the perspectives of ‘power’. It is best to write this review, there- fore, by questioning certain myths about the colonial archaeology, which was deemed to be modern and scientific by the British scholars who laid down its code. If one aspect of decolonisation is to have a greater representative of our history, not only of one section of the society or certain classes of artefacts and archaeological sites, then it is time that we wake up to the multiple interpretation of pasts made by persons like Rambabu, who takes pride in showing archaeological site to the visitors. He has therefore discovered the meaning of ‘heritage’ in his own backyard.

The history of archaeology and the story beyond history

When did archaeological research begin in India? It is true that before the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta in 1784, there is hardly any reference made to antiquarian research in India. Therefore, any history of archaeology in India generally begins by referring to the achievements of the 30 British gentlemen who gathered in Calcutta (now Kolkata), and decided to pursue an intellectual adventure by studying different aspects of the Asiatic countries. The motto of the society was to study ‘Man and Nature, whatever is performed by one and produced by the other’. Nothing more can sum up the spirit of scientific enquiry more than this particular motto. Although the interest of the society lay not in antiquarianism as such, but Sir William Jones did point out that the study of antiquarian remains is important for the purpose of reconstruction of the past of India.

Over the next 100 years, a large mass of data was gathered pertaining to the archaeological wealth of the country, forcing the colonial government to set up the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under the behest of Sir Alexander Cunningham. The cause of archaeology was furthered even more after Lord Curzon became the viceroy of British India (1900-1905), and he was responsible for giving a firm footing to archaeological conservation in the country.
During the decades following the departure of Lord Curzon from India and later Independence, archaeology was seized by a new fervour, and the research was not only led by the colonial government largely through the ASI, but also through the involvement of the local rulers of the Indian states. Universities also joined the task of uncovering the past, and in training young archaeologists for the future. Then came freedom, and even though we must thank the pioneers, we suddenly feel there is much left to be done.

Indian archaeology; losing ignorance and violence

After more than half a century of our cherished freedom from the colonial period, it is perhaps a good time that we launch a series of introspections so that we may continue with our exciting journey of discovering our past. What have we gained through our intercourse with the colonial ‘form’ of knowledge that also includes archaeology? Would we have been better in understanding and preserving our past without the British intervention? Countries, which have not witnessed Western colonial rule such as Japan or even China, have been more than successful in preserving the past. Could the Indian experience have taken the same path, or would it have led to loss of archaeological object by the ‘ignorant native’; a term coined for us by the British. Answers to these questions are not easy, and perhaps will never be answered. But let me point out some of the vagaries of the colonial period archaeology which we may strive to overcome through a process of ‘decolonisation’.

The first and foremost is the educative role that archaeology may play. By education I do not mean only those imparted to the professional archaeologists at the department and university faculty level, but also at the
school and undergraduate college curriculum. The past, as Prof. Paddayya has quoted from David Lowenthal, has become a ‘foreign country’. This kind of disconnect from the past is perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of today’s society, whereby the past can be used maliciously by sectarian groups to achieve narrow political goals. In this connection, it is worthwhile to mention that the DCPRI, which started its career as a college under the Pune University, has flourished into a research institute of international reputation. I feel that it is time that school education, particularly those in non-urban settings, must also embrace archaeology, although not at the research level, but engage young minds to explore their neighbourhood for ruins and artefacts. A basic documentation of the past, fast disappearing under the mantle of modern developments, can go a long way in preserving our heritage.
In this context, it is heartening to inform the readers that such initiatives are being taken at both private and public level. The Sharma Heritage Institute, a private organisation in Chennai, conducts archaeological sessions for children, and this effort must be welcomed by those who feel that a concern for heritage must be nurtured at a young age. At the government level, the Indian Museum, Kolkata, has conducted several programmes in the recent past that involved children. My personal experience of working with school children as a Fellow in an autonomous institute of the Government of West Bengal has been extremely rewarding. We conducted workshops at secondary schools. We not only gave lectures through power-point presentations, but also demonstrated how people in the past made stone tools. The children were fascinated by these demonstrations. My intention in pointing out these instances is primarily an attempt at decolonising archaeology, at least if we consider it to be one of our primary aims in the near future. Our colonial rulers conducted archaeological investigations through official modes, and trained Indian students in the discipline through measures that suited their programme of colonialism. There had been few efforts for disseminating archaeological knowledge among the ‘common’ people of India, and the subject was confined within elitist prejudices. Even Indian private bodies or societies were monitored by the Archaeological Survey of British India to guard our heritage from ignorance, of proper ‘scientific’ methods by the native scholars.

This review has now therefore raised new questions which are being asked worldwide. At the 7th World Archaeological Congress held at Kyoto, Japan, one particular session, organised by Uzma Z. Rizvi and Hirofumi Kato, discussed post-colonial experiences and contemporary archaeological practices. I found the session theme quite interesting in which it was said that that under the guise of science, colonial period archaeology made demands on bodies, landscapes, memories, histories and heritage. Thankfully, critical studies on colonialism and archaeology are being published, and a process of decolonisation through participation of the local communities in archaeology may witness major strides. It is here that I look back to the gentleman in Bihar, and his interpretations of the archaeological site may not be ‘scientific’ to the trained archaeologist in the field, but it provided the local community a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging.

Counting time and letting the bones speak

Scientific analysis of archaeological sites and objects are increasing in India. This, I believe, is an import- ant development along with a growing concern amongst the common people about archaeology and heritage. Scientific analysis of human skeleton from the site of Rakhigarhi has made new revelations. Stable isotope study of dental materials from cattle from an archaeological site in Haryana has provided important clues for understanding the local environment and the origin of the Harappan civilisation. Dating of archaeological sites by the Atomic Mass Spectrometry can now be accomplished in India. This means that we do not have to depend on foreign laboratories to obtain our dates.

There is also a growing scope of material science approach in archaeology. The premier Indian scientific institutes like the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, are not only recruiting archaeologists, but are also encouraging collaborative researches within India between archaeologists and scientists. What is important is to understand that many of these new scientific techniques will not only help us to challenge colonial period notion of Indian culture and civilisation, but also modify contemporary western intellectual perception of Indian prehistoric and historical trajectories.

Exploring our land

Post-Independence, a large number of archaeological sites have been explored and excavated from the Stone Age to the medieval period. Archaeologists have come to realise that they have much to contribute to an understanding of the recent past. A substantial number of Ph.D thesis on regional archaeology have increased our understanding of the regional archaeology. Excavations by the ASI, the various state departments, and the university faculties, have clearly become more and more sophisticated. Even private organisations are joining in the wonderful journey. One can immediately recall the excavations at the Stone Age site of Attirampakkam, or the early historic site Pattanam, in Kerala. The first site has proved beyond doubt the very old time for Stone Age in India going back to 1.5 million years, whereas the site of Pattanam in Kerala is not only the first excavated site in that region, but it has added to our existing knowledge of the Indian Ocean trade network.

What should be the road ahead?

I may just add a few lines in my conclusion and state that this is not a review of what has been achieved, but rather a preview of what can be achieved in future if there are collaborations between archaeologists, scientists, and also local communities in India. As a post-colonial practice, we should be able to slowly emerge from the hegemonic colonial practice of working at our heritage through the official avenue of power, and should transcend the abusive use by a small group of people in the post-Independence period; and if knowledge is power, then it should be freed, shared, and experienced by all who look to the past for a better future.

Dr. Kaushik Gangopadhyay

Dr. Kaushik Gangopadhyay is presently a faculty in the Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta. He has done his PG studies from Deccan College, Pune and Utkal University, Odisha. He specialises in early historic archaeology from the coastal region of West Bengal and his other academic interest lies in archaeological science, archaeological theory and ethnoarchaeolgy. He has participated in several exploration and excavation programmes in India, and also abroad. He has published papers in national and international journals. He is a member of the World Archaeological Congress and was elected as the national representative in the eighth World Archaeological Congress.