The state of archaeology


Archaeology as a field of study is growing steadily in India, with more universities offering courses in it. Abhijit Dandekar and Andre Baptista examine the growing interest and popularity of this subject, and why it’s important to study allied subjects too.

Today, in the age of information, there exists, ironically, a strong dichotomy between information and ignorance in modern education. While society tends to give more attention to such quantifiable results of education as skill acquisition, the qualitative aspects are often ignored, discouraged, or even dismissed. Education should ideally provide the means where individuals can connect new knowledge to personal and collective experiences – can think, discuss and question in order to acquire a wider understanding, and a deeper and more meaningful insight into life. While the natural sciences offer explanations about the physical world around us, it is the social sciences like history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc., that establish a medium to connect with the human experience.

Archaeology, the ‘love-child’

By incorporating the study of human behaviour against the backdrop of the physical world, archaeology as a discipline aims to holistically address life’s fundamental questions about who we are, from where we came, and where we are headed. It provides the opportunity for people of different fields of study to bring in their expertise, and contribute to an overall understanding of our roots. It can therefore be said that if physics is considered the mother of all sciences, it is only appropriate that archaeology be deemed the ‘love-child’ of all sciences.

Archaeology, though always intertwined with romanticism, only fully entered the popular realm through movies like The Mummy Trilogy, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and through franchise characters like Indiana Jones. His escapades and the portrayal of impending adventure, were ever enticing. Despite the innocent naivety and heightened romanticism of the franchise’s premise, it inspired an entire generation of archaeologists to pursue the field. Television channels like The Discovery Network and National Geographic would run specials on civilisations like ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, that not only raised awareness, but rendered a more serious tone to archaeology. It managed to reach out to a much wider audience by bringing visuals of an archaeological dig or an exploration, to one’s personal television set. This approach was soon tainted with the introduction and popularisation of tin-foil theories such as “ancient aliens”, and their alleged hand in creating much of the world’s built heritage. Such ill-considered notions would find appeal amongst the masses, and inevitably played a role in paving the way to the post-fact/post-truth world in which we live.

Politicisation of archaeological concerns and convenient manipulation of archaeological facts have only further deterred the cause. In addition, constant innovations in science and technology have resulted in rampant progress and social change. The quick pace of this change can lead to a certain detachment or disconnect, and a loss of perspective arises. At such times, the old adage that states “the past holds the key to the present” comes to mind, where a retrospective to regain lost perspective can help us move forward in a more measured way. So, if at one point, archaeology was a pursuit driven purely by curiosity and an element of fancy, today, archaeology is in dire need of professionals trained under its principles to take up the field, value our shared histories and our shared cultural past, protect them for posterity, and as a consequence, add perspective.

With the change in the world economy, newer avenues opened up. As the middle class gained economic affluence, its urge to travel and visit heritage sites also increased. As a result, maintenance of such sites became pre-eminent. This added a new dimension to the traditional education in archaeology, and it became more job-oriented. The apprehensions that once existed concerning a career in archaeology are slowly being dispensed by its increasing scope reflected in its well-defined sub-fields. Job avenues now lay open at universities, museums, galleries, auction houses, the travel industry, and a multitude of organisations for those trained in archaeological research, art history, museum and archival studies, conservation, heritage management, tourism, etc.

Studying archaeology

Archaeology, by definition, is the scientific study of the past. It uses material evidence to estimate the processes of the past. The study of materials and equipment used by humans since their earliest existence on this planet, development in technology over hundreds and thousands of years, environment change and humans’ response towards it, is a very fascinating study in itself. Some premier institutes which specialise in such studies are the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, Pune, Maha- raja Sayajirao University, Baroda, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, Tamil University, Thanjavur, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, Kerala University, Thiruvananthapuram, Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati, Allahabad University, Prayagraj (Allahabad), etc. In addition, there are many other universities and institutes which also offer many courses in various fields of archaeology. For example, the Institute of Archaeology situated in New Delhi is run by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to train its current officers and future aspirants. It offers a comprehensive, two-year postgraduate diploma in archaeology. Recently, the University of Mumbai has commenced a Masters course in Archaeology, along with basic and advanced certificate courses in archaeology.

Apart from this fundamental training in archaeology, other disciplines related to archaeology also have been attracting students from various fields. Art history is one such area which has lucrative openings. Institutions like The Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, the National Museum Institute, New Delhi, Visva Bharati University, Birbhum, West Bengal, offer full time as well as part-time courses in art, aesthetics and the history of art. Another discipline allied to archaeology is museology, i.e., the science of organising, arranging, and managing museums. Although museums house many other objects apart from artefacts from the past, a majority of their collections, nonetheless, concerns human ancestry. Hence, it is always beneficial to have the background of archaeology for a museologist. There are many universities which offer museology as a postgraduate subject. Some of the important institutions are, the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, National Museum Institute, Delhi, Chhatraapati Shivaji Mahararaj Vastu Sangrahalay, Mumbai, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, University of Mysore, Jiwaji University, Gwalior, etc. They offer either part-time or full-time postgraduate diploma or degree courses in museology.

An upcoming field related to archaeology that is growing very fast these days is the field of heritage management. It covers areas such as architectural and object conservation, and tourism management. Of these, the object conservation is part of the museology course in almost all the institutes that conduct a course in museology. However, architectural conservation requires knowledge of architecture, and this branch is developing as a part to architectural studies.

It has been observed though, that a conservation architect without any background of archaeology is likely to make errors in his/her assessment more often than not, which further reflects in the actual act of conservation. Hence, many architects prefer to study archaeology before starting their careers as conservation architects. Institutions such as Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University, Ahmedabad, the Kamala Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies, Mumbai, School of Planning and Architecture, Bhopal, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, Aayojan School of Architecture, Jaipur, offer postgraduate courses in architectural conservation. Institutes like the Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management, New Delhi, Centre for Heritage Management, Ahmedabad University, Ahmedabad, Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology, Bengaluru, Vikram University, Ujjain, offer post-graduate courses in overall heritage management. Universities like the Jiwaji University, Gwalior, University of Mysore, Mysuru and University of Rajasthan, offer postgraduate degrees and diploma courses in heritage and tourism management.

Thus, from being merely a hobby, the discipline of archaeology has come a far way to establish itself not only as a pure academic pursuit, but also as a prospering avenue of commercial importance, along with building a future that will take care of the past.

Abhijit Dandekar

Abhijit Dandekar is Assistant Professor of Epigraphy, Palaeography and Numismatics at the Department of AIHC & Archaeology, Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute (DCPRI), Pune, since June 2003. He received his doctoral degree in AIHC & Archaeology from DCPRI. He has carried out excavations in coastal Maharashtra and has participated in many excavations all over the country. His areas of research include the archaeology of long-distance trade, anthropology of religion, along with the epigraphic and numismatic records of Ancient India.

André Baptista

André Baptista is Visiting Faculty for Archaeology at the Kamla Raheja Vidynidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies, Juhu. Trained under the Master’s programme at the DCPRI, Pune, he has represented universities as well as ASI at a number of explorations and excavations at sites ranging from the prehistoric to the early medieval. He is presently pursuing his doctorate in Landscape and Environmental Archaeology from Deccan College.