Monday, August 31, 2015

The politics of archaeology

Archaeology, Historiography and Indian Pasts
By Sudeshna Guha
Pages: 273; Price: Rs 995; 2015

Sudeshna Guha traverses a dense terrain of how British and other antiquarians in India and in the Near East (West Asia) discovered their penchant for excavating ancient sites and their remains, which transformed in the first half of the 20th century into the discipline of archaelogy. It is an interesting story in itself, even without the post-modern theoretical underpinnings which make her writing on the subject possible. Guha's narrative can be described as the history of archaeology, or in a more playful manner call it the archaeology of archaeology. In the process of telling the story of archaeology in the India of the 19th and 20th centuries, she is also critiquing the assumptions that underlie the discipline.

At one point in her telling, she cites the examination question that students for Diploma in Prehistoric Archaeology and Comparative Technology at University College London were asked in 1954: “The archaeologist may find the tub but altogether miss Diogenes. He may answer with botanical precision Browning's question “What porridge had John Keats?” Without a passing recognition of the author of Endymion? (R.E.M. Wheeler) Pursuing this strain of thought discuss the limitations of archaeological evidence.” She clearly believes that archaeological evidence cannot stand on its own legs and that it needs to be supplemented by other evidence. That is why, she argues for the importance “of the connected histories of philology and archaeology.”

The archaeological turn in India, she shows, is actually a consequence of the 1836 French translation of Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian who was in India between 399 CE and 414 CE. H.H.Wilson, one of the early Indologists then conceived the project of tracing the “historical geography of 'Buddhist India'”. She says that the British and Western antiquarians relied upon “foreign accounts”, of the Romans (Pliny and Strabo) and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims and relegated the indigenous epigraphic evidence to construct the history of ancient India.

The issue is important in the context of Indian historical debates. Many post-Independence historians had turned sceptical about the misty literary sources for the ancient period, and they believed that archaeological or material evidence is a more reliable clue to the remote past. Guha is however quick to note that archeology is a national project, which is used to establish the glorious national pasts. She illustrates the nationalist appropriation with the responses in India before and after Independence to the excavations at Mohenjadaro and Harrappa which brought to light the pre-Vedic Indus Valley civlisation.

She notes that the discoveries at Mohenjadaro and Harrapa came at the time of the Khilafat Movement and the rising tide of nationalist sentiment. She cites the Amrita Bazar Patrika writing in its edition of 1 January 1925 as an example of this sense of pride: “Archaeological excavations in Sind and the Punjab have become a universal topic of discussion with the intelligentsia in India. Formerly the archaeologists and historians asserted that the civilisation of India did not go much beyond 1200 B.C., but now these explorations have furnished us with monumental evidence which shows that it is as ancient as any in Asia.”

But the Indus Valley story takes a different turn after Independence when the most important sites of Mohenjodaro and Harappa fall into the new state of Pakistan, and India is left looking for signs of the Indus Valley civilisation on this side of the border. Guha notes: “In 1950, H.D.Sankalia presented a proposal for the archaeological explorations of the Narmada Valley to the Archaeological Survey quite specifically for rectifying the historical loss of Sind and Punjab where the earliest traces of city-civilisations were unearthed.'''

Guha traces meticulously the cultural politics of Indus Valley civilisation right from the earliest excavations, and explains the different views held by John Marshall, the first to have discovered the mounds that were the outcrops of the buried cities, on to Gordon Childe's views and then those of Mortimer Wheeler. While Marshall saw the Indius Valley civilisation as part of the Indo-Sumerian configuration, Childe was looking for a common origin to the Indus and Sumerian archaeological remains. Wheeler guardedly argued about the violent end in Mohenjodaro, but he cautioned that he did not imply that it was destroyed by invaders, that is the Aryans. She also delineates the contribution of the north American archaeologists who used the anthropological perspective of cultural tradition to propose that the Indus Valley Civilisation was indigenous, and warns of the dangers of giving the 'indigenous origin' argument a national chauvinist turn.

Here is a scrupulously argued book about the state of archaeological scholarship, its underlying presumptions and politics. Guha exemplifies the true spirit of scholarship.


Sudeshna Guha said...

Thank you!!

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