In the past lies the future

  • 14/02/1995

In the past lies the future FOR the 18th century colonial explorer, archaeology meant a treasure hunt and for the Orientalist a search for lost civilisations. From the mid-20th century, the chill hand of science laid claim to it. Archaeology became a quest for knowledge about prehistoric peoples and their environment. Today, the key to a brave new world lies ostensibly in a better understanding of the ancient mind.

This realisation was hammered home at the World Archaeological Congress (WAC), held for the first time in India from December 5 to 11 last year. Four hundred foreign delegates exchanged notes and ideas even in the thick of an jutt-jawed confrontation between Indian historians and archaeologists subscribing to Leftist and Rightist ideologies.

The Indian chapter of WAC was led by B B Lal, an archaeologist well known for his pronouncement that the Babri masjid at Ayodhya was built on the ruins of a temple. While Lal declined to discuss the matter, saying that the issue was off the agenda, Leftist historians led by Irfan Habib of the Aligarh Muslim University tried to haul it on board, saying that the rights of a free nation were being impinged upon. In the political mayhem that followed, the purpose of the Congress seemed sunk.

"Archaeology is always political," remarked M A Smith of the Australian National University. But its nuances have changed. It has now emerged from the cocoon of academic fossilisation; it is lending itself to innovative development schemes involving people and their environment; or just helping children curiously poke life into a heritage.

Muses archaeologist Desmond Clarke, professor emeritus, Berkeley University, California, "Archaeology is important for self-analysis. Because if you look back at human behaviour, you realise there are undesirable characteristics you can understand and perhaps sublimate."
Cognitive archaeology Archaeology is now ferreting into what seems impossible: the ancient societal mind. Observes Colin Renfrew, professor of archaeology, Cambridge University, "We now move into cognitive archaeology: reconstructing the thought process of ancient people through symbols and rituals. For instance, stones found at Harappan sites are multiples of units. We can logically conclude that the Harappans used a complex system of weights and measures specifically for trade."

The great change in archaeology has been conceptual -- a deep interest in theory, bolstered by exhumation. America and Britain pioneered the change in the '60s. Says Renfrew, "We tried to develop an epistemology of archaeology but we were criticised by the older school of archaeologists who concentrated on artistry, for being too scientific."

The scientific "revolution" in archaeology lent it accuracy and thoroughness. "We can tell you the technology used to make an ancient water harvesting system to how many babies a skeleton had," says Colin Pardoe of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. Radiocarbon dating, geotechnical methods and biotechnology were just some of the techniques used. Satellite technology helped to distinguish and identify potential sites.

Says E James Dixon, curator of archaeology, Denver Museum of Natural History, "Scientific dating techniques mean we get quick and accurate results with just a tiny sample. We have to rethink many of our theories because we now get different results from old sites. In fact, in Alaska we re-examined sites and found that dates of human occupation could be pushed back from 8,500 years to 15,000 years."

But scientific enquiry does not always match the demands of society. The emphasis is on conservation and not exploration. Says Michael Corbishley, head of education, English Heritage, a quasi-government organisation founded in 1986 in England, "We are not a digger-happy bunch. Science can tell us what lies below the ground. We dig only if we think it would fill in gaps in our knowledge. Before archaeologists pick up spades, they must know what they are looking for."

Archaeologists worldwide have to contend increaasingly with hostile or indifferent people, and with landscapes that rapid urbanisation changes from historical monuments a-tremble with age to glitzy supermarkets or -- the horror! the horror! -- a highrise.

In 1993, the Japanese government spent

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