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A future in the past

India stands on the threshold, if New Scientist is to be believed, of becoming a knowledge superpower because of her outstanding R&D skills.

india Updated: May 25, 2006 02:19 IST

India stands on the threshold, if New Scientist is to be believed, of becoming a knowledge superpower because of her outstanding research and development skills. The paradox, though, is this. At such a time, we should be witnessing the application effects of these technological and scientific resources in fields that are nationally important. In one such area, they are clearly not demonstrably evident. 

As a historian of archaeology who has made a career out of studying the Indian past, I share the public interest that exists in our country’s material heritage. When one considers that the State either manages or funds practically all aspects concerning our heritage, this also evidently seems as being of national importance. And yet, while many  nations proud of their past have proactively supported ‘Archaeolo-gical Science’, in India, the urgency of mobilising our scientific strength to better study and preserve our past is hardly realised.

But first, how does archaeological science work and why is it important? Archaeology conjures images of charred bones and broken pots, of disputed horses and deadly DNA. But, while one can easily imagine those who authored documents, the makers and users of ancient ceramics and ghost houses are not so close or familiar. The extent to which they come alive depends on the archaeologist’s skill. It also critically depends on the manner in which that skill is aided by scientific techniques. Pots, for instance, are excavated out of sites on a routine basis. However, it is biochemistry that enables one to determine whether butter milk or oil was once stored in those pots. Similarly, archaeologists can recover bones. But it is faunal specialists who show that these are of domesticated cattle and pig, or wild deer and exotic catfish.

A remarkably wide spectrum of techniques is used in archaeology, some for studying individual finds, others deployed when whole environments are explored. Because archaeologists have generally not  bothered to make plain and interesting what good things they’ve been doing by using archaeological science, there is a certain mystery, bordering on suspicion, about these methods or research. Actually, in many instances, it involves applying technology that has been developed for other purposes. Radiocarbon dating, which is widely used, was a spin-off from work done on cosmic radiation during World War II. Similarly, the Indian Space Research Organisation has a well developed remote satellite sensing system for all kinds of projects. It has also been used for mapping relict landscapes of the kind that centrally interest archaeologists.

This does not mean that highly developed technologies will, at the press of a button, provide reliable answers. Scientific techniques have to be carefully chosen and the use of such tools is questionable when the user does not have the experience to interpret the results correctly or when the scholar has a definite ideological axe to grind. These also have to be combined with traditional methods to cast more light on the past. But with all its problems, archaeological science expands our understanding of the past in ways that makes it more accurate and reliable as also more interesting and exhilarating. If archaeology is about ancient dust and old bones, those speak to us so frequently because of scientific inputs.

When did such research begin in India and how has it progressed? A sense of the present and past state of archaeological science can be had from Dilip Chakrabarti’s tour de force of the history of Indian archaeology. While chemical analysis of ancient metal objects goes back to the late 19th century, a more systematic application of various techniques to study excavated objects came to be established by the Thirties. The Mohenjodaro report is an example of this. It contains sections on the composition of various kinds of artifacts — stone beads, metal objects, pottery glaze, steatite  seals and beads and even silajit, which was used in ancient Indian medicine. Generally speaking, the Archaeological Survey of India depended on getting such material analysed by the Botanical, Geological and Anthropological Surveys of India.

Post-1947, the ASI, as the inheritor of that earlier tradition, consciously tried to continue with such applications and by 1959, it had also created a School of Archaeology for training its future archaeologists. There were other institutional developments, among the most important of which was the beginning of radiocarbon dating in the Fifties. This was first done on a piece of wood from the palisade of ancient Pataliputra at the Bose Institute of Science in Kolkata. Subsequently, a radiocarbon laboratory was set up, first at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, and then at the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad.

Since then, there have been important individual accomplishments. Useful work in universities and organisations by scientifically trained scholars has been regularly undertaken within their own fields of specialisation and across the borders of such fields. There has also been some effort at creating new research organisations, as can be seen in the establishment of a marine archaeology centre in the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa, and more recently, an AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) dating laboratory in Bhubaneswar as also one for dating sediments in Imphal. But what is missing is an overarching State commitment to institutionally reorganise the basis of archaeological scholarship through a deployment of India’s scientific and technical strengths.

A few facts make this more than evident. The ASI, which is the largest bureaucratic machinery anywhere in the world manning archaeology, has neither a dating laboratory nor a set-up that can remotely be described as aiding the scientific study of the sites and artifacts it routinely unearths. The Ahmedabad laboratory no longer does radiocarbon dating for archaeology. There are no dedicated laboratories funded by the government that analyse archaeological samples.

There is still no national centre of archaeological science in India where officers of government archaeology departments and university teachers can be trained in scientific techniques of survey, excavation and analysis. Consequently, even where there is no shortage of money, as in the ASI, there is simply no in-house cadre of well-trained specialists for satisfying the current needs. The IITs and the Indian Institute of Science, for instance, do have the expertise to transform our archaeological scene. But they are simply not part of the national network of archaeology-wallahs.

Surely, there is something that can be learned from nations where there are State-sponsored archaeology. Contemporary Chinese society, as in India, takes an extraordinary pride in its history and its monumental heritage. As in India, it is the State that determines priorities of training, research and education connected with this heritage. The difference, though is that, unlike India, China has had visionaries who have evolved blueprints that helped archaeological research develop along scientific lines. Multiple laboratories do radiocarbon dating and there are archaeology programs that train hundreds of researchers each year. Salvage excavations have been regularly done since the Fifties. In fact, in order to cope with the challenge of saving things even as China industrialised, training courses were instituted to increase the ranks of archaeologists who could conduct them. 

The archaeology set-up in India has never been more in need of a vision for its revival and Indian science has never been better positioned to proactively advance this process. Technology should certainly be used to build a better future for us. But it is also time that our leaders recognise that it should be used to transform the study of our past.

The writer is Professor of History, Delhi University