Meet the independent fossil finders unearthing the secrets of our past
We are not treasure-hunters, says Rabindra Mohanty. “What we usually find, and aim to find, are pottery shards, fossilised grains and bones of domesticated animals.”
These are treasures of a different kind, given that they are between 2,000 and 200,000 years old. But it is, admittedly, not glamorous work. Because as hard as most archaeologists have it, Mohanty and his tribe have it harder because they are flying solo, freelancers working without the backing of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) or union ministry of culture.
Mohanty is one of about 300 independent researchers digging at the sites of ancient settlements across India. “There is no exact count of how many non-ASI archaeologists are operating in the country. This figure is based on the applications we get for permission,” says KK Muhammed, former regional director at the ASI. “ASI gives excavation permissions to private players because it cannot excavate every site in India.”
The independent archaeologists are typically students and professors of history, anthropology and archaeology and range in age from 20 to 65.
Because they are affiliated to universities and heritage foundations rather than the ASI, it can take up to two years to gather funding and get approval for a dig.
On site, infrastructure and labour are so scarce that they feel lucky if there is a shed with a roof where they can measure and record their finds. If not, they erect shanties using plastic or tarpaulin sheets. Most use measuring equipment out of a basic geometry box.
“Excavating does tone your arms,” laughs Mohanty, 65, a retired professor of ancient Indian history at Deccan College, Pune. “And there is nothing like the excitement of finally finding a shard, a fragment or an ancient tooth after digging all day for weeks.”
Mohanty has worked on 20 sites in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Odisha over the past 26 years, usually with backing from Deccan College, which, along with the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education in Chennai, supports most of the independent excavations across the country.
“It is easier to get permission if you are associated with a university,” Mohanty says. “You also get manpower — students and faculty — to help you in the field.”
NOT RAINING MEN
Manpower is a serious issue when you’re trying to unearth delicate fragments of history in the middle of nowhere. Usually, local daily wage earners are employed.
“Unlike the ASI, though, we can’t hire as many people as we want, because of the money constraints,” says Vasant Shinde, vice-chancellor of Deccan College.
It also takes time to train the labourers to dig without damaging possible finds, adds Ramesh NK, 33. “And time is money.”
Ramesh, who has a Masters in anthropology from Kerala’s Kannur University, has been participating in digs in the north Malabar region for 11 years.
“You have to allocate funds so carefully when all you’ve received is Rs 5 lakh to Rs 8 lakh for a dig that will last 10 weeks and employ at least 25 people — from a cook to make meals on site to labourers, vehicles, digging equipment, material for shelters… even basic material for preserving and cataloguing finds. It all adds up.”
Securing funding can take so long that Ramesh prefers to go on explorations alone.
“ASI does not sanction the digs if you are not associated with an organisation,” he says. “But exploration, where you just survey a site on the surface and look for objects in open fields or in forests, does not require permission.”
Ramesh has explored and dug at 30 sites so far — the digging on Kannur university projects, the exploration by himself. “This terrain is covered in thick forests and receives heavy rainfall. But hey, it is thrilling to put your hand into the soil and reach a tool that has remained untouched for thousands of years,” he says.
HOW IT’S DONE
Where do you begin, when you’re standing on ground that could be covering anything from Stone Age hand axes to Harappan-era homes?
Well, in order to get permission from the ASI, you have to submit a mission statement that explains why you think there might be a site of archaeological importance where you plan to dig; and what you expect to find there.
“If the site is owned by an individual, you need their permission too before proceeding,” says Amit Upadhyay, assistant professor of history and archaeology at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. “Sometimes, the people living there do not trust you or you cannot speak their language. We had this problem when we were exploring the Tura region in Meghalaya.”
Once you get the go-ahead, digging commences — a few centimetres at a time — usually on slots with an area of 4 sq metres. It will likely be several feet before you find anything. If you hit bedrock, you know there’s nothing there, and start over.
If you’re lucky, you begin to find bits of stone or metal that bear the imprint of human hands — tools, beads, arrowheads.
“Patience is a virtue you need if you’re an archaeologist. We become friends with bugs,” laughs Shantanu Vaidya, 33, an archaeologist currently working near Nagpur in Maharashtra. He has been a part of 11 digs over 4 years. “The food may be crappy, you cannot browse social media websites and work can get repetitive. Sometimes we find one stone tool on the site and then nothing after that for days. There is also fear of wild animals.”
For Ramesh, a childhood interest in stamps and stones grew to become a passion for history and later, prehistory. “Do you know what annoys me most? Accidental archaeological discoveries,” he says, with a big grimace. “Made or ruined while someone was laying the foundation for a home or digging septic tank.”
His most exciting discoveries have been a 10,000-year-old Megalithic cist burial monument in the Malabar region of Kerala (see graphic: Digging Deeper).
“I value every feather and tiny shard of pottery,” he adds, “and I find it maddening that some people, though they’re not even looking for it, stumble upon ancient finds!”
WHAT IT FEELS LIKE
Vaidya gets his first whiff of excitement from the earthy smell of recently excavated earth.
“It’s almost always hot and uncomfortable,” he says. “You sleep in a tent on the site. There’s often no cellphone or data coverage; we have to use walkie-talkies to communicate with each other. But I do enjoy being disconnecting from reality and living in the past.”
Tosabanta Pradhan, a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Punjab, misses the hearty meals of home.
“Getting mud in your rice is not very pleasant. You also get burnt in the sun, dehydrated, get allergies and suffer minor injuries,” he says. “I have experienced every kind of climate through my 13 digs, but I have also seen flora and fauna, experienced the food and cultures of our country through my work. The best part… discussing objects we have found, imagining what they must have looked like in their original form.”
Credit for a find goes to the finder. But all finds must be catalogued and handed over to the local Collector, who will pass it on to the state government or the ASI.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE FINDS
“The finders keepers rule doesn’t apply here, though you can always access it and get credit as the discoverer,” says Anupam Sah, conservation consultant to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum’s conservation centre in Mumbai.
A majority of Ramesh’s findings, for instance, are at the Anthropological Heritage Museum of Kannur University and the ethnological museum at KIRTADS (the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Tribes).
Sometimes the finds are so valuable, that a site is sealed off by the ASI and thenceforth worked on only by its experts. “Otherwise, the finds are taken to the institute that backed you, and studied there,” says Shinde. The finds belong, by default, to the government of India, so you get no financial rewards or payment for uncovering them.
“Most archaeologists teach to earn a living,” Shinde adds.
Working at the sites is a relatively small part of the job, albeit the most important one. “We spend a lot of time researching the artefacts we find,” says Pradhan. “Then we work to publish our findings and teach for semesters at colleges.”
Back at Mohanty’s site in Talpada, Odisha, the archaeologist stands in a forest clearing amid abandoned trenches filled with muddy water.
It’s been a successful dig. Mohanty and his team of 13 have found 2,000-year-old bits of pottery, stone tools and carbonised foodgrains, as they expected to.
Students from colleges in Cuttack, Pune and Mumbai examine the finds with instruments out of a geometry box, in a small room with shattered window panes.
“In a site as remote as this, we are grateful to have a shelter at all,” says Kumil Behera, 28, a PhD student from Cuttack. He has spent eight months at the site, over the past two years, living in the tent settlement. There is one toilet for 20 people, with a broken lock. The meals are mainly rice and pickle.
The journey to the past is not easy.