From being a romantic quest for treasures and lost civilisations, archaeology has now come down to earth, increasingly associated with reconstructing the apparently esoteric: the thought …

The grave sites at New South W 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 700 million on "rescue archaeology": 90 per cent of Japan's archaeologists are tied up trying to beat the builders to it, excavating and shifting material before construction schemes maul the evidence. Says Katsuyuki Okamura of the Osaka City Cultural Properties Association, "Osaka with its 3 million people is a historic city dating back to 20,000 years. In 1992, 1,000 rescue excavations were conducted prior to construction and development."

Rescue archaeologists trying to negotiate with developers in presenting the past to the general public have to dig during the day and write their reports at night. Citydwellers with condominiums in their plans look at them askance. Since most of the excavation is financed by developers, archaeologists find it difficult to talk about the "destruction of history".

In America, they hire a "contract archaeologist". Explains E James Dixon, curator of archaeology, Denver Museum of Natural History, "When a road or building is to be built, an environment impact assessment finds out whether a historical site exists below the ground. 'Contract archaeologists' excavate and send the finds to the local museum. They have been vested with the responsibility of publicising the results of their efforts to local people in order to make them aware of their heritage."

In just 8 years, English Heritage has shown successfully to the public why it is important for the ancients to still live. Archaeology has also been merged with the history school syllabus. Corbishley says that English Heritage targets children between the ages of 9 and 13 and works with schoolteachers. "Every locality has historic buildings. Learning can be rooted in the students' environment, involving them in the history of their own area and decisions which would affect their own future." Learning is activity based: a child is asked to draw a map enroute to school, marking in as many buildings as possible. Students explain why some buildings are more memorable than others.

Science queries
"Historic buildings and sites offer enormous scope to teach maths, history, geography and science," explains Corbishley. "Castles offer lessons in measurements; arrow slits involve a study of angles and trajectories. Old buildings can teach much about sound, weathering and pollution. Also technology, old sanitation systems and even period food." Publications explain how a great church was constructed. A video films on shipwrecks links history with science; what happens to objects under the sea and how do we investigate wrecks are scientifc queries.

In America, however, a heightened awareness of the rights of Native Indians in relation to archaeology has made archaeology restrictive. Says David Small, professor, Archeaology University of LeHigh, Pennsylvania, "DNA studies of fossils are being used to trace human population and relationships. The biggest issue is the recognition of the rights of Native Americans. Is it right to study them without their permission?"

Robert Cruz is a Native Indian activist from southwest Arizona, a region famous for the Hohokam culture which flowered between 100 BC to AD 1200, when Native Indians maintained elaborate irrigation canals, ceremonial mounds and built communal dwellings called pueblos. Says Cruz, "We protest against archaeology at every congress. Sacred graves of our ancestors have been desecrated by archaeologists in the name of research. Their bones lie in museums. We demand reburial and ethical treatment of the dead." Archaeologists are required by the Native People's Graves Protection and Repatriation Act 1990 to consult Native American groups while working on government land. But privately-funded work is exempt, and this raises problems: much of archaeology in the US is a private matter.

But in Australia, says Colin Pardoe, "Involvement of native people in archaeology is an established fact. We do not dig unless invited to do so." In 1992, Pardoe and his colleagues were invited by the Barkindji people of Lake Victoria, southwestern New South Wales, to help shift 20 sacred graves because the water from the lake was seeping into them. Local people wanted to conserve their history without hurting their access to the waters of the lake. Pardoe says that they discovered that the site was actually a huge cemetery with over 10,000 burials from 6,000 years ago to the last 100 years. "All work here was done with the involvement of the people and it was very fruitful. We realised that native people were far more territorial than we had thought," he says.

A problem that hounds archaeology worldwide is illegal trafficking in antiques, says Susan B Morton, archaeologist with the National Park Service, Alaska: "Illegal sale of a nation's cultural property diminishes our appreciation of human civilisation, besides our knowledge of its diversity and parallel processes of change." The transfer of American antiques overseas began 20 years ago and has been accelerated by international economic shifts. In 1993, a single Alaskan prehistoric ivory figurine was bought by a Parisian auction house for US $90,000.

Similarly, Angkor Vat in Cambodia has been systematically looted since the 18th century, apart from being damaged irrecoverably by the Khmer Rouge. UNESCO estimates that artworks are stolen from Angkor Vat at the rate of 1 per day. Trafficking in antiquities is closely linked with the illegal drug trade and the line stretches from local diggers to posh international art houses. Morton says, with some academic vagueness, that the only way out is a "combined approach" that will remove secrecy in art deals and make it mandatory to return illegally imported cultural property.

Development through archaeology
A nation that strongly believes that archaeology can contribute to development is Kenya, which provides the earliest origins of humans dating back to 1.6 million years ago. Says George H O Abungu, who heads a coastal museums programme at the National Museum in Mombasa, "For the next 5 years, we will be documenting human impact on the environment since the last 10,000 years. A study of how humans influenced and used this environment -- climate change, shifts in vegetation -- will link the past and the present. Our research will be used by the agricultural department. Tracing traditional water harvesting systems and changes in river course will help assist the water department to augment its supplies and better its management techniques."

Archaeology was a white persons' preserve till the early '70s and was perceived to be a boffinish, elitist, sola-topeed subject. But now Kenya can boast of 8 doctorates. Recent research, says Abungo, overturns misconceptions that Kenya was chiefly rural and was urbanised by immigrant Arabs traders. Aban settlements dating to 7th century AD have been unearthed all along the Kenyan coast and reveal that urbanisation was indigenous to the Swahilis.

In Zimbabwe, the nettled problem of extricating archaeology from its colonial roots remains. Says Martin Hall, "In 1871, Carl Mausch, a South African explorer, came across the magnificent stone ruins of Great Zimbabwe dating back to 1,100 AD. Working alone with a sketch pen and a revolver, Mausch wildly surmised that this was the land of the Queen of Sheba. Thus was born a legend immortalised by Henry Rider Haggard in 1885 when he wrote King Solomon's Mines. Hollywood adopted the romantic vision of the archaeologist and the legend of the Queen of Sheba and the myth of Africa as a 'dark sea of barbarism' was sold to the world."

For white archaeologists, such as Randall Maciver and Gertrude Caton Thompson, Great Zimbabwe's lost city was either built by Arab traders or was the work of "a savage genius no better than a typical Bantu kraal".

Since 1989, the University of Zimbabwe with 4 teachers and 60 students is discovering evidence of agriculture associated with the use of iron, going back to 300 AD and trade links with the Indian Ocean -- all pointers to a complex indigenous economy. "But stories of lost white civilisations and African barbarism create distorted visions," says Martin Hall.

Sri Lankan archaeology's great leap forward came in 1980. Under the aegis of the UNESCO's Cultural Triangle Programme, scientific archaeology and heritage management received an impetus. Ongoing archaeological research centres on investigating urbanisation in Sri Lanka through an approximate period of 2,000 years. States Senake Bandaranayake, project director, Department of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, "This is because we wanted to understand why technologically advanced and relatively urbanised societies did not change into modern cities as in Europe from the 15th and 16th centuries."

Ruins of the day
For 100 years, it was believed that the ruins on the massive Sigiriya rock 10 km from Colombo comprised a fort. But a team of archaeologists led by Bandaranayake discovered Sigiriya had been a magnificent city. Says Raj Somadeva, project director, "We have not found the environmental reasons for its decline." The city disappeared in just 18 years.

In India, an exciting quest for prehistoric Indians is about to be launched. In 1982, a single stone age human skull was discovered by geologist Arun Sonakia on the banks of the Narmada. The Indian human fossil is the only one which bridges the gap between fossil localities in east Asia and Africa.

Says Desmond Clarke, professor emeritus, University of Berkeley, California, "Homo erectus must have passed through some part of the Indian subcontinent." Explains Clarke, "The earliest human species was Homo habilis who lived between 2 and 1.5 million years ago. Its descendant was Homo erectus whose fossils were found in Java in 1891 and is 1.6 million years old. Since then Homo erectus bones have been found in Africa and China."

The Anthropological Survey of India, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Geological Survey of India are now engaged in a search along the Narmada river valley. "Scientists will have to team up and look in the most likely places: sites with fine grain sediment old land surface and well preserved faunal assemblage", says Clarke. Adds Vinod Mishra, Director of Deccan College, Pune, "This is one of the most exciting statements made. During a single 4-year excavation discovered 3,000 fossil fragments and tools of the stone age."

Whether it is sleuthing Homo erectus, or tracing the migration of trade and ideas, or scrutinising links between the rise and fall of civilisations, archaeology has had to traverse the bumpy terrains of many nations. "In many ways," observes Renfrew, "we have always been a global village." And today, he says, the practise of archaeology is broadly the same worldwide.

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