Lost in transition: An integrated approach to unearth and unravel our mysterious past


Anand Kant Das and Biswarup Mukhopadhyay, TIFR


“A mystery is a phenomenon that people don’t know how to think about yet.”             -  Danniel C . Dennet

Since time immemorial historians, archeologists, anthropologists, geologists and evolutionary scientists have surmised and conjectured about the mysteries of our ancient past civilization and culture. The challenge to demystify and unravel the sequence of events which shaped human destiny is a mammoth and daunting task. It took quite some time for social thinkers to get grip of the fact that no single approach will uncover the long and beautiful evolutionary tale. Of late archeologists, the evolutionary detectives, have taken a multidimensional and integrated approach to understand the mysterious. This new multifaceted approach has invigorated and rejuvenated man’s attempt to remove the blur over our understanding of our roots.


Wide eyed blindness

“Lack of synthesis between literary and archeological data provides  a major problem in projecting true history of the past” said Prof Vasant Shinde, joint director of pune- based Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, while addressing a colloquium on ‘Archaeology: An interdisciplinary approach to the past.’ at the Advances in Science, Engineering and Technology (ASET) colloquium at TIFR[1], Mumbai. Although both history and archeology delves into the study of past there lies a dissociation in their source .While history relies on literary sources like Vedas, epics, travelers account etc archeology on the other hand makes use of materials, monuments, artefacts, ecofacts etc in understanding the underpinnings of ancient past. Compounding to this problem is the fact that  there is an uncanny barrier between the historians and the archaeologists. “You will very rarely find any historian  near any archaeological site” commented the vivacious professor and renowned archeologist who had carried out extensive excavations at various sites in India and abroad including  places like Sri Lanka, England, Oman etc to name a few. There was a major breakthrough when Prof Ram Sharan Sharma in 1980’s used for the first time both literary and archeological sources in his study. Later on, it became evident through such combo studies that the golden era should be attributed to Kushan period rather than the Gupta period as envisaged earlier.


Early pedigree of archeology in India

Archaeology in India spread its tentacles  way back in  1784 when the Asiatic Society in Calcutta was established  by Sir William Jones. He was sent to eastern India for administration. He took keen interest in language and culture of the land eventually becoming a great scholar of Sanskrit. As founding fathers of the society he began his work with a vision for center which concerned everything about man and nature within the geographical confines of the subcontinent..

The creation of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1861 became  the logical culmination of early archaeological initiatives in British India under the directorship of  Sir Alexander Cunningham with the help of the then viceroy Charles John Canning. Sir Cunningham made use of Buddhist literature, foreign travel accounts etc to discover various archeological sites in India. Sir John Marshall took over the reins of ASI and went on to become the longest serving director general in 1902.Under his able directorship the sites of Harappa and  Mohen-jo-daro were unearthed. Another stalwart in the field of archeology during the British regime was Sir Mortimer wheeler who presided over ASI during 1944 - 1948, and fuelled the sincere efforts of ASI with introduction of the  excursion and exploration methods to weave a compelling spell in understanding of ancient civilizations. In later years the contributions H.D Sankalia towards establishment of archeology departments in universities is praiseworthy.

Why archeology?

Without archeology we would have no understanding of the first two million years of human history for which there are no written records. “Understanding our past is an important part of what makes us human” explains Prof Shinde. Our understanding of the early roots of South Asian civilization would be dwarfed if we do not  let ourselves consider the archeological findings and evidences. The early civilization sets the cornerstone for modern South Asia which is one of the most populous regions of the world and birthplace of world’s major religions, technological advancement and cultural traditions. The Asian region, specially   India , became one of the  earliest places to host the development of a full grown civilization as early as the 5000-6000 years ago. Due to ideal climatic conditions with the added boon of very fertile land which provided a platform for agriculture and hence the concept of settlement pitched in .

The contributions of historical and modern South Asia to the world will become more evident if we understand its roots which is not limited to a single religion, race, ethnic group but instead from a diverse culture that arose in the early urban centres.’Unity in diversity’ was indeed reflected in the Harappan culture. Japan was devastated post second world war but in 1964 it hosted the Olympics. How could it achieve this feat? It was through vigorous trade practices. The various concepts of trading  was introduced to the  world by none other than our very own Harappan civilization  as  evidenced by the findings  in the Mesopotamian Civilization in the city of Pompeii. Inscriptions and coins provide a boon in our understanding of trade methodologies for eg  Naneghat  region between Kalyan and Junnar is  loaded with inscriptions and coins, which points out the region’s role in trade and commerce. Vesuvian Mountain volcanic eruption during  79  A.D is one of the most preserved of the archeological sites. The charred bodies of people in sleeping positions and marks  of chariots on the marbled roads are  also preserved. Critical analysis of vessels suggests that  wine from here was sent to India, again reiterating  the concept of widespread trade. Another recent evidence found during excavation in Farmana in Haryana was special beads which were also seen in Mesopotamia indicated strong trade links between these regions.

“How variations have happened - needs to be understood, without archeology we cannot proceed” opined Prof Shinde.

Gaping loopholes: multidisciplinary seal

The sources of Indian history is diverse and multidimensional. There are geological factors for eg Pleistocene deposits which provide vital clue for potential areas of stone age. “Often at such sites we find miniscule number of stone tools. This makes the data scanty and the reconstruction of man’s journey in past difficult to understand” ponders the veteran archeologist. The deposits of ice age in Himalayas, alluvium plains of north, the laterite cap of peninsular India etc all adds to the enchantment and beauty of ancient India. The geographical background of Indian history like the great mountain walls, Gangetic plains,Western ghats etc infuses in its broad historical diversity. There are also literary sources like epics, biographies, foreign travelers account, chronicles etc with provide important impetus to our understanding of history of Indian subcontinent. The scope of modern day archeology spreads to history, anthropology, numismatic, paleography, iconography etc with branches and offshoots like pre and proto historic, industrial, ethnoarcheology, environmental and a plethora of others. There exists now a combinatorial approach in man’s quest to know his past with archeology getting active feedbacks and support from various disciplines like geology, botany, chemistry, physics, astronomy,geography being the major.The modern scientific methods which have advanced and aided archeology are Isotope analysis, neutron activation, trace element and strontium analysis(often used to identify relationships among skeletal remains) , DNA fingerprinting, Dating methods, X Ray diffraction, microscopy, starch grain, residue analysis etc to name a few. Using the latest tool of modern science like paleomagnetic methods  the age of stone flakes found at Riwat, Pakistan dates back to two million years. Study of sections through the soil profile give us an idea about the climatic conditions prevalent then and  the  agricultural  practices used etc,  the heaps of mounds in Dholavira serves as a classical example. Pottery provide vital clues and serves as an important indicator for culture information in ancient past. Their shape, size and decoration pattern vary from one culture to another. Critical analysis of pottery with modern scientific methods can give crucial insights into the era to which they belong, the type of designing tools used and also the information on whether the pottery were  made locally or imported ,can be obtained. The charred remains of foodstuff  and grains if probed with botanical techniques provide valuable information about agriculture during those days. Zoological and anthropological analysis of skeletal remains and bones provide vital clues in areas of trade informations, movement of people , their food habits and the season when exodus and settlement for semi permanent settlers took place.  Modern science has revolutionized the way archeology probe the hidden past.

 Trans- boundary issues

In September 1991,two hikers in the Tyrolean Alps ,Italy stumbled upon a well preserved body of an ancient man locked up in ice. This man was nicknamed ‘Otzi’ . He was killed by arrow  which hit him on the right shoulder back as revealed in an X-Ray report. Italy and Austria were about to go on a war over the ownership issue of this ancient  man preserved  in the ice for 2000years. The discovery of the iceman has shed light on ancient trade and customs, the trade routes within the area between Austria and Italy and the nature of  goods traders came for . The place attracts tourists who flock on to have a glimpse of “Otzi” placed in one of the museums. His entire features have been reconstructed using digital techniques.

Boot up in understanding of Indian past

Archeology has indeed served its purpose in multiple ways. In India alone very fascinating  demystification of ancient history have taken place. ”The stone age has been longest in the history of mankind” suggests Prof Shinde. The stone age has been dated to two million years in Riwat and Islampur. During excavations the remains of lower portions of structures are obtained. Based on their size, shape and structure the socio economic conditions of the people during those era can be predicted. The presence of pottery  near burials give interesting insights into the socio economic status in society and rebuilds the concept of birth and rebirth. The presence of tools , terracotta antiquities, sandstone figures provides valuable information on the then existing civilizations. 

 Further on, the Harappan civilization was denuded. The picture of  multiple zone theory for the origin of agriculture could be painted. megalithic burial tradition was well understood and most of technologies to probe the ancient past has been developed indigenously.

“In India there is lot of cultural continuity for example the food habits and vessels have not changed for thousands of years, which help in understanding of the past relatively easier as compared to elsewhere” added Prof Shinde   

His talk enthralled the listeners and provided a strong boost to their understanding of some of the fascinating tales of our ancestors.

The authors are Research Scholars in the Department of Biological Sciences, TIFR, Mumbai.


1. Prof. Vasant Shinde, Joint Director, University of Pune, Archaeology: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Past, 25/06/10, 1600Hrs, AG-66