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Member of the Month – Bishnupriya Basak

June 5, 2015

Weaving together a material past: Archaeology within and without officialdom in late nineteenth-early twentieth century India

In recent years there has been a renewed spurt of interest in India in looking at the emergence of archaeology as a discipline and its role in the construction of the sub-continent’s past in nineteenth-early twentieth century. My area of research focuses on understanding the development of archaeology as a colonial project, chiefly in the Bengal presidency. During the last decade or so my publications have focused on several related aspects. In 2007 I tried to situate the development of archaeology as a discipline in Bengal in the official and the academic sphere covering the period from the first half of the twentieth century to the early 1960s. The beginning of an official archaeology is seen in the activities of the Archaeological Survey, Eastern Circle, as represented by its annual reports, which may be perceived as part of a totalizing mission of the colonial state in the post-Mutiny era. Conservation of antiquities and structures, the many layers of an official policy dealing with such, the debates and acrimonies are covered here with a focus on the John Marshall era when conservation became the chief corner stone of an official policy in archaeology. After the dissolution of these reports in 1920–21, Bengal began to feature in a limited way in the annual reports of the Survey, and later in its reviews. The birth of an academic archaeology is traced in the activities of the University of Calcutta. This was seen in the backdrop of an initiative, made by Wheeler, the then director general of the Survey, to promote the study of past heritage in organizations outside the Survey.

In the course of my researches I began to realize that outside the ambit of an Imperial policy veered towards building up a custodianship of the colony’s material past there were individuals passionately engaged in interpreting an alien past during the period from second half of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. These individuals were geologists employed by the Geological Survey of India, civil servants, military officials and individuals variously engaged in different professions in the colony. They were not concerned with the Monumental; that was taken care of by the Survey and its officials. Their concern was with discoveries of ‘chipped/polished stone’ or ‘rude stone monuments’ belonging to a hoary antiquity. Accounts of these discoveries overlapped with descriptions of ‘tribes’ and ‘savage races’ living in the marginalized territories of the sub-continent. Therefore, the inquiries of these scholar-administrators into human evolution, race and the progress of civilization hinged on two forms of evidence, archaeological and ethnographic. The germs of prehistoric archaeology in the sub-continent may be sought in these early writings, where the boundaries between prehistory, ethnology and ethnography were often fuzzy. The perceptions of these scholars– pieced together from their writings, notes and private correspondence—add a different dimension to the colonial project.

While some of the figures engaged in the pursuit of prehistory are well known, like Robert Bruce Foote in south and Carlyle and Todd in central India, there are still others, like Valentine Ball (reported to have made the first ‘discovery’ of ‘chipped stone’ in Bengal; Basak 2005) whose forays in prehistory and ethnography as the outcome of geological surveys in the Jungle Mahals (forming a part of the present-day Chotanagpur region) have gone largely unnoticed. A profusion of their writings appears in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. These writings of Ball and many others viz., John Cockburn, Rev. James Long, E.H.C. Walsh, P.O. Bodding, E.T. Dalton, Henry F. Blanford etc are many-layered. Typological descriptions of the artifacts are interspersed with rich anecdotes, myths and legends of existing indigenous communities. Efforts in understanding the geological context in a wider scope of appreciation of the natural world or making a comparative study of artifacts within a perspective of tracing the diffusion or migration of races were perhaps not isolated ventures but part of a larger initiative of understanding the antiquity of mankind.

I have also looked at the interesting phenomenon of collecting material objects which was an engaging enterprise for Victorian Britain. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed an enhanced role for museums in Great Britain coupled with a parallel growth in private collections and an eagerness to collect souvenirs from distant lands. Material culture emerged as an important means to understand the evolutionary history of humankind. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford was founded in 1884 with a founding collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world. The donor was Augustus Henry Lane Fox, better known as Col. Pitt Rivers. Through a study of the Indian collection of archaeological objects, amassed over the succeeding years I attempted to show how the colony and the metropolis were tied in a broad network of connections. I also argued that this enterprise of ‘collecting’—participated in by colonial servants, missionaries and others—lent an important dimension to the beginning of prehistoric research in the subcontinent (Basak 2011).

Bishnupriya Basak, Department of Archaeology, Calcutta University, Kolkata

Another fascinating account from a HARN member. I’m amazed at the diversity of interests and research amongst our members. I LOVE reading these and I know other members do too so if you’d like to contribute a piece please get in touch.

Have a great weekend


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