Pakistan has a deep and multicultural archaeological past. From the deserts of Sindh to the highest mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan, from the coastal regions of Balochistan to the irrigated fields of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there is a vast kaleidoscope of monumental past spread across civilizations. From religious signposts of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions in the ancient world to Islamic, Sikh, Christian religions in the medieval world, the material icons of a plural religious past are visibly standing as well as buried deep underground all over Pakistan.
Archaeology is a magical gateway to the past. Through excavation and interpretation of architecture, artifacts, environment, and landscapes, archaeology seeks to unlock and reveal the mysteries of the past. How humans lived and died over millions of years of evolution across the globe? How they built their houses and the places of worship? Who were the rulers and the ruled? How they cultivated their lands and prepared their food? Emerging from the shadows of its mother discipline anthropology, archaeology tries to respond to these questions by reconstructing the material culture of the past through the study of monuments, pottery, coins, inscriptions, art objects, bones, cereals, pottery, tools, toys, seals, terracotta utensils, precious stones and bricks, and other surviving elements buried underground.
Archaeology is a diverse field of study. Most archaeologists focus on a particular region of the world or a specific topic of study. Specialization allows an archaeologist to develop expertise on a particular issue. Some archaeologists study human remains, animals, ancient plants, stone tools, etc. Underwater archaeologists study the remains of human activity that lies beneath the surface of the water in rivers and oceans. Given the sheer diversity of geographical landscape comprising mountains, deserts, plains, rivers and sea, Pakistan with a long history of human settlements stretching back thousands of years, is an archaeological haven for national and international archaeologists.
An archaeological site is any place where there are physical remains of past human activities. They may include villages or cities, stone quarries, caves, ancient cemeteries, campsites, and megalithic stone monuments. A site can be as small as a pile of chipped stone tools left by a prehistoric hunter or it can be as large and complex as the prehistoric settlements of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh. Even the smallest archaeological site may contain a wealth of important information. In terms of artifacts, there are two types of archaeological sites: Prehistoric archaeological sites are those without a written record; Historic archeological sites are those where archaeologists can use writing to aid their research.
Every artifact found on an archaeological site has a defined location. Archaeologists record the exact spot where they find an artifact before removing it from that location. When people remove an artifact without recording its precise location, the archaeological context is lost forever. An unattributed artifact has little or no scientific value. Context is what allows archaeologists to understand the relationship between artifacts and archaeological sites. It is how we understand how people in the past lived their daily lives.
Archaeology provides us with the unique opportunity to learn about past cultures through the study of artifacts. Artifacts are objects made, modified, or used by humans. Coins made of silver, copper, and gold are some of the most reliable artifacts for establishing ancient history. The study of coins, called numismatics, can throw light on the names, figures, and chronology of rulers in any given area. The entire political history of dynastic rule in ancient Pakistan is built on the information gained from numismatics. The archaeological knowledge of past kingdoms that ruled ancient Pakistan, such as Achaemenids, Hellenistic, Mauryans, Greco-Bactrian, Kushan, Gupta, and Huns is consolidated through the study of coins. Besides, a numismatics study sheds light on the artistic talents and development of science in the ancient world. From the coins, the language and script of a particular age can also be identified. Moreover, the presence of coins from foreign lands is considered an indicator of ancient trade between different regions. For instance, the Roman coins excavated in India are an evidence of trade between Roman and Indian Empires in the ancient world. The economic value of coins based on the type of metal is interpreted by archaeologists to reflect on the economic conditions of the past. The rulers minting coins in gold are likely to be rich economies and the depreciation of coinage is an indication of poverty in the kingdom.
Inscriptions are written records that are engraved on stones, pillars, and rocks. Like coins, inscriptions are an important source of information about the past. The study of inscriptions is called epigraphy. There are several different types of inscriptions, which includes commercial, magical, administrative, and commemorative. The inscriptions provide a variety of information on the social, cultural, religious, and political conditions of the past. The information derived from the inscription is considered more reliable because it cannot be modified and interpolated without being detected. For instance, the earliest pieces of written fragments found in ancient Pakistan are birch bark manuscripts known as Gandhara scrolls which roughly date between the first century BCE and the first century CE. Its language is Gandhari, a derivative of Sanskrit, and the script is called Kharoshthi. The narrator of the Gandhara scrolls is no other than Shakyamuni Buddha who gives very short biographies of the thirteen Buddhas who came before him, and Buddhas who will come after him. The biographies contain other information such as, how long each Buddha lived, how each predicted the eventual appearance of Shakyamuni Buddha, what social class the Buddha was born into, and how long his teachings endured. The Gandhara scrolls are the most important epigraphic records of Buddhism found in Pakistan and are housed in the Library of Congress, Washington, USA.
The study of monuments is another important field of study in archaeology that helps reconstruct the past. Ancient monuments, like buildings, statues of stones or metals, terracotta, ornamental and decorative fragments, provide us information about construction skills, designs, techniques, and motifs of the past.
Archaeology is considered a handmaiden to history, which is an older and established field of study of the past. However, with something as little as broken bits of pottery, or carvings, archaeological analyses can turn the pages of history upside down. The discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization by Sir John Marshall, as one of the world’s three earliest civilizations, along with Mesopotamia and Egypt, was made on the interpretation of artifacts, which reset the clock by 2,500 years, taking the Indus civilization back much further than had earlier been imagined by nineteenth century historians and Indologists of ancient India.
A site can be destroyed and its contents disbursed in a moment from salvage, or it may be preserved and enjoyed by the public and studied in perpetuity. All people, not just a select few, benefit from preservation. The study and enjoyment of archaeological resources for science, tourism, recreation, and education not only preserves sites but benefits the economy over a long period. There is a need to involve academic, non-governmental, and private organizations in the efforts to educate the public of the importance of preserving cultural heritage as well as exhibiting and interpreting archaeological data and collections in museums.
The archaeological departments in Pakistan are working tirelessly to protect archaeological sites through stringent legislation and cultural resource management. Pakistan is rich in archaeological sites and monuments, yet the preservation of cultural heritage is deeply problematic. Innumerable archaeological sites and mounds across Pakistan are being destroyed due to development pressures. The demands of heritage preservation conflicts with the development of real estate and livelihood interests of the common people, who encroach and destroy archaeological sites for their short-term gains. For instance, the preservation of archaeological monuments in and near rock quarries in Taxila is difficult as these areas are controlled by powerful groups. Many of the archaeological sites of Buddhist origin in Sindh identified in the early twentieth century no longer exist. In some parts of Pakistan, especially Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, antiquities are dug out from archaeological sites for sale through smuggling in the international antique markets.
In the recent past, there has been an increased focus by the Pakistani government on the protection of cultural heritage for its use in tourism promotion and economic development. Besides being a source of income generation, cultural tourism, for countries like Pakistan, can contribute to the process of positive image building and cultural projection. Out of hundreds of archaeological sites, which are worth the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, only the archaeological city settlements of Mohenjo-Daro, Taxila, Sehri Bahlol, including Takht Bhai monastery, were inscribed on the List. While archaeological sites of Harappa, Mehrgarh, Rehman Dheri, Mansehra Rock Edicts, and Ranigat are on the Tentative List since 2004, consistent lobbying should be undertaken by the Pakistani government to elevate these sites to the World Heritage List, given their outstanding universal value.
Through archaeological investigation, a window to the past is opened to allow a view of life as our ancestors lived it. Archaeological knowledge, artifacts, sites, landscapes, and museums can help teach the younger generation about the paths that humans have crossed to arrive at contemporary society. This knowledge is essential to equip future generations to appreciate cultures of their own as well as others. Preserving archaeological resources is vital to keep this window open. Inevitably, a few archaeological sites are lost as the result of urbanization and development, but the willful neglect and destruction of sites for commercial profits of a few individuals is a crime against history. Losing an archaeological site or artifact is therefore akin to losing stories that cannot be retold. If the past needs to be preserved archaeology needs to be treated as a valuable discipline bringing to the fore buried pasts and untold stories. HH
The writer is an anthropologist working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad. He is also the Vice President of Council of Social Sciences Pakistan.
The writer is a historian working with Center for Culture and Development, Islamabad also affiliated with National Committee of ICOM Pakistan.