As a subject, history is associated with the project of modernity itself, for history enables an objective and conscionable assessment of progress, different in every measure, from the past. Understanding the past, however, is often a contextual exercise, when viewed via the lens of subjectivity and the mistaken use of hindsight. This is where archaeology steps in. Archaeology – a relatively newer branch within history – couples a scientific precision of fact, assessment of material evidence, with an imaginative interpretation of the past and its possibilities.
As Devika Cariapa’s India Through Archaeology: Excavating History tells us, an archeologist combines in her persona the serendipity of an adventurer, the meticulous efforts of a scholarly scientist, the sweeping awareness of a time traveller, and a multifaceted knowledge of various other subjects – philology (an understanding of historical languages), epigraphy (related to inscriptions, for example) and even geology. The book is meant for young adults but it will nevertheless engage readers of all ages.
Serendipity and science
Consider the example of VS Wakankar, who, in 1957, travelling by train from Bhopal to Itarsi, was “struck by the beauty of a series of low densely forested hills they were passing”. The “strange rocky outcrops” set his “archeological antennae twitching wildly”. What followed remade history in every sense, for Wakankar had chanced on Bhimbetka, the “world’s largest open-air prehistoric art gallery”, with paintings and engravings on nearly 700 caves and rock-shelters that dated between 1,00,000 to 3000 years ago.
It would be chance, even serendipitous discoveries, much like Wakankar’s, that would lead to a rethinking and rewriting of the subcontinent’s history – as numerous instances dating from Paleolithic times (two million years ago) to our own times in Excavating History show. The story of how the first major cities of the Harappan culture,…