Questionable claims

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Archaeologists debunk the claim that underwater structures in the Gulf of Khambat point to the existence of a pre-Harappan civilisation.

IN May 2001, Murli Manohar Joshi, the Union Minister for Human Resource Development, Science and Technology, who also holds additional charge of the Department of Ocean Development, made an astounding announcement: An ancient underwater settlement had been discovered in the Gulf of Khambat, off the coast of Gujarat. The site, at a depth of 30 to 40 metres, was discovered by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in the course of routine exploration work to assess pollution and map resource levels. According to Joshi, the evidence suggested that at the site there was human habitation that was about 9,500 years old. In other words, the site existed circa 7500 B.C. The Ministry announced that the site represented an urban settlement that pre-dated the Harappan civilisation.

A few of the artefacts retrieved from the Gulf of Khambat: 1. A piece of wood; 2. A jaw-bone and a tooth; and 3. Semi-precious stones.-

Dr. S. Kathiroli, Project Director, Mission III, Coastal and Environmental Engineering, NIOT, who headed the expedition that made the discovery, said that he was excited by the regularity of the images picked by the sonar on the NIOT's ship and reported the matter to his Ministry. He had no idea what the images were; nor was he familiar with the samples that were dredged out - bits of stone, terracotta, a piece of wood and what looked like fossilised bone. The piece of wood was immediately sent for radiocarbon dating and was found to be about 9,500 years old. The other samples are yet to be tested. "Proof" that the settlement was on a river-bed came from a collection of pebbles examined by Dr. S.N. Rajguru, former head of the Department of Archaeology at Deccan College, Pune.

The finds comprise a piece of wood measuring approximately 25 cm in length and 20 cm in diameter, an assortment of pottery sherds, stone pieces presumed to be tools, fossilised bones, and a tooth. Sonar images showed what appeared to be a vast area of regular structures on the sea-bed and a submerged river-bed. No archaeologist, nor diver, has seen the underwater site. No underwater photographs were taken. The artefacts were recovered by a mechanical dredge that trawled large sections of the sea-bed. The decision to dredge the sea-bed was made by the Department of Ocean Development.

Prominent members of the archaeological community have since debunked the Ministry's claim. While not disputing the possible existence of underwater structures in the Gulf of Khambat, they argue that the evidence found so far is far too flimsy to support the grand claims that are being made. Their contention is that the government should hand over the excavation work to qualified marine archaeologists. It is a well established that civilisation began around 3500 B.C. in the Sumer valley (now in southern Iraq), and around 2500 B.C. in the Indian subcontinent with the Indus Valley civilisation. In archaeological methodology, the records generated from fieldwork have primacy in establishing the value of an excavation and the conclusions that are drawn. "It is highly unorthodox to go public so soon after a discovery and without first presenting the findings to one's peers," Jaya Menon, a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, MS University, Baroda, told Frontline. "I don't see how claims were made without the involvement of marine archaeologists."

Professor K.V. Raman, former head of the Department of Archaeology, University of Madras, and former Superintending Archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), says that the site needs more probing. On the pre-Harappan label being attached to the site, he says, "I am really sick of the politicisation of matters like this. It destroys the integrity of my profession."

Many aspects of the Khambat discovery are open to question. For instance, though the NIOT discovered the site last year, it has not involved agencies such as the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), which has a marine archaeology department and has many submarine excavations to its credit. Nor have the respected departments of archaeology at Deccan College or the University of Allahabad been involved. Kathiroli says: "The work done so far is very little and helps only to establish the existence of an archaeological site. Much more detailed investigations are required to unravel the complete truth. With this in mind, a national project is being contemplated involving institutions such as the NIO, the ASI, the National Geophysical Research Institute, the Physical Research Laboratory (in Ahmedabad) and other academic institutions."

There are some basic objections which have been raised against the claim that the remains of a 9,500-year-old settlement exist under the sea in the Gulf of Khambat. First, no marine archaeologist has actually gone down and seen the site. Says Shereen Ratnagar, Professor of Archaeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the author of many books on the Harappan civilisation: "There have been no divers, no mapping, no underwater photography in this case. These are the basics of excavating a submarine site. It's a long, tedious process. Even the work of mapping by people trained in archaeological draughtsmanship takes very long." Kathiroli says that an attempt to photograph the site failed because the water was turbid.

Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, who holds additional charge of the Department of Ocean Development.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The second objection is to the dating of the site on the basis of the age of a piece of wood. Says Dr. D.P. Agrawal, chairman of the Paleoclimate Group who is responsible for establishing Carbon-14 laboratories in India: "To date a city on the basis of a dredged sample of wood is irresponsible and ridiculous. I have worked with the Paleoclimate Group on the changes in climate over the ages. It is a known fact that during the Ice Age, about 20,000 years ago, the Arabian Sea was 100 metres lower (than its present level). Entire forests are buried beneath the sea in this area. It is not extraordinary to find a piece of wood going back to 7500 B.C. or 5000 B.C. There is no way it can be used as evidence to date this so-called city." Agrawal says that the two laboratories that dated the wood gave different dates. "One said it was 7,500 years old and the other 5,500. The variation is far too much and adds to the confusion."

Says Jaya Menon: "There are two interconnected ideas here. First, the age of the artefact cannot be correlated to the antiquity of the site. Secondly, the material you are dating should be from a secure context. Only then can you consider the information to be reliable. An underwater site is definitely not a secure context unlike an archaeological mound on land."

The third objection is that there is inadequate archaeologically stylistic evidence to support the claims. Agrawal points to the paucity of stylistic evidence such as beads, pottery and tools. According to him, "constructive evidence" of these seems to be lacking. A part of the array of artefacts contains what is presumed to be stone tools. It is now an established trend in archaeology that stone tools by themselves cannot be considered indicative of any historical fact. Animal bones and other signs of human habitation can be considered as worthy artefacts if they are discovered in association with fossilised human remains. The root of this argument lies in the debate that raged for years over what are called eoliths. These are stone fragments that could resemble primitive tools but could as well be creations of the process of weathering.

Raman is among those who have inspected the artefacts. "Most of what I could see were not man-made," he said. "They were naturally rolled pebbles. They deceptively look like tools but are not." Raman says the missing evidence is the "negative scar" on the stones, a mark that remains when the stone has been deliberately chipped. Equally important is the absence of metal among the artefacts. The tool technology in the Neolithic age was almost exclusively stone-based and the use of metal began only in Mohenjodaro. If metal is found at the site then it is clearly a post-Harappan settlement and not pre-Harappan as is being claimed. Raman says that a few artefacts from the site look like "human-made items - close grained basaltic stone, jasper and agate with beautifully perforated holes".

About the structures recorded by the sonar, Raman says: "There seem to be some formations. A platform of some sort and something like a tank, though I think the pillars that are seen look like natural formations."

The archaeologists whom this correspondent spoke to say that information on the material used to construct these structures will provide a crucial link to the period of the site. Raman explains: "Brick structures could be tied to the early Harappan culture. All Harappan sites used brick for building except Dholavira which used stone. If the structures at Cambay are of stone, then we have a very enigmatic situation on our hands. A situation with no parallels." Explaining the 'enigma' of finding a settlement that used stone and no metal, Raman says: "The wherewithal for cutting stone and transporting it were techniques only available to the Indus Valley as is evinced by Dholavira and not before that time. However, it was also a civilisation that knew the use of metal. To have a pre-metal stone architecture settlement will be very rare and remarkable for this region."

The Indus Valley or Harappan civilisation was the beginning of civilisation in this region. In terms of archaeological chronology it was the Bronze Age. The use of metal for making tools and bricks for construction and the building of settlements in specific formations were some of the characteristic features of the beginning of the Harappan civilisation. In the Stone Age, which preceded the Bronze Age, there was no knowledge of the use of metal for tools. Nor were there human settlements. No metal has been discovered so far at the Khambat site.

Raman says there are certain essentially Harappan items - seals and black-and-red pottery ware - that are conspicuous by their absence among the artefacts collected from Khambat. Does the lack of Harappan stylistic evidence indicate that Khambat is a pre-Harappan site? "No," says Raman, "cultures do not exist in isolation. There has to be some interconnectedness. If this is pre-Harappan, then there should be some evidence here of what was to come later."

The fourth objection is that the claims go against well-established evidence on the age of civilisations. Agrawal says: "Nowhere in the world have cities been proved to exist before 5,000 or 6,000 years ago."

About the claim that the site is the oldest, Jaya Menon says: "There seems to be some confusion regarding the dates. If, as they say, the civilisation is dated to 7500 B.C., then that is the Neolithic period. Yet, they are claiming that the discovery is like another Harappa or, rather, pre-Harappa. The two claims just don't fit. Their time-frame is Neolithic, which was a period when humans were just about beginning to move towards a sedentary life. The Harappan civilisation was an advanced one - far removed from the Neolithic period. So is the site Neolithic or Harappan?"

Responding to this, Rajguru says: "So far the oldest civilisation is that of the Indus valley, which is now near Baluchistan. If there is proof that the Cambay structures are really part of a mature civilisation then it will show that a civilisation even older than the Indus valley was in existence right here in India. That is why we are calling it Neolithic."

Dr. S. Kathiroli, Project Director, Coastal and Environmental Engineering, National Institute of Ocean Technology.-S. MAHINSHA

Ratnagar answers this effectively. "If it is a civilisation, then it can't be Neolithic. A civilisation suggests an urban, literate society while Neolithic denotes the establishing of villages and a village economy, the coming of agriculture and animal rearing."

The fifth, and the most important, objection to the Khambat claims is that those making them did not follow any of the accepted procedures of the discipline of archaeology before going public with their "discovery". Many archaeologists and scientists argue that the theories put forth are "terribly incoherent" and that the lack of standard archaeological procedure itself discredits the discovery.

When a new archeological site is discovered, the first step is to assess the site and prepare a research design for excavation. Excavation consists of data collection (recording and raising artefacts and, at the same time, mapping and photographing them), data analysis (artefact and spatial analysis, paper reconstruction or 3-D modelling) and finally, interpretation of the findings and publication in scientific journals. Seldom is there a straightforward progression from Stage 1 to Stage 4, but in the case of Khambat the procedure adopted has been extremely unorthodox.

Stratification is important for dating a site. Ratnagar explains the methodology and asks: "What makes them say it's a city? It is at the bottom of a sea-bed. Things have fallen in over a period of time. A marine site is very difficult to stratify. There is no context here like a shipwreck to provide some baseline from which to explore and extrapolate. The closest you come to stratifying underwater structures is to suck the sand out, and even that is not stratification - you are just removing the sand in order to expose the artefacts. Stratification is recognisable only on land. On land when people build a house they put posts into the soil, then they make up a bit of a floor. After a generation they might knock it down and level it, build some more foundation trenches, walls and some floor. As we are digging we find all these strata and therefore we say that something found here is earlier than something found there... it is a slow process and we keep asking questions till we get our mound strata. How do you do this under water?"

Dating a site is a core concern of archaeology, and a number of techniques have been devised to aid archaeologists. Dating techniques are to be applied in conjunction with stratification. Radiocarbon dating and Thermoluminescence (TL) are the commonly used techniques. The wood found at the site was dated using the C-14 process. The pottery sherds are expected to be dated by TL at the Physical Research Laboratory. C-14 is relevant only in the case of organic materials such as wood, charcoal, shell and bone. TL is used for dating terracotta. There are, however, reservations about TL. Its main advantage is that it can tell a genuine piece of pottery from a fake. But it cannot give reliable dating for the ancient periods.

Climate-related tests can also establish chronology. These can be employed to verify the claim that the site was one that was over time swallowed by the sea. The process would involve drilling deep-sea cores from the sea-bed and examining the micro-organisms within. Variations in the ratio of two oxygen isotopes in the calcium carbonate of these shells are a sensitive indicator of the temperature of the sea when the organisms were alive. This has been used to provide a chronology of the Ice Age (or Pliestocene epoch). No sea-bed cores have been taken in Khambat though Rajguru has said that this will be done.

Rajguru is extremely optimistic about the discovery and says he is convinced that "this will lead to something very interesting". Like Rajguru, Kathiroli is eager to carry out more exploration. He hopes to receive more funding from the Ministry of Ocean Development and to involve other agencies as well as the Indian Navy.

Amidst the growing hype there are still the voices of those who know that the Khambat discovery is likely to be used more to make gains in politics than to arrive at a better understanding of the past. Ratnagar expresses the apprehensions of a number of archaeologists. "The oldest known civilisation is the Sumerian and this is what makes them (the saffron brigade) rant and rave. They want star sites in India because all the existing star sites are out in Pakistan - Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Mehrgarh. They are always looking for pre-Harappan cultures and want to find the origins of the Indus Valley civilisation in India. It all gives rise to a very basic question - does it really matter where civilisations arose?" For some, the answer would be a definite yes.

In agreement with Ratnagar is Agrawal: "They are dating this as pre-Harappan because then it is easy for them to establish something that is very close to their hearts. They want to say that the Aryans were from India. They want to establish that India was the cradle of civilisation." This understanding, according to Agrawal, is contrary to well-established views. "First they make a public presentation without publishing in scientific journals. Then they say that the city is 9,500 years old - 5000 years older than the oldest known city."

In this context, these lines from Archaeology: Theories, Methods, Practice, a respected publication by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahns, take on relevance: "Why, beyond reasons of scientific curiosity, do we want to know about the past? And whose past is it anyway?... the past is big business...the past is politically highly charged, ideologically powerful and significant."

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