'The conclusion is reasonable, but the claims are too much'

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

Interview with Asko Parpola.

What artefacts dredged out from the Gulf of Khambat did you examine? What are your first impressions? Are there indications that they were man-made? Do they support the Indian Government's claim of it being a "pre-Harappan urban civilisation"?

I am not a specialist in this particular field. I have studied the Indus script and the Harappan civilisation and followed Indian archaeology over time. I am not a professional archaeologist, and least of all a specialist in marine archaeology or of the Neolithic period. I was interested in seeing the methods used and the materials found in Khambat.

The materials were shown to us by the geologist Dr. S. Badrinarayan and the scientist Dr. S. Kathiroli of the NIOT. My impression is that the two scientists know what they are talking about. Dr. Badrinarayan has been surveying the seabed all along the Indian coast. He should know when he comes across materials that seem non-natural. Tectonic activity does take place in that region. He was suggesting that on grounds of tectonic activity and rise of sea level, it seems impossible to date the articles or the site later than about 5000 B.C. They must have been under water since then. This seemed a very reasonable conclusion, going by his expertise.

But the claims are too much.

Dating in this case hinges on one piece of wood. First, can the age of the wood found under the sea be correlated to the antiquity of the site? Secondly, is this one piece of evidence enough to conclude the antiquity of the site? Thirdly, is the underwater site a secure context to gauge the antiquity of the site? What are credible dating methods? How are they normally done in the case of underwater sites? Can radio carbon dating (that is used in this case) and thermoluminescence (that is to be used for pottery found at the site) give reliable dating for ancient periods?

I was very suspicious about the dating of the site from a piece of wood. For one, it could have come from anywhere. But Dr. Badrinarayan says it actually comes from under the seabed. Thus, it is from a stratified context. So, if the site went under water about 5000 B.C., dating this a little bit earlier does not seem unreasonable.

But I object to the use of the words "Cambay civilisation" as it implies literacy and city life. On the basis of the evidence I have seen, it seems to me that it is possible that this could be a Neolithic site of 5000 B.C. Of course, I have not seen any incontrovertible evidence for this. I am only saying that it is possible. That is all.

I have seen some interesting materials that seem to occur only in this place; not in the surrounding areas. But the problem with this site is that there is very heavy tidal influence and the sands are shifting all the time. So when we find flat objects here it seems to me perfectly possible that this flattening is done by sand activity - erosion by the sand. Even the holes that we found in the stones got from this area may not be due to human drilling. A flat object could have been stuck on a stone and started rolling around because of water activity (currents). So, these holes may have occurred naturally. Thus, I want to have a sceptical attitude about these findings until we get incontrovertible proof.

What would you term "incontrovertible proof"?

For instance, very hard stones clearly drilled by human activity. Or, if we are speaking of stone tools - flints, usually chipped. The material found so far are smooth; they could have been smoothened by sand. That is what is expected to happen if they remain under water for thousands of years and the sand is shifting heavily all the time.

But they have found hard stones. They have also found what to a layperson looks like pottery. All these things can be analysed, no doubt. My impression is that the NIOT is quite open and willing to let experts help it analyse these materials. It also appears that it is doing its best to study the material scientifically.

What artefacts did you see? Do they give any clues that they are man-made? What is their significance?

The most interesting things were animal remains, fossilised vertebrae, different kinds of stones and so on. They could have been man-made. But I am not fully convinced (that they are man-made) as I see the possibility of natural activity. But, as I said, there are semi-precious stones. It seems quite likely that the Tapti river flowed to the Saurashtra side and this habitation, if it was such, would have been on it. So, on the basis of what I have seen, I would expect that this might be a Neolithic site of about 5000 B.C., similar to that in Saurashtra and mainland Gujarat. They hypothesise that there could have been a dam. On the basis of what has been discovered in pre-Harappan cultures in Pakistan, we know that such dams were built.

With what certainty can sonar images be used to conclude the existence of such structures as dams, granary and pillars? Have sonar images been used to decipher such underwater sites?

I am not an expert on sonar images to make a pronouncement on this. But Dr. Badrinarayan says that because they seem to continue under the seabed these projections seem to have some foundation. I asked them: 'Is it not possible that the stone formation here is of different hardness and while the soft parts are wiped away the hard parts remain.' They want to do more research to find out if they are man-made by taking more samples from there.

What are the standard, accepted procedures of excavating such underwater marine sites? Is mechanical dredging the common procedure? Would it not disturb the evidence?

Mechanical dredging is probably the only way to excavate such sites because of the depth, the strong tide, the turbid water and the strong currents. It is an extremely dangerous site for divers. So, mechanical dredging is probably the only way of excavation here. But I think they would like to get advice from marine archaeologists working elsewhere, as the scientists who are involved in this are basically ocean technologists and geologists who are not experienced in marine archaeology.

Iravatham Mahadevan has suggested to them to organise an international experts' colloquium to get opinions and advice.

Are there similar underwater marine sites that have been found earlier? What are the methods used there?

There are some. But this site is one of its kind as it has very strong tides. Marine archaeology is developed in several places. In Finland we have a very strong tradition of marine archaeology. There have been many shipwrecks in Finland which have been studied well. But the situation is completely different there as the waters do not have such strong tides.

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