'Be sceptical, and not negative and destructive'

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

Interview with Iravatham Mahadevan.

What are your views on the recent findings at the Gulf of Khambat? What is their significance? Do they suggest they are man-made?

At the outset I would like to say that we should maintain a sceptical attitude but not a negative one. These are Indian scientists who are not archaeologists and who did not go there looking for any civilisation. As Professor Asko Parpola emphasises, Dr. S. Badrinarayan is a respected, senior scientist. My first impression (after seeing the findings) is that the claims are honest. If they are mistaken we can always find out.

Second, there are two types of exhibits. One, those found on the floor of the ocean. Because of tidal action and ocean currents there, you cannot just like that make any judgment (about the artefacts found there).

Exception are the semi-precious stones, some of which are perforated. I do not believe this can happen by any kind of nature's action there. I have seen them and they (the stones) are very hard.

But they could have been washed into the sea from somewhere else...

Yes. You cannot also rule out the possibility that they were somewhere inland and washed into the sea, coming into the palaeo channel.

How reliable are the sonar images? Have they been used in similar underwater sites earlier? What is your assessment of NIOT's interpretations of the sonar images?

The sonar photographs are very interesting. First, there are a series of squares which they interpret as a settlement in a grid pattern. I am not an archaeologist, much less an underwater archaeologist. So, I am not really competent to judge, except as an educated layperson with a considerable interest in Indian archaeology. It is very difficult to imagine series of square plinth areas, with grid-like structures, running for several kilometres, occurring in nature.

Again, there is a long rectangular structure with something similar to steps leading downward, which is clearly man-made.

How significant are the artefacts found at the Gulf of Khambat site? What are your first impressions on examining them? Is there any method by which the structures there can be examined?

To begin with, let us keep the Indus or the Harappan civilisation completely out of this. First, they (the NIOT scientists) are not claiming it to be the Indus civilisation. No Indus script or metal has been found there. No piece of pottery has been found there that can be identified; except some very minute pieces.

There are a few stone-like implements. But, as Prof. Parpola emphasises, due to tidal action it is very difficult to say for sure whether they are paleolithic which have been smoothened to look like neolithic or just natural stones that can acquire any kind of shape.

One point Dr. Badrinarayan is insistent about is that the square plinth areas have foundations. Dr. Parpola asked some probing questions such as whether there could not be some rock formations underneath? To this Dr. Badrinarayan says, "no". To prove this, I have suggested that one of the plinth areas be opened up by bucket excavators. It is a crude method. But one cannot do better than that. We do not expect brick structures. They could be random rubble structures.

This is only a beginning. They should do this (excavation) for a few more seasons. And they should associate well-known international experts in underwater archaeology and neolithic age. I am told that Dr. S.R. Rao, India's best expert in underwater archaeology, looked at the findings and was quoted as saying that he is "baffled". He is not able to come to any conclusion, as Dr. Parpola has also said.

I would like to maintain a cautious optimism. If the criticism is destructive, you would discourage the scientists who are honest and going about their jobs. Let us take their claims at face value. When an expert says he has been doing underwater exploration for long and has never found anything like this before, the claim has to be taken at face value.

NIOT scientists stumbled on the site. They have made known their findings. Should it still remain with them or be given to experts in the area of marine archaeology and Indian archaeology?

I do not think it should remain with them. They should publicise them in scientific journals and through academic debates. Second, they should get in touch with international underwater archaeologists and experts in neolithic and paleolithic civilisations.

Marine archaeologists should have been involved at some stage...

Exactly. They (the NIOT scientists) surely should not have used words like "civilisation" and "acropolis". It is not their discipline. Somebody puts such words into their mouth and they just repeat them. 'Civilisation' is certainly not the word they should be using.

But that there is evidence of man-made activity there is not unlikely. First, it is an area which probably was above land for sometime, with palaeo channels, and there could be human settlements that could be palaeolithic or neolithic. I can say for sure that it is certainly not Harappan. If at all it is a culture, it is pre-Harappan. Nothing found there suggests Harappan. There are one or two pieces of slate-like blocks, highly eroded but suggesting something artistic. They could be man-made or natural. It is very difficult to make any firm pronouncement on that. It is difficult to interpret them. Such things are available even from palaeolithic times, like the so called Venuses found in the West, which are thousands of years old.

Are the claims made by the Ministry about it being a "pre-Harappan urban civilisation" justified?

Parpola: That is too much.

Mahadevan: Absolutely not. That is politics. But I would not say that the finding should be discounted. We should ask questions and take a helpful attitude. If all experts say that there is nothing there which is man-made then scientists like Dr. Badrinarayan and Kathiroli will accept it. But the arguments and approach should be scientific, and the debate academic - keeping out politics.

In archaeology, any culture is a period of human activity. You can talk about palaeolithic culture and so on. Whereas civilisation would involve urban settlement. The comparisons with Jericho are all very far-fetched. Any link with the Harappan civilisation is unwarranted. There is no Indus script, no writing, no metal, no seal and not even pottery. In fact, even if pottery is found it is very significant because pottery is a human activity. But then again they are embedded in clay. They could have been washed in by the palaeo channel. All that is not conclusive.

One point is that it has been found in an area known to be Harappan in the later period. In that area there are probably a hundred Harappan sites. I have myself joined in one of the excavations, at Rojdi, by an American team led by Possehl. But these are all on land. Take Dholavira, in the Rann of Kutch, above land, but only barely so. With or without the claim of Carbon-14, even the look of it suggests that it is pre-Harappan.

So, let us not talk about the Harappan civilisation or the Indus Valley culture. It is far earlier than that. But the question is whether there is a culture there at all or we are imagining something. My position would be that we should not jump to conclusions nor should we straight away pooh-pooh it. We should take a helpful attitude.

How reliable are the dating methods used - carbon-14, for example? Also, can the age of the wood piece found under water be correlated to the antiquity of the site?

Mahadevan: I do not attach much importance to the carbon-14 dating method (to gauge the antiquity of the site). That piece of wood could have floated in from anywhere.

Parpola: Unless, of course, the wood piece has come from a stratified layer under the seabed.

Mahadevan: But even then it might not have belonged to that place. The stratification could have come later, by layers of silt settling over it.

Can dating of a piece of wood be used to decide on the antiquity of the site? The piece of wood could have come from anywhere. How can a piece of wood found there be proof for any "civilisation"?

It is common practice to use carbon-14 on pieces of wood or charcoal showing human activity. Otherwise, it could be a tree there which is 7,000 years old. But it may not have anything to do with human activity. Supposing there had been a big tree in that area which has been covered by sea. You do the carbon-14 dating and it will yield the date. The one I saw today is 8,000 years old - about 6000 B.C. or thereabouts. This more or less would agree with the geological dating as well. But the wood could have come from anywhere or it could be a big tree there, without any human activity. So, I have told them that they should not lay any emphasis on the carbon-14 dating method. Apart from that there is no method of dating.

Then how do you go about dating the findings?

Mahadevan: There are two points in this. They have some figurines. Prof. Parpola is rather sceptical - (he feels that) they could have been formed naturally. But some of them have perforations and some look like two pieces of clay fused together. It is difficult to find out if these had occurred naturally or not. This is again for experts to say.

But semi-precious stones clearly show human activity. They are very small and could have been washed into the sea but some are perforated. They are not exactly beads. They are rough pieces. Nevertheless perforated. Semi-precious stones are all hard. They do not get perforated naturally.

Parpola: I am sceptical about the significance of the perforation. More material needs to be excavated to get a clear evidence of human activity on those stones.

Are the methods of dating followed in this case credible and reliable?

Mahadevan: The only method of dating used is carbon-14.

Parpola: The other most important dating method used (in this case) is geological - submerging. They made it clear that it could not have been above water after 5000 B.C. So, the sea-levels and geological reasons given for dating this as being 5000 B.C. or earlier and not after 5000 B.C. is an important method of dating.

How credible are their arguments, even geologically, to say that this site has been underwater since at least 5000 B.C.?

Parpola: I am not a specialist in this. But they showed maps of different periods - of what parts were under- and above-water in different periods. This Gulf of Cambay was above sea level until about that time. But not after that. Whether this holds good or not, it is one way of dating.

On the other hand, land has also been rising. This is one way we date in our country as the ice has been pressing land down. After ice age, land has been coming up slowly. To find out where the shoreline has gone and so on, this is an important way of dating in our country. So, I imagine that it is possible to date something on these lines.

I see this as a layperson. But, basically, I see no reason to suspect that this is wrong. It is left to experts to make precise judgment on this. But the NIOT scientists should be experts in precisely these sort of things. So, I have no reason to doubt them.

What is your overall assessment of the Khambat findings?

Overall, an interesting discovery has been made by scientists who have the right credentials and whose bona fide is hardly suspect. So I repeat, be sceptical, which is a good scientific attitude, but not negative and destructive. It could be a major discovery. We do not know. Several more seasons of work would be required. And clearly international cooperation is called for.

Is any international help forthcoming?

I believe many have offered help. Experts like (Richard) Meadow (of the Harvard University) are on record saying if they are called to help they would be most willing. UNESCO could be called in and it could be a major project, getting underwater equipment like the kind we do not have. As far as I can judge, the scientists are not against international cooperation. They are to organise later this year, in August or September, an international colloquium of experts.

Can you name some experts who can help?

In India, we have S.R.Rao, who has done underwater archaeology from Poompuhar to Dwaraka. He knows what he is talking about. We have in Deccan College (Pune) and at Baroda, experts in Deccan neolithic and palaeolithic age - the pre-Harappan age. They are all very hard-nosed archaeologists. They are not the ones to romanticise the past. There are also experts such as Dhavlikar, V.N. Mishra and so on in India. And outside India, Meadow, Kenoyer and so on can help. We should call in international experts for two reasons: We require an objective and independent opinion. And, some international funding would not be unwelcome. We have to get such scholars and then look at this (the findings). If, ultimately, it turns out to be not as imagined, it is all right. But it should be kept in mind that it all began with an accidental discovery by scientists who are puzzled and are talking about it. Take them at their face value.

But why did scientists with such credentials lend themselves to this kind of projections and interpretations in the company of Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi? Would this not affect the credibility of their scientific pursuit?

The answer to that is very simple. This is India and scientists are under political control. They are not free. NIOT is a Government of India organisation. And Murli Manohar Joshi happens to be their Minister. And if he wants to make political capital out of this, they are helpless. But, then, I would not judge what is happening in NIOT by what Murli Manohar Joshi is saying.

Are there any similar underwater sites? What methods of archaeology, dating and so on have been used there?

Mahadevan: Outside Cambay, one has been found by S.R. Rao at Bet Dwaraka, where there were cyclopean walls and huge structures. A Harappan seal was also found. These findings have been published. That was a regular underwater archaeology from Goa done with divers using diving bells and so on.

S.R. Rao has also done a smaller one, off Cauvery valley, in Poompuhar, but not as extensive as in Dwaraka. As far as I know, no diving bells were used in this case. But they did find some brick structures about 5-6 km off the coast of Kaveripoompatinam. It has not been published fully. But it has got some notice.

Dwaraka is a good example of huge structures found underwater. But this was to be expected. The high tide rises several metres up and down. And Rann of Kutch area is virtually above water for six months and under water for the next six months. In that area because of tectonic activity the land level keeps rising and falling. That coastal towns should go under water in such areas is no surprise. But this is not as deep as in the case of Cambay. And that makes all the difference.

Parpola: Cambay is very deep. And also, as the underwater currents are strong, it is extremely difficult and risky for any marine archaeologist to go there. As for other sites, there was recently news about parts of ancient Alexandria being discovered underwater. They have found houses, statues and some structures belonging to the Roman period. Underwater sites are being found. But Cambay is one of its kind - it is very deep, the currents are strong and the sand is constantly shifting. I do not know of any other site as difficult as this one.

What is interesting (in the Gulf of Khambat site) is the macro picture of several kilometre area of square plinths, something which look like tanks, one that looks like a check-wall for break-water, another like a fortress and so on. These are all sonar images and not direct photographs as the water there is very murky to be directly photographed.

Is there any way of overcoming the problem of murkiness of water and taking direct photographs?

The sonar images could be computer-analysed. I am not an expert in sonar pictures but surely there must be methods of doing it - maybe by putting very bright lights or maybe by waiting for some season when the water is less murky and so on. I do not know exactly.

And, even if it is very crude, some method of bringing out massive material from there (would help). Excavation, the way it is done on the ground, is obviously impossible in this case. And the scientists say that it is very dangerous to work there where they went as it is very deep and dark, and the currents are very strong, and the water murky. Even sending a person down and keeping him there for more than a few minutes is out of the question. These are the limitations and one has to keep these things in mind.

What should be the future course of action?

Now the scientists must be allowed, without any political influence, to publish the findings as they found them, in clear scientific language in scientific periodicals. They can also publish their own monographs. Above all, call in experts from within and outside India keeping the politicians and Ministers out of this.

But it has already been politicised and Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi has come into the picture...

A distinction must be made between what people in Delhi are saying and what people at NIOT are doing. The NIOT scientists should be acknowledged for their findings during the course of their normal work and they should be allowed to proceed without any political interference.

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