Digging into the human mind – Michel Danino

Alexander Cunningham of the Archaeological Survey of India

Prof Michel DaninoAs archaeologists dig the ground, they also dig into our minds—and their  own. And sometimes these latter findings are equally revealing. – Prof Michel Danino

The fluidity of historical interpretation is well known among historians themselves: it is accepted that there can be no such thing as “objective history”. The French philosopher Voltaire was rather scathing in his assessment of the discipline: “History is the lie commonly agreed upon,” he wrote. The assessment of the U.S. historian Will Durant was probably closer to the truth: “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.”[1] Depending on the model they choose (and the best of the day is likely to be obsolete tomorrow), the scholars’ readings of events will vary widely.

At first glance, archaeology would appear less immune to such guesswork. After all, potsherds are potsherds, bones are bones, dating techniques are now fairly secure, and major events, such as the sacking of a city or a destructive flood are easy enough to trace on the ground. Yet that ground is rarely as secure as we might wish. Indeed, archaeology has been at the core of numerous controversies ever since it became a respectable discipline in the nineteenth century.

Almost immediately, it proved itself to be an effective weapon in the colonial arsenal. In North America in the early nineteenth century, colonizers marvelled at thousands of mysterious ancient earthen mounds throughout the Midwest, such as Ohio’s 390-metre long Great Serpent Mound. Most experts asserted that those colossal earth structures could not have been the work of “savage” Red Indians; they were attributed instead to various exotic invaders—Vikings, Hindus, even survivors from Atlantis. For “if [American] Indians were savages, their ancestors would not have had necessary engineering skills. If such skills were conceded, the moral and intellectual superiority that European settlers took to be their justification for seizing Native American land would be manifestly undermined,”[2] as the British archaeologist Paul Bahn put it. It took seventy years of often bitter archaeological controversy for the truth to prevail: the mounds had indeed an indigenous origin. Meantime, native tribes had been decimated and dispossessed of their lands, and hardly deserved a passing mention in colonial histories of America.

About the same time, in southern Africa, the imposing stone ruins of south-eastern Zimbabwe bore witness to an advanced civilization. British colonizers and scholars variously saw in them the work of King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Phoenicians, Greeks, or Egyptians—anything but an unacceptable “Black civilization”. Only in the early twentieth century was it finally demonstrated that the cities now lying in ruins were wholly indigenous. Further to the west, in Namibia, the rock paintings of the Brandberg mountain were attributed to ancient Egyptians or Cretans as late as in the 1960s: the apartheid regime ruled out an African origin for them; thankfully, it is now established that the authors of those remarkable paintings were indigenous Bushmen, not chimerical invaders from the Mediterranean.

From Easter Island to Australia’s aborigines, more cases of what has been called “colonial archaeology”[3] could be cited. By establishing that the conqueror belonged to a more advanced civilization, it helped him in his self-appointed task of writing the history of the conquered and “civilizing” them. Political misuse of archaeology found a notorious illustration when Nazi ideology engulfed the German archaeological world, with 86 per cent of all archaeologists active members of the Nazi party. Hitler had put it as plainly as possible: “My demands are not exorbitant. I am only interested … in territories where Germans have lived before.”[4] Archaeology thus became a prime instrument of Nazi claims: “It offered ‘proof’ that the great civilizations of ancient Europe had been created by human groups ‘of Germanic racial type’ and that the so-called ‘Germanic race’ was the originator of major innovations in European prehistory, from the invention of agriculture to that of writing.”[5] Germany could then justify its invasion of European neighbours: it was nothing but a reconquest of lands that had once been Germanic in character, language and culture.

Nazi Germany’s ideology, of course, was founded on the Aryan myth: Germans saw themselves as the purest descendants of the “Aryan race”. The monstrous lengths to which they took this false construct need no retelling. The same myth had been used even earlier by Russia to legitimize her colonization of Turkistan: here also, it was nothing but “Aryans coming back to their homeland”.[6] Archaeologists welcomed the colonization, arguing that “Russia is duty bound to possess central Asia, to restore its Aryan character and to erase a Turkic element anyhow thought to be temporary and destined to disappear.”[7] Echoes of these Russian dreams of an “Aryan” Central Asia, though now shorn of political ambitions, can be heard in the writings of the Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi, who in the 1960s discovered in southeast Turkmenistan the first sites of the so-called “Bactria and Margiana Archaeological Complex” (BMAC, also Oxus Civilization), which extends from the upper reaches of the Amu Darya almost all the way to the Caspian Sea and dates from the first half of the second millennium BCE . The cities unearthed in the following decades were quite impressive, but less so Sarianidi’s insistence that the BMAC was essentially an Indo-Aryan culture and represented the Aryan expansion before it reached Iran and India.[8] Few archaeologists have taken this thesis seriously, and many have critiqued it severely.[9] A second echo, last year, came in the shape of a dramatic announcement that archaeologists had found in the Russian steppes bordering Kazakhstan settlements dating back to about 2000 BCE . While there is nothing surprising about such finds, the presence of swastikas daubed on artefacts sent everyone into a tizzy, with extraordinary claims that the settlements “could have been built shortly after the Great Pyramid, some 4,000 years ago, by the original Aryan race whose swastika symbol was later adopted by the Nazis in the 1930s”.[10] Leave alone the fact that the swastika is a largely universal symbol, found also in palaeolithic rock art, and therefore cannot be associated with one particular culture, the resurrection of the discredited concept of an Aryan race is deplorable. It is problematic to note in this twenty-first century the persistence of the quest for an “original Aryan homeland”, forgetting that the concept of “Aryan” has been shown to be profoundly illegitimate.[11]

In India

Expectedly, India with her vast cultural heritage has been no exception to the manipulation of archaeological data for ideological purposes. The story begins with Alexander Cunningham, an official with the East India Company, who in 1871 became the Archaeological Survey of India’s first director general. His tireless work produced an inventory of India’s monuments; he is also remembered for his pioneering Ancient Geography of India. But Cunningham’s motives were not wholly disinterested, and he made plain his hope that excavating India’s past would, among other things, “show that Brahmanism … was of comparatively modern origin, and had been constantly receiving additions and alterations; facts which prove that the establishment of the Christian religion in India must ultimately succeed.”[12] Indeed, in the nineteenth century, such a deep-rooted conviction of Christianity’s superiority to Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism was the norm among “Orientalists” and European Sanskritists; here, in addition, archaeology was to be harnessed to the task.[13] This anticipates the manipulations aimed at establishing the visit of
Thomas the Apostle to India (see elsewhere in this volume).

A different situation has prevailed in India’s Northeast. Archaeology in those seven states has been sorely neglected and important finds poorly highlighted. Yet, by documenting the presence of Hindu and Buddhist temples and artefacts dating back to a few centuries BCE and CE , they effectively dispel the widespread but untenable notion that this region was never culturally attached to India. The seasoned Indian archaeologist A.K. Sharma, who led several excavations there, remarked with some anguish:

During the pre-independence era, in spite of some archaeological evidences showing similarities with the rest of the country, the myth of backwardness was deliberately inculcated and propagated as this facilitated the Missionaries in conversion of the indigenous people to their faith. In fact, during conversion, the local tribals were never told that they are being converted from their faith to another faith and religion, as this might have aroused suspicion and revolt, instead they were told that they have now become civilized and will be treated among the civilized people of the world.[14]

Though the entire region abounds in archaeological and cultural wealth, very little has been done so far to unearth the glorious past of the area. If proper attention would have been paid earlier, as was done in the case of other parts of the country, the feeling of aloofness and alienation that was deliberately inculcated by the enemies of the country could have been avoided. We are responsible for keeping our brothers and sisters of the North-East in the dark about their glorious past, about their very close relationships with the rest of the country. [15]

The Harappan Case

Indian archaeology has had more than a brush with the Aryan myth, too. Another director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (from 1944), Mortimer Wheeler, needed nothing more than a few skeletons in the streets of Mohenjo-daro to speak of a “massacre” and issue his famous declaration, “Indra stands accused”[16]—Indra being, of course, the chief of the Aryan gods. Even though further archaeological work ruled out man-made destruction as the cause of the decline of the Harappan civilization, in effect exploding this Bollywood-like scenario, we find it repeated still today in some of our history textbooks.[17]

The Harappan civilization, the first on Indian soil, has naturally spawned various kinds of distortion, with competing ideological groups laying claim to it. John Marshall, a director general of the ASI who excavated at Mohenjo-daro, was among the first to suggest that it may have been created by “Dravidians”. Right from the beginning, the classic confusion between race, culture and language muddied the waters. In recent decades, scholars like the Russian expert on the Mayan script, Y.V. Knorozov, the Finnish Indologist Asko Parpola or the epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan strove to decipher the Indus script along the lines of a proto-Dravidian language, but their mutually incompatible proposals made no headway beyond a point. While such attempts are perfectly legitimate, the recent identifications of supposed “Indus signs” at numerous sites in Tamil Nadu are much less so. The 2006 find of a stone axe in Sembiyan-Kandiyur (near Mayiladuthurai in Tamil Nadu) bearing Indus-like signs was trumpeted in the media and by the Tamil Nadu government’s Department of Archaeology as proof that the Harappan language was an ancient form of Tamil: the stone axe was “the discovery of a century”.[18] Tamil Nadu’s then Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, declared at an election rally that “recent archaeological findings of Indus valley scripts in Mayiladuthurai in
Nagapattinam district indicated that the people who lived in Tamil Nadu belonged to the Dravidian race similar to those who lived in the Indus valley.”[19]

No one protested this indefensible harangue rooted in nineteenth-century race prejudices. In fact, I. Mahadevan lent his weight to such claims by identifying further “Indus-like inscriptions” at other sites and as far as in Thailand.[20]

Contrary to Mahadevan’s assertions, none of the purported “inscriptions”, when they were distinct enough (which was certainly not the case of the Mayiladuthurai axe), coincided with a complete known Harappan sign sequence. That the Indus script had long been compared with several other ancient scripts of the world and that such parallels were essentially meaningless was ignored. Worse, it was overlooked that finding a complete Harappan sign sequence in Tamil Nadu would no more establish that the Harappan language was Dravidian than the find of numerous Roman coins in the South proves that Julius Caesar spoke Tamil. Finally, no explanation was offered for the absence of any Harappan artefacts and features south of the Vindhyas or for the fact that, had Harappans migrated to South India after the end of the urban phase, they would have suddenly reverted from an advanced Bronze Age culture to a Neolithic one, forgetting all their typical crafts and sophisticated techniques, pottery designs, ornaments, and urbanism. Cultural continuity from Harappan times is well documented in North India in diverse fields, but not in the South. Despite such glaring methodological issues,[21] the thesis has prospered with political support. The political angle in the claim that the Harappan civilization was Dravidian was conspicuous at the World Tamil Conference held in Coimbatore in June 2010, when Asko Parpola received an award of a million rupees from the Tamil Nadu government: the “Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award”. On that occasion, Karunanidhi asserted that “Tamil is not only an international language; it is like a mother for all the languages of the world.”[22]

Such eagerness to drive the colonial Aryan–Dravidian wedge deeper is a shortcut to the construction of a “separate identity”. Although largely limited to Tamil Nadu, we occasionally find the same methodological flaws reflected elsewhere. Recently the epigraphist M.R. Raghava Varier identified at Edakkal, in Kerala’s Wayanad district, Indus-like engravings on rocks, and was reported as saying, “There had been indications of remnants akin to the Indus Valley civilisation in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but these new findings give credence to the fact that the Harappan civilisation had its presence in the region too and could trace the history of Kerala even beyond the Iron Age.”[23] This claim rests on a single engraved sign which happens to resemble one Indus sign; nothing is said of other engravings, which, naturally, will not match the Harappan script; no thoughtful comparison is offered between Edakkal’s Neolithic culture and the Harappan Bronze Age tradition. The intention is transparent: it is the imagining of an ancient civilized past for Kerala on par with the Indus civilization. Perhaps one day we will be told that the Harappans spoke not
Tamil but Malayalam, and sailed from Lothal to Muziris.

Another claim to a remote antiquity was made in 2001 when the discovery of a so-called “Khambat civilization” was announced with great fanfare by the then government of India. A submerged city had been found by the Indian National Institute of Ocean Technology in the Gulf of Cambay, a little to the south of the Narmada’s estuary, and it was several millennia older than the Indus civilization. “Structures very similar to [Mohenjo-daro’s] great bath, acropolis, temples and granaries had been located,”[24] it was claimed on the basis of very faint sonar images. But despite further explorations, the submerged structures were never proved to be man-made; artefacts dated to the eighth or ninth millenniums BCE were not stratigraphically secure and there were technical problems with their dating. It was also forgotten that however fascinating submerged cities may be, they cannot exist in isolation. A few years
later, the claim was quietly buried and all the data on the finds removed from the NIOT’s website.


Misuse of archaeology, then, may be prompted by a quest for a greater antiquity (wrongly assumed to confer a greater glory) or for primacy over other cultures (e.g., the “Dravidians” are India’s original inhabitants while “Aryans” are “invaders”). The desire for primacy can turn into one for supremacy, as in the case of Nazi Germany. Even if it does not go so far, it is the open door to divisive ideologies that concentrate on ethnic (formerly racial), linguistic or cultural faultlines rather than on shared heritage and cultural integration. This state of affairs will continue as long as scholarly standards are allowed to be compromised, often through political influences. While a search for identity is a legitimate one, it should not be based on jingoism or regional nationalism. Until much more is known about the origins of the Indus
civilization, let us invite all Indians and all Pakistanis to take pride in it, but not an exclusive pride. As a guide, the concept of world heritage is far more fruitful. The past cannot be an exclusive property.

The British archaeologist Robert Layton summarized the problem of objectivity in archaeology in these terms:

Although strict empiricism, that is, observation of data without the guidance of a theory is impossible, nonetheless we cannot adhere to a theory merely because it seems politically expedient or morally right. We  must test our theories against observation. [Bruce G.] Trigger reaches a similar conclusion, namely that, although a “value-free” archaeology is probably impossible to achieve, “the findings of archaeology can only have lasting social value if they approximate as closely as possible to an objective understanding of social behaviour”. On the other hand, any theory that has a bearing on the real world may have political implications, if it is used to formulate or justify policy, even though this consequence may be unintended by the analyst.[25]

As archaeologists dig the ground, they also dig into our minds (and their  own). And sometimes these latter findings are equally revealing. – SCRIBD


  1. Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1954, p. 12.
  2. Paul G. Bahn, (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 113–14.
  3. Ibid., p. 360.
  4. Quoted by Heirich Härke, “Archaeologists and Migrations: A Problem of Attitude?”, Current Anthropology, vol. 39, no. 1, February 1998, p. 22.
  5. Jean-Pierre Legendre, Laurent Olivier, Bernadette Schnitzler, “Quand l’archéologie était au service du nazisme”, Archaeologia, no. 442, March 2007, p. 44.
  6. Marlène Laruelle, Mythe aryen et rêve impérial dans la Russie du XIX e siècle, 2005, pp. 107 ff. Ibid., p. 120.
  7. For instance, V. Sarianidi, “Near Eastern Aryans in Central Asia”, Journal of Indo–European Studies, vol. 27, 1999, pp. 295–326.
  8. For instance, B.B. Lal, How Deep Are the Roots of Indian Civilization? Archaeology Answers, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 100 ff.
  9. “4,000-year-old Aryan city discovered in Russia”, The Hindu, 4 October 2010.
  10. On the Aryan construct, see Louis L. Snyder, The Idea of Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, D. Van Nostrand, New York, 1962; Léon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe, Sussex University Press, London, 1974; Maurice Olender, The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, 1992; Stefan Arvidsson, Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006; and John V. Day, “The Concept of the Aryan Race in Nineteenth-Century Scholarship”, Orpheus, Sofia, 1994, vol. 4, pp. 13–48.
  11. A. Cunningham, “An Account of the Discovery of the Ruins of the Buddhist City of
    Samkassa”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1843, pp. 241–47, excerpted in F.R. Allchin & Dilip K. Chakrabarti, (eds), A Source-book of Indian Archaeology, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1979, vol. 1, p. 69.
  12. See for instance Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan, Breaking India: Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, New Delhi, Amaryllis, 2011; also Michel Danino, The Dawn of Indian Civilization and the Elusive Aryans, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, forthcoming, Part 1.
  13. A.K. Sharma, Emergence of Early Culture in North-East India, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 1993, p. 1.
  14. Ibid., p. i. (See also, by the same author, Manipur: The Glorious Past, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 1994, and Early Man in Eastern Himalayas, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 1996.)
  15. Mortimer Wheeler, “Harappa 1946: the Defences and Cemetery R37”, Ancient India, Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, no. 3, 1947, p. 82.
  16. For a recent example, see Michel Danino,“ A Textbook Case of Howlers”, The New Indian Express, 18 October 2010. For more on colonial distortions in the Indian context, see Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Colonial Indology: Sociopolitics of the Ancient Indian Past, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1997, and The Battle for Ancient India: An Essay in the Sociopolitics of Indian Archaeology, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2008.
  17. T .S. Subramanian, “ ‘Discovery of a century’ in Tamil Nadu”, The Hindu, 1 st May 2006.
  18. M. Karunanidhi, “MK vows to develop Dravidian culture,” as reported by Sify News, 05 May 2006 (http://sify.com/cities/fullstory.php?id=14198547). He not only portrayed himself as “a descendant of this Dravidian race,” but said, in the presence of Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, “I did not enter public life for the sake of power. I joined the movement of rationalist leaders like Periyar E. V. Ramasamy to uphold the Dravidian race and work for its future.” The notion of a “Dravidian race,” however, is least rational.
  19. Iravatham Mahadevan, “Indus-like inscription on South Indian pottery from Thailand”, The Hindu, 8 April 2001.
  20. See Michel Danino, “A Dravido-Harappan Connection? The Issue of Methodology,” in T.S. Sridhar & N. Marxia Gandhi, (eds), Indus Civilization and Tamil Language, Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, 2009, pp. 70–81.
  21. T. Ramakrishnan, “President hails role of Tamil ethos in Indian identity and progress”, The Hindu, 23 June 2010.
  22. C.S. Narayanan Kutty, “Symbols Akin to Indus Valley Culture Discovered in Kerala”, Outlook India, 29 September 2009.
  23. “Scientists find submerged archaeological sites”, Times of India, 19 May 2001.
  24. Robert Layton, (ed.), Conflict in the Archaeology of Living Traditions, Routledge, London, 1994, p. 4 (see p. 13 for more examples of colonial archaeology).

» Prof Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. His published works include The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010) and Indian Culture and India’s Future (DK Printworld, 2011).

Cross imposed on India map

Treating the Saint Thomas myth as Indian history, the popular encyclopaedia portal Wikipedia uses this image of a Syrian Christian cross imposed on an India map to present India as a Christian country to the world.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: