Thursday, 3 December 2009

Heritage Walks in Delhi

If you've had a look at the major sites in Delhi, and been to the National Museum, try the website or facebook page of cultural heritage protection group INTACH. The group, or occasionally its members, advertise archaeological and heritage walks. These lead through areas such as the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, last a few hours, and are usually very reasonably priced. Try the website, or for a more community-based group, a simple search on facebook should lead you to their page.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Trowel and Error

That last post was a bit (ok, very) heavy, so this is probably a good time to introduce the Trowel and Error gag reel section! The pun on trial and error is that 'archaeologists get by on trowel and error', and frankly, it always cracks me up.

Image is a box of Greek pottery from the island of Lesbos, marked with the logical label. Hopefully that made you laugh, because it once entertained me for three weeks. Us archaeologists are a weird lot.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Mad about Pots Part I

When I was an undergraduate, we were all required to do interactive presentations on our thesis topics. At the end of my thrilling 15 minutes on ceramics, I began the compulsory question round by asking if anyone had any. Unsurprisingly, not a single hand went up. I remember cracking a joke about pottery not being very interesting for most people, at which point my supervisor said, (almost) sympathetically, 'There are perverts in every field, Danika'.

So there you have it. Even among our own kind, ceramicists are mocked. It's a curious specialization, as of one always needs them on a site, but at the same time there's something very very geeky about the whole thing. Anyway, I felt I should explain what made me want to do it; after all, I did an undergraduate thesis on pots, and am planning my PhD on pots again. What's the attraction?

I'll tell you. Few artefacts can give you the kind of connection to the person who made them that pots can. You see fingerprints and scrape marks and you know that some man or woman put his (or her) hand to clay five thousand years ago and left a mark that. They left little finger imprints that you can put your own fingers on. In terms of tactile connections, ceramics really offer the most incredible link to past peoples, and pottery survives under all conditions, unlike other things made of bone, wood or cloth that easily degrade.

Ceramics only appeared at a certain point in the Neolithic, the period during which people began to shift their lifestyles from those of hunter-gatherers to those of settled farmers. Somehow that shift from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles, a fascinating social change that laid the base for society as we know it, is linked with the shift from aceramic to ceramic cultures. So what can pottery teach us? The way a pot is made, i.e. domestically from house to house, or perhaps more centrally by a specialized potter, tells us a lot about the way a society was organized. When people began to specialize in crafts, there was a change in social hierachies and complexity, although of course this is not a simple relationship. Imagine if we all still produced all of our own food, clothes, utensils and tools. It's unlikely that we'd have time for doing a lot of other things. The shift to having specialized potters or tool-makers gave us the chance to have people specializing in things that maybe weren't so functional: art, jewellery, ceremonial items perhaps. And it made people really really good at one thing. It's sort of basic Adam Smith division of labour equals greater productivity; instead of one worker doing all the steps to make a pin, it's divided between ten who do a step each, one draws the wire, another straightens it, and so forth.

"...they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not...what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations."
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

Ceramics are linked to a lot of changes in social organization at the most basic level. And that's just what we learn from studying how they were made! Archaeologists study what they were made of and can test soils to source them exactly; they test the remains of what's inside and tell you if they contained wine, oil, milk, or powders for make-up; they look at the decorations and can deduce things about motifs and ideology. Ceramics even provide a fairly reliable relative dating function. Radiocarbon dating, which is used for dating all material made of carbon (plants, bodies, etc), cannot always be used as plant remains and things don't always survive. One can use it to date pottery if they're found together. After that, quite simply, if the same type of pottery is found at another site, we can roughly date it even if there's no carbon material, as the same types belong to the same chronological period.

There's a whole wealth of information one gets from pottery, and even if often one deals with scrubby little broken bits, sometimes one is given something amazing to work with. Both the big spectacular painted bits and the broken not very pretty sherds have a story to tell.

Images are a mostly reconstructed amphora I drew in Egypt, and pottery everywhere at the Nile Delta site of Buto. I can't currently use my photos of Indian pottery, but will put some up at some point!

Tips for a First Excavation

Excavations, or digs as they're commonly called, are an integral part of archaeology today. I didn't do my first one until I was a fresher, but there are some people who are more experienced before university. Luckily for people who aren't archaeologists, excavations always need plenty of helping hands, and a lot of big sites are happy to train people with no experience.

There are some things that are a pretty necessary part of your kit (the first 3), some others that will come in handy, and a few that will make you that extra step more prepared. It can be quite intimidating for most freshers on their inaugural dig. Hopefully this list of things to take with you will help a little.

1. A trowel
It's really important that you have your own, because you will have to go and dig on your own at some point, and no one wants to be the annoying person who keeps borrowing (and losing) other people's trowels...sorry! Some people scratch/burn their initials onto the handles as well, but they're more hardcore than I am. I should point out that this is not an ordinary garden trowel, and you should make sure it's a proper archaeological one. It'll have a flat blade, pointy at the end and on either side. Later on you may start using something called a leaf trowel, which is smaller and used for delicate work, but you certainly don't need to buy one.

2. Proper boots
Work/hiking/walking boots, with many laces and of serious robustness. I didn't invest in a pair for a long time, although I should've realised after the first time a shovel went right through my non-robust sneakers. I was lucky it only bruised me instead of taking my foot off. You can manage with sneakers though, if you don't want to spend the money.

3. Proper clothes
Shorts are good if it's quite hot, but if there's a lot of walking through thorny underbrush (which can happen often) they're very unpleasant. Lightweight quick-drying trousers, with many pockets, are what I prefer right now, usually combined attractively with an oversized grubby T-shirt. Shirts with pockets and long sleeves are also a good plan. Don't wear anything too nice, although I'd recommend taking one or two outfits that are nicer in case you go out in the evenings.

4. A tape measure
No matter how many tape measures one takes on a dig, they never seem to be enough. Use them for measuring out marks for surveying, for laying out trenches, and for making varied plans, drawings and notes.

5. Hats and sunscreen
If you're digging somewhere hot, be sensible. If you get ill, you'll probably just be left behind at wherever you're all staying. I've seen some pretty horrific sunburn on digs, and you don't want to get burned so badly you can't touch anything but still have to work outdoors for three weeks!

6. Laundry detergent/powder
In a little box or bottle. You will often end up washing a lot of your stuff in sinks and showers, so take a supply of laundry detergent. An extra sink plug often comes in handy for sinks that don't have them, but improvise with a thick sock if you don't have one. Yes, this works for a little while, but don't use a muddy one!

7. Band-aids
You will scuff your knuckles and hands on rocks, get blisters, and cut yourself on sharp things, almost without fail. Band-aids don't always help as mud can gets in, but one can try.

8. Chocolate and snacks
You will crave sugar like you've never craved it before. Seriously. Don't underestimate just hot much pure physical labour excavating really is, although you think I'd be fitter if it were so hard...
9. If you're a neat freak, wet wipes and disinfectant gel

Wet wipes are a nice treat when you've got an inch of mud on you, but most archaeologists I know don't bother with washing their hands between digging and eating. You can be the exception. I'm warning you though, you can develop a cast-iron digestive system after a lifetime of being dirty. Personally, I only use them on my face.

10. Secateurs
Or mini pruning shears. Some plant roots go very deep, and you'll find them quite far down. They can be fairly thick and difficult to trowel around. Some form of gardening trimmer to chop through them quickly is great. You won't need these everywhere, but if you're going to be digging in an area of heavy vegetation they can save you a lot of time.

Remember, digs are really a 'work hard, play harder' situation. You form friendships that last for years, and the nights out with your trench mates (yes, we call them that) after a hard day's work are pretty amazing. Take a camera, and expect hundreds of photos and as many funny stories that you'll tell for ages after, reminiscing about 'that time so-and-so did [insert utterly bizarre and random activity] when we were in [insert exotic locale]'.

For tools and trowels, try

If you're looking for an excavation, there are plenty of field schools that will take freshers or untrained archaeologists and give you some training in exchange for the cheap/free labour. Try flipping through British Archaeology magazine, or surfing

Alternatively, google archaeological fieldschools. These aren't very common in India, but if you'd like to travel abroad and learn about being an archaeologist, they're ideal. They're based all over the place, so yes you can go to really exciting areas like Peru!

Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts

Have you ever seen a 409-carat emerald? I saw one yesterday that was literally the size of my chubby fist. My friend Alison and I went to see the exhibition on Indian royalty at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It was fantastic: five rooms full of the splendour of India's royal courts, which were, let's face it, pretty splendid. Luckily for us academic types, the V&A is a great museum that doesn't just put a load of pretty things in cases, and the notes and theme of the exhibition were very good. The nature of kingship and the social role of the king, as well as the way their power and identity shifted through time was dealt with.

The exhibition began in the 18th century, post- the Great Mughals, after Aurangzeb had died and the dynasty and empire had begun to decay. The Marathas and Sikhs were establishing their presence, and the power of the European East India companies was growing. It explores their role in society, their rajadharma and the many duties that were expected of them. On display are their weapons, palanquins, howdahs for elephant-riding and other royal paraphernalia, along with giant gem covered turban pins and necklaces commissioned from Cartier. It carries on until the 20th century, where it ends, with the role of the Maharajas under the British. In a way it really was quite sad; they were forced to appear as European stereotypes of 'exotic' Indian rulers, puppets under the Raj. Post-Independence in 1947, they were guaranteed their privileges by the new Constitution of India. In 1971, then-PM Indira Gandhi took these away.

Now it's quite hard to feel sorry for people who had diamonds as big as the Ritz, but there's something very tragic about the Maharajas. They were born into privilege, but lived in gilded cage. They may have been mad wealthy, but they also patronised the arts in extraordinary ways, and some believe that traditional Indian music wouldn't have survived without them. I never really realised that they had played such a strong role in the development of the arts in India. The exhibition really made me look at the Maharajas in a different light, and if you can make it to the V&A, I think it'll do the same for you.

The Maharaja exhibition is on display in London until the 17th of January 2010. Tickets are £11 on the door and £6 for students. Click on the link below to have a look.

Don't worry if you're not in London in the next month, as much of this stuff is usually on display back home. Try to make your way to Mehrahgarh Fort in Jodhpur, where they have a wonderful collection.

Additonally, for fans of photography, this is a wonderful find to browse through.

Images show the procession of Ram Singh II of Kota, c. 1850; The golden throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Hafiz Muhammad Multani, 1820-1830; and Turban ornament, early 18th century, made of gold, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. All copyright the Victoria and Albert Museum. Used with permission.

Top Five Questions

These are the questions that archaeologists always get asked, and the answers

Q1. What is archaeology?
A. The study of human past through material remains. This gives archaeology a scope far beyond history, into, you know, prehistory. As it were. Material remains can be human made or worked things, called artefacts, or environmental remains such as seeds, called ecofacts, as well as architecture, skeletons, rubbish heaps etc.

Q2. Do you dig dinosaurs?
A. No, no, a thousand times no. That's paleontologists. And for the record, we don't all study rocks either.

Q3. Do you actually dig?
A. Yes. Archaeology students usually buy (and embarrassingly name) their own trowels, which they carry everywhere. On digs, we wear dirty old t-shirts and trousers with many pockets full of nails and string and spirit levels, and get down our knees and dig for glory. However, in countries like Egypt and India, people often hire labourers who do the bulk of the digging.

Q4. Can you keep the things you dig up?
A. Nope. Archaeologists dig things up for the information we get from them, not because they're pretty to look at it. I usually only find old bits of pot, which are not pretty to look at, but are very Important. The things you dig up belong to the project you're working for, which will properly analyse them. India doesn't allow many objects out, so legally they have to be stored or displayed in the country. I have to emphasise, keeping things is a big no-no professionally. Hand it all over to be tagged and bagged!

Q5. What's it really like?
A. Surprisingly Indiana Jones, if you multiply the times he spends in his office or classroom by a thousand. You get to travel the world and find wonderful and amazing things, and understand the lives of people who haven't been alive for 4000 years. That's the exotic side. Once you get home, there is a whole lot of careful analysis using worrying things like statistics. Once a site is dug, everything needs to be recorded (photographed, weighed, drawn etc) and written up in a giant thing called a site report. You have to do a lot of reading, and you spend A LOT of time in front of your computer working it all out and writing papers for journals and books. That's the academic side.

Digging India

In India, if I'm not on a dig, I rarely meet other archaeologists. When people ask me what I do and I tell them, there is always an overwhelming level of curiosity, and a frank admission that, aside from Indiana Jones, they don't think they know very much about it. Well, I decided to be an archaeologist because I feel passionately about our heritage (...and I love old things), and like most people who feel passionately about something, I love to talk about it. In fact, I go on and on and on about it. I'm a pain to talk to at parties.

A blog seemed like a good solution. I could go on about archaeology as much as I wanted, answer the questions people always seem to have, and hopefully reveal the sites and monuments that are hidden gems in the cities and states we live in. Growing up in Delhi, I passed them every day. It's an incredibly old city, with an incredibly rich history, and most of us who live there don't know about it - much like India. It kills me when we lose more of our heritage every day, in the rush to modernise and construct. This blog won't be Delhi-centric, and it certainly won't be disturbingly academic and indecipherable, but it will hopefully be informative, eye-opening, and above all, interesting. I'll talk about the things archaeologists do, and the things that made me want to be an archaeologist, and hopefully you'll love them as much as I do.