“Archaeology gives authenticity to history,” says Mutasim Billah Nasir, a student of the 39th batch of the department of archaeology, Jahangirnagar University (JU), while explaining his reason to choose this subject of study. According to history books human settlement in this rich and fertile delta dates back to pre-historic times evident by the discovery of pre-historic tools in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Lalmai, Wari-Bateswar, Chaklapunj and Chhagalnaiya. Who were these people, how did they live, what were the scores of civilisations that reigned over this land — are questions archaeology can answer by revealing our past.
The practice of archaeology in Bangladesh began during the British period. Starting off as the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861, the present Archaeological Department under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Bangladesh, has been exploring, conserving and displaying archaeological sites in the country. At present the department looks after 448 heritage sites all over the country out of which two — Historic Mosque city of Bagerhat in Bagerhat district and ruins of the Buddhist vihara at Paharpur in Naogaon district— have been recognised as World Cultural Heritage Sites. History of the sites and the relics discovered are being displayed in about 16 museums run by the department.
The four regional offices and the head office of the department in Dhaka are responsible for the maintenance of the sites and museums under the respective divisions. “There is a yearly budget for excavation which is done on priority basis. This year (2012-2013) we did excavation in Jagaddal Bihara, Naogaon, Shalban Bihara, Mynamati and on the ancient boat found in Kuakata,” informs Rakhi Roy, Deputy Director, Antiquity.
She says that there is no special excavation team in the department, rather when archaeological sites are traced in an area, the Regional Director of the division, under which the area falls, forms an excavation team. An excavation team includes a minimum of ten people depending on the size of the site, generally comprising of officers with archaeology or history background, documentation officers and photographers. Day labourers are employed separately for digging. Sometimes officers from other divisions and head office join in to help with excavation and provide expert opinion, says Roy. Sometimes it becomes difficult to ensure logistical support while working in remote areas, she adds. Giving example of the excavation of the ancient boat discovered in Kuakata, she says that technical committees with external experts are formed whenever the need for further opinion or advice arises.
The main challenge in maintaining the archaeological sites in Bangladesh is to fight against the high air moisture and salinity of soil. “Most of the structures in Bangladesh are made of brick and they erode more quickly than stone structures,” she says adding that during conservation or repair work it becomes difficult to match the quality of bricks with that of the ancient times. “We try to overcome these shortcomings as far as we can say by chemical conservation and such,” she adds.
However, Dr Sufi Mostafizur Rahman, executive director of Oitihya Onneswan and professor of archaeology, JU, is not satisfied with the conservation activities of government’s Department of Archaeology. “The conservation work done by the Directorate of Archaeology is not scientific, they change a site/monument while conserving,” he alleges giving example of Bagerhat’s Satgambuj mosque complex, Mahasthan citadel wall and Paharpur Vihara. Referring to the stone pillars of the mosque, he says, “They have covered the stone pillars with brick layers and white-washed it. Archaeological heritage conservation does not approve of such practices,” he says adding that the authenticity of the structure is destroyed under such practices.
Sufi, a member of an inquiry team for this conservation activity, which was widely criticised, also alleges that the Department did not engage a structural engineer to evaluate if such brick casing was indeed needed. “The stones of the pillars are joined by iron nail. Because of our weather, moisture gets trapped inside these joints. They did not treat this dampness. Conservation chemists should have been involved in the conservation work. They would have washed the stones with necessary chemicals to prevent dampness after brick casing. Since that has not been done, the brick casings have gathered moss,” he says.
Sufi makes a similar complaint about the conservation work of the walls of the Mahasthan citadel. “In case of Wari-Bateswshar and Bikrampur we have ordered brick of the same size and shape as was found in the structure. There should not be any alphabet inscribed on those bricks,” he says, “If you go to Mahasthan, Paharpur and walk on the walls you will find bricks with English alphabets written on their faces — the name of the brick manufacturer in English. Is that conservation?” he asks.
Rakhi Roy admits that there have been some mistakes in conservations by the Department of Archaeology in the past due to lack of capacity. However, the Department is trying to recover these mistakes now. Under the circumstances, Sufi has decided to seek status of protected monuments for some of the sites excavated by Oitihya Onneswan in Wari-Bateshwar and Bikrampur, only after proper conservation. Founded in 2006, Oitihya Onneswan, an archaeological research centre, has made important contributions to archaeological research through its work in Wari-Bateswar and Bikrampur.
Carrying out archaeological research at individual or private level becomes difficult because of the lack of funds required to execute excavation and conservation activities. Though many people helped Sufi individually in his archaeological research at Wari-Bateshwar, getting financial support from government has also not been easy initially. Besides financial support, community cooperation also becomes crucial in archaeological research and heritage management. Oitihya Onneswan has been successful in employing this concept of public archaeology in Wari-Bateswar and Bikrampur where they excavated mostly on private-property. Though landowners are sometimes compensated on a yearly basis for the use of the land, creating awareness among them about the importance of the work is more effective in the long-run. This is done by establishing open air museums and conducting guided tours for locals and visitors in the excavation area.
To Dr Shahnaj Husne Jahan, who teaches archaeology as part of the General Education course in the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), financial constraint is however not a big issue. She feels that genuine interest of the researcher is more important in archaeological research. Jahan and her students from ULAB have carried out excavation in the country’s largest ancient fortified city at Bhitargarh, Panchagarh district. Referring to student’s interest about this subject she says that every semester a lot of students register for the archaeology courses offered by ULAB.
In spite of the interest noticeable among students regarding this subject, Jahangirnagar University (JU) still remains the only academic institution offering higher education in this area. The department of archaeology started its journey with a donation from Ford Foundation in 1985, offering Masters and later in 1992 becoming a full-fledged department under the Faculty of Arts. “Although archaeology falls under the faculty of Arts, this department requires funds like that of a scientific department,” says Professor Mozammel Hoque, faculty member department of archaeology, JU, referring to the research-based and lab-oriented nature of teaching this subject. In fact, Dr Sufi complains that the department does not provide enough financial support for archaeological survey and excavation. Field work is compulsory in the 2nd, 4th and 5th year but is limited to exploration or archaeological survey. With its limited funds the university has not been able to engage students in excavation. However, JU students get the opportunity to participate in excavation when their teachers work in research or doctoral projects as that of Wari-Bateswar, Bikrampur and Dinajpur’s Ghoraghat.
Archaeological practice has a long way to go in Bangladesh. However opportunities are opening up in different areas. When Mutasim Billah Nasir opted to study this subject, he received strong opposition from his family since there was no promising job in this area. The Department of Archaeology has only recently started recruiting people with archaeological background. Even now most of the museums in the country employ people with history and Islamic history background. Yet Nasir is hopeful. He says: “The study of archaeology helps one become aware of one’s surroundings and become a good observer. It helps me to learn more about my past, my identity.”