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Posts Tagged ‘Sir Mortimer Wheeler’

‘I met a traveller from an antique land…’ wrote the rebel poet Percy B. Shelley in 1818. Even today how we dream to meet such a traveller who could tell us the tales that are lost in the mists of time. In the early days of my love for archaeology I hoped to write the story of Mohen jo Daro, but it lacks the basic required material-there is no record of its existence in later texts; it has a script which remains undeciphered. To make matters worse excavations of the site are banned since 1965 leaving no hope for the recovery of a Rosetta Stone. In such a hopeless situation with limited artifacts and ruins even a small piece of information bearing some relevance to the site becomes precious. And sometimes such information can come from unexpected sources.

Shelley’s sonnet so relevant to archaeology and yet so far removed ! being a poet’s imagination, nonetheless, it reminds me how the ancient travellers and traders in distant lands left behind some evidence which helped the archeologists to learn a few facts about Mohen jo Daro. The sonnet also invites to read the folk poetry of the Indus region which might be holding clues useful for reconstructing the story of the region’s past.

Mohen jo Daro was discovered in the first quarter of the twentieth century, its discovery coincided with the excavations of Ur of the Chaldeans ,the birthplace of Abraham and the famed Biblical city of Mesopotamia. Whereas Mohen jo daro had no reference in any later texts such as the Vedas or the Mahabharatha and was discovered accidentally under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa, the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities were located easily through the Biblical references. In the case of Ur even an Islamic tradition can be cited, perhaps, it was the city where Nimrod’s fire to burn Abraham alive had turned into flowers.

Initially, it may sound disappointing that the simultaneous excavations of Mohen jo Daro and Ur dwarfed the image of the Indus city as Ur stole the show. Its overwhelming architectural remains and the lavish artifacts unearthed from them even attracted celebrities. Ur caught my attention when I saw a picture of T.E. Lawrence standing in its ruins. In fact, I thought that he had excavated the site, later on, of course, I learned that it was Sir Leonard Woolley standing next to him had unearthed Ur. Both were great archaeologists of their times and together they had worked on the ancient Hittite sites on the borders of Syria. However, the archaeological career of T.E Lawrence is not much known today as he is more remembered through the portrayal of his political life by Peter O’Toole in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” Another interesting celebrity that I came to know through Ur was Agatha Christie who met her future husband in Ur. The site also inspired her to write a novel “Murder in Mesopotamia” which was later made into a movie with the same title.

However, we must remember that Mohen jo Daro, though marginalized in the media of those days, did benefit through excavations at Ur. Among the most known discoveries of Sir Leonard were the Great Ziggurat of Ur and the Royal Tombs laden with treasures and an overfill of skeletons – the remains of slaves who were buried alive to serve royalty in its afterlife. He even discovered the statuette of a ram and identified it with the Biblical ‘Ram caught in a thicket.’ And in between these spectacular discoveries came bits and pieces of evidence which suggested links between Mohen jo Daro and Mesopotamia- a few Indus beads scattered in Ur’s royal jewelry; the cylindrical seals engraved with Indus type inscriptions; trefoil pattern on Sumerian “Bulls of Heaven” that resembled the print on the robe of Mohen jo Daro’s “Priest King” even a small group of houses that bore semblance to Mohen jo Daro’s structures.

Later on, the discovery and decipherment of Sumerian texts indicated trade with the Indus regions. They referred to a few goods- timber, carnelian beads, ivory- which came from a place named Melluha located in the east of Sumer. Melluha was identified with the Makran Coast, but at the same time the Indus region was considered to be a colony of Sumer and hence the civilization was labelled Indo-Sumerian Civilization. It took some time for Sir John Marshall to change the label wisely to Indus Civilization.

The evidence of trade between the two civilizations also helped in the dating of the Indus civilization as it confirmed that indeed it was contemporaneous to the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian civilizations. According to Sir Mortimer Wheeler the trade between Sumer and Indus lasted from the period of Sargon of Akkad 2350 BCE until the decline of the Hammurabi dynasty in 1700 BCE.

Now we know that much before their contact with Mesopotamia ancient Indus cities had already a long history and experience of transporting wood. According to Alice Albinia, who in recent times journeyed through Indus, “The transport of wood down the Indus and its tributaries, between the Himalayas and the plains, is the oldest trade that we know of in the region.” At some point in prehistory that network of Indus’ trade reaching for the Arabian seacoast extended overseas to reach Mesopotamia.

This overseas trade, predating the trade on the Silk Road, was extensive and certainly a great means of income which must have boosted the agrarian economy of the region. Archaeological evidence suggests that there were busy port towns with dockyards. The Westernmost port was Sutkagen-Dor, close to the border of Iran it was located near the mouth of Dasht River, on the Makran coast. At the other end was the port town of Lothal which was active until 1900 BCE. It was located in Gujarat (in India) on the eastern periphery of Indus Civilization.

With the exception of a few inscribed seals discovered from Lothal, there is no written record describing the mercantile activities of such massive scale between the two civilizations. There must have been ships in and out of the harbor, sailors and merchants boarding them, laborers loading and unloading the cargo. Perhaps, we can trace these details in the folklore of the region. But sometimes poets can be the avatars of ancient scribes whose accounts are lost. As hazy as it may sound but apart from the ruins, folk poetry can be another repository that we can rummage to find the ancient past. For example, Shah Latif the beloved sufi saint poet of Sindh, has described in detail the sea trade in his ‘Raga Samoondi’ (Song of the Ocean) Latif laments in his poetry of abandoned cities he even accompanied jogis on their pilgrimages to ancient shrines. They shared with him knowledge, wisdom and many oral traditions transmitted to them through older generations. Latif polished and preserved those traditions and tales in his poetry. Apart from Sindhi Indus’ folklore is scattered in a variety of languages – Punjabi, Seraiki, Multani, Gujrati- these need to be explored. It will be hard to find even the mutilated remains of events that happened in the prehistoric past when Mohen jo Daro lived. But an attempt must be made before discarding region’s folklore as poets’ imagination

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“Prince Mikasa, an imperial Army Veteran who turned pacifist…died in Tokyo on Thursday. He was 100.” On October 27th I came across this obituary in the New York Times. Until then all I knew of Prince Takahito Mikasa was that he had once visited Pakistan to participate in an International Symposium on Moen jo Daro and that he was a brother of Emperor Hirohito of Japan. However, now I am curious to see what bought him to Moen jo Daro.

I looked at his picture printed with the obituary, attired and armed in the traditional way, he looked boyish. “Prince Mikasa around 1930” the year printed in the label confirmed my guess.  It also revealed that he was the first Japanese royal to become a professor, and to get a driver’s license. I quickly glanced through the news: born on December 2nd, 1915, he was the fifth in line to the throne and was the uncle of present emperor, Akihito. The obituary any way was short and even looked shorter considering the stature of the late Prince.  I searched more about him on the internet. As expected, many pictures appeared;  in one, the young prince was dancing with his wife Princess Yuriko at a party,  in another both were riding on elephants in Sri Lanka. Fast forward, the couple grew old, the first picture to draw my attention showed them sitting on a bench sharing an album; in another both were standing and viewing the imperial costumes at a Museum, and finally the one from the last years of Prince’s life- he seated in a wheel chair, she holding on to her walker.

Prince Mikasa, served as a junior officer in the imperial army during its notorious invasion of Nanking, but he came to be more known for his views against the war.  He was a strong critic of Japanese aggression in China and after the World War Two had asked his brother to abdicate the throne.  In his Asokan moment he even thought of giving up his own title to live an ordinary life. He did not succeed in achieving the status of a commoner but he had the freedom to immerse in the vast ocean of knowledge to understand human history. He was tempted to reach the remnants of ancient past  for a glimpse of the beginnings of the modern world.

In 1954, Prince Mikasa established the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan. He taught at the Tokyo University, learnt Hebrew and  translated “a handbook of biblical archaeology.” Prince Mikasa’s major interest was the East and  in 1968 he also  became an honorary visiting professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.  In one of his interviews he explained what attracted him to ancient  East, “The reason I studied Oriental archaeology was to seek out from the ruins of the Middle East and the Near East, the origin of mankind and civilization, the outlines of man and state, and to think over what man should be.”  He had found solace in history and antiquity and that is what had bought him to Moen jo Daro. I looked into the proceedings of the International Symposium on Moen jo Daro which were published as a book with the cover design printed with a collage of Indus seals. The Symposium was held on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the excavations of the site.  The year was 1973, I was still a novice in archaeology.But today as I am reading the address of Prince Mikasa on Moen jo Daro I find it very relevant and  must share his views in his own words. Below is an excerpt from his address:

“May I be permitted to tell you about my own impressions?  When I received the invitation from the Government of Pakistan last year, my heart was filled with joy. As a student of the ancient history of the Middle East, I never forget the name of Moenjodaro, the most ancient and most elaborately planned and constructed city in this world, which has reminded Sir Mortimer Wheeler of New York’s Broadway Street. After going around the sites of the city, I realized how poor and how superficial was the knowledge obtained from books and photographs. Each block of bricks, rectangular or triangular, laid vertically or horizontally, the wonderful system of drainage in straight or loosely curved lines made a vivid impression on me. The dyer’s shop and the metal-worker’s shop remind the daily life of the artisans of Moenjodaro.

The Government of Pakistan and UNESCO have already done a great job to save this ancient culture. We, the participants, will do our best to co-operate with the Government of Pakistan and UNESCO in the noble task of preserving this universal human heritage.”

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