"My initiation into Archaeology" by Shruthi Dileep, CMS College, Kottayam
Pattanam, where I arrived as part of the Internship offered by the Kerala Centre for Historical Research, opened for me the big world of Archaeology. As a student who reveres the fragrance of the past and the know-how evolved through centuries, the experiences I had at Pattanam were both educational and enchanting…
It was one of the most exciting and rare opportunities for a yet -to-be BA student in Kerala can dream of- that is, to do a 15 day Internship at the Pattanam excavation site- which is now the centre of attention of archeologists within and outside India. Pattanam, a serene village outside the crowded and buzzing Cochin city, is unlike the stereotypical excavation sites that I had seen in movies where tourists bustled around, and volunteers explained the history of the area and the significance of their findings. At Pattanam, it was quiet, and it didn't seem to me like a place which centuries ago was ‘connected the Indian subcontinent with the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and the Mediterranean’. The findings from the excavation have thrown light on how developed Kerala was during a period before the 9th century about which there is limited evidence. It has also highlighted how developed the Kerala trade was during a time when the Western civilizations were still in cradle. However, the Pattanam I saw was humble, tranquil and beautiful with the air resonating with stories from the past.
The PG diploma course offered at Pattanam has more than one dimension to it, being a holistic approach towards education. More than equipping the students with a good knowledge of their study material, it is also ensured that the students get the best teachers, wonderful learning experience, and good exposure. Our days at Pattanam started with a meditation session and reading short passages from the books, Manimekhalai and B.R Ambedkar’s Buddha and his Dhamma. On some days when it was not raining, the meditation was followed by a cycling session. After cycling there will be just enough time to get ready and go for breakfast. Post-breakfast, we either get time to read, or there would be classes. The food for all of us was supplied by the Kudumbashree workers, which validates the view that real education is integral and integrated to social awareness. However, although the schedule seemed liberal, it was only after we got into the academic flow that we discovered that our days were packed with something exciting happening every day.
The opportunities offered at Pattanam has undoubtedly enabled me to have a closer acquaintance with History and Archaeology- I got the chance to see an old pot belonging to the early historic period being removed from one of the trenches before filling it back with soil; attend a talk by Dr. Sudarshan Seneviratne, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in India when he visited us, and participate in an anthropology field work, to find out social memories of the people at Pattanam.
The session with Prof. Sudarshan Seneviratne, the Sri Lankan High Commissioner, in which he spoke about archaeology and how an object loses its glory once it is taken out of its context, was highly inspiring and enlightening. He also stated how history should be read through stratigraphy more than from written documents. Although, historical literature is an important way in which we can have a closer look at our past, in a lot of circumstances it is written by the people at the top of the class hierarchy who wanted the future to understand them in a way that they wanted to be understood by the future. I was particularly fascinated by the model of history education in Sri Lanka, where when excavations happen, interesting aspects of it are publicized in schools, and students are encouraged to visit the excavation sites. As a result, the students get firsthand experience of the process associated with archaeology and that provides them with exposure. If archaeological excavations of small scale are promoted among school students just like the experiments in chemistry and biology, it will change the view our society has about history, as an inference study subject meant for students who cannot study science, and enlighten them about its importance.
Although the classroom and library at Pattanam are simple, and facilities limited, it is guaranteed that the library has the best available books on Archaeology. The book that I enjoyed reading the most at Pattanam was Colin Renfrew’s ‘Prehistory’. It was a quick paced and tightly written one; each and every sentence contained an interesting fact. It was fascinating to read about how deeply rooted Christian beliefs were at a point of time, and how it made the idea of pre-history difficult. Historical connections were made complex by the beliefs such as the ‘Noachian flood of Genesis’. Further, strong believers of Christianity, did not want to believe that there were human beings before Adam. Thanks to James Hutton who stated in 1785 that unnatural events will not be taken under consideration while studying the Earth, or else many exciting discoveries would have left unheard entangled in religion. The book I read other than ‘Prehistory’ was Philip Barkers’ ‘Techniques of Archaeological Excavations’. The book was technical, more like a textbooks and dealt with detailed information about the process of carrying out an excavation.
The technical books I read about Archaeology only made sense after attending classes. The course offered at Pattanam completely revolves around using the library and reading up related topics depending on what is taught. It impossible to teach everything that is in the syllabus at a PG diploma level. Hence the students are expected to read and make notes for themselves, after which the lectures will set a platform for them which will enable them to think and explore the topic. During my first few days at Pattanam, I used to sit through the lectures completely puzzled. It is only after a while that I discovered that I had to read up a bit and understand the basics of archaeology to enjoy the classes to the fullest. Out of the many things that our teacher talked to us about, I was greatly interested by the principles of stratigraphy. It requires imagination to come up with the idea that different layers of soil can be associated with different periods of time. The upper most layer is more recent than the lower most layer that belongs to time immemorial. It is in fact this principle of Stratigraphy that helped the archaeologists working at the Pattanam site to classify the findings denoted by specific time periods.
Learning was not just confined to books at Pattanam despite having a library that contains some of the best books on archaeology, it also involved watching documentaries and videos related to the topic along with doing practical excavations. The documentaries I watched were engaging and thought - provoking. Out of the many documentaries that were shown to the students, the two documentaries that I enjoyed the most were ‘How Earth Made Us’, and the ‘Lost Kingdom of the Mayas’; the first about water and the latter on the ancient and mythical Mayan civilization. Although it shattered the pre conceived notions I had of the Mayas, it was a sensational revelation that made me understand that Mayas were not primitive, and instead was a group of highly advanced people who lived 1000 years before Columbus discovered America. While watching the documentary on water, I was particularly impressed by how BBC despite being British, was honest in admitting that the British rule and their decisions during the colonial period in India were disastrous. The documentary portrayed how the deep rainwater tanks prevalent in India were labeled unhygienic by the British, and to solve the issue how they built tanks which later led to stagnation of water and multiply breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread malaria.
It was during the last couple of days, that the ethnography field work was organized. The fieldwork gave us a chance to interact with the local people of Pattanam to extract their social memories which is important in the study of History. The one experience that was a part of the memory of most of the people we spoke to was of poverty. The hardships they had undergone decades ago disabled them to admire the beauty of Pattanam as I did, as for them Pattanam at one point was a barren earth that offered only days of starvation. The fieldwork was followed by a workshop that dealt with consolidating the data collected to give us an idea about what is expected from the Ethnography that will be submitted by the students.
Despite not being able to do any practical excavation at Pattanam as I had wished for, my experience was certainly enriching. Pattanam opened up a new world of knowledge and information for me, and convinced me that it requires a lot of handwork and patience in order to make an exciting archeological discovery. It is not an easy task, and the primary requirements to be a successful archaeologist is dedication, curiosity and a good amount of imagination. Unless an archeologist has the power to imagine and be curious about what the world would have been like a 1000 years ago, he/she can never visualize what to look for and identify what is retrieved and relate it to the present social realities.
Although my days at Pattanam are over, I conserve with me lovely memories from a land scattered with coloured beads, decorated with lined up amphorae and trod by the traders of Muziris.
"My experience as a Pattanam intern" by Pooja George, Delhi University
I had the opportunity to be an intern at Pattanam archaeological site. The internship was residential in nature, and the duration was for 15 days, starting from 15th June till 30th June. The time I spent at Pattanam was a memorable one. I met such amazing people there, from the students of the Archaeology diploma programme, to the administrators and the locals, to my teachers. Everyone was warm and welcoming and made me feel at home right away. My time there was divided into the routine that was being followed by the members of the KCHR on a day to day basis.
Our mornings started at 6.00 am, when we woke up. At 6.30 we set out to the Camp Office, for meditation and the reading of the texts. Meditation consisted of a series of breathing exercises. We then had the readings of two texts- Chithalai Chathanar’s Manimekhalai and another text on Buddha’s life. This was a practice that I liked, especially with the sounds of early morning rain. Depending on whether it rained or not, there was cycling to nearby places right after this. We then returned home to get ready, and came back in time for breakfast. The breakfast timing was from 8.30 to 9.30, after which we had to go the library to read.
Pattanam is such a quaint and beautiful place that it seems like time stops here. The outside world has not yet spread its influence here, and has left this place unpolluted. One thing I love about the village is the greenery that meets one’s eyes everywhere. The thick shrubs and tall trees and the occasional winds make me feel that this is truly God’s own country.
One of the main reasons I wanted this internship was because archaeology was something that had always fascinated me. It seemed like a subject that opened up a whole new world- a world of the past, and the yearning to know and learn about the past is in us all. Since the excavation season for this year had ended, I was not able to participate in the digging, but staying at the excavation site, with people who had participated in the excavation, who knew so much about the findings and had a passion for archaeology, taught me a lot of things about the subject, that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
My days there were spent mainly in the library, attending the classes and watching documentaries. Oxford House provided the perfect atmosphere for academic work and reading. The vast numbers of books on archaeology were a real pleasure to read. I was introduced to new worlds, theories, concepts and techniques, when I read Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World, Michael Schiffer’s Behavioral Archaeology and Formation processes of archaeological record, Harpeet Kaur’s Archaeology-Technique and Methods, Justin Pollard’s The Story of Archaeology in 50 Great Discoveries, Lost Civilizations- Ancient India, Land of Mysteries and many other such books. But my favourite among these remain A Brief History of Archaeology: Classical times to the 21st century by Brian M. Fagan and Archaeology- Theories, Methods and Practices by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn.
The classes happened on alternate days, and it was something that I looked forward to. The lectures were done with the help of power point presentations and videos to help us see and understand things more clearly. The classes were very insightful and informative and dealt with famous archaeologists, methods, techniques and theories.
During my time there, the module on Exploration, Excavation and Documentation methods was being taught. This included the history of archaeological excavations which included studying the excavations done by pioneers like Pitt Rivers, Flinders Petrie and Gordon Childe, the discovery of archaeological sites and features based on existing knowledge, records of previous archaeological excavations, early societies, modern technologies etc. We also studied different types of ground survey like systematic sampling and stratified, unaligned systematic sampling etc, and aerial survey. We also looked at both the natural and man-made processes which affected archaeological record and also the interpretation of the data/results. During my time there, I was also introduced to the culture-historical approach, the Wheeler-Kenyon method, Gerhard Bersu’s open area excavation and processual and post processual archaeology, and the principles of stratigraphy. During my last day there, I was also introduced to the concept of anthropology by social anthropologists (visiting faculty), who discussed the relation between archaeology and anthropology and opened up new areas to us.
I learnt much more in the 15 days that I spent at Pattanam than I thought I could. By reading up on what was taught in class and also doing extra reading during the afternoon time allotted to the library, I became even more interested and curious about learning more about archaeology. I was also fortunate enough to be introduced to a wide range of documentaries. During my time there, we saw Werner Herzog’s Cave of forgotten dreams, The Golden RoadThe Ancient Incense Trail, Mohenjo Daro- The Mysterious Indus Civilization by Hans Schuller, History of Humanity, How Earth Made Us by Ian Stewart, Archaeology at work- Looking for the past by Alan McPherson, the Lost Kingdoms of Maya etc. One of my favorites among these was the 12 minute documentary that we saw on pottery making in the Pattanam region.
My time at Pattanam has come to an end. I am grateful to the members of KCHR at Pattanam for giving me such a memorable time there. The teaching I experienced was wonderful. I had to file daily reports and I used to look forward to their responses.
I read in one of the books, that archaeology is partly the discovery of treasures of the past, partly the meticulous work of the scientific analyst and partly the exercise of creative imagination. I understood this when I stayed at Pattanam, and saw the dedication and devotion with which the people there pursued their passions. I have only praise for the course that is being conducted there. I see a lot of potential for this course to be taken to greater heights and more students and interns who are passionate about archaeology, joining in the coming years. This is one course that has to be given a lot of publicity, so that more people will come to know of this.
I would like to conclude with a few lines from Shelley’s Ode To Naples, which I think beautifully captures the mystery of the past:-
I stood within the city disinterred;
And heard the autumnal leaves like light footfalls,
Of spirits passing through the streets;and heard
The mountain’s slumberous voice at intervals, Thrill through the roofless halls.
I wish the members of KCHR all the very best for their future endeavors. Pattanam will always be a wonderful memory that I wish to return to, soon.