Archaeologists and treasure hunters go back a long way. Both in real life and in popular culture, they have often been inseparable, if not one and the same. Heinrich Schliemann, who dug up “Priam’s treasure” in the 19th century, loved gold as much as he did excavation. Action film hero Indiana Jones, in movies set in the first half of the 20th century, was both a professor in archaeology and an adventurer in search of lost relics. Last week, the Archaeological Survey of India gave cause for much mirth and some puzzlement as it began excavation work in search of gold at the ruins of a fort of Raja Ram Baksh Singh in the Buxar area after the head priest of the Shobhan Temple in Unnao, Shobhan Sarkar, claimed he was informed in his dream of a treasure of gold at the site by the Raja. Folklore, maps, diaries, and fragments of documents have all triggered treasure hunts in real life and in novels and movies, but the dreams of a sadhu have never been known to form the stuff of archaeological activities. After criticism from allies and Opposition parties for ordering excavation work on the basis of such intangibles, and for encouraging superstition and undermining science, the Central government seems to have persuaded the ASI to issue a rejoinder. ASI officials now claim the excavation is being undertaken on the basis of scientific reports and the historical importance of the site. Apparently, preliminary investigations of the Geological Survey of India indicated the presence of non-conducting metals or alloys at the site.

But, the clarification raises more questions than it answers. Whether or not the digging was based on unverifiable dreams or on measurable scientific data, the excavation at the fort site was given extraordinary priority by the ASI, acting on the orders of the Union Culture Ministry. Actually, matters gathered pace after Union Minister of State for Food Processing Charan Das Mahant met the sadhu. Mr. Mahant was reported as saying that the sadhu had told him that the gold reserves were so huge that they could come in handy at a time when there is a “crisis with the rupee.” The Union Minister said he had written about this to the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister, the Home Minister, the Mines Minister and to the ASI and the GSI. He had also informed Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. That the preliminary findings of the GSI could raise the interest levels of the ASI in this manner is rather surprising. Surely, the sadhu and Mr. Mahant will be feted and felicitated for their efforts if gold is indeed found at the fort site. But if the gold hunt turns out to be futile and the dig unearths little of archaeological significance, the ASI’s credibility will stand greatly eroded.

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