With its gold quest at Unnao, the premier archaeological agency has risked its credibility and raised serious professional and procedural questions on excavations
The Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) decision to excavate Raja Ram Baksh Singh’s fort in Daundia Kheda, Uttar Pradesh, to unearth 1,000 tonnes of hidden gold has undermined the credibility of this premier institution. To excavate a site based on the “dreams” of a priest and thin geological evidence, has raised serious professional and procedural questions. The ASI, in its defence, citing Seventh and 19th century texts, has explained that the site is important. However, by failing to disclose in full the objectives of the excavation and the reasons for taking it up in a hurried manner, it has fuelled more doubts.
A serious pursuit
Discovering large amounts of gold and other precious objects is a recurring feature in archaeology. In 2009, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver objects was discovered in Straffordshire, U.K. when an amateur antiquities enthusiast, using a metal detector, hit upon gold objects buried below farmland. After he alerted the archaeologists, a well planned excavation followed. This eventually led to the discovery of 3,500 numbers of gold and silver objects. In 2012, in Gessel district in Germany, 117 gold artefacts were found wrapped in a cloth while laying a gas pipeline. This serendipitous discovery turned into an archaeologist’s treat when carefully studied. Even as recent as September, Israeli archaeologists discovered more than 30 gold coins in Jerusalem near the Temple Mount. In India too there are many instances of finding gold hoards and objects. Such discoveries either happened during a properly planned excavation or they were chanced upon which then led to a detailed investigation. There has not been an instance so far where treasure hunting was taken as the objective of committed research.
Potsherd and precious metal both have equal, evidentiary value to a professional and excavation is a serious pursuit. The central government through the ASI strictly regulates it. The State departments of archaeology, universities and branches of the ASI have to obtain permission before excavating. Every year, the ASI calls for applications for excavations; for the field season 2013-14, July 31 was the cut-off date. Interested institutions apply for permission and submit a comprehensive report of the proposal that gives an overview of the site, objectives and plan of the excavation. The standing committee of the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology (CABA), constituted to promote archaeological research, reviews the application and recommends permission. Such procedures ensure that only competent persons carry out field work, and the excavation is scientifically executed and accurately recorded.
On many occasions, the ASI has refused permission to excavate because the applicant has not submitted a comprehensive report. At times, it has issued permission only to explore so that the historical facts could be ascertained before a full-fledged excavation is undertaken. In the case of Daundia Kheda, the ASI has bypassed these procedures. In a recent interview with The Hindu (October 21, 2013) D.R. Mani, Additional Director General, ASI, admitted that this excavation was not discussed by the standing committee, but cleared by the Director General. The question is: why this rush.
The ASI spends less than one per cent of its total expenditure on excavations. As a result, it has not been be able to take up explorations in the manner and scale it has to. In such a situation, what compelled the ASI to take the Daundia Kheda excavations over other works? Was it done at the behest of a Central minister as some reports suggest? Mr. Mani was evasive about the alleged role of the minister.
The ASI officials repeatedly claim that the Geological Survey of India (GSI) submitted a report indicating the presence of metals under the ruins. Those familiar with archaeology would point out that this is not sufficient enough evidence to order an extensive excavation. It has to corroborate with other historic facts. Till now, apart from some reference in texts of the past, the pressing importance of the site is neither evident nor explained. As we await the professional scrutiny of the geological reports, the point to be probed is the significance of Daundia Kheda and the purpose of this excavation. By not disclosing whether it has undertaken similar excavations in other sites on the basis of GSI reports, the ASI has not helped its cause.
The damage of such an unprofessional and hurried approach is already visible. The treasure hunt theory has spread. Now gravediggers and thieves have started to illicitly dig in the neighbouring Fathepur village, where another priest has claimed that a larger treasure of 2,500 tonnes of gold is buried. The only way to check this fool’s rush for gold is by disclosing the facts in full and stopping work if the decision was made in haste.