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Back to basics: returning to the evidence and mapping knowledge in south Asian archaeology

Back to basics: returning to the evidence and mapping knowledge in south Asian archaeology In this article we advocate a return to the consideration and examination of the basic building blocks of archaeological enquiry: the evidence. Reacting to a widely held perception that archaeology now understands various commonalities of human experi- ence, we suggest that such concepts and the inevitable oscillation towards “big picture” approaches that stems from them are problematic. They engender a type of scholarship that does not always engage fully with the evidentiary bases of interpretation and that risks assuming a great deal about large parts of the world that have not been studied in as much detail as others. We explore this by looking at the South Asian context, where archaeologists are forced to contend with a number of constraints, chief among which is a relative absence of archaeological evidence. Focusing on one particular sub-region, we piece together exactly what evidence exists and consider what can (and cannot) be said from it. On one level this serves as a useful comparator for those working in other parts of the world who may not appreciate the evidentiary constraints that exist elsewhere. Yet beyond this and simple questions of analogy, we suggest that detailed consideration of an area such as the one presented here forces us to return to even more fundamental questions relating to when archaeological research becomes “interesting”, “ground-breaking”, and “new”; and who decides this. . . . . . Keywords Archaeology Comparative approaches Evidence Mapping South Asia Theory 1 Introduction analyses (Canti and Huisman 2015; French 2003), geospatial technologies and processing techniques (Opitz and Herrmann Archaeology, like all academic disciplines and the knowledge 2018; Orengo and Petrie 2017), microbiological analyses systems they belong to, is not fixed. It changes. The archae- (Margesin et al. 2017;Weiner 2010), palaeoproteomics ology of today (if such a singular thing exists) bears little (Hendy et al. 2018), and participatory research (McAnany relation to the earlier antiquarianism from which it developed. and Rowe 2015) to name but a few. These approaches gener- Recently, the pace of that change has sped up. We can see this ate a wide range of data, big and small (and rarely complete), methodologically and theoretically, with the development of that form the basis of what we think we know. Interpreting existing perspectives and approaches, and the exploration of those data, we benefit from the exploration of an ever- new ones. Methodologically, we might cite such diverse and increasing range of ideas, such as those surrounding agency, wide-ranging avenues as: agent-based and other advanced complexity, gender, identity, landesque capital, materiality, modelling techniques (Wurzer et al. 2015), geoarchaeological networks, ontologies, political ecology, power, and resilience (e.g., Ashmore 2018;Giosanetal. 2013;Håkansson and Widgren 2014;Hodos 2017;Meskell andPreucel 2008). We * Jason D. Hawkes have also begun to look at various topics in ways that extend hawkes.jason@gmail.com beyond the traditional nature versus culture dichotomy around which the humanities developed. Mention might be made of Anne Casile new ways of thinking about agriculture, land use, behavioral anne.casile@gmail.com ecology and evolution (Bettinger et al. 2015; Brughmans et al. 2016;Denhametal. 2016;Garvey 2018; Håkansson and Department of Asia, The British Museum, London, UK Widgren 2014; Morrison 2018), as well as archaeological PALOC Joint Research Unit, IRD (French National Research practice in postcolonial contexts (Lydon and Rizvi 2016). Institute for Sustainable Development), Paris, France 96 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Consequently, the number of themes being explored has pro- returned to the study of seeming universals, such as the devel- liferated, as archaeology (and what is deemed to fall under the opment of complex society (Pozorski and Pozorski 2018; umbrella of archaeology), expands inexorably to fill the inter- Renfrew and Liu 2018); the “global turn” in medieval archae- sections of the sciences, arts and humanities. ology (Pitts and Versluys 2014;Campbell 2016;Jervis 2018); With these developments there has also emerged a sense or the increasing popularity of “big data” approaches to the that we have the answers to certain topics. This is expressed in incorporation and synthesis of the vast amounts of variation in a number of ways. First, we think we “know” how certain the past to tease out and identify developmental trends socio-cultural and economic processes and structures worked. (Gaillard et al. 2015; Gilbert and Doran 1994; Pielke et al. Drawing on over a century of archaeological and ethnographic 2011; Strandberg et al. 2014). research (which itself draws on an even larger body of biolog- It is not for this article to comment on the rights or wrongs ical, economic, philosophical, political, and social thought), of such approaches. We fully recognize the value of compar- we are often tempted to fall back on the use of certain general ative perspectives and the exploration of commonalities of terms such as “complexity”, or even more specifically: “agri- human development or experience. This stimulates ideas and culture”, “production” and “trade.” These labels have become questions, and building on earlier research is how research is convenient blanket terms implying a set of activities that many driven—it is a process of constant critical reflection and iter- of us no longer try to define, because we assume that we ation. Yet, at the same time, placing too much faith in the idea understand the mechanisms of such behaviors and associated that we “know” something can have unintended conse- practices in the areas where we work. Second, and on a slight- quences. Usually, these revolve around losing sight of the ly more concrete level, when we “know” that certain broad specifics of the archaeological contexts in which we are work- developments happened across a given unit of space or time ing. These may be the details of how archaeology operates in we often infer the existence of certain associated societal and any given context (its historiography, how institutional frame- cultural systems and accompanying archaeological features works and established modes of practice have been created, within that same space and time. In thinking about Roman how they have led to questions that are asked, how they have Gaul, for instance, we might presuppose the existence of sim- shaped the collection and selection of data, and how they have ilar processes of acculturation and urbanism, and associated defined wider research agendas), the nature, relative “quality” archaeological remains across large areas of modern-day (and quantity) of the data that exist (which is dependent on the France. Third, and on another level entirely, many of us will kinds of data that have been collected, how they have been be familiar with archaeology’s tendency to constantly look for collected, and the resolution with which they can be dated), or the next new cutting-edge topic of research. Implicit in this is an awareness of what is not investigated and remains the idea that we, as a discipline, have already tackled a grow- invisible. ing list of topics that do not need to be revisited because we In “knowing” that certain developments to have taken have thought our way around them, and comprehensively ar- place, there is a danger that we might assume the archae- ticulated those thoughts. ological data will play out in a particular way before (or At the same time, and as a corollary of this, there is also a sometimes without) looking at it properly. For example, (perhaps inevitable) oscillation towards “big picture” ap- studies of the European Neolithic frequently made re- proaches and comparative perspectives. While this does not course to models of demic diffusion to chart the spread necessarily account for the entire trajectory of archaeological of farming across Europe (Ammerman and Cavali-Sforza research, there is undoubtedly a growing trend towards studies 1971). Implicit was the notion that demographics, agri- that seek to either place region-specific developments into a cultural practices, and patterns of settlements were the broader framework of understanding, identify commonalities same in areas where farming was deemed to have spread. of experience, or tease out deeper understandings of why dif- An extension of this idea was to then assume the exis- ferences exist. For example, we might cite studies that have tence of settled villages characterized by a particular suite of material remains indicating a particular set of activities and practices without necessarily having the While this is a relative indicator of good “intellectual health” and can be data to (fully) support these presuppositions. Indeed, it considered a positive dynamic, it is not unrelated to a widespread and in- was only relatively recently that scholarship became creased drive to secure funding to ensure that academic departments and in- stitutions continue to be economic viable. The ability to think up new ideas and attuned to the great deal of variation that existed in terms secure funding in turn frequently becomes conflated with the assessment of an of farming and settlement (e.g. Bocquet-Appel et al. individual scholars’ ability and worth; and project-based research becomes the 2009). In a different sense, because we might understand dominant model and measure of “success.” In many respects, much of the wider history of archaeological research can the mechanisms of “trade” and “exchange” with refer- be characterized by a generational toing and froing between approaches and ence to a number of interpretive frameworks (e.g. entrenched standpoints. These may be differences between empiricism and Polanyi 1944; Malinowski 1922;Mauss 1970), there is relativism, processualism and post-processualism, proponents of sociocultural evolution and cultural specificity, and so on (see Trigger 2006). asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 97 a danger that when we investigate a theme that involves In doing so, the wider ramifications of returning to the these practices we presuppose the way they functioned. evidence will become clear. These force us to reflect on a We accept that these might be dismissed as imagined con- number of things that extend beyond archaeology in South cerns. Yet, the perceived risk of making such uncritical as- Asia—whether there is, perhaps, an argument to be made for sumptions grows when we consider it in relation to broad going back to basics, returning to the evidence in archaeology inter-regional and comparative studies. These can easily as- generally and, by mapping it, seeing what it can and cannot sume similar standards of data quality and comparability tell us. On a wider level, we suggest that there is perhaps a across different areas. In doing so, they may not necessarily need to look closely at questions relating to when archaeolog- consider the variable recovery strategies that have been ical research becomes “interesting”, “ground-breaking”,and employed to generate the data being compared, or differential “new”, and who decides this. archaeological visibilities that might affect and undermine the comparisons that are made. Similar concerns surround re- course to secondary sources from other contexts, which them- selves may be the products of different schools of thought and 2 Background practice and may thus be plagued by similar issues of (in)com- patibility. It is with these thoughts in mind that we suggest Within South Asia, the mid-first millennium CE (c. third to there is perhaps a need to ask ourselves: what is the evidence seventh century) appears to have been a particularly transfor- that we have, and, if we are being completely honest with mative time. We see the appearance of new dynasties and ourselves, what can it tell us? In simple terms: what can and kingdoms in epigraphic records across South Asia (Agrawal can’t we do with the available data? In doing so, we can guard 1989; Raychaudhuri 1923; Singh 1994). These are often con- against “alternative facts” creeping into research and at the sidered with reference to rule of the Guptas—aparticularly same time refine our sense of what needs to be done with powerful dynasty who ruled across North India, and under future work on any given topic or in any given area. whose rule “classical” Indian artistic and literary forms took Here, we explore this issue with reference to an example from shape (Harle 1974;Singh 2003; Stein 1998). The appearance the South Asian archaeological record, where distinct (though of these kingdoms was connected to the growth and spread of not necessarily unique) dynamics are at play. In particular, there new “Hindu” temple institutions (Gupta 1974), which were are large geographical areas and periods of time that have rarely, themselves linked to new sects of Shaivism and Vaishnavism if ever, been subjected to archaeological enquiry. We might cite, (Bakker 1997;Bisschop 2010; Stein 1998). Temple institu- for instance, a comparatively disproportionate focus on the Indus tions and communities of brahmins (those belonging to the civilization in studies of the third millennium BCE (e.g., Kenoyer priestly caste) received royal patronage and became increas- 1998;Possehl 2002;Shinde 2016;Wright 2010), or, at the other ingly embedded in local social and economic and political end of the chronological spectrum, a relative absence of any sort networks through the transference or formalization of land of an archaeology of later historical periods, particularly the me- ownership rights (Bakker 2010;Nath 2001; Singh 1994). dieval (Hawkes 2014). The reasons for this are frequently related These new relationships were embodied in a series of inscrip- to modern political ideologies (see Chakrabarti 1998, 2003). tions, written in courtly Sanskrit and recording royal grants of There are also a series of methodological constraints, with vari- land, that spread as both a practice and form of material culture ous bureaucratic, infrastructural, and legislative factors affecting throughout South Asia from the Gupta empire (Fleet 1888; both the quality and quantity of archaeological data that have Hawkes and Abbas 2016;Mirashi 1963). Together, these fea- been and continue to be generated. This is a situation that poses tures point to the development of what is deemed to be new particular interpretational challenges, not only for those working social formations and changes in patterns of urbanism, which in South Asia, but also those working elsewhere that might seek may also have been related to the realignment of Indian to incorporate the evidence from South Asia into comparative Ocean, inter-regional, and local trade networks (Kosambi frameworks. At a certain point we must contend with basic (and 1955;Sharma 1965). These changes set the trajectory of con- all too familiar) questions of analogy. To what extent can the tinued social, cultural, economic, and political developments archaeology of one region be compared with that of another up to at least the thirteenth century. without full consideration of their limitations, and is it possible to simply apply theoretical ideas borne from one context in the The beginning of the thirteenth century represents a major turning point in study of another? Following an introduction to these issues, we the historiography of change in society of South Asia. This is largely due to the will spell out exactly what sort of evidence we have and consider establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 CE (Wink 2002). As such, the the shortcomings and biases that exist within it and the ways idea that society changed due to Muslim invasions and their political and religious ramifications have dominated narratives of what has come to be these might limit and constrain what we can do. We then consider termed the “late medieval” period. Ideas of political and religious changes the sorts of approaches that we can take with the evidence avail- defining periodization can be traced back to Mill (1817). For discussion, see able, and which we have mapped. Ali (2012). 98 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 The archaeological study of this period is a complex matter. 2014; Singh 2011). Excavated remains become empirical ev- In fact, it tends not to be examined archaeologically at all. idence that are used to corroborate wider historical ideas, Instead, it is studied within the fields of textual history, litera- while architectural and sculptural remains are placed within ture, religion, and the history of art through the examination of iconographic and stylistic frameworks. a wide range of textual and artistic sources. Within those That this is the case is well known within scholarship on disciplines, many of the developments that are perceived to South Asia. It is due to various issues such as the interests of have taken place tend to be understood with reference to wider colonial scholarship and post-colonial reactions to them social and economic theories (themselves received from wider (Guha-Thakurta 2004;Singh 2004; Thapar et al. 1969); the international scholarship), such as feudalism (Jha 1993; dominance of culture-history approaches (Johansen 2003); the Sharma 1965), state formation (Kulke 1982, 1993; Stein concept and problematization of the “medieval” in India (Ali 1980), and sociocultural evolution (Sharma 1983). While 2012;Hawkes 2014); the relationships between archaeology, the overall thrust of enquiry, the prism through which the past texts, and art (Ray and Sinopoli 2004); and the role of archae- is understood, tends to be one of societal change. The period is ology within professional, governmental, and academic cir- seen and defined as a pivotal moment, either as a Golden Age cles (Chakrabarti 1998, 2003). Stemming from an awareness when an indigenous Hindu culture reached its zenith (e.g., of these issues there is also a growing realization of the neces- Eraly 2011), or as a period that marks the transition from an sity of investing the study of this period with a more archae- earlier ancient period to a later medieval one (Chattopadhyaya ological approach. A small but growing number of projects 1994). Within this context, archaeological research has tended are starting to tackle this problem face on. Here, one might cite to focus on periods of time that preceded these developments. work ongoing excavations at Mahasthangarh (Salles 2015), That is not to say, however, that there is no archaeological landscape surveys in Bangladesh (Sen 2015), renewed exca- evidence for the mid- to late-first millennium CE in South vations of religious and urban sites dating to the mid-first Asia. Since the early nineteenth century, excavations at large millennium CE in Central India (Kennet et al. 2020; settlement sites have revealed a great deal of evidence that can Sontakke et al. 2016), and our own project’s work looking at be dated to the period. This is mostly in the form of ceramics, the landscape contexts of inscriptions (Hawkes and Abbas associated craft products and, to a lesser extent, coins. 2016). Indeed, with so much potential for truly foundational Excavations have also been carried out at temples and other research, these are particularly exciting times to be involved in religious sites. These have yielded architectural and carved the archaeology of later historical periods in South Asia. Yet, it remains, both epigraphic and sculptural. Additional stray is important to remember that when it comes to looking at the finds, such as displaced sculptures and coins, continue to be archaeology of at least half a millennium of human history unearthed in the field and private collections. However, be- across an area more than half the size of Europe, this is the cause the period is not the main focus of archaeological re- intellectual and methodological framework within which we search, few of these excavations have been carried out with are operating, and we need to be clear about what this means the aim of investigating the period itself (Hawkes 2014). both methodologically and theoretically. Rather, in the case of settlement archaeology at least, they This relative absence of archaeology brings with it a num- are the almost accidental product of excavations that have ber of challenges, the first of which is the question of what we been carried out to uncover the underlying earlier (more “in- as archaeologists chose to look at. Like a metaphorical child in teresting”) layers. The exceptions to this trend are religious a confectioner’s, there is a bewildering array of choices. monuments, which are excavated in reasonably large num- Equally convincing arguments for studying any number of bers. Yet, the carved architectural remains that result from topics can easily be made. However, rather than looking to- these digs tend to be incorporated not into archaeological re- wards wider archaeological literature and studies of other con- search, but rather into textual and art-historical studies where texts that might have tackled similar methodological or con- they are deemed to be more appropriately situated (Hawkes ceptual problems to stimulate ideas for possible directions of further research, what tends to happen is that the investiga- These include inscriptions (the majority for this period being copper-plate tions that are carried out tend to ask the same familiar ques- inscriptions recording land charters) and Sanskrit and Pali documents found tions that have already been defined within textual scholarship across the subcontinent as well as sculptures and architectural remains that are on South Asia. For example, political dynasties continue to frequently interpreted with reference to religious texts. This is contra approaches to other (earlier) periods that are increasingly dominate the way that the past and historical change are un- taking more political ecological approaches (e.g., Bauer 2018). derstood and defined. So, when it comes to decisions about Specifically, an “early historic” period defined by the appearance of coins, which sites are “important” and worthy of excavation, these writing, and urbanism that stretched from approximately the sixth century BCE to the early centuries CE; an Iron Age or “megalithic” period that extends from at least the late-second to the mid- to late-first millennium BCE; the Chalcolithic, defined by the study of the Indus civilization and other contem- It is worth pointing out here that many of the same concerns can be levelled porary cultures of the fourth to second millennia BCE; and beyond (to at least at the study of the later medieval (or Middle Period) and early modern periods, one million years ago). too, which are subject to even less archaeological study. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 99 choices are often made and justified with reference to its his- and excavations within any one country let alone across the torically attested connection with that dynasty. This frame of whole of South Asia. In part, this is a consequence of multiple reference also dictates how archaeological remains are dated, stakeholders being involved in archaeological practice and the defined, and discussed. We have, for instance, the notion of fact that their findings are published in different languages. “Gupta period” pottery, as if people in the past changed the India alone is home to 780 official languages, and archaeolog- way that they made ceramics, expressed their cultural identity, ical reports frequently appear in Assamese, Bengali, English, and engaged in certain social practices in accordance with a Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, change of ruler. Our conceptions of “culture” tend to be based Odia, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. This has led to the on the literary and artistic outputs of religious and political creation of knowledge silos in which the information that we elites. At the same time, archaeological research on the period do have about this period (and others) languishes unknown continues to be preoccupied by the questions received from and unstudied by others operating in different geographic historical scholarship, such as: “was society feudal?” and areas and working in different languages. Together, these fac- “what was the relationship between Hindu temple institutions tors mean that when archaeologists do try to inject a more and kings?” These questions are further explored with refer- material culture-based approach into their examination of the ence to either established textual-historical ways of thinking period, we simply do not have an existing framework of ar- about the past (which themselves have drawn heavily on chaeological evidence in which to ground our theoretical per- wider social scientific theories). None of these approaches spectives, interpretations, and conclusions. are necessarily incorrect, and we certainly do not wish to pre- The net result of this is that our archaeological understand- scribe what should be done. However, if such approaches are ing ends up being somewhat hypothetical and, without com- taken it behooves practitioners, academics, and institutions to parison to wider archaeological questions, is in danger of be- accept that they are underutilizing the potential of the evidence coming increasingly insular. We find ourselves necessarily and selling short the potential benefit of archaeology. having to make recourse to a series of ideas culture and The second issue is as much a methodological challenge as society—about settlement, economy, and what things must it is a conceptual problem. With so little archaeological work have meant to people in the past and how societies functioned. having been done, our knowledge and understanding of the Interpretations about any and all of these things are made on evidence from this and later periods is limited. In simple the basis of what we infer to have been the case. In other terms, we know of far fewer archaeological sites that date to words, we find ourselves resorting to wider social theories this period than we do for those that can be dated to earlier and falling back on heuristic devices and a set of assumptions periods (Hawkes 2014). We also have only the most rudimen- about what must have been the case rather than being able to tary understanding of the material culture from those sites. access and see how all of these things actually worked in what There is, for instance, no established pottery typology for this is essentially a unique archaeological context that has yet to be entire mid-first millennium period at a local or regional scale. properly investigated. This is rarely, if ever, made explicit. In part, this is due to the lack of archaeological research on this Recognizing the discomfort of this situation, we again return period. It is also due to certain features of professional and to the perceived need of going back to basics and defining academic practice in the field of South Asian archaeology. Site exactly what we know and what we can actually say based reports (for sites from any period) are rarely published, while on the evidence that we have. notices of the discovery or excavation of sites are often very brief. Nor is there a single resource or established mecha- nism for reporting and disseminating the results of surveys 3 What has been done Indeed, the irony here is that many of these questions first became articulated Addressing this, we have focused our attention on one partic- in historical scholarship following an awareness, in the mid to late twentieth century of the value of wider social scientific research including the range of ular region—Vidarbha in Central India—in order to establish new perspectives that archaeology could bring (e.g., Sharma 1983). exactly what archaeological evidence exists from within it. Pottery reports that have attempted to classify pottery found during individ- The premise here is that it is only when we take stock of the ual excavations exist (e.g., Kennet et al. 2020; Nath 2016). Yet methods of existing evidence that we are able to assess its quality (accord- pottery analyses vary and are rarely published in detail, making it difficult to compare remains either as they appear in print, or physically in assemblages ing to any number of criteria) and establish its applicability. In (when access can be obtained). As such there is no established typology of other words, we must assess whether it can be used in the “Gupta period” pottery or any other frequently cited type or ware from later way(s) we would like to be able to use it, and if it cannot be historical periods. For further discussion, see Lefrancq et al. (2019). Only approximately 14% of sites excavated between 1947 and 1995 have used in those ways, identify the factors that constrain its use been published (for details see Chakrabarti 2003), and notices of the discovery and applicability. This work then has a clear benefit in estab- and/or excavation of sites in the annual reports published by the lishing the starting point for research in that region, while Archaeological Survey of India typically range in length from a single line to two pages of text. equally suggesting that it presents a useful approach and 100 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 framework for also getting to grips with the archaeology of Wardha-Wainganga Rivers watershed of the Godavari basin, other areas. while its western plains are drained by the Penganga River Vidarbha measures approximately 100,000 km and is lo- flowing into the Tapi basin (Fig. 2). Historically, the region cated in the far northeast of the modern state of Maharashtra, was the known core territory of the eastern Vakatakas—ady- India (Fig. 1). This region represents a good laboratory within nasty contemporary to and neighboring the Guptas, and who which to test these ideas for a number of reasons. First, it were one of the first to adopt the new practice of landgrants in represents a coherent region both geographically and histori- the fifth century CE (Bakker 2010; Hawkes and Abbas 2016). cally. Geographically, it is defined by its topography and hy- Archaeological sites relating to this period include find spots drology, displaying landscapes rich in fertile lands, rivers, of these landgrant inscriptions, a number of known settle- minerals, and areas of forested hills. Part of it falls into the ments and temples, as well as a number of earlier sites that Deccan plateau. It is bounded to the north and east by Satpura enable us to place the data from the period into a broader range (Gawilgarh, Garamsur, and Mahadeo hills), to the chronological context (e.g., Sawant 2012). southeast by hills of Bastar, and to the west and southwest To establish a complete picture of the existing archaeolog- by hills of the Ajanta range. Most of the region belong to the ical evidence from this region, we carried out a comprehensive Fig. 1 Map illustrating the location and of the Vidarbha region in relation to Peninsular India asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 101 Fig. 2 Map illustrating the main geographical features that define the Vidarbha region survey of the published and unpublished literature pertaining location); their recorded date; and the “type” of site. Sites tend to this area. This included both primary and secondary sources to be categorized in the literature with reference to only seven and comprised all reports and monographs published by the or eight repeating classes: settlements, temples, stupas (a class Archaeological Survey of India; the bulletins, newsletters, of Buddhist monument), caves, megaliths, sculptures, inscrip- communiqués, PhD theses, and other research outputs of re- tions, and coins. To facilitate ease of comparison and inter- search Universities who have been active in the area (notably rogation of the data, we have attempted to standardize these as the Deccan College and Nagpur University); the outputs of much as possible and impose a classificatory hierarchy across local antiquarian societies and individuals; as well as refer- all site “types.” Thus, just as “settlements” might be imagined ences to sites in the region in secondary sources. In total, to include a great deal of variation (which could then be clas- 525 individual sources and 37 journal runs written in sified as sub-types), we judged “temples” and “stupas” to be English, Hindu, and Marathi were consulted. This resulted sub-types of a broader class that might best be termed “reli- in the compilation of a record of 1200 archaeological sites gious sites.” These site types then defined how they were (broadly construed) in the region that date from the Iron Age recorded in our record. Various site-specific details about each or “Megalithic” period (c. first millennium BCE), to the late type of site (e.g., its size, physical and archaeological features, medieval period (c. early second millennium CE). descriptions, lists of artifacts found within them or that define Once a site had been identified in the literature, we record- them) were also recorded as they appear in the literature. ed all of the published information relating to it. The resulting Recognizing that accounts of archaeological remains are record, then, provides an accurate reflection of the data as it not the only things that enable us to assess the relative quality exists in scholarship. The only exceptions to this were sites of the data, we also recorded information about how each site that had been excavated (by far and away the minority), for had been discovered, investigated, and recorded. This includ- which we summarized the published evidence for ease of data ed details concerning the name and institutional affiliation of entry and comparison. In choosing what data to record, we the person (or persons) who first reported and documented the were led by the categories of information the reports them- selves contained. This included locational information about There are a small number of additional types of sites that can be added to sites (written descriptions of where sites are, their geographi- this list, such as forts, dams, and step wells. However, they are so few that they cal coordinates, and an assessment as to the accuracy of that are included in our record as “other” (Hawkes et al. 2020). 102 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Fig. 3 Chart illustrating the number of archaeological sites (in ordinates) in Vidarbha in relation to site type and period site; those who directed any subsequent phases of work; why that there was a sharp increase in the number of sites dur- that particular survey or excavation was carried out; and the ing the transition from the Iron Age to the early historic methods used. Of course, not every report contains all this period and that most of the sites in the area date to the early information. Indeed, most do not. By compiling as complete medieval period. Within each period we can also see dif- a record as possible of all of the information that has been ferent proportions of site types. The number of settlements, reported, it was thus also possible to see what has not. for instance, increases from the Iron Age to the early his- Once gathered, all the information was recorded in a flat file toric, and then slowly declines in each successive period. database to facilitate the interrogation and analysis of the data, the In scholarship on South Asia, the temptation has been to results of which are discussed below. However, the publication of use quantities of sites such as these as reflecting wider such a large dataset presents some problems, even if it is present- trends without adequate consideration of the reasons be- ed as an appendix at the end of an article such as this one. We hind their variation. So, for instance, the numbers of set- have thus made this record available online in table form (.csv tlements in each period might normally be taken as a mea- format), together with the related bibliography (in .rtf format), sure of how “settled” an area was and how that changed both of which are open-access and can be freely downloaded and over time, often in relation to wider conceptions of the interrogated (Hawkes et al. 2020). Such is thenatureofinforma- development and spread of urbanism. Or the numbers of tion silos we recognize there is a chance that the dataset is not religious sites might be attributed to different religious complete. However, we do not think that this undermines it or sects, and their quantity taken as a rudimentary indicator any of the observations that can be made on the basis of its of how societally embedded that religious institution was. examination. The pace of research that it will inevitably be out However, the data thus displayed cannot, by themselves, of date in due course. We hope that making this record openly be understood as an accurate reflection of any sort of past accessible will enable it to be constantly updated (individually or reality, or at least not so simplistically. The results of each collectively) and facilitate further scholarship. individual survey or excavation add to this overall picture, which is, by definition then, highly contingent on those results. This can be seen clearly when we consider the results of individual investigations. For instance, if we re- 4 Consideration of the data move records of sites recorded during Lacey’s survey of the Ramtek area in 2010–2012 (Lacey 2016), then the 4.1 What sites exist? quantities of known site types in each period change con- siderably (Fig. 4). Indeed, this survey alone was responsi- Once compiled, the regional data were interrogated to as- ble for more than doubling the number of known medieval sess exactly what archaeological evidence exists, and its sites and remains in the region. While the overall propor- limitations. The first step was to plot the quantities of dif- tions of sites by period (other than the medieval) do not ferent categories of sites (as defined above) over time, ac- alter too much, we can see that without the data produced cording to the broad chronological periods of time record- by this one survey the perceivable changes in the quantities ed in the literature (Fig. 3). This would appear to indicate of settlements over time are much more pronounced. The incorporation, then, of the results of individual investiga- There are specific concerns with the way archaeological sites and remains are dated and/or attributed to particular periods, not to mention the bases on tions can have a significant impact on how we perceive the which periods are defined in wider scholarship on South Asia. The ways in archaeology of the region, and by extension what we can which these impact our engagement with and interpretation of the existing data say about the past. is discussed in greater detail below. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 103 Fig. 4 Chart illustrating the number of archaeological sites in Vidarbha in relation to site type and period without Lacey’s (2012) survey data 4.2 Aims, methods and modes of examination 1975; Joshi, 1993a, b; Joshi and Sharma 2000; Lacey 2016; Misra 2004;Mitra 1983; Shete 2011–2012; Sontakke 2014; More fundamentally, we cannot take the quantity of sites be- Thapar 1979a:21, Thapar 1979b:36, Thapar 1980a: 39, ing in any way representative of the past without having some Thapar 1980b: 39; Vaidya 2014); and three were carried out idea of how much of the region has been examined, the ways it to investigate specific types of sites (Banerji 2000;Deshpande has been examined, by whom, and why—the biases of previ- 1975;Kale 1999)(Fig. 5). ous research. We can identify some of these by considering the However, not all of these reports are clear about their geo- aims and methods of past investigations. If we assume (for the graphic area of enquiry, and an astonishing 104 surveys do not purpose of investigation) that the sites recorded in reports of record their aims and objectives at all. In the absence of re- excavations and explorations were documented during the cords of what individual investigators were doing, their aims same season of fieldwork, we can identity 128 individual can be inferred by looking at the results of surveys and exca- campaigns of fieldwork carried out by at least 71 different vations. Doing so reveals clear patterns in the types of sites individuals and teams over the last 130 years that resulted in and chronological periods that have been targeted. Looking the discovery of archaeological sites and remains. Each of first at surveys (Table 1), we can see that for investigations these were initiated for different reasons, and all had different geared towards (or perhaps simply more sensitive to) record- aims and objectives. Thinking first about the motivations that ing settlement remains they tended to favor sites dating to the lay behind these various programmes of work, we see seven early historic and Vakataka periods, while those seeming to investigations being carried out explicitly for rescue and re- investigate religious sites focused on early medieval remains. search (Banerji 2000:52–53; Joshi 1992: 59, Joshi, 1993a, b: Equally, when considered in terms of possible periods of in- 82, 83–84; Mahaptra 1994:58–59, Mahaptra 1995:43–45; terests, studies of the Iron Age have clearly focused on mega- Menon 2002:67–69), but in the vast majority of instances liths, studies on the early historic and Vakataka periods on (the remaining 121 investigations) there is no record of why settlements (the latter with a slight additional interest in reli- programmes of fieldwork were initiated at all. In terms of their gious sites), and for studies of the early medieval temples and aims and objectives, the situation is slightly better. We find spot finds (usually inscriptions and sculptures) appear to have that seventeen surveys were carried out to investigate partic- been the motivating factors. The later medieval period has ular geographical areas. These include the rescue surveys hardly been of interest at all. mentioned above that focused on planned submergence areas If we look at excavations and consider site types and prior to dam construction, as well as (presumably research- their dates as indicators of the aims of the investigators, oriented) studies looking at discrete local areas (Beglar 1878; we can identify some additional patterns (Fig. 6). Borkar 1986,Borkar 2009; Chitale 1987, 1988; Cunningham Regionally, Iron Age sites (both settlements and megaliths) 1879; Dixit 1954; Shete 2011–2012; Sontakke 2014; Vaidya have been the main foci of excavations—the sites deemed 2014). At the same time, eleven surveys were undertaken to most worthy of full archaeological investigation—while investigate a particular time period (Abbas 2016;Deshpande settlements and (increasingly over time) religious sites dat- ing to the early historic and Vakataka periods are the next To clarify, sites that were discovered by chance outside the remit of archae- most common foci of enquiry. ological investigations are not included in this number. In addition, other On one level, these biases can be explained and un- archaeological surveys that did not result in the discovery of new material derstood with reference to the research interests of indi- are also known to have been carried out (e.g., Bhaisare 2012), and so are also not included in this number. For further details, see Hawkes et al. (2020). vidual scholars, which in turn point to wider trends in 104 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Fig. 5 Map illustrating the known archaeological sites in the Vidarbha region, displayed according to the stated aims of investigation that resulted in their initial discovery the scholarship. For Indeed, if we consider the aims of change, for instance the obtrusive nature of later re- the individual investigators (as much as we can recon- mains that would have made them more apparent to struct them) in relation to the decades in which they surveyors in earlier decades before the introduction of took place, we can identify some interesting trends more systematic survey methods. (Fig. 7). We see that until the 1950’s, reports were This might also be related to the fact that we can mostly concerned with remains dating to the early me- also see a change in the type of sites that were recorded dieval period. In subsequent decades, their popularity in each decade of research, with settlements and reli- was overtaken by that of early historic remains. This gious sites as opposed to isolated spot finds accounting may not necessarily reflect a change in the focus of for an ever-increasing proportion of sites. However, we research. A number of factors might explain this can also see that in each decade, religious sites and spot Table 1 Table illustrating the Site Type Iron Age Early Historic Vakataka Early Medieval Late Medieval number of archaeological investigations by site type and Settlement 18 39 34 17 18 inferred period of interest Religious 0 13 19 29 7 Megalith 31 0 0 0 0 Spot Find 0 5 9 18 2 Coin 0 2 3 0 0 Other 1 1 2 0 2 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 105 Fig. 6 Chart illustrating the quantities of different types of sites dating to different periods that have been excavated in the Vidarbha region finds form a greater proportion of sites dating to later published excavation reports from this area rarely discuss the periods than they do for earlier periods. This can be methods that have been used and the decision-making pro- understood as a direct result of the tendency to favor cesses involved. Instead, we have to infer what we can from art historical and epigraphic remains in the study of the plans and section drawings that are presented in print. later periods (as discussed above). However, only four excavations at three sites in the entire We could probe the data more deeply to reconstruct even region have been published as site reports (Deo and more of the possible biases of previous research. Examination Dhavalikar 1967-68;Deo andJoshi 1972;Nath 1998, 2016). of what researchers have focused on might allow us to trace In the majority of instances, results are instead brutally sum- the impact of individual scholarship on the accrual of archae- marized in notices of preliminary findings or short article- ological data. This would certainly be of value for studies of length reports that contain little information about these fac- the history of scholarship. However, the further we explore the tors. That said, from the information we do have at our dis- data in this regard, the more assumptions we have to make in posal, we can fairly safely presume that most excavations interpreting any correlations that we might find. Plus, as far as were small-scale, with trenches dug in undetermined loca- reconstructing intentional bias is concerned, this would only tions, using a system first laid down by Mortimer Wheeler confirm what we already know—that there was bias. A much (Wheeler 1954) consisting of box grids separated by narrow more important concern is that because there is so much miss- baulks to facilitate stratigraphic recording. More recent exca- ing information about the biases of previous research it be- vations have incorporated a system combining “digs” (i.e., comes very difficult to reconstruct their effects on the quality spits) and “lots” (i.e., individual units or contexts) that appears and quantity of the archaeological evidence that we have. For to have been borrowed from strategies employed in field mis- example, without knowing exactly which areas were exam- sions co-directed by North American colleagues over the last ined and which were not, and exactly which sites were record- twenty years or so. This method is increasingly being taught ed within any given area and which were not, there will al- as the (single) standard universal method of excavation in the ways be large questions surrounding the representativeness of Institute of Archaeology under the aegis of the Archaeological the existing evidence. Survey of India. Aside from the various merits of different Existing reports are equally vague about the methods that excavation strategies, the point here is that because details of were used to recover and record sites and remains. This too those methods are rarely provided, it is difficult to know how affects the representativeness, comparability and “quality” of that data. We all know that various factors such as the location 14 In this connection, we should mention that in South Asia it is common and scale of excavations have a bearing on the extent to which practice to employ locally hired village laborers to carry out the majority of the digging during archaeological excavations, while at the same time, post- the resulting information can be used to reconstruct the activ- graduate students (with variable field experience, and who may or may not ities that took place at a site. Similarly, the methods of exca- have completed an undergraduate degree in archaeology) are frequently vation (whether they are context- or feature-based, dug only employed as trench supervisors. While not questioning the competence or enthusiasm of anyone involved, for those who are more familiar with excava- with reference to vertical stratigraphy and/or horizontal plans, tions being carried out by those with many years of full-time professional whether and if so what sample strategies are employed, and experience, this raises a number of questions as to the ability of those engaged how all of these activities and the data they produced were in excavation to: (a) recognize subtle differences in the color and texture of soil matrix indicating discrete archaeological deposits, (b) understand the tapho- recorded; why those methods were used; and exactly who was nomic processes involved in the formation of deposits being encountered involved in excavation) also have a bearing on the interpreta- during excavation, and (c) accurately record all of the data that may results tion of the data we get from those excavations. Despite this, from those excavations. 106 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Fig. 7 Chart illustrating the number of different archaeological site types and periods that have been investigated during each decade of research asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 107 Fig. 8 Map illustrating the known sites in the Vidarbha region that were discovered through surveys, displayed according to the stated survey methods used the data presented in published reports were generated. It thus becomes very difficult to validate them. Survey methods, too, are rarely made explicit (if stated at all). We all know that the parameters of a survey frame (its size, where it is located, and how it is defined in relation to the thing or things that are being investigated), the scale of survey (whether extensive or intensive), the methods of reconnais- sance (whether they be the analysis of remote sensing data, geophysical survey, or the precise mode of fieldwalking), sampling strategies, and methods of recording all have con- siderable effect on the data that are retrieved. Yet, only two archaeological surveys of this region have been explicit about their methods (Lacey 2016; Smith 2000). In all other cases we again have to infer them. Given the heritage and tradition of survey methods in South Asia, it is fairly safe to assume that most, if not all, previous surveys in this area have used some form of informant-based survey—what, in South Asia, is usu- ally referred to as “village-to-village” survey (see Shaw 2017). Here, working on the principle that modern villages are locat- ed every two or three kilometers across the landscape, and that Fig. 9 Chart illustrating the accuracy of site locations in relation to site type the residents of these villages are more attuned to the existence 108 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 of extant remains or artifacts in the plough soil, modern vil- of the history of activities at individual sites, but it also means lages form the foci of archaeological enquiry. However, even that when we find material for which there is no clear typology within this general approach there is still considerable varia- on the surface of a site we can only date that material (and by tion as to how it can be implemented according to all of the extension the site it defines) according to these same broad factors that have just been reviewed. This in turn means that periods. we are left with considerable uncertainty as to how represen- The situation is slightly better with the dating of material tative the data from those surveys might be (Fig. 8). such as sculptures, inscriptions, and coins, which are less de- pendent on excavation bias and can draw on much more de- veloped iconographic lexicons and typologies or specific de- 4.3 Dating sites tails mentioned in texts. Yet despite this, the very fact that there are these inconsistent dating frameworks for different The potential impacts of these methodological biases on our types of material makes it difficult to compare them and the understanding are exacerbated by the ways that sites and re- sites where they are found. This is not helped by the fact that mains are dated. Very few sites in the region have been dated different people operating within (and contributing to) differ- using absolute methods. Only three of a total 54 excavated ent silos of knowledge use different terminologies. Regardless sites have radiocarbon determinations, namely, the settlements of whether individual sites and/or remains might be dated to a at Adam, Nagpur District (Nath 2016); Bhon, Buldana District single moment or an extended period of time, we can identify (Deotare 2007, 2008); and Paturda, Buldana District (Deotare four main ways of presenting their date: precise dates, to the 2007), and there are many questions surrounding their reliabil- level of a single year (usually recorded in inscriptions); indi- ity. These include the lack of clarity about the nature of the vidual centuries; the rule of individual dynasties; or broad contexts from which the samples were collected, exactly what periods of time that cover multiple centuries. The latter is samples were collected for analyses and why, and whether or particularly problematic, with periods of time being defined not the results have been calibrated and the calibration curves on the basis of: royal dynasties (e.g., the Mauryans, that were used. Instead, sites and individual spot finds tend to Satavahanas, Rashtrakutas) under whom significant societal be dated using relative methods—on the basis of the material and cultural developments are deemed to have taken place, remains that define them with reference to wider typologies of yet who, in some instances, may not have ruled the region style. This is common practice in many parts of the world, but directly ; (oftenveryvague)archaeologicalerassuchasthe the chronological resolution afforded by relative dating in “Iron Age”, “megalithic” and “early historic” and “historical” South Asia is severely constrained by the methods used to periods that are defined on the basis of perceived changes in retrieve the dating material. Thus far, excavations in South the archaeological record ; and historiographic designations Asia have tended to focus on the identification and definition such as “ancient”, “early medieval”,and “medieval” that are of broad stratigraphic layers that potentially include many rarely defined at all. These are all used interchangeably with individual deposits, with each layer representing a “cultural each other. For this region alone, we note 175 different ways period” covering many hundreds of years. The problem with of defining the period or time to which a site might be dated. this is that with stratigraphic layers thus defined, it is impos- Thus, in order to compare archaeological material, it invari- sible to disaggregate the archaeological remains that were ably becomes necessary to reduce our chronological under- found within them. As such, and with no small degree of standing to the lowest common denominator, and we end up circularity, we end up unable to improve our chronological continuing to make recourse to broad, vague and unsatisfac- understanding of artifacts on the basis of their stratigraphic tory terms such as the “megalithic”, “early historic”, position, and because of this we are unable to date these broad “Vakataka”,and “early medieval” periods. Each of these stratigraphic layers any more precisely. So, we end up with might encompass anywhere between three to six centuries. “layers” relating to two or three centuries of time, which are grouped together into “cultural periods” and (due to reasons The question of the rule of the Mauryans and Satavahannas over the region is particularly problematic. Both are dynasties that, due to the presumed extent outlined earlier) labelled with reference to the political dynas- of their territories and perceived ubiquity of material culture within those ties that define our understanding of the past. Not only does territories, have come to define entire periods of South Asia’s past. With this this make it hard to reconstruct a more finely grained picture comes a number of assumed societal and cultural developments in the terri- tories they are assumed to have ruled. However, the precise extent of their territories and their boundaries are by no means certain; and this particular These range from the size of the total area being surveyed, the methods of enquiry used (exactly who is talked to, the questions that are asked, how much region may well have been on the periphery of both. For further discussion, see Sawant (2012). time is invested in these enquiries), what is being deemed worthy of recording (which is linked to the survey aims discussed above), and how those things are These labels are used across South Asia, but they have varying (and rarely recorded (e.g., simple presence or absence, sampling, total recording, etc.). agreed) temporal parameters in different regions. The precise delineation of periods is rarely made clear when they are used. For a more extended discussion of this in the context of South Asia, see Hawkes (2014); and for specific reference to the dating of archaeological For discussion of the periodization of South Asian history, see Kosambi contexts dating to the “Vakataka period”, see Kennet (2004). (1956), Singh (2009), Thapar (1968) amongst others. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 109 These limitations are further compounded by the fact that we each one older than the last. They are not always sensitive to often have very little idea of the bases of the reported dates. discrete contexts that may only appear as thin 5 mm-thick Sites and remains are often reported as belonging to a partic- lenses of soil recognized only on the basis of subtle color or ular date (however general that may be), but the evidence that textural changes, or the complexity of taphonomic processes lies behind that attribution—the specific pottery types, details that can (and usually do) make neat horizontal stratigraphic of the style of sculptures, or descriptions of coins—is rarely sequences a rarity. In addition, apart from three notable excep- provided. Instead, we have to trust what is being reported, tions (Deo and Joshi 1972;Nath 2016;Sontakke et al. 2016), even though we know that there is considerable uncertainty sites have been dug on a very small scale, with excavated and inconsistency that makes it virtually impossible to move areas generally accounting for less than 2% of the surface area beyond the broad time slices that are used. of a site (Hawkes 2014). This means that we are unable to say very much about the activities that took place within and around settlements. Indeed, this is reflected in way that results 4.4 The interpretation of archaeological sites are often presented. These tend to be simple lists of the arti- facts that are found in layers that are equated to “cultural Perhaps unsurprisingly, these biases and lack of information periods”, rather than the results of the analyses of those arti- affect our understanding of the different types of sites in the facts and the contexts in which they were found, and the so- region in various ways. It is worth being explicit about these. cial, cultural, economic, and environmental implications of Thinking first about settlements, because most reconnaissance this information. We are instead left with a situation where surveys appear to have been carried out to locate and provide a we simply have “settlement” or “habitations” as a site type, broad assessment of their date they are not recorded in any and little sense of what this denotation might mean. We end great detailoncetheyhavebeenfound. Existing reports are up, as outlined earlier, imposing certain assumptions about usually missing such things as full descriptions of the archae- what must have been going on at these sites on basis of wider ological features that define these sites, the dimensions of theories (either derived from written sources or borrowed from habitation mounds, or the extent of surface scatters, or how wider interpretive frameworks) that may or may not apply. these might relate to issues of site taphonomy, as well as spe- Religious sites, on the other hand, tend to be investigat- cific details and quantifications of surface remains. Without ed to reveal remains for art-historical study, and are con- this information (missing from 92% of settlement sites), it is ceptualized only in terms of the religious practices that not possible to say very much about how the surface assem- took place within (or, in the case of circumambulation, blages (or other characteristics) that define a settlement might around) the central monument that defines the site. As relate to subsurface remains, or to identify changing patterns such, it is only ever these central monuments that are re- of settlement and the activities that took place within a settle- corded and excavated. The other archaeological dimen- ment over time. When settlements are excavated, because the sions of the sites in which they existed are rarely explored. stated aim is often to establish their “cultural sequence” in- This means that we are left with little (archaeological) stead of the activities that took place within them, the knowledge of the other activities and practices that may methods that we assume were used are understandably coarse. have taken place at those sites—from the habitations of They are purposefully designed to reveal and record a stratig- monks and nuns, to the various actions that all sorts of raphy that is already expected to comprise successive layers, visitors may have performed at these sites in addition to participating in the main ritual “event.” For exactly the Two things are at play here. First is the notion that we cannot really tell same reason, we are also left with little or no understanding much about a site from surface remains alone, and that we can only say anything of substance through excavation. This ignores decades of literature of the life-span of these monuments. Instead, they exist in from other archaeological contexts that proves the value of surface survey our historical imagination only in terms of the century (e.g., Adams 1981;Aston 1985;Binford 1982; Dunnell and Dancey 1983; within which they were built. Further, and due to the Flannery 1976;Keller and Rupp 1983;Lewarch andO’Brien 1981;Plogetal. 1978;Schiffer et al. 1978; Sullivan 1998; Willey 1953). Second, this is symp- tomatic of the wider issue of thinking that we “know” things—if the remains of what appears to be a settlement are identified, the site is immediately catego- This also causes further methodological and conceptual problems. By de- rized as a settlement or a habitation, and the various activities and practices that fining sites as “settlements” or “habitations” without clearly defining (or nec- took place at that site in the past (the ways in which people lived, what they essarily understanding) what this means, a great amount of nuance and varia- did, how they interacted with one another) are assumed to be “known” before tion in settlement activities is ignored. Further, in defining sites in this way, the site is even excavated. many may be mis-identified completely. “Settlement sites” are usually identi- A hangover from the immediate post-Independence era, when the then fied and defined on the basis of the presence of certain material remains (such Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, Mortimer Wheeler, as brick and pottery) or taphonomic features (such as the presence of a char- realized that there was not sufficient grasp of the chronological framework of acteristic pale colored “habitation soil” visible in natural exposures) that are the archaeological heritage of South Asia, and so implemented a programme of more usually associated with habitations than other types of sites. This being rapid small-scale excavation to quickly and expediently date sites. However, the case, one can easily imagine other sites that might give off a similar surface this was only ever intended as a preliminary evaluative measure prior to more signature (e.g., a residential institution such as an early wood- or brick-built extensive and detailed excavations (Wheeler 1954). temple that was home to people) being labelled instead as “settlements.” 110 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 same bias inherent in the aims with which such sites are think we “know” rather than necessarily having complete ba- surveyed and excavated, once they are found, they are sis in the archaeological evidence. sometimes not recorded fully. Unless we have full and Our ability to use and understand the evidence of isolated detailed descriptions, and images of the remains that define finds from the region is similarly constrained. This is a some- them, we are unable to say very much about them archae- what artificial category of different artifacts (comprising such ologically. They become disassociated from their material- things as fragments of carved architectural remains, inscrip- ity, and exist only as written references to “Hindu temples” tions, quern stones and coins), about which various and dif- or “Buddhist caves.” Thus, just as we saw with settlements, ferent things can be said. As material objects they embody all we end up with little understanding of how they were used sorts of processes, practices and intentions, and are, in them- and functioned as archaeological sites. The activities that selves, repositories of incredibly diverse forms of evidence. took place at them, and how they fitted in with wider so- Yet these objects, irrespective of what they are and what they cietal dynamics around them are understood solely with might embody, are usually recorded and reported very super- reference to textual understandings of the religions as they ficially; often simply with reference to their existence some- existed philosophically and historically at a specific point where within a named village. The exception to this general in time, or with recourse to wider theories about religions, trend is inscriptions, which (for reasons outlined above) tend rather than on the basis of a continuum of material remains to find their way into a separate stream of scholarship and are from the sites. written about in terms of the text of the inscription (Hawkes Another related category of sites that we know of in the 2014), if not the material objects on which they are carved. region, yet one that is classified as totally distinct, are “mega- The lack of basic information about this general class of iso- liths.” Despite the monolithic nature of this denotation these lated finds obviously limits what can be said about them. This are a diverse group of monuments that date broadly to the first is not helped by the fact that due to the way they were discov- millennium BCE. Such are their predominance they would ered, they are further removed from their context. Here, we have formed a very important part of the sociocultural context can think about “context” on at least two different levels. The from which elements of society and culture during the reign of first is the context of their find spot, which includes both the the Vakatakas would have grown. The megaliths in this region mode of their discovery (whether, for instance, they were have been a major focus of archaeological attention for the last unearthed in a field, or found in the possession of the person sixty years (see Mohanty and Thakuria 2014;Sawant 2010). that found them), and where they were discovered. If they As a result, a broad typology exists: monoliths or standing were found in the ground, it would be useful to know what stones, dolmens, cairns, and stone circles (Thakuria 2009). other remains might have been associated with them, or some- But for all the reasons highlighted above there is much the thing of their environmental setting. The second is their soci- same inconsistency of reported information about these sites. etal and cultural context, from which they are divorced by Reports of the existence of megaliths are mainly lists of site virtue of the way that other sites around them have been iden- names with few details about the sites themselves, and the tified, recorded and studied. The result is that our understand- interpretation of excavation results are plagued by similar con- ing of these objects is severely constrained. While we might straints of scale and chronology (as discussed above). Thus, be able to make fresh observations by considering them from a “megaliths” remain an uncomfortably broad and fuzzy cate- material cultural perspective, due to everything that has been gory in which we lump what are essentially entirely different discussed above we soon reach a point where we either: (a) are classes of things: monuments and burials. Just as with settle- unable to say very much due to the limited amount of evidence ments and religious sites, our understanding of the activities available; or (b) again find ourselves having to fall back on a that took place at and around these megaliths, how they were series of constructs that are, at root, based on a series of as- related to settlements, and their (potentially highly variable) sumptions about how various aspects of society “worked.” cultural meanings and significances are extremely limited. So This is best exemplified by the study of copperplate inscrip- again, interpretations on any of these fronts tend to be made tions, which until recently have been viewed in total isolation with reference to a series of assumptions and things that we from the contexts in which they were found and existed and have been interpreted with reference to wider socio-economic We have no information about how or why people in the past selected these For example, the existence of various craft objects such as beads and tools locations to construct monuments on, what religious practices involved, how found at megalithic sites, as well as the technological expertise visible in the long they were used as ritual sites, the ways in which activities may have production of those objects, are frequently taken as indicators of certain socio- changed over time, and who might have been involved in these activities. economic activities such as “commercial exchange” (e.g., Thakuria et al. In some parts of South Asia they are known to continue into the early first 2015). However, there is little contextual or material evidence to support these millennium CE (Moorti 1994). interpretations or enable us to identify how those activities may have been The only difference being that megalithic burials tend to be limited to only organized, controlled, mediated and so on. All of these interpretations are, one or two phases of deposition, so do not suffer to quite the same extent from instead (and without it being made explicit) assumed with reference to wider reducing complex settlement stratigraphies to few layers. social and economic theory. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 111 paradigms (Hawkes and Abbas 2016). This is also the case study of humanities. These factors have made scholars envis- with coins that as a class of object have the potential to tell us age the environment as a passive backdrop for social actions an enormous amount of information but that due to the space and societal dynamics. Societal and cultural histories have they occupy in archaeological scholarship are often furthest been disconnected from other environmental dynamics as if removed from any archaeological context by the time they are they had nothing to do with the ways that political powers reported. developed, empires were built, and political, religious and institutional landscapes were shaped (cf. Morrison 2018), as if sociopolitical and other vulnerabilities to environmental 4.5Other missingdata constraints and catastrophes (which must have taken place in the past too) did not exist (Casile 2017). It is precisely this From the preceding review, we can see that a great deal of bias disconnect that has influenced decades of scholarly practice. and missing information affects what we can say about the This can be seen in the ways that data have been selected, existing evidence, at least in as much as it has been reported. recorded, or discarded and that contexts have been defined, We are frequently unable to move beyond the most general char- described, reduced, or ignored. acterization of archaeological sites, or even think beyond “sites” The locations of sites are also not usually recorded in the and artifacts as the only units of archaeological analyses. This is archaeological literature. The names of villages and administra- exacerbated by the fact that additional entire categories of infor- tive units are listed, but with little attempt to situate them in space. mation are frequently absent from all site reports. In particular, Instead, the onus is on subsequent scholars to divine this infor- we might highlight: details of the environment in which the sites mation. The result is that the existing evidence is yet further and remains existed, and their geographic locations. divorced from the contexts in which it existed, and another fun- Looking first at the environment, we know very little about damental aspect of human experience is removed from the po- the specifics of the past climate, soils, hydrology, topography, tentiality of archaeological enquiry. Societal developments such and plant environment of this region. Other than a very limited as state formation, the emergence of empire or the growth of a number of studies that have explicitly sought to retrieve this particular cultural hegemony (being the standard preoccupations information (e.g., Deotare 2006), these data have not been of scholarship on this region and period) have an inherent spatial recorded. This limits what we can say about the way people dimension, and necessarily involve consideration of things such settled, adapted to the natural world in which they lived, and as the proximity of certain sites to others, environmentally took advantage of their milieu by transforming the natural constraining factors, and routes of access and communication. environment and exploiting its resources in response to indi- But if we do not accommodate these spatial dimensions into our vidual and collective needs for any number of biological, cul- analyses, it becomes very difficult to look at these topics. Indeed, tural, economic, or social reasons. The reasons for this are as one of the main arenas in which people and things exist, space difficult to pin down. The centrality of the environment to is not only inseparable from our conceptions of time and the human experience is known in scholarship on South Asia environment (both ours and past peoples’); it is also a very im- (Casile 2014; Jones 2007; Kingwell-Banham and Fuller portant (some would say the most important) framework in 2012; Madella and Fuller 2006; Petrie and Bates 2017), but which we can usefully consider, measure and analyze them there are also various financial and bureaucratic constraints (Lefebvre 1991;Blake 2004). that affect scholars’ capacity to retrieve and analyze relevant Thankfully, unlike the paucity of environmental data, this samples that would enable us to speak to this topic. Yet deeper can be ameliorated somewhat by locating known sites in than this, we suspect, lie the continued effects of a traditional space. Here, the names of the villages and the administrative and enduring conceptual divide between nature and society; as units where sites are reported to exist become obvious geo- well as a more recent fear of environmental determinism in the graphical reference points that can be used to locate them. 27 Doing so is not without challenges, however. In South Asia Here, a lack of information about their archaeological context and later the names of villages and administrative districts change fre- provenance will always affect our interpretation of coins. Further, the ways these artefacts tend to have been recorded and reported means that we also quently over time. Sometimes, it is clear that earlier re- have very few details about them. There exist a number of criteria that numis- searchers have not recorded the name of a village but have matists use to define and classify coins, and certain key characteristics (their instead recorded the local name of a place within a village. size, weight, precise descriptions of both faces, methods of manufacture, and so on) that make it possible to analyze them (see, for example, Kemmers and Equally, there are a number of different ways of transcribing Myrberg 2011). Yet, due to a tendency by many archaeologists in South Asia the names of South Asian villages (as they exist in multiple to view coins simply as chronological markers, or (erroneously) as quantifiable languages) in Latin script, meaning that spellings can vary indicators of the scale of monetary economy, these basic details are often not recorded. Instead, it is thought to be enough to record them simply in terms of considerably. Yet through archival research, tracing additional the dynasty that issued them (e.g., a “Sasanian coin”), and with no visual clues that might point to their location (such as published representation of the coin being recorded there is often no way to verify this references to distinctive landmarks), cross-referencing multi- information. All of this means we are sadly unable to say very much about the ple reports with government census data and various existing coin remains at all, other than to point out that they exist. 112 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 cartographic resources, it is possible to locate 768 sites, which areas (Fig. 10). If we consider these clusters in relation to accounts for 64% of the total. Still, 432 (36%) remain modern features, it seems clear that most are located close to unlocated. This still leaves us with the problem of the preci- modern cities: in particular, and not coincidentally, Nagpur sion with which sites and isolated remains can be located where the State Department of Archaeology and Museums within villages. Here, we are forced to accommodate varying and Nagpur University are based. Both of these institutions degrees of locational uncertainty. We note that in this area, the are very active in fieldwork, having carried out 44% of inves- average distance between modern villages is 3–4km. So, for tigations in the region. Second, we can visualize the intensity sites recorded as being located only within the wider area of a with which different types of sites have been surveyed and named village, we can safely assume that they are located excavated (Fig. 11). Doing so not only shows a similar prox- within 5 km of an arbitrary geographical coordinate centered imity to Nagpur, but also a preference for megaliths and set- on the modern village. Positive though this might sound, this tlement archaeology. This supports our earlier suggestion that still means that the archaeological site in question could be certain types of sites have been more popular to previous located anywhere within a 78 km area. Sites that are recorded research and that the basic quantities and proportions of these as being located within a modern village settlement carry with sites in relation to others may not reflect past reality. We could them a factor of uncertainty of approximately 1 km. Only take this one step further by visualizing where different sur- those with precisely defined or easily discernible locations veys have been undertaken and so whether they have, in fact, are recorded as accurate in our data set (Hawkes et al. 2020) favored particular types of sites over others. Indeed, if we do (Fig. 9). so we notice that different categories of archaeological sites These degrees of uncertainty do limit the potential of spa- appear to be the predominant site type in different areas of the tial analyses. But at the same time, grounding these sites in region (Fig. 10). There are large parts of the region in which space with various levels of precision enables us to visualize most known sites are “settlements”, and others where “tem- the distribution of the existing evidence. First, through plot- ples” or “megaliths” predominate. There is little overlap be- ting all these sites, we can see a clear clustering in particular tween these zones. In light of the bias discussed above, this Fig. 10 Map illustrating the distribution of archaeological sites in Vidarbha according to their recorded site type asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 113 Fig. 11 Map illustrating the locations of archaeological sites in Vidarbha that have been investigated more than once, and the number of times they have been investigated zonal patterning perhaps tells us even more about the foci, types of sites and that other types of sites have not been found priorities and approaches of previous investigators. Despite in those areas is due to either: (1) the fact that other types of not always stating their research aims, the plotting of all of sites are not there, or (2) the fact that those areas have not been the known sites in the region allows us see that many previous examined very often. In South Asian archaeology there is a surveys of particular areas have targeted specific types of sites healthy tradition of not critically assessing previous scholar- or remains in order to meet what appear to have been some- ship. Sites, once excavated, are not usually excavated again what selective objectives. This also implies that a great deal of (unless they are very big and very famous) (see Kennet et al. information may have been missed through such selective 2020). In a similar vein, it would appear that areas of this surveying—not only other types of sites that fell outside foci region, once surveyed, have not been examined again. Or, if of interest, but also other aspects of the landscape remained they have been, it is because they have already been identified invisible (visually and cognitively) to the investigators. This is as areas with high potential for finding particular types of something that we have begun to test in subsequent phases of sites. That this is the case is further supported by considering our research, and that will form the basis of works that are how many times individual sites have been examined. Doing forthcoming. so reveals that in comparison to the total number of sites in the We can see at least two factors at play here. On the one region, only very few sites in the region (80 out of 1200) have hand there is the methodological issue of survey bias, which is been examined more than once (Fig. 11). an all too familiar feature of archaeological practice in a num- Taken together, consideration of the archaeological evi- ber of places around the world (e.g., Dunnel and Dancey dence from the region shows that there is considerable bias 1983; Hawkins et al. 2003; Schiffer et al. 1978; Sullivan in what has been investigated and how that evidence has been et al. 2007). Equally, and far more serious, are the existence collected. An uneven and non-representative coverage of of certain conceptual constraints. That distinct areas of the sites, a poor handle on their dating, a limited grasp of artifact typologies and what evidence exists, the small-scale nature of known archaeological landscape are populated by particular 114 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 excavations, little environmental data, and (until this study) no now able to reduce the gap between the evidence and the the- spatial context all limit what we can say about a number of oretical frameworks used to understand them. In establishing a topics. These include the range or nature of activities that took picture of the existing evidence, we have ended up assembling place within sites—both settlements and religious sites—or information pertaining to 1200 archaeological sites across a indeed conceptualize very many other types of “sites” that 100,000 km area. This is a significant data set and one that is might extend beyond these two basic categories; the built larger than has hitherto been recognized in any scholarly works environment; continuities and discontinuities of site occupa- on this region. Further, for all that there are (considerable) lim- tion; the ways in which people and ideas were related with itations with these data, locating them in space allows us to each other across space; the ways that individuals, groups, and consider them in far more connected and connective ways. It communities interacted with the natural environment, using its is not only possible to explore the spatial relationships between primary resources; and how these various aspects of human known sites and what they might be deemed to reflect, but also existence changed over time. As such, we can see that there is to connect them with other spatial information that is readily a yawning gulf between the interpretive frameworks within available in the scientific literature of other disciplines and that which archaeologists have thus far sought to operate and the can be derived through the analysis of satellite imagery and evidence at our disposal. For all these reasons, and thinking paper maps (e.g., data relating to the geology, soils, landforms, back to the themes of research that have so far defined the and hydrology of the environment). This enables us to explore study of the period and region in question (the mid- to late- the temporal dimensions in which people existed in new ways, first millennium BCE), we are far from having sufficient ev- and move beyond traditional, limited (and limiting) unilinear idence to identify coherent or detailed patterns of urbanism, chronologies that are defined on the basis of dynastic names agricultural practices, or to define ideologies (beyond those and cultural periods. For example, we could accommodate and recorded in texts), let alone support theories of agricultural explore the different scales of time over which environmental intensification, consider the relative feudal nature of society, and societal processes took place. We could also consider the chart development of the state, or the relation of any of these ways in which “time” itself was an important factor in peoples’ things to religious institutions. Our interpretations of all these lives—as a constraint, a seasonal cycle, an inherent aspect of factors still rest on particular readings of texts, and a series of movement across the landscape, and a fundamental consider- normative ideas that however reasonable they might seem are ation in crop cultivation. Thus equipped, investigating the spa- still rooted in a series of assumptions about the way that phe- tial and temporal relationship between archaeological sites and nomena such as “trade”, “agriculture”,and “society” worked. the environment provides us with basic and much needed evi- In this area at least, the reason for this disjuncture between dence base to tackle a number of issues. Indeed, establishing an theories and evidence appears to be due to three fundamental altogether material-environment-space-time framework for the issues: practice, environment, and space. analysis of the past is a necessity if we want to address complex matters such as societal and cultural change (or other enduring concerns such as “state formation”) in more meaningful ways. 5 Possibilities Thinking along these lines, there is no end of things that could be examined. It really depends on the questions that we Much as it is important to be explicit about the limitations that would like to ask. It is certainly not the intention here to try to exist with any data set, doing so does not mean that we should shape or articulate the research agenda for continued archae- disregard the data we have because of those limitations. That ological research across this large area. That said, it is possible would be too obtuse and not very constructive. The archaeolog- to highlight some of the potential directions for future research ical record is always going to be limited and incomplete. By their that are suggested by the evidence we have. If we do want to very nature, the material traces of past human activity are just return to some of the current “culture historic” questions re- that: trace remains. The significance of remembering this is two- lating to state formation, or the social, economic and political fold. On the one hand, it means that we (as both archaeologists changes that may have accompanied the rule of the Vakatakas, and others with vested interests in the findings of archaeological there are a number of potential avenues of enquiry. For in- research) should not labor under the mistaken impression that stance, and with all of the above limitations firmly in our archaeology deals exclusively in empirical “truths.” On the other minds, having this data set does enable us to look at the hand, it serves as a reminder that we can only (and should always broad-scale changes in settlement over time, from the strive to) make the best of what we have. As long, that is, as what “Megalithic” to the rule of the Vakatakas and beyond. In we say is supported by the evidence being invoked. With this in mind, returning to the basic units of archaeolog- Albeit, with the caveat that we cannot yet extrapolate too many interpreta- ical enquiry in this context has opened up a number of potential tions of the data across the region as a whole. As discussed above, this is due to directions for research. For a start, the very act of compiling this the way in which previous scholarship on particular topics and time periods data set and locating the data on the ground means that we are has tended to focus on particular areas. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 115 doing so, it would be possible to both: (a) situate any per- would undoubtedly reveal a great deal of new information ceived historical changes in a wider material context; and (b) about the spread of early Buddhism. interrogate the evidence that constitutes this wider context to It is also possible to explore various themes that shift the identify the societal and cultural changes that might be foci of research away from a traditional preoccupation with reflected by the archaeological evidence. Indeed, it is precisely states and state-level institutions, and in doing so change our this addition of a multi-scalar perspective that enables us to frames of reference altogether. Spatial patterns observed on a connect what is essentially a gazetteer of sites to other layers distribution map can, of course, be more than descriptive. The of information. Here, and while (again) still mindful of all of benefits of this spatial perspective are not only that we can the limitations of the existing data, we might usefully identify compare the distribution of sites to explore particular themes, changes in settlement patterns and the density of occupation as but also that we can interrogate this data in different ways. By indicated by settlement sites (broadly defined), and infer di- compiling the multiple attributes and variables for each ar- mensions of socio-economic and political development and chaeological site together with spatial and environmental data organization over time. It would also be interesting to inves- within a Geographical Information System (GIS), we can be- tigate how these changes are related, spatially, temporally and gin to explore relationships between data sets. For example, environmentally, to the practice of land grants and the foun- we might look at where certain types of archaeological evi- dation of new temple institutions as reflected by the find spots dence (perhaps a particular suite of material culture) are locat- of copperplate charters and temple sites (Hawkes and Abbas ed in relation to each other in order to reconstruct particular 2016). Doing so would enable us to consider how these prac- cultural or economic relationships between people. Or else we tices were embedded in social structures and see whether (and might explore how site locations (and whatever activities that if so how) they were accompanied by any change in the ways took place within those sites that we are interested in) are that people lived. Equally, we might assess the time that it located in relation to particular landforms or natural resources would have taken to travel across space between places, be- in order to make inferences regarding the various affordabil- tween realms, across natural barriers. In turn, this would pro- ities and constraints of the past environment and how these vide us with basic and much needed spatio-temporal frame- changed over time. work to get to grips with certain aspects of the formation of the Alternatively, we could use these data, smoothed with Vakataka state, the consideration of which (as intimated earli- quantitative methods to model population densities and con- er) includes territorial dynamics and processes, “core-periph- sider how these may have changed over time start to develop ery” structural relationships, politico-economic expansion. hypotheses as to why (e.g., Chamberlain 2006). We could also At the same time, there are other aspects of this archaeo- usefully look at the distribution of the archaeological evidence logical landscape and sets of social, cultural, political, eco- in relation to the environment to identify some of the ways that past human practices might have been defined in relation to nomic and environmental relationships on which we can focus to great benefit. Perhaps most obviously the entire water flows, landforms, areas of agricultural potential, prox- topic of religious change as reflected in the distribution of imity to mineral resources, and so on (e.g., Law 2011; Panja religious sites in relation to each other, wider patterns of et al. 2015). In doing so, it would be possible to begin making settlement and networks of interaction carries with it con- some suggestions about people’s conceptions of the environ- siderable potential. We have touched upon this in connec- ment and the landscape in which they lived, were a part of, and tion to the traditional preoccupation with land grants and that shaped their existence. These are just three or four possi- temple institutions. Yet over and above this, temple remains bilities among many. The point here is simply to illustrate the are useful markers of the presence of particular religious potential of the existing data. This can be understood as ex- sects that we also know about from the textual sources tending far beyond current (old) issues of societal change and (e.g., Bakker 2010). Charting their development and spread development, and realize that totally different paradigms of over space and time would reveal a great deal of information continuity are possible. pertinent to not only the religious history of, say, Hinduism That said, and bearing in mind all the limitations and con- in this area, but also its social and cultural dimensions. In straints of the existing data, we do have to reconcile this addition, the corpus of existing evidence considered here awareness of archaeological potential with the fact that we also reveals the existence of a number of early Buddhist cannot fully get to grips with any of these topics without doing cave sites. This is something that has not been picked up more archaeological research. For all that we can now say far on by mainstream scholarship on early Buddhism in South more than was previously realized, such are the scale of the Asia, with its tendency to focus on the more obtrusive and limitations with the data that we come full circle and are monumental remains that (coincidentally) provide far more forced to admit that we are essentially still dealing with dots in the way of art-historical material. An examination of the on maps and can only interpret what they mean with reference distribution of these sites in relation to earlier Megalithic to theoretical frameworks derived either from the study of monuments and wider environmental and settlement data equally as biased data sets (i.e., the texts) or from wider 116 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 archaeological literature. Yet, here too, we can consider these There is also something to be said for gathering basic limitations as potential avenues for research in their own right. information—getting a handle on the material culture from By returning to the archaeological evidence in the way we this region, establishing the first coherent pottery typologies, have done here, we achieve a better sense of what needs to developing chronological frames of reference, and so on— be done, and so what must be done in the future. This census which must surely constitute a valid and valuable research of archaeological sites and remains constitutes a valuable aim in its own right. There is a great deal of potential in the starting point from which to plan future investigations. application of quantitative methods, which can accommodate Consideration of the existing evidence clearly signposts some of the known limitations and inconsistencies in the where, regionally speaking, the gaps are in terms of research existing data and be used to identify patterns in those data. agendas, and geographical, chronological and thematic areas The systematic sampling for and collection of environmental of interest. Armed with this information, we can identify areas data would almost instantly transform both what we could do that need to be surveyed (and in some instances re-surveyed), with the archaeological evidence and our understanding of the and sites that could be excavated (and in some cases re-exca- ancient past. It is also worth pointing out that any and all of vated). Equally, and in a similar vein, we can admit the limi- these activities would represent far more meaningful and po- tations of the existing data and use the patterns that can be tentially useful endeavor than simply continuing to excavate observed to generate hypotheses. For instance, if we consider big obtrusive sites simply because they are there. the distribution of Buddhist sites in relation to earlier mega- In addition to these “potentialities of practice”, the compi- lithic sites in the region (see Fig. 12), we might posit the idea lation and consideration of this data set opens up a completely that the early Buddhist community actively sought to establish different area of research: the history of archaeological re- Buddhist sites in locations that were already imbued with search itself. There is already a large literature on the histori- earlier significance. Once we are equipped with such hypoth- ography of archaeology both within South Asia and, to a less- eses, it then becomes possible for archaeologists to devise er degree, within this region. Much of this has been referred to methods to test them. above. However, this scholarship tends to operate on the Fig. 12 Map illustrating the spatial distribution of Buddhist sites in Vidarbha in relation to the locations of earlier megalithic sites asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 117 somewhat theoretical level of the ideological frameworks Equally, recognizing that there will always be imperfect within which various key figures were working; and it is often data sets within archaeological research, we can see that tak- framed in the context of colonial and post-colonial agendas ing stock of the evidence that we have at our disposal opens up (e.g., Ray 2007). Crucial though these issues are, what we multiple avenues for research. Compiling this data set and have here is a data set that allows us to follow in the very placing it in a spatial framework enables us to explore and footsteps of earlier researchers, seeing where and how they build connections with other georeferenced datasets. In doing surveyed and excavated—precisely those invisible aspects of so we can identify patterns in the evidence that in turn allow us the past that have not been examined in preference to what has to make certain inferences about the practices and processes been examined. For example, when we consider the different the evidence reflects. There is scope to not only further our ways sites have been categorized, they reflect how past knowledge and understanding of existing questions (which in scholars thought about those sites. Similarly, the ways artifacts this area are almost entirely derived from and continue to be have been documented and understood speak of how people driven by textual scholarship), but also to investigate new thought about those remains and what they saw as valuable topics. These include, but are by no means limited to: ancient about them. It also speaks of subjects, objects, and data that demographics, human-environment interactions, and past have been totally ignored and therefore left invisible. In ex- conceptions and the making of the landscape. All of these amining these factors and charting them over time and space, are interesting points of departure from traditional foci of en- we would be able to access and map how we have developed quiry and represent clear avenues for future research that any- our archaeological knowledge, and why and how we think one can explore. Having a clear idea of the factors that limit about what archaeology has meant for different people. In what we can say of the existing data also helps define agendas doing so, we start to move into interesting new territory (at for future work. Regardless of the research questions being least as far as the archaeology of South Asia is concerned): asked, having gone back to basics like this and seen what the that of philosophies of knowledge and their construction. problems with the existing data are, we can now see exactly what areas need to be addressed to make resulting data more “valid” and less constraining. While on another level entirely, it also reveals a great deal of potential for the examination of 6 Discussion and conclusion histories of archaeological research and the creation of knowl- edge in South Asia. Pausing then to reflect, where has this exercise in returning to Recognizing all of this in the context of our case-study area the archaeological evidence taken us? What has it done? First justifies the importance of going back to the archaeological and most immediately, it has enabled us to identify the evi- evidence. At the same time, when we return to a broader view, dence that exists in a particular region. It has also made us the fact that there is such a noticeable disjuncture between aware of the bias and limitations inherent in that evidence. We interpretive frameworks, archaeological theories and the avail- have seen that in this area of South Asia, the limitations are able evidence across an area the size of South Asia raises some considerable. There is an absence of a great deal of informa- important considerations. That variable levels of archaeologi- tion that we take for granted in other archaeological contexts. cal visibility and relative “qualities” of data clearly exist pose This includes: a fundamental lack of typological and contex- problems for comparative studies. These are not necessarily tual understanding of material culture from certain periods; insurmountable, but must be realized and made explicit. little understanding of taphonomic processes that affect how Further, we have to assume that while the specifics of the we “read” and excavate archaeological sites; a limited idea of situation outlined here are unique to this area, there may well the activities that took place within settlements, or that extend- be a similar disjuncture between interpretive frameworks and ed beyond the central monuments that define religious sites; the available evidence in other areas of the world. Indeed, an absence of environmental data; little in the way of a spatial while specific concerns of scholarship might be different, sim- dimension in which to situate the evidence that we do have; ilar disjunctures are common in other areas where the histor- and only a single temporal frame of reference with which to ical past is considered stable and “known.” We might cite, for measure and chart any and all changes that might be perceived example, the study of the Iron Age in the Levant (Joffe 2002; to take place—one that is itself defined with reference to the Levy and Higham 2014) where archaeological studies have rule of kings and dynasties. Because of these issues, there is a long been informed by Biblical accounts; the study of histor- disconnect between the theories people have traditionally ical periods in China from at least the Zhou period, c. sixth to sought to explore through archaeology and the archaeological fourth centuries BCE (von Falkenhausen 1993;Min 2003); evidence itself. Demonstrating this, as we have attempted to and the use of archaeology and history in Island Southeast do here, serves to show that we need to exercise care when Asia (Lape 2006). These are by no means the only parts of considering what we can and cannot see in and say about the Asia whose study can bear witness to such a trend. Nor is it necessarily the case that issues relating to the limitations of the archaeological record. 118 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 existing archaeological data and what can be done with them forgotten. And the fact that it is forgotten is not always real- are confined to the study of historical periods. We suspect that ized by those who lay claim to “knowing” what is innovative if we were to look more closely, similar patterns may emerge and new in archaeological method and theory. Quite aside in the ways that archaeologists have sought to study certain from the study of historical periods in South Asia, as archae- aspects of the Mesolithic or Neolithic in Asia, with reference ologists we will always need to remind ourselves of what we to certain ideas and theories of prehistoric lifeways developed really “know.” Whether it is in the interests of quantitative in the study of the European context. accuracy and resolution, or to ensure that what we can infer Accepting this, we are then faced with the question of from the archaeological data may have been the case. Doing whether we can necessarily rely on certain interpretive frame- so enables us to be sure that we can say what we want to say. It works without having the evidence to back up our suggestions is also a crucial step in developing new research agendas— and ideas. Following this line of reasoning, if we then enter- and a much more important one than simply jumping on the tain the possibility that existing interpretive frameworks may latest bandwagon du jour. not necessarily account for some (really quite large) parts of What this need to continually ensure that we know what we the world where a great deal of foundational work has not yet think we know actually means in practice is an equally impor- been carried out, we must ask ourselves: how sure are we that tant concern. As we have seen in South Asia it is often the case we do “know” how various aspects of past human existence that we cannot “ground” our theoretical ideas in the existing “worked”? If the archaeology of broad periods across large data because the resolution of those data is so low. This means parts of the world have yet to be studied—as the evidence two things. First, regardless of our theoretical perspectives and from South Asia suggests is the case—how sure are we that the data sets at our disposal, ensuring sound archaeological certain societal and cultural phenomena, or broad “civiliza- practice is absolutely key. We are not going to be able to tional” developments operated in the ways we think they did? answer the research questions quite as well as we would like So where do we go from here? In South Asia at least, it if the data being used have not been generated using strategies seems that there is a tension between the need for an eviden- designed to answer those questions. Second, there is clearly a tiary grounding of our ideas, and the need for ideas to interpret need for and great value in doing foundational research. As we the data. At a most reductionist level, we could argue that we have seen here, there are immense geographical, cultural and cannot apply any theoretical ideas derived outside South Asia temporal areas where a great deal of foundational research onto the South Asian record. Doing so might be repeating needs to be done before we can even begin to compare certain earlier mistakes by too simplistically and uncritically transpos- ideas. In South Asia we need things like a typological and ing certain interpretive frameworks, or falling back on chronological understanding of most artifact classes and a preconceived notions as to how sociocultural or economic basic grasp of the environment in which people were living structures “worked” in any given context. That said, we can- before we can begin interrogating and interpreting the archae- not trust that examination of the data alone in isolation from ological data we already have and will continue to find. the benefits of wider thought will give us the answers we This in turn opens up some important considerations that want. There are the obvious dangers here of engendering too extend far beyond the scope of this paper. When we realize positivistic an approach, resulting in too myopic a view of the that we still need to establish such basic things as pottery grounded data. We will always need theories to make sense of typologies for entire millennia on a subcontinental scale, there the data, and comparative studies have great value in stimu- is perhaps a need to recalibrate our concept of “value.” Right lating ideas, forcing us to revisit concepts, re-orient our en- now, at least in the West, foundational work is not as valued as quiries, and stimulate new research. Of course, this is not the perhaps it once was. We can see this in the way that “interna- first time that archaeology has been faced with this question tional journals” (by which we mean those edited and pub- (e.g., Shanks and Tilley 2016). In a sense, and as said before, lished in the United States, Europe, and Australia with well- this entire issue can be thought of as a basic problem of anal- developed international distribution networks) no longer pub- ogy, or as an aspect of the wider tension between empiricism lish reportage articles such as preliminary reports of surveys and interpretivism in the social sciences. Our own and, we and excavations, or the presentation of artifact typologies. feel, the generally accepted view is that it is both acceptable Such studies are not deemed to have as much “impact” as and welcome to explore the applicability of wider theoretical more synthetic or overtly research-oriented papers. The rea- ideas and interpretive frameworks. But as this study has made sons for this are complex and certainly worthy of further scru- clear, central to this has to be a clear and conscious attempt to: tiny. Without wishing to digress we suspect that such analyses (a) revisit the research questions that are being asked; and (b) would point to at least two factors. The first, and as we said at make sure that we can connect these theories with the existing the outset, is the widespread sense that archaeology as a dis- data. It is only then that we can test and adjust our ideas and cipline has already figured out certain topics. Whether con- interpretations accordingly. Again, this is neither a new nor sciously articulated or passively received from the certainty profoundly important point. However, it is one that is often with which much academic literature is written, the asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 119 pervasiveness of this notion leaves little room for basic foun- Given that so many parts of the world have not been examined dational research. This is because according to this chain of archaeologically, there is the distinct possibility that revisiting reasoning, the only things that can be considered “innovative” certain themes may well lead to the discovery of new dimen- and “interesting” are the next big ideas that we have not yet sions of those topics that are considered “done.” figured out, or the next whiz techniques that have yet to find Leading on from this, it is often muttered in faculties of an archaeological application. The second factor, and very arts, humanities, and social sciences in Western universities much a corollary of the first, is that within academia the value that regional studies have had their moment and are no longer and worth of scholarship has become conflated with the ques- relevant. The reasons for this are complex and have as much to tion of whether it will attract funding. This has contributed to a do with how regional studies have organized themselves in commercialization of research and professionalization of aca- Western scholarship as they have to do with changes in re- demia wherein some (thankfully not all) individuals appear search and teaching frameworks within academic institutions more interested in securing grants and gaining promotions and government funding priorities. The point that we would than in the research itself. It has also led to a situation where like to make here, however, is that accompanying this wide- the research projects that secure large grants are the ones that spread sense of the irrelevance of regional studies is an expec- help determine the future direction of the discipline. This in tation within departments of archaeology that individual turn only helps to perpetuate the notion that archaeology, as a scholars should define themselves not by their geographical discipline, has figured out certain problems and that we have area of expertise, but instead on the basis of thematic areas of the answers to certain questions. Indeed (so the implicit logic study (e.g., environmental archaeology, landscape, urbanism, dictates), this has to be the case in order to justify moving on to and so on) that are shared by others working in other parts of the next (funded) idea. the world. This is expected even when these same individuals Returning to the matter at hand, it would seem that the continue, perversely, to be defined by others within their own challenge for those working in areas where foundational re- faculties on the basis of their geographical area of study—as search needs to be done is to have a clear sense of what needs “the South Asian archaeologist” or “the South Asianist.” Yet if to be done and why it needs to be done, which leads us back to we accept the fact that we as archaeologists cannot operate on the importance of continually reassessing the current state of a comparable basis across the world, who is best placed to archaeological knowledge and understanding. While for those judge someone else’s contribution to wider scholarship on a working in other areas—who, through acting as editors of particular theme? Further, how do we know whether wider international journals or coordinators of university curricula, social theories that have developed over the last two hundred collectively function as the arbiters of archaeological impor- years, but that are essentially based on the study of a tiny tance, innovation and interest—the challenge is to recognize sample of the human past, really are (or should be considered that all of this is the case, and that at times this “big picture” to be) universal across the discipline? We would suggest that thinking has the unhappy consequence of engendering a par- there needs to be as much acknowledgement of the value of ticularly insidious type of parochialism. It may very well be different regional specialisms that we continue to use to label interesting and important to explore various “hot topics” (e.g., each other as there is for the methodological approaches and big data, climate, migration, population genetics, risk, resil- themes of research that unite us. ience and sustainability) in a particular geographical or tem- Acknowledgements The archival research required to compile the data poral context. But as we have seen here, sometimes the justi- presented in this article was carried out in collaboration with the Indian fication for and value of research is simply that we do not have Historical and Cultural Research Foundation, the Institut Français de a sound understanding of the material culture or environmen- Pondichéry and The British Museum. Research was carried out as part tal history of an area half the size of Europe for at least two of the Asia Beyond Boundaries project, an ERC Synergy project funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s 7th thousand years. We might even suggest that there is also a Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no. need to revisit certain topics that are generally thought of as 609823, awarded to Dr. Michael Willis. having already been dealt with in wider archaeological schol- arship. Topics such as the place of empiricism within archae- Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons ological method and theory, the archaeology of religion, or the Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adap- relationships between art and archaeology, or archaeology and tation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as texts appear to be no longer de rigueur because the momen- you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, pro- vide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were tum of wider (western) archaeological theory has carried the made. The images or other third party material in this article are included discipline as a whole on to new topics that are deemed more in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a interesting and important. This being the case, who is to say credit line to the material. 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The ancient Indus: Urbanism, economy and society. writing of Indian history. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Trigger, B. 2006. A history of archaeological thought. Cambridge: Wurzer, G., K. Kowarik, and H. Reschreiter. 2015. Agent-based model- Cambridge University Press. ing and simulation in archaeology. New York: Springer. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Asian Archaeology Springer Journals

Back to basics: returning to the evidence and mapping knowledge in south Asian archaeology

Asian Archaeology , Volume 3 (1-2) – Jul 6, 2020

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Abstract

In this article we advocate a return to the consideration and examination of the basic building blocks of archaeological enquiry: the evidence. Reacting to a widely held perception that archaeology now understands various commonalities of human experi- ence, we suggest that such concepts and the inevitable oscillation towards “big picture” approaches that stems from them are problematic. They engender a type of scholarship that does not always engage fully with the evidentiary bases of interpretation and that risks assuming a great deal about large parts of the world that have not been studied in as much detail as others. We explore this by looking at the South Asian context, where archaeologists are forced to contend with a number of constraints, chief among which is a relative absence of archaeological evidence. Focusing on one particular sub-region, we piece together exactly what evidence exists and consider what can (and cannot) be said from it. On one level this serves as a useful comparator for those working in other parts of the world who may not appreciate the evidentiary constraints that exist elsewhere. Yet beyond this and simple questions of analogy, we suggest that detailed consideration of an area such as the one presented here forces us to return to even more fundamental questions relating to when archaeological research becomes “interesting”, “ground-breaking”, and “new”; and who decides this. . . . . . Keywords Archaeology Comparative approaches Evidence Mapping South Asia Theory 1 Introduction analyses (Canti and Huisman 2015; French 2003), geospatial technologies and processing techniques (Opitz and Herrmann Archaeology, like all academic disciplines and the knowledge 2018; Orengo and Petrie 2017), microbiological analyses systems they belong to, is not fixed. It changes. The archae- (Margesin et al. 2017;Weiner 2010), palaeoproteomics ology of today (if such a singular thing exists) bears little (Hendy et al. 2018), and participatory research (McAnany relation to the earlier antiquarianism from which it developed. and Rowe 2015) to name but a few. These approaches gener- Recently, the pace of that change has sped up. We can see this ate a wide range of data, big and small (and rarely complete), methodologically and theoretically, with the development of that form the basis of what we think we know. Interpreting existing perspectives and approaches, and the exploration of those data, we benefit from the exploration of an ever- new ones. Methodologically, we might cite such diverse and increasing range of ideas, such as those surrounding agency, wide-ranging avenues as: agent-based and other advanced complexity, gender, identity, landesque capital, materiality, modelling techniques (Wurzer et al. 2015), geoarchaeological networks, ontologies, political ecology, power, and resilience (e.g., Ashmore 2018;Giosanetal. 2013;Håkansson and Widgren 2014;Hodos 2017;Meskell andPreucel 2008). We * Jason D. Hawkes have also begun to look at various topics in ways that extend hawkes.jason@gmail.com beyond the traditional nature versus culture dichotomy around which the humanities developed. Mention might be made of Anne Casile new ways of thinking about agriculture, land use, behavioral anne.casile@gmail.com ecology and evolution (Bettinger et al. 2015; Brughmans et al. 2016;Denhametal. 2016;Garvey 2018; Håkansson and Department of Asia, The British Museum, London, UK Widgren 2014; Morrison 2018), as well as archaeological PALOC Joint Research Unit, IRD (French National Research practice in postcolonial contexts (Lydon and Rizvi 2016). Institute for Sustainable Development), Paris, France 96 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Consequently, the number of themes being explored has pro- returned to the study of seeming universals, such as the devel- liferated, as archaeology (and what is deemed to fall under the opment of complex society (Pozorski and Pozorski 2018; umbrella of archaeology), expands inexorably to fill the inter- Renfrew and Liu 2018); the “global turn” in medieval archae- sections of the sciences, arts and humanities. ology (Pitts and Versluys 2014;Campbell 2016;Jervis 2018); With these developments there has also emerged a sense or the increasing popularity of “big data” approaches to the that we have the answers to certain topics. This is expressed in incorporation and synthesis of the vast amounts of variation in a number of ways. First, we think we “know” how certain the past to tease out and identify developmental trends socio-cultural and economic processes and structures worked. (Gaillard et al. 2015; Gilbert and Doran 1994; Pielke et al. Drawing on over a century of archaeological and ethnographic 2011; Strandberg et al. 2014). research (which itself draws on an even larger body of biolog- It is not for this article to comment on the rights or wrongs ical, economic, philosophical, political, and social thought), of such approaches. We fully recognize the value of compar- we are often tempted to fall back on the use of certain general ative perspectives and the exploration of commonalities of terms such as “complexity”, or even more specifically: “agri- human development or experience. This stimulates ideas and culture”, “production” and “trade.” These labels have become questions, and building on earlier research is how research is convenient blanket terms implying a set of activities that many driven—it is a process of constant critical reflection and iter- of us no longer try to define, because we assume that we ation. Yet, at the same time, placing too much faith in the idea understand the mechanisms of such behaviors and associated that we “know” something can have unintended conse- practices in the areas where we work. Second, and on a slight- quences. Usually, these revolve around losing sight of the ly more concrete level, when we “know” that certain broad specifics of the archaeological contexts in which we are work- developments happened across a given unit of space or time ing. These may be the details of how archaeology operates in we often infer the existence of certain associated societal and any given context (its historiography, how institutional frame- cultural systems and accompanying archaeological features works and established modes of practice have been created, within that same space and time. In thinking about Roman how they have led to questions that are asked, how they have Gaul, for instance, we might presuppose the existence of sim- shaped the collection and selection of data, and how they have ilar processes of acculturation and urbanism, and associated defined wider research agendas), the nature, relative “quality” archaeological remains across large areas of modern-day (and quantity) of the data that exist (which is dependent on the France. Third, and on another level entirely, many of us will kinds of data that have been collected, how they have been be familiar with archaeology’s tendency to constantly look for collected, and the resolution with which they can be dated), or the next new cutting-edge topic of research. Implicit in this is an awareness of what is not investigated and remains the idea that we, as a discipline, have already tackled a grow- invisible. ing list of topics that do not need to be revisited because we In “knowing” that certain developments to have taken have thought our way around them, and comprehensively ar- place, there is a danger that we might assume the archae- ticulated those thoughts. ological data will play out in a particular way before (or At the same time, and as a corollary of this, there is also a sometimes without) looking at it properly. For example, (perhaps inevitable) oscillation towards “big picture” ap- studies of the European Neolithic frequently made re- proaches and comparative perspectives. While this does not course to models of demic diffusion to chart the spread necessarily account for the entire trajectory of archaeological of farming across Europe (Ammerman and Cavali-Sforza research, there is undoubtedly a growing trend towards studies 1971). Implicit was the notion that demographics, agri- that seek to either place region-specific developments into a cultural practices, and patterns of settlements were the broader framework of understanding, identify commonalities same in areas where farming was deemed to have spread. of experience, or tease out deeper understandings of why dif- An extension of this idea was to then assume the exis- ferences exist. For example, we might cite studies that have tence of settled villages characterized by a particular suite of material remains indicating a particular set of activities and practices without necessarily having the While this is a relative indicator of good “intellectual health” and can be data to (fully) support these presuppositions. Indeed, it considered a positive dynamic, it is not unrelated to a widespread and in- was only relatively recently that scholarship became creased drive to secure funding to ensure that academic departments and in- stitutions continue to be economic viable. The ability to think up new ideas and attuned to the great deal of variation that existed in terms secure funding in turn frequently becomes conflated with the assessment of an of farming and settlement (e.g. Bocquet-Appel et al. individual scholars’ ability and worth; and project-based research becomes the 2009). In a different sense, because we might understand dominant model and measure of “success.” In many respects, much of the wider history of archaeological research can the mechanisms of “trade” and “exchange” with refer- be characterized by a generational toing and froing between approaches and ence to a number of interpretive frameworks (e.g. entrenched standpoints. These may be differences between empiricism and Polanyi 1944; Malinowski 1922;Mauss 1970), there is relativism, processualism and post-processualism, proponents of sociocultural evolution and cultural specificity, and so on (see Trigger 2006). asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 97 a danger that when we investigate a theme that involves In doing so, the wider ramifications of returning to the these practices we presuppose the way they functioned. evidence will become clear. These force us to reflect on a We accept that these might be dismissed as imagined con- number of things that extend beyond archaeology in South cerns. Yet, the perceived risk of making such uncritical as- Asia—whether there is, perhaps, an argument to be made for sumptions grows when we consider it in relation to broad going back to basics, returning to the evidence in archaeology inter-regional and comparative studies. These can easily as- generally and, by mapping it, seeing what it can and cannot sume similar standards of data quality and comparability tell us. On a wider level, we suggest that there is perhaps a across different areas. In doing so, they may not necessarily need to look closely at questions relating to when archaeolog- consider the variable recovery strategies that have been ical research becomes “interesting”, “ground-breaking”,and employed to generate the data being compared, or differential “new”, and who decides this. archaeological visibilities that might affect and undermine the comparisons that are made. Similar concerns surround re- course to secondary sources from other contexts, which them- selves may be the products of different schools of thought and 2 Background practice and may thus be plagued by similar issues of (in)com- patibility. It is with these thoughts in mind that we suggest Within South Asia, the mid-first millennium CE (c. third to there is perhaps a need to ask ourselves: what is the evidence seventh century) appears to have been a particularly transfor- that we have, and, if we are being completely honest with mative time. We see the appearance of new dynasties and ourselves, what can it tell us? In simple terms: what can and kingdoms in epigraphic records across South Asia (Agrawal can’t we do with the available data? In doing so, we can guard 1989; Raychaudhuri 1923; Singh 1994). These are often con- against “alternative facts” creeping into research and at the sidered with reference to rule of the Guptas—aparticularly same time refine our sense of what needs to be done with powerful dynasty who ruled across North India, and under future work on any given topic or in any given area. whose rule “classical” Indian artistic and literary forms took Here, we explore this issue with reference to an example from shape (Harle 1974;Singh 2003; Stein 1998). The appearance the South Asian archaeological record, where distinct (though of these kingdoms was connected to the growth and spread of not necessarily unique) dynamics are at play. In particular, there new “Hindu” temple institutions (Gupta 1974), which were are large geographical areas and periods of time that have rarely, themselves linked to new sects of Shaivism and Vaishnavism if ever, been subjected to archaeological enquiry. We might cite, (Bakker 1997;Bisschop 2010; Stein 1998). Temple institu- for instance, a comparatively disproportionate focus on the Indus tions and communities of brahmins (those belonging to the civilization in studies of the third millennium BCE (e.g., Kenoyer priestly caste) received royal patronage and became increas- 1998;Possehl 2002;Shinde 2016;Wright 2010), or, at the other ingly embedded in local social and economic and political end of the chronological spectrum, a relative absence of any sort networks through the transference or formalization of land of an archaeology of later historical periods, particularly the me- ownership rights (Bakker 2010;Nath 2001; Singh 1994). dieval (Hawkes 2014). The reasons for this are frequently related These new relationships were embodied in a series of inscrip- to modern political ideologies (see Chakrabarti 1998, 2003). tions, written in courtly Sanskrit and recording royal grants of There are also a series of methodological constraints, with vari- land, that spread as both a practice and form of material culture ous bureaucratic, infrastructural, and legislative factors affecting throughout South Asia from the Gupta empire (Fleet 1888; both the quality and quantity of archaeological data that have Hawkes and Abbas 2016;Mirashi 1963). Together, these fea- been and continue to be generated. This is a situation that poses tures point to the development of what is deemed to be new particular interpretational challenges, not only for those working social formations and changes in patterns of urbanism, which in South Asia, but also those working elsewhere that might seek may also have been related to the realignment of Indian to incorporate the evidence from South Asia into comparative Ocean, inter-regional, and local trade networks (Kosambi frameworks. At a certain point we must contend with basic (and 1955;Sharma 1965). These changes set the trajectory of con- all too familiar) questions of analogy. To what extent can the tinued social, cultural, economic, and political developments archaeology of one region be compared with that of another up to at least the thirteenth century. without full consideration of their limitations, and is it possible to simply apply theoretical ideas borne from one context in the The beginning of the thirteenth century represents a major turning point in study of another? Following an introduction to these issues, we the historiography of change in society of South Asia. This is largely due to the will spell out exactly what sort of evidence we have and consider establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 CE (Wink 2002). As such, the the shortcomings and biases that exist within it and the ways idea that society changed due to Muslim invasions and their political and religious ramifications have dominated narratives of what has come to be these might limit and constrain what we can do. We then consider termed the “late medieval” period. Ideas of political and religious changes the sorts of approaches that we can take with the evidence avail- defining periodization can be traced back to Mill (1817). For discussion, see able, and which we have mapped. Ali (2012). 98 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 The archaeological study of this period is a complex matter. 2014; Singh 2011). Excavated remains become empirical ev- In fact, it tends not to be examined archaeologically at all. idence that are used to corroborate wider historical ideas, Instead, it is studied within the fields of textual history, litera- while architectural and sculptural remains are placed within ture, religion, and the history of art through the examination of iconographic and stylistic frameworks. a wide range of textual and artistic sources. Within those That this is the case is well known within scholarship on disciplines, many of the developments that are perceived to South Asia. It is due to various issues such as the interests of have taken place tend to be understood with reference to wider colonial scholarship and post-colonial reactions to them social and economic theories (themselves received from wider (Guha-Thakurta 2004;Singh 2004; Thapar et al. 1969); the international scholarship), such as feudalism (Jha 1993; dominance of culture-history approaches (Johansen 2003); the Sharma 1965), state formation (Kulke 1982, 1993; Stein concept and problematization of the “medieval” in India (Ali 1980), and sociocultural evolution (Sharma 1983). While 2012;Hawkes 2014); the relationships between archaeology, the overall thrust of enquiry, the prism through which the past texts, and art (Ray and Sinopoli 2004); and the role of archae- is understood, tends to be one of societal change. The period is ology within professional, governmental, and academic cir- seen and defined as a pivotal moment, either as a Golden Age cles (Chakrabarti 1998, 2003). Stemming from an awareness when an indigenous Hindu culture reached its zenith (e.g., of these issues there is also a growing realization of the neces- Eraly 2011), or as a period that marks the transition from an sity of investing the study of this period with a more archae- earlier ancient period to a later medieval one (Chattopadhyaya ological approach. A small but growing number of projects 1994). Within this context, archaeological research has tended are starting to tackle this problem face on. Here, one might cite to focus on periods of time that preceded these developments. work ongoing excavations at Mahasthangarh (Salles 2015), That is not to say, however, that there is no archaeological landscape surveys in Bangladesh (Sen 2015), renewed exca- evidence for the mid- to late-first millennium CE in South vations of religious and urban sites dating to the mid-first Asia. Since the early nineteenth century, excavations at large millennium CE in Central India (Kennet et al. 2020; settlement sites have revealed a great deal of evidence that can Sontakke et al. 2016), and our own project’s work looking at be dated to the period. This is mostly in the form of ceramics, the landscape contexts of inscriptions (Hawkes and Abbas associated craft products and, to a lesser extent, coins. 2016). Indeed, with so much potential for truly foundational Excavations have also been carried out at temples and other research, these are particularly exciting times to be involved in religious sites. These have yielded architectural and carved the archaeology of later historical periods in South Asia. Yet, it remains, both epigraphic and sculptural. Additional stray is important to remember that when it comes to looking at the finds, such as displaced sculptures and coins, continue to be archaeology of at least half a millennium of human history unearthed in the field and private collections. However, be- across an area more than half the size of Europe, this is the cause the period is not the main focus of archaeological re- intellectual and methodological framework within which we search, few of these excavations have been carried out with are operating, and we need to be clear about what this means the aim of investigating the period itself (Hawkes 2014). both methodologically and theoretically. Rather, in the case of settlement archaeology at least, they This relative absence of archaeology brings with it a num- are the almost accidental product of excavations that have ber of challenges, the first of which is the question of what we been carried out to uncover the underlying earlier (more “in- as archaeologists chose to look at. Like a metaphorical child in teresting”) layers. The exceptions to this trend are religious a confectioner’s, there is a bewildering array of choices. monuments, which are excavated in reasonably large num- Equally convincing arguments for studying any number of bers. Yet, the carved architectural remains that result from topics can easily be made. However, rather than looking to- these digs tend to be incorporated not into archaeological re- wards wider archaeological literature and studies of other con- search, but rather into textual and art-historical studies where texts that might have tackled similar methodological or con- they are deemed to be more appropriately situated (Hawkes ceptual problems to stimulate ideas for possible directions of further research, what tends to happen is that the investiga- These include inscriptions (the majority for this period being copper-plate tions that are carried out tend to ask the same familiar ques- inscriptions recording land charters) and Sanskrit and Pali documents found tions that have already been defined within textual scholarship across the subcontinent as well as sculptures and architectural remains that are on South Asia. For example, political dynasties continue to frequently interpreted with reference to religious texts. This is contra approaches to other (earlier) periods that are increasingly dominate the way that the past and historical change are un- taking more political ecological approaches (e.g., Bauer 2018). derstood and defined. So, when it comes to decisions about Specifically, an “early historic” period defined by the appearance of coins, which sites are “important” and worthy of excavation, these writing, and urbanism that stretched from approximately the sixth century BCE to the early centuries CE; an Iron Age or “megalithic” period that extends from at least the late-second to the mid- to late-first millennium BCE; the Chalcolithic, defined by the study of the Indus civilization and other contem- It is worth pointing out here that many of the same concerns can be levelled porary cultures of the fourth to second millennia BCE; and beyond (to at least at the study of the later medieval (or Middle Period) and early modern periods, one million years ago). too, which are subject to even less archaeological study. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 99 choices are often made and justified with reference to its his- and excavations within any one country let alone across the torically attested connection with that dynasty. This frame of whole of South Asia. In part, this is a consequence of multiple reference also dictates how archaeological remains are dated, stakeholders being involved in archaeological practice and the defined, and discussed. We have, for instance, the notion of fact that their findings are published in different languages. “Gupta period” pottery, as if people in the past changed the India alone is home to 780 official languages, and archaeolog- way that they made ceramics, expressed their cultural identity, ical reports frequently appear in Assamese, Bengali, English, and engaged in certain social practices in accordance with a Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, change of ruler. Our conceptions of “culture” tend to be based Odia, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. This has led to the on the literary and artistic outputs of religious and political creation of knowledge silos in which the information that we elites. At the same time, archaeological research on the period do have about this period (and others) languishes unknown continues to be preoccupied by the questions received from and unstudied by others operating in different geographic historical scholarship, such as: “was society feudal?” and areas and working in different languages. Together, these fac- “what was the relationship between Hindu temple institutions tors mean that when archaeologists do try to inject a more and kings?” These questions are further explored with refer- material culture-based approach into their examination of the ence to either established textual-historical ways of thinking period, we simply do not have an existing framework of ar- about the past (which themselves have drawn heavily on chaeological evidence in which to ground our theoretical per- wider social scientific theories). None of these approaches spectives, interpretations, and conclusions. are necessarily incorrect, and we certainly do not wish to pre- The net result of this is that our archaeological understand- scribe what should be done. However, if such approaches are ing ends up being somewhat hypothetical and, without com- taken it behooves practitioners, academics, and institutions to parison to wider archaeological questions, is in danger of be- accept that they are underutilizing the potential of the evidence coming increasingly insular. We find ourselves necessarily and selling short the potential benefit of archaeology. having to make recourse to a series of ideas culture and The second issue is as much a methodological challenge as society—about settlement, economy, and what things must it is a conceptual problem. With so little archaeological work have meant to people in the past and how societies functioned. having been done, our knowledge and understanding of the Interpretations about any and all of these things are made on evidence from this and later periods is limited. In simple the basis of what we infer to have been the case. In other terms, we know of far fewer archaeological sites that date to words, we find ourselves resorting to wider social theories this period than we do for those that can be dated to earlier and falling back on heuristic devices and a set of assumptions periods (Hawkes 2014). We also have only the most rudimen- about what must have been the case rather than being able to tary understanding of the material culture from those sites. access and see how all of these things actually worked in what There is, for instance, no established pottery typology for this is essentially a unique archaeological context that has yet to be entire mid-first millennium period at a local or regional scale. properly investigated. This is rarely, if ever, made explicit. In part, this is due to the lack of archaeological research on this Recognizing the discomfort of this situation, we again return period. It is also due to certain features of professional and to the perceived need of going back to basics and defining academic practice in the field of South Asian archaeology. Site exactly what we know and what we can actually say based reports (for sites from any period) are rarely published, while on the evidence that we have. notices of the discovery or excavation of sites are often very brief. Nor is there a single resource or established mecha- nism for reporting and disseminating the results of surveys 3 What has been done Indeed, the irony here is that many of these questions first became articulated Addressing this, we have focused our attention on one partic- in historical scholarship following an awareness, in the mid to late twentieth century of the value of wider social scientific research including the range of ular region—Vidarbha in Central India—in order to establish new perspectives that archaeology could bring (e.g., Sharma 1983). exactly what archaeological evidence exists from within it. Pottery reports that have attempted to classify pottery found during individ- The premise here is that it is only when we take stock of the ual excavations exist (e.g., Kennet et al. 2020; Nath 2016). Yet methods of existing evidence that we are able to assess its quality (accord- pottery analyses vary and are rarely published in detail, making it difficult to compare remains either as they appear in print, or physically in assemblages ing to any number of criteria) and establish its applicability. In (when access can be obtained). As such there is no established typology of other words, we must assess whether it can be used in the “Gupta period” pottery or any other frequently cited type or ware from later way(s) we would like to be able to use it, and if it cannot be historical periods. For further discussion, see Lefrancq et al. (2019). Only approximately 14% of sites excavated between 1947 and 1995 have used in those ways, identify the factors that constrain its use been published (for details see Chakrabarti 2003), and notices of the discovery and applicability. This work then has a clear benefit in estab- and/or excavation of sites in the annual reports published by the lishing the starting point for research in that region, while Archaeological Survey of India typically range in length from a single line to two pages of text. equally suggesting that it presents a useful approach and 100 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 framework for also getting to grips with the archaeology of Wardha-Wainganga Rivers watershed of the Godavari basin, other areas. while its western plains are drained by the Penganga River Vidarbha measures approximately 100,000 km and is lo- flowing into the Tapi basin (Fig. 2). Historically, the region cated in the far northeast of the modern state of Maharashtra, was the known core territory of the eastern Vakatakas—ady- India (Fig. 1). This region represents a good laboratory within nasty contemporary to and neighboring the Guptas, and who which to test these ideas for a number of reasons. First, it were one of the first to adopt the new practice of landgrants in represents a coherent region both geographically and histori- the fifth century CE (Bakker 2010; Hawkes and Abbas 2016). cally. Geographically, it is defined by its topography and hy- Archaeological sites relating to this period include find spots drology, displaying landscapes rich in fertile lands, rivers, of these landgrant inscriptions, a number of known settle- minerals, and areas of forested hills. Part of it falls into the ments and temples, as well as a number of earlier sites that Deccan plateau. It is bounded to the north and east by Satpura enable us to place the data from the period into a broader range (Gawilgarh, Garamsur, and Mahadeo hills), to the chronological context (e.g., Sawant 2012). southeast by hills of Bastar, and to the west and southwest To establish a complete picture of the existing archaeolog- by hills of the Ajanta range. Most of the region belong to the ical evidence from this region, we carried out a comprehensive Fig. 1 Map illustrating the location and of the Vidarbha region in relation to Peninsular India asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 101 Fig. 2 Map illustrating the main geographical features that define the Vidarbha region survey of the published and unpublished literature pertaining location); their recorded date; and the “type” of site. Sites tend to this area. This included both primary and secondary sources to be categorized in the literature with reference to only seven and comprised all reports and monographs published by the or eight repeating classes: settlements, temples, stupas (a class Archaeological Survey of India; the bulletins, newsletters, of Buddhist monument), caves, megaliths, sculptures, inscrip- communiqués, PhD theses, and other research outputs of re- tions, and coins. To facilitate ease of comparison and inter- search Universities who have been active in the area (notably rogation of the data, we have attempted to standardize these as the Deccan College and Nagpur University); the outputs of much as possible and impose a classificatory hierarchy across local antiquarian societies and individuals; as well as refer- all site “types.” Thus, just as “settlements” might be imagined ences to sites in the region in secondary sources. In total, to include a great deal of variation (which could then be clas- 525 individual sources and 37 journal runs written in sified as sub-types), we judged “temples” and “stupas” to be English, Hindu, and Marathi were consulted. This resulted sub-types of a broader class that might best be termed “reli- in the compilation of a record of 1200 archaeological sites gious sites.” These site types then defined how they were (broadly construed) in the region that date from the Iron Age recorded in our record. Various site-specific details about each or “Megalithic” period (c. first millennium BCE), to the late type of site (e.g., its size, physical and archaeological features, medieval period (c. early second millennium CE). descriptions, lists of artifacts found within them or that define Once a site had been identified in the literature, we record- them) were also recorded as they appear in the literature. ed all of the published information relating to it. The resulting Recognizing that accounts of archaeological remains are record, then, provides an accurate reflection of the data as it not the only things that enable us to assess the relative quality exists in scholarship. The only exceptions to this were sites of the data, we also recorded information about how each site that had been excavated (by far and away the minority), for had been discovered, investigated, and recorded. This includ- which we summarized the published evidence for ease of data ed details concerning the name and institutional affiliation of entry and comparison. In choosing what data to record, we the person (or persons) who first reported and documented the were led by the categories of information the reports them- selves contained. This included locational information about There are a small number of additional types of sites that can be added to sites (written descriptions of where sites are, their geographi- this list, such as forts, dams, and step wells. However, they are so few that they cal coordinates, and an assessment as to the accuracy of that are included in our record as “other” (Hawkes et al. 2020). 102 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Fig. 3 Chart illustrating the number of archaeological sites (in ordinates) in Vidarbha in relation to site type and period site; those who directed any subsequent phases of work; why that there was a sharp increase in the number of sites dur- that particular survey or excavation was carried out; and the ing the transition from the Iron Age to the early historic methods used. Of course, not every report contains all this period and that most of the sites in the area date to the early information. Indeed, most do not. By compiling as complete medieval period. Within each period we can also see dif- a record as possible of all of the information that has been ferent proportions of site types. The number of settlements, reported, it was thus also possible to see what has not. for instance, increases from the Iron Age to the early his- Once gathered, all the information was recorded in a flat file toric, and then slowly declines in each successive period. database to facilitate the interrogation and analysis of the data, the In scholarship on South Asia, the temptation has been to results of which are discussed below. However, the publication of use quantities of sites such as these as reflecting wider such a large dataset presents some problems, even if it is present- trends without adequate consideration of the reasons be- ed as an appendix at the end of an article such as this one. We hind their variation. So, for instance, the numbers of set- have thus made this record available online in table form (.csv tlements in each period might normally be taken as a mea- format), together with the related bibliography (in .rtf format), sure of how “settled” an area was and how that changed both of which are open-access and can be freely downloaded and over time, often in relation to wider conceptions of the interrogated (Hawkes et al. 2020). Such is thenatureofinforma- development and spread of urbanism. Or the numbers of tion silos we recognize there is a chance that the dataset is not religious sites might be attributed to different religious complete. However, we do not think that this undermines it or sects, and their quantity taken as a rudimentary indicator any of the observations that can be made on the basis of its of how societally embedded that religious institution was. examination. The pace of research that it will inevitably be out However, the data thus displayed cannot, by themselves, of date in due course. We hope that making this record openly be understood as an accurate reflection of any sort of past accessible will enable it to be constantly updated (individually or reality, or at least not so simplistically. The results of each collectively) and facilitate further scholarship. individual survey or excavation add to this overall picture, which is, by definition then, highly contingent on those results. This can be seen clearly when we consider the results of individual investigations. For instance, if we re- 4 Consideration of the data move records of sites recorded during Lacey’s survey of the Ramtek area in 2010–2012 (Lacey 2016), then the 4.1 What sites exist? quantities of known site types in each period change con- siderably (Fig. 4). Indeed, this survey alone was responsi- Once compiled, the regional data were interrogated to as- ble for more than doubling the number of known medieval sess exactly what archaeological evidence exists, and its sites and remains in the region. While the overall propor- limitations. The first step was to plot the quantities of dif- tions of sites by period (other than the medieval) do not ferent categories of sites (as defined above) over time, ac- alter too much, we can see that without the data produced cording to the broad chronological periods of time record- by this one survey the perceivable changes in the quantities ed in the literature (Fig. 3). This would appear to indicate of settlements over time are much more pronounced. The incorporation, then, of the results of individual investiga- There are specific concerns with the way archaeological sites and remains are dated and/or attributed to particular periods, not to mention the bases on tions can have a significant impact on how we perceive the which periods are defined in wider scholarship on South Asia. The ways in archaeology of the region, and by extension what we can which these impact our engagement with and interpretation of the existing data say about the past. is discussed in greater detail below. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 103 Fig. 4 Chart illustrating the number of archaeological sites in Vidarbha in relation to site type and period without Lacey’s (2012) survey data 4.2 Aims, methods and modes of examination 1975; Joshi, 1993a, b; Joshi and Sharma 2000; Lacey 2016; Misra 2004;Mitra 1983; Shete 2011–2012; Sontakke 2014; More fundamentally, we cannot take the quantity of sites be- Thapar 1979a:21, Thapar 1979b:36, Thapar 1980a: 39, ing in any way representative of the past without having some Thapar 1980b: 39; Vaidya 2014); and three were carried out idea of how much of the region has been examined, the ways it to investigate specific types of sites (Banerji 2000;Deshpande has been examined, by whom, and why—the biases of previ- 1975;Kale 1999)(Fig. 5). ous research. We can identify some of these by considering the However, not all of these reports are clear about their geo- aims and methods of past investigations. If we assume (for the graphic area of enquiry, and an astonishing 104 surveys do not purpose of investigation) that the sites recorded in reports of record their aims and objectives at all. In the absence of re- excavations and explorations were documented during the cords of what individual investigators were doing, their aims same season of fieldwork, we can identity 128 individual can be inferred by looking at the results of surveys and exca- campaigns of fieldwork carried out by at least 71 different vations. Doing so reveals clear patterns in the types of sites individuals and teams over the last 130 years that resulted in and chronological periods that have been targeted. Looking the discovery of archaeological sites and remains. Each of first at surveys (Table 1), we can see that for investigations these were initiated for different reasons, and all had different geared towards (or perhaps simply more sensitive to) record- aims and objectives. Thinking first about the motivations that ing settlement remains they tended to favor sites dating to the lay behind these various programmes of work, we see seven early historic and Vakataka periods, while those seeming to investigations being carried out explicitly for rescue and re- investigate religious sites focused on early medieval remains. search (Banerji 2000:52–53; Joshi 1992: 59, Joshi, 1993a, b: Equally, when considered in terms of possible periods of in- 82, 83–84; Mahaptra 1994:58–59, Mahaptra 1995:43–45; terests, studies of the Iron Age have clearly focused on mega- Menon 2002:67–69), but in the vast majority of instances liths, studies on the early historic and Vakataka periods on (the remaining 121 investigations) there is no record of why settlements (the latter with a slight additional interest in reli- programmes of fieldwork were initiated at all. In terms of their gious sites), and for studies of the early medieval temples and aims and objectives, the situation is slightly better. We find spot finds (usually inscriptions and sculptures) appear to have that seventeen surveys were carried out to investigate partic- been the motivating factors. The later medieval period has ular geographical areas. These include the rescue surveys hardly been of interest at all. mentioned above that focused on planned submergence areas If we look at excavations and consider site types and prior to dam construction, as well as (presumably research- their dates as indicators of the aims of the investigators, oriented) studies looking at discrete local areas (Beglar 1878; we can identify some additional patterns (Fig. 6). Borkar 1986,Borkar 2009; Chitale 1987, 1988; Cunningham Regionally, Iron Age sites (both settlements and megaliths) 1879; Dixit 1954; Shete 2011–2012; Sontakke 2014; Vaidya have been the main foci of excavations—the sites deemed 2014). At the same time, eleven surveys were undertaken to most worthy of full archaeological investigation—while investigate a particular time period (Abbas 2016;Deshpande settlements and (increasingly over time) religious sites dat- ing to the early historic and Vakataka periods are the next To clarify, sites that were discovered by chance outside the remit of archae- most common foci of enquiry. ological investigations are not included in this number. In addition, other On one level, these biases can be explained and un- archaeological surveys that did not result in the discovery of new material derstood with reference to the research interests of indi- are also known to have been carried out (e.g., Bhaisare 2012), and so are also not included in this number. For further details, see Hawkes et al. (2020). vidual scholars, which in turn point to wider trends in 104 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Fig. 5 Map illustrating the known archaeological sites in the Vidarbha region, displayed according to the stated aims of investigation that resulted in their initial discovery the scholarship. For Indeed, if we consider the aims of change, for instance the obtrusive nature of later re- the individual investigators (as much as we can recon- mains that would have made them more apparent to struct them) in relation to the decades in which they surveyors in earlier decades before the introduction of took place, we can identify some interesting trends more systematic survey methods. (Fig. 7). We see that until the 1950’s, reports were This might also be related to the fact that we can mostly concerned with remains dating to the early me- also see a change in the type of sites that were recorded dieval period. In subsequent decades, their popularity in each decade of research, with settlements and reli- was overtaken by that of early historic remains. This gious sites as opposed to isolated spot finds accounting may not necessarily reflect a change in the focus of for an ever-increasing proportion of sites. However, we research. A number of factors might explain this can also see that in each decade, religious sites and spot Table 1 Table illustrating the Site Type Iron Age Early Historic Vakataka Early Medieval Late Medieval number of archaeological investigations by site type and Settlement 18 39 34 17 18 inferred period of interest Religious 0 13 19 29 7 Megalith 31 0 0 0 0 Spot Find 0 5 9 18 2 Coin 0 2 3 0 0 Other 1 1 2 0 2 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 105 Fig. 6 Chart illustrating the quantities of different types of sites dating to different periods that have been excavated in the Vidarbha region finds form a greater proportion of sites dating to later published excavation reports from this area rarely discuss the periods than they do for earlier periods. This can be methods that have been used and the decision-making pro- understood as a direct result of the tendency to favor cesses involved. Instead, we have to infer what we can from art historical and epigraphic remains in the study of the plans and section drawings that are presented in print. later periods (as discussed above). However, only four excavations at three sites in the entire We could probe the data more deeply to reconstruct even region have been published as site reports (Deo and more of the possible biases of previous research. Examination Dhavalikar 1967-68;Deo andJoshi 1972;Nath 1998, 2016). of what researchers have focused on might allow us to trace In the majority of instances, results are instead brutally sum- the impact of individual scholarship on the accrual of archae- marized in notices of preliminary findings or short article- ological data. This would certainly be of value for studies of length reports that contain little information about these fac- the history of scholarship. However, the further we explore the tors. That said, from the information we do have at our dis- data in this regard, the more assumptions we have to make in posal, we can fairly safely presume that most excavations interpreting any correlations that we might find. Plus, as far as were small-scale, with trenches dug in undetermined loca- reconstructing intentional bias is concerned, this would only tions, using a system first laid down by Mortimer Wheeler confirm what we already know—that there was bias. A much (Wheeler 1954) consisting of box grids separated by narrow more important concern is that because there is so much miss- baulks to facilitate stratigraphic recording. More recent exca- ing information about the biases of previous research it be- vations have incorporated a system combining “digs” (i.e., comes very difficult to reconstruct their effects on the quality spits) and “lots” (i.e., individual units or contexts) that appears and quantity of the archaeological evidence that we have. For to have been borrowed from strategies employed in field mis- example, without knowing exactly which areas were exam- sions co-directed by North American colleagues over the last ined and which were not, and exactly which sites were record- twenty years or so. This method is increasingly being taught ed within any given area and which were not, there will al- as the (single) standard universal method of excavation in the ways be large questions surrounding the representativeness of Institute of Archaeology under the aegis of the Archaeological the existing evidence. Survey of India. Aside from the various merits of different Existing reports are equally vague about the methods that excavation strategies, the point here is that because details of were used to recover and record sites and remains. This too those methods are rarely provided, it is difficult to know how affects the representativeness, comparability and “quality” of that data. We all know that various factors such as the location 14 In this connection, we should mention that in South Asia it is common and scale of excavations have a bearing on the extent to which practice to employ locally hired village laborers to carry out the majority of the digging during archaeological excavations, while at the same time, post- the resulting information can be used to reconstruct the activ- graduate students (with variable field experience, and who may or may not ities that took place at a site. Similarly, the methods of exca- have completed an undergraduate degree in archaeology) are frequently vation (whether they are context- or feature-based, dug only employed as trench supervisors. While not questioning the competence or enthusiasm of anyone involved, for those who are more familiar with excava- with reference to vertical stratigraphy and/or horizontal plans, tions being carried out by those with many years of full-time professional whether and if so what sample strategies are employed, and experience, this raises a number of questions as to the ability of those engaged how all of these activities and the data they produced were in excavation to: (a) recognize subtle differences in the color and texture of soil matrix indicating discrete archaeological deposits, (b) understand the tapho- recorded; why those methods were used; and exactly who was nomic processes involved in the formation of deposits being encountered involved in excavation) also have a bearing on the interpreta- during excavation, and (c) accurately record all of the data that may results tion of the data we get from those excavations. Despite this, from those excavations. 106 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 Fig. 7 Chart illustrating the number of different archaeological site types and periods that have been investigated during each decade of research asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 107 Fig. 8 Map illustrating the known sites in the Vidarbha region that were discovered through surveys, displayed according to the stated survey methods used the data presented in published reports were generated. It thus becomes very difficult to validate them. Survey methods, too, are rarely made explicit (if stated at all). We all know that the parameters of a survey frame (its size, where it is located, and how it is defined in relation to the thing or things that are being investigated), the scale of survey (whether extensive or intensive), the methods of reconnais- sance (whether they be the analysis of remote sensing data, geophysical survey, or the precise mode of fieldwalking), sampling strategies, and methods of recording all have con- siderable effect on the data that are retrieved. Yet, only two archaeological surveys of this region have been explicit about their methods (Lacey 2016; Smith 2000). In all other cases we again have to infer them. Given the heritage and tradition of survey methods in South Asia, it is fairly safe to assume that most, if not all, previous surveys in this area have used some form of informant-based survey—what, in South Asia, is usu- ally referred to as “village-to-village” survey (see Shaw 2017). Here, working on the principle that modern villages are locat- ed every two or three kilometers across the landscape, and that Fig. 9 Chart illustrating the accuracy of site locations in relation to site type the residents of these villages are more attuned to the existence 108 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 of extant remains or artifacts in the plough soil, modern vil- of the history of activities at individual sites, but it also means lages form the foci of archaeological enquiry. However, even that when we find material for which there is no clear typology within this general approach there is still considerable varia- on the surface of a site we can only date that material (and by tion as to how it can be implemented according to all of the extension the site it defines) according to these same broad factors that have just been reviewed. This in turn means that periods. we are left with considerable uncertainty as to how represen- The situation is slightly better with the dating of material tative the data from those surveys might be (Fig. 8). such as sculptures, inscriptions, and coins, which are less de- pendent on excavation bias and can draw on much more de- veloped iconographic lexicons and typologies or specific de- 4.3 Dating sites tails mentioned in texts. Yet despite this, the very fact that there are these inconsistent dating frameworks for different The potential impacts of these methodological biases on our types of material makes it difficult to compare them and the understanding are exacerbated by the ways that sites and re- sites where they are found. This is not helped by the fact that mains are dated. Very few sites in the region have been dated different people operating within (and contributing to) differ- using absolute methods. Only three of a total 54 excavated ent silos of knowledge use different terminologies. Regardless sites have radiocarbon determinations, namely, the settlements of whether individual sites and/or remains might be dated to a at Adam, Nagpur District (Nath 2016); Bhon, Buldana District single moment or an extended period of time, we can identify (Deotare 2007, 2008); and Paturda, Buldana District (Deotare four main ways of presenting their date: precise dates, to the 2007), and there are many questions surrounding their reliabil- level of a single year (usually recorded in inscriptions); indi- ity. These include the lack of clarity about the nature of the vidual centuries; the rule of individual dynasties; or broad contexts from which the samples were collected, exactly what periods of time that cover multiple centuries. The latter is samples were collected for analyses and why, and whether or particularly problematic, with periods of time being defined not the results have been calibrated and the calibration curves on the basis of: royal dynasties (e.g., the Mauryans, that were used. Instead, sites and individual spot finds tend to Satavahanas, Rashtrakutas) under whom significant societal be dated using relative methods—on the basis of the material and cultural developments are deemed to have taken place, remains that define them with reference to wider typologies of yet who, in some instances, may not have ruled the region style. This is common practice in many parts of the world, but directly ; (oftenveryvague)archaeologicalerassuchasthe the chronological resolution afforded by relative dating in “Iron Age”, “megalithic” and “early historic” and “historical” South Asia is severely constrained by the methods used to periods that are defined on the basis of perceived changes in retrieve the dating material. Thus far, excavations in South the archaeological record ; and historiographic designations Asia have tended to focus on the identification and definition such as “ancient”, “early medieval”,and “medieval” that are of broad stratigraphic layers that potentially include many rarely defined at all. These are all used interchangeably with individual deposits, with each layer representing a “cultural each other. For this region alone, we note 175 different ways period” covering many hundreds of years. The problem with of defining the period or time to which a site might be dated. this is that with stratigraphic layers thus defined, it is impos- Thus, in order to compare archaeological material, it invari- sible to disaggregate the archaeological remains that were ably becomes necessary to reduce our chronological under- found within them. As such, and with no small degree of standing to the lowest common denominator, and we end up circularity, we end up unable to improve our chronological continuing to make recourse to broad, vague and unsatisfac- understanding of artifacts on the basis of their stratigraphic tory terms such as the “megalithic”, “early historic”, position, and because of this we are unable to date these broad “Vakataka”,and “early medieval” periods. Each of these stratigraphic layers any more precisely. So, we end up with might encompass anywhere between three to six centuries. “layers” relating to two or three centuries of time, which are grouped together into “cultural periods” and (due to reasons The question of the rule of the Mauryans and Satavahannas over the region is particularly problematic. Both are dynasties that, due to the presumed extent outlined earlier) labelled with reference to the political dynas- of their territories and perceived ubiquity of material culture within those ties that define our understanding of the past. Not only does territories, have come to define entire periods of South Asia’s past. With this this make it hard to reconstruct a more finely grained picture comes a number of assumed societal and cultural developments in the terri- tories they are assumed to have ruled. However, the precise extent of their territories and their boundaries are by no means certain; and this particular These range from the size of the total area being surveyed, the methods of enquiry used (exactly who is talked to, the questions that are asked, how much region may well have been on the periphery of both. For further discussion, see Sawant (2012). time is invested in these enquiries), what is being deemed worthy of recording (which is linked to the survey aims discussed above), and how those things are These labels are used across South Asia, but they have varying (and rarely recorded (e.g., simple presence or absence, sampling, total recording, etc.). agreed) temporal parameters in different regions. The precise delineation of periods is rarely made clear when they are used. For a more extended discussion of this in the context of South Asia, see Hawkes (2014); and for specific reference to the dating of archaeological For discussion of the periodization of South Asian history, see Kosambi contexts dating to the “Vakataka period”, see Kennet (2004). (1956), Singh (2009), Thapar (1968) amongst others. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 109 These limitations are further compounded by the fact that we each one older than the last. They are not always sensitive to often have very little idea of the bases of the reported dates. discrete contexts that may only appear as thin 5 mm-thick Sites and remains are often reported as belonging to a partic- lenses of soil recognized only on the basis of subtle color or ular date (however general that may be), but the evidence that textural changes, or the complexity of taphonomic processes lies behind that attribution—the specific pottery types, details that can (and usually do) make neat horizontal stratigraphic of the style of sculptures, or descriptions of coins—is rarely sequences a rarity. In addition, apart from three notable excep- provided. Instead, we have to trust what is being reported, tions (Deo and Joshi 1972;Nath 2016;Sontakke et al. 2016), even though we know that there is considerable uncertainty sites have been dug on a very small scale, with excavated and inconsistency that makes it virtually impossible to move areas generally accounting for less than 2% of the surface area beyond the broad time slices that are used. of a site (Hawkes 2014). This means that we are unable to say very much about the activities that took place within and around settlements. Indeed, this is reflected in way that results 4.4 The interpretation of archaeological sites are often presented. These tend to be simple lists of the arti- facts that are found in layers that are equated to “cultural Perhaps unsurprisingly, these biases and lack of information periods”, rather than the results of the analyses of those arti- affect our understanding of the different types of sites in the facts and the contexts in which they were found, and the so- region in various ways. It is worth being explicit about these. cial, cultural, economic, and environmental implications of Thinking first about settlements, because most reconnaissance this information. We are instead left with a situation where surveys appear to have been carried out to locate and provide a we simply have “settlement” or “habitations” as a site type, broad assessment of their date they are not recorded in any and little sense of what this denotation might mean. We end great detailoncetheyhavebeenfound. Existing reports are up, as outlined earlier, imposing certain assumptions about usually missing such things as full descriptions of the archae- what must have been going on at these sites on basis of wider ological features that define these sites, the dimensions of theories (either derived from written sources or borrowed from habitation mounds, or the extent of surface scatters, or how wider interpretive frameworks) that may or may not apply. these might relate to issues of site taphonomy, as well as spe- Religious sites, on the other hand, tend to be investigat- cific details and quantifications of surface remains. Without ed to reveal remains for art-historical study, and are con- this information (missing from 92% of settlement sites), it is ceptualized only in terms of the religious practices that not possible to say very much about how the surface assem- took place within (or, in the case of circumambulation, blages (or other characteristics) that define a settlement might around) the central monument that defines the site. As relate to subsurface remains, or to identify changing patterns such, it is only ever these central monuments that are re- of settlement and the activities that took place within a settle- corded and excavated. The other archaeological dimen- ment over time. When settlements are excavated, because the sions of the sites in which they existed are rarely explored. stated aim is often to establish their “cultural sequence” in- This means that we are left with little (archaeological) stead of the activities that took place within them, the knowledge of the other activities and practices that may methods that we assume were used are understandably coarse. have taken place at those sites—from the habitations of They are purposefully designed to reveal and record a stratig- monks and nuns, to the various actions that all sorts of raphy that is already expected to comprise successive layers, visitors may have performed at these sites in addition to participating in the main ritual “event.” For exactly the Two things are at play here. First is the notion that we cannot really tell same reason, we are also left with little or no understanding much about a site from surface remains alone, and that we can only say anything of substance through excavation. This ignores decades of literature of the life-span of these monuments. Instead, they exist in from other archaeological contexts that proves the value of surface survey our historical imagination only in terms of the century (e.g., Adams 1981;Aston 1985;Binford 1982; Dunnell and Dancey 1983; within which they were built. Further, and due to the Flannery 1976;Keller and Rupp 1983;Lewarch andO’Brien 1981;Plogetal. 1978;Schiffer et al. 1978; Sullivan 1998; Willey 1953). Second, this is symp- tomatic of the wider issue of thinking that we “know” things—if the remains of what appears to be a settlement are identified, the site is immediately catego- This also causes further methodological and conceptual problems. By de- rized as a settlement or a habitation, and the various activities and practices that fining sites as “settlements” or “habitations” without clearly defining (or nec- took place at that site in the past (the ways in which people lived, what they essarily understanding) what this means, a great amount of nuance and varia- did, how they interacted with one another) are assumed to be “known” before tion in settlement activities is ignored. Further, in defining sites in this way, the site is even excavated. many may be mis-identified completely. “Settlement sites” are usually identi- A hangover from the immediate post-Independence era, when the then fied and defined on the basis of the presence of certain material remains (such Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, Mortimer Wheeler, as brick and pottery) or taphonomic features (such as the presence of a char- realized that there was not sufficient grasp of the chronological framework of acteristic pale colored “habitation soil” visible in natural exposures) that are the archaeological heritage of South Asia, and so implemented a programme of more usually associated with habitations than other types of sites. This being rapid small-scale excavation to quickly and expediently date sites. However, the case, one can easily imagine other sites that might give off a similar surface this was only ever intended as a preliminary evaluative measure prior to more signature (e.g., a residential institution such as an early wood- or brick-built extensive and detailed excavations (Wheeler 1954). temple that was home to people) being labelled instead as “settlements.” 110 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 same bias inherent in the aims with which such sites are think we “know” rather than necessarily having complete ba- surveyed and excavated, once they are found, they are sis in the archaeological evidence. sometimes not recorded fully. Unless we have full and Our ability to use and understand the evidence of isolated detailed descriptions, and images of the remains that define finds from the region is similarly constrained. This is a some- them, we are unable to say very much about them archae- what artificial category of different artifacts (comprising such ologically. They become disassociated from their material- things as fragments of carved architectural remains, inscrip- ity, and exist only as written references to “Hindu temples” tions, quern stones and coins), about which various and dif- or “Buddhist caves.” Thus, just as we saw with settlements, ferent things can be said. As material objects they embody all we end up with little understanding of how they were used sorts of processes, practices and intentions, and are, in them- and functioned as archaeological sites. The activities that selves, repositories of incredibly diverse forms of evidence. took place at them, and how they fitted in with wider so- Yet these objects, irrespective of what they are and what they cietal dynamics around them are understood solely with might embody, are usually recorded and reported very super- reference to textual understandings of the religions as they ficially; often simply with reference to their existence some- existed philosophically and historically at a specific point where within a named village. The exception to this general in time, or with recourse to wider theories about religions, trend is inscriptions, which (for reasons outlined above) tend rather than on the basis of a continuum of material remains to find their way into a separate stream of scholarship and are from the sites. written about in terms of the text of the inscription (Hawkes Another related category of sites that we know of in the 2014), if not the material objects on which they are carved. region, yet one that is classified as totally distinct, are “mega- The lack of basic information about this general class of iso- liths.” Despite the monolithic nature of this denotation these lated finds obviously limits what can be said about them. This are a diverse group of monuments that date broadly to the first is not helped by the fact that due to the way they were discov- millennium BCE. Such are their predominance they would ered, they are further removed from their context. Here, we have formed a very important part of the sociocultural context can think about “context” on at least two different levels. The from which elements of society and culture during the reign of first is the context of their find spot, which includes both the the Vakatakas would have grown. The megaliths in this region mode of their discovery (whether, for instance, they were have been a major focus of archaeological attention for the last unearthed in a field, or found in the possession of the person sixty years (see Mohanty and Thakuria 2014;Sawant 2010). that found them), and where they were discovered. If they As a result, a broad typology exists: monoliths or standing were found in the ground, it would be useful to know what stones, dolmens, cairns, and stone circles (Thakuria 2009). other remains might have been associated with them, or some- But for all the reasons highlighted above there is much the thing of their environmental setting. The second is their soci- same inconsistency of reported information about these sites. etal and cultural context, from which they are divorced by Reports of the existence of megaliths are mainly lists of site virtue of the way that other sites around them have been iden- names with few details about the sites themselves, and the tified, recorded and studied. The result is that our understand- interpretation of excavation results are plagued by similar con- ing of these objects is severely constrained. While we might straints of scale and chronology (as discussed above). Thus, be able to make fresh observations by considering them from a “megaliths” remain an uncomfortably broad and fuzzy cate- material cultural perspective, due to everything that has been gory in which we lump what are essentially entirely different discussed above we soon reach a point where we either: (a) are classes of things: monuments and burials. Just as with settle- unable to say very much due to the limited amount of evidence ments and religious sites, our understanding of the activities available; or (b) again find ourselves having to fall back on a that took place at and around these megaliths, how they were series of constructs that are, at root, based on a series of as- related to settlements, and their (potentially highly variable) sumptions about how various aspects of society “worked.” cultural meanings and significances are extremely limited. So This is best exemplified by the study of copperplate inscrip- again, interpretations on any of these fronts tend to be made tions, which until recently have been viewed in total isolation with reference to a series of assumptions and things that we from the contexts in which they were found and existed and have been interpreted with reference to wider socio-economic We have no information about how or why people in the past selected these For example, the existence of various craft objects such as beads and tools locations to construct monuments on, what religious practices involved, how found at megalithic sites, as well as the technological expertise visible in the long they were used as ritual sites, the ways in which activities may have production of those objects, are frequently taken as indicators of certain socio- changed over time, and who might have been involved in these activities. economic activities such as “commercial exchange” (e.g., Thakuria et al. In some parts of South Asia they are known to continue into the early first 2015). However, there is little contextual or material evidence to support these millennium CE (Moorti 1994). interpretations or enable us to identify how those activities may have been The only difference being that megalithic burials tend to be limited to only organized, controlled, mediated and so on. All of these interpretations are, one or two phases of deposition, so do not suffer to quite the same extent from instead (and without it being made explicit) assumed with reference to wider reducing complex settlement stratigraphies to few layers. social and economic theory. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 111 paradigms (Hawkes and Abbas 2016). This is also the case study of humanities. These factors have made scholars envis- with coins that as a class of object have the potential to tell us age the environment as a passive backdrop for social actions an enormous amount of information but that due to the space and societal dynamics. Societal and cultural histories have they occupy in archaeological scholarship are often furthest been disconnected from other environmental dynamics as if removed from any archaeological context by the time they are they had nothing to do with the ways that political powers reported. developed, empires were built, and political, religious and institutional landscapes were shaped (cf. Morrison 2018), as if sociopolitical and other vulnerabilities to environmental 4.5Other missingdata constraints and catastrophes (which must have taken place in the past too) did not exist (Casile 2017). It is precisely this From the preceding review, we can see that a great deal of bias disconnect that has influenced decades of scholarly practice. and missing information affects what we can say about the This can be seen in the ways that data have been selected, existing evidence, at least in as much as it has been reported. recorded, or discarded and that contexts have been defined, We are frequently unable to move beyond the most general char- described, reduced, or ignored. acterization of archaeological sites, or even think beyond “sites” The locations of sites are also not usually recorded in the and artifacts as the only units of archaeological analyses. This is archaeological literature. The names of villages and administra- exacerbated by the fact that additional entire categories of infor- tive units are listed, but with little attempt to situate them in space. mation are frequently absent from all site reports. In particular, Instead, the onus is on subsequent scholars to divine this infor- we might highlight: details of the environment in which the sites mation. The result is that the existing evidence is yet further and remains existed, and their geographic locations. divorced from the contexts in which it existed, and another fun- Looking first at the environment, we know very little about damental aspect of human experience is removed from the po- the specifics of the past climate, soils, hydrology, topography, tentiality of archaeological enquiry. Societal developments such and plant environment of this region. Other than a very limited as state formation, the emergence of empire or the growth of a number of studies that have explicitly sought to retrieve this particular cultural hegemony (being the standard preoccupations information (e.g., Deotare 2006), these data have not been of scholarship on this region and period) have an inherent spatial recorded. This limits what we can say about the way people dimension, and necessarily involve consideration of things such settled, adapted to the natural world in which they lived, and as the proximity of certain sites to others, environmentally took advantage of their milieu by transforming the natural constraining factors, and routes of access and communication. environment and exploiting its resources in response to indi- But if we do not accommodate these spatial dimensions into our vidual and collective needs for any number of biological, cul- analyses, it becomes very difficult to look at these topics. Indeed, tural, economic, or social reasons. The reasons for this are as one of the main arenas in which people and things exist, space difficult to pin down. The centrality of the environment to is not only inseparable from our conceptions of time and the human experience is known in scholarship on South Asia environment (both ours and past peoples’); it is also a very im- (Casile 2014; Jones 2007; Kingwell-Banham and Fuller portant (some would say the most important) framework in 2012; Madella and Fuller 2006; Petrie and Bates 2017), but which we can usefully consider, measure and analyze them there are also various financial and bureaucratic constraints (Lefebvre 1991;Blake 2004). that affect scholars’ capacity to retrieve and analyze relevant Thankfully, unlike the paucity of environmental data, this samples that would enable us to speak to this topic. Yet deeper can be ameliorated somewhat by locating known sites in than this, we suspect, lie the continued effects of a traditional space. Here, the names of the villages and the administrative and enduring conceptual divide between nature and society; as units where sites are reported to exist become obvious geo- well as a more recent fear of environmental determinism in the graphical reference points that can be used to locate them. 27 Doing so is not without challenges, however. In South Asia Here, a lack of information about their archaeological context and later the names of villages and administrative districts change fre- provenance will always affect our interpretation of coins. Further, the ways these artefacts tend to have been recorded and reported means that we also quently over time. Sometimes, it is clear that earlier re- have very few details about them. There exist a number of criteria that numis- searchers have not recorded the name of a village but have matists use to define and classify coins, and certain key characteristics (their instead recorded the local name of a place within a village. size, weight, precise descriptions of both faces, methods of manufacture, and so on) that make it possible to analyze them (see, for example, Kemmers and Equally, there are a number of different ways of transcribing Myrberg 2011). Yet, due to a tendency by many archaeologists in South Asia the names of South Asian villages (as they exist in multiple to view coins simply as chronological markers, or (erroneously) as quantifiable languages) in Latin script, meaning that spellings can vary indicators of the scale of monetary economy, these basic details are often not recorded. Instead, it is thought to be enough to record them simply in terms of considerably. Yet through archival research, tracing additional the dynasty that issued them (e.g., a “Sasanian coin”), and with no visual clues that might point to their location (such as published representation of the coin being recorded there is often no way to verify this references to distinctive landmarks), cross-referencing multi- information. All of this means we are sadly unable to say very much about the ple reports with government census data and various existing coin remains at all, other than to point out that they exist. 112 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 cartographic resources, it is possible to locate 768 sites, which areas (Fig. 10). If we consider these clusters in relation to accounts for 64% of the total. Still, 432 (36%) remain modern features, it seems clear that most are located close to unlocated. This still leaves us with the problem of the preci- modern cities: in particular, and not coincidentally, Nagpur sion with which sites and isolated remains can be located where the State Department of Archaeology and Museums within villages. Here, we are forced to accommodate varying and Nagpur University are based. Both of these institutions degrees of locational uncertainty. We note that in this area, the are very active in fieldwork, having carried out 44% of inves- average distance between modern villages is 3–4km. So, for tigations in the region. Second, we can visualize the intensity sites recorded as being located only within the wider area of a with which different types of sites have been surveyed and named village, we can safely assume that they are located excavated (Fig. 11). Doing so not only shows a similar prox- within 5 km of an arbitrary geographical coordinate centered imity to Nagpur, but also a preference for megaliths and set- on the modern village. Positive though this might sound, this tlement archaeology. This supports our earlier suggestion that still means that the archaeological site in question could be certain types of sites have been more popular to previous located anywhere within a 78 km area. Sites that are recorded research and that the basic quantities and proportions of these as being located within a modern village settlement carry with sites in relation to others may not reflect past reality. We could them a factor of uncertainty of approximately 1 km. Only take this one step further by visualizing where different sur- those with precisely defined or easily discernible locations veys have been undertaken and so whether they have, in fact, are recorded as accurate in our data set (Hawkes et al. 2020) favored particular types of sites over others. Indeed, if we do (Fig. 9). so we notice that different categories of archaeological sites These degrees of uncertainty do limit the potential of spa- appear to be the predominant site type in different areas of the tial analyses. But at the same time, grounding these sites in region (Fig. 10). There are large parts of the region in which space with various levels of precision enables us to visualize most known sites are “settlements”, and others where “tem- the distribution of the existing evidence. First, through plot- ples” or “megaliths” predominate. There is little overlap be- ting all these sites, we can see a clear clustering in particular tween these zones. In light of the bias discussed above, this Fig. 10 Map illustrating the distribution of archaeological sites in Vidarbha according to their recorded site type asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 113 Fig. 11 Map illustrating the locations of archaeological sites in Vidarbha that have been investigated more than once, and the number of times they have been investigated zonal patterning perhaps tells us even more about the foci, types of sites and that other types of sites have not been found priorities and approaches of previous investigators. Despite in those areas is due to either: (1) the fact that other types of not always stating their research aims, the plotting of all of sites are not there, or (2) the fact that those areas have not been the known sites in the region allows us see that many previous examined very often. In South Asian archaeology there is a surveys of particular areas have targeted specific types of sites healthy tradition of not critically assessing previous scholar- or remains in order to meet what appear to have been some- ship. Sites, once excavated, are not usually excavated again what selective objectives. This also implies that a great deal of (unless they are very big and very famous) (see Kennet et al. information may have been missed through such selective 2020). In a similar vein, it would appear that areas of this surveying—not only other types of sites that fell outside foci region, once surveyed, have not been examined again. Or, if of interest, but also other aspects of the landscape remained they have been, it is because they have already been identified invisible (visually and cognitively) to the investigators. This is as areas with high potential for finding particular types of something that we have begun to test in subsequent phases of sites. That this is the case is further supported by considering our research, and that will form the basis of works that are how many times individual sites have been examined. Doing forthcoming. so reveals that in comparison to the total number of sites in the We can see at least two factors at play here. On the one region, only very few sites in the region (80 out of 1200) have hand there is the methodological issue of survey bias, which is been examined more than once (Fig. 11). an all too familiar feature of archaeological practice in a num- Taken together, consideration of the archaeological evi- ber of places around the world (e.g., Dunnel and Dancey dence from the region shows that there is considerable bias 1983; Hawkins et al. 2003; Schiffer et al. 1978; Sullivan in what has been investigated and how that evidence has been et al. 2007). Equally, and far more serious, are the existence collected. An uneven and non-representative coverage of of certain conceptual constraints. That distinct areas of the sites, a poor handle on their dating, a limited grasp of artifact typologies and what evidence exists, the small-scale nature of known archaeological landscape are populated by particular 114 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 excavations, little environmental data, and (until this study) no now able to reduce the gap between the evidence and the the- spatial context all limit what we can say about a number of oretical frameworks used to understand them. In establishing a topics. These include the range or nature of activities that took picture of the existing evidence, we have ended up assembling place within sites—both settlements and religious sites—or information pertaining to 1200 archaeological sites across a indeed conceptualize very many other types of “sites” that 100,000 km area. This is a significant data set and one that is might extend beyond these two basic categories; the built larger than has hitherto been recognized in any scholarly works environment; continuities and discontinuities of site occupa- on this region. Further, for all that there are (considerable) lim- tion; the ways in which people and ideas were related with itations with these data, locating them in space allows us to each other across space; the ways that individuals, groups, and consider them in far more connected and connective ways. It communities interacted with the natural environment, using its is not only possible to explore the spatial relationships between primary resources; and how these various aspects of human known sites and what they might be deemed to reflect, but also existence changed over time. As such, we can see that there is to connect them with other spatial information that is readily a yawning gulf between the interpretive frameworks within available in the scientific literature of other disciplines and that which archaeologists have thus far sought to operate and the can be derived through the analysis of satellite imagery and evidence at our disposal. For all these reasons, and thinking paper maps (e.g., data relating to the geology, soils, landforms, back to the themes of research that have so far defined the and hydrology of the environment). This enables us to explore study of the period and region in question (the mid- to late- the temporal dimensions in which people existed in new ways, first millennium BCE), we are far from having sufficient ev- and move beyond traditional, limited (and limiting) unilinear idence to identify coherent or detailed patterns of urbanism, chronologies that are defined on the basis of dynastic names agricultural practices, or to define ideologies (beyond those and cultural periods. For example, we could accommodate and recorded in texts), let alone support theories of agricultural explore the different scales of time over which environmental intensification, consider the relative feudal nature of society, and societal processes took place. We could also consider the chart development of the state, or the relation of any of these ways in which “time” itself was an important factor in peoples’ things to religious institutions. Our interpretations of all these lives—as a constraint, a seasonal cycle, an inherent aspect of factors still rest on particular readings of texts, and a series of movement across the landscape, and a fundamental consider- normative ideas that however reasonable they might seem are ation in crop cultivation. Thus equipped, investigating the spa- still rooted in a series of assumptions about the way that phe- tial and temporal relationship between archaeological sites and nomena such as “trade”, “agriculture”,and “society” worked. the environment provides us with basic and much needed evi- In this area at least, the reason for this disjuncture between dence base to tackle a number of issues. Indeed, establishing an theories and evidence appears to be due to three fundamental altogether material-environment-space-time framework for the issues: practice, environment, and space. analysis of the past is a necessity if we want to address complex matters such as societal and cultural change (or other enduring concerns such as “state formation”) in more meaningful ways. 5 Possibilities Thinking along these lines, there is no end of things that could be examined. It really depends on the questions that we Much as it is important to be explicit about the limitations that would like to ask. It is certainly not the intention here to try to exist with any data set, doing so does not mean that we should shape or articulate the research agenda for continued archae- disregard the data we have because of those limitations. That ological research across this large area. That said, it is possible would be too obtuse and not very constructive. The archaeolog- to highlight some of the potential directions for future research ical record is always going to be limited and incomplete. By their that are suggested by the evidence we have. If we do want to very nature, the material traces of past human activity are just return to some of the current “culture historic” questions re- that: trace remains. The significance of remembering this is two- lating to state formation, or the social, economic and political fold. On the one hand, it means that we (as both archaeologists changes that may have accompanied the rule of the Vakatakas, and others with vested interests in the findings of archaeological there are a number of potential avenues of enquiry. For in- research) should not labor under the mistaken impression that stance, and with all of the above limitations firmly in our archaeology deals exclusively in empirical “truths.” On the other minds, having this data set does enable us to look at the hand, it serves as a reminder that we can only (and should always broad-scale changes in settlement over time, from the strive to) make the best of what we have. As long, that is, as what “Megalithic” to the rule of the Vakatakas and beyond. In we say is supported by the evidence being invoked. With this in mind, returning to the basic units of archaeolog- Albeit, with the caveat that we cannot yet extrapolate too many interpreta- ical enquiry in this context has opened up a number of potential tions of the data across the region as a whole. As discussed above, this is due to directions for research. For a start, the very act of compiling this the way in which previous scholarship on particular topics and time periods data set and locating the data on the ground means that we are has tended to focus on particular areas. asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 115 doing so, it would be possible to both: (a) situate any per- would undoubtedly reveal a great deal of new information ceived historical changes in a wider material context; and (b) about the spread of early Buddhism. interrogate the evidence that constitutes this wider context to It is also possible to explore various themes that shift the identify the societal and cultural changes that might be foci of research away from a traditional preoccupation with reflected by the archaeological evidence. Indeed, it is precisely states and state-level institutions, and in doing so change our this addition of a multi-scalar perspective that enables us to frames of reference altogether. Spatial patterns observed on a connect what is essentially a gazetteer of sites to other layers distribution map can, of course, be more than descriptive. The of information. Here, and while (again) still mindful of all of benefits of this spatial perspective are not only that we can the limitations of the existing data, we might usefully identify compare the distribution of sites to explore particular themes, changes in settlement patterns and the density of occupation as but also that we can interrogate this data in different ways. By indicated by settlement sites (broadly defined), and infer di- compiling the multiple attributes and variables for each ar- mensions of socio-economic and political development and chaeological site together with spatial and environmental data organization over time. It would also be interesting to inves- within a Geographical Information System (GIS), we can be- tigate how these changes are related, spatially, temporally and gin to explore relationships between data sets. For example, environmentally, to the practice of land grants and the foun- we might look at where certain types of archaeological evi- dation of new temple institutions as reflected by the find spots dence (perhaps a particular suite of material culture) are locat- of copperplate charters and temple sites (Hawkes and Abbas ed in relation to each other in order to reconstruct particular 2016). Doing so would enable us to consider how these prac- cultural or economic relationships between people. Or else we tices were embedded in social structures and see whether (and might explore how site locations (and whatever activities that if so how) they were accompanied by any change in the ways took place within those sites that we are interested in) are that people lived. Equally, we might assess the time that it located in relation to particular landforms or natural resources would have taken to travel across space between places, be- in order to make inferences regarding the various affordabil- tween realms, across natural barriers. In turn, this would pro- ities and constraints of the past environment and how these vide us with basic and much needed spatio-temporal frame- changed over time. work to get to grips with certain aspects of the formation of the Alternatively, we could use these data, smoothed with Vakataka state, the consideration of which (as intimated earli- quantitative methods to model population densities and con- er) includes territorial dynamics and processes, “core-periph- sider how these may have changed over time start to develop ery” structural relationships, politico-economic expansion. hypotheses as to why (e.g., Chamberlain 2006). We could also At the same time, there are other aspects of this archaeo- usefully look at the distribution of the archaeological evidence logical landscape and sets of social, cultural, political, eco- in relation to the environment to identify some of the ways that past human practices might have been defined in relation to nomic and environmental relationships on which we can focus to great benefit. Perhaps most obviously the entire water flows, landforms, areas of agricultural potential, prox- topic of religious change as reflected in the distribution of imity to mineral resources, and so on (e.g., Law 2011; Panja religious sites in relation to each other, wider patterns of et al. 2015). In doing so, it would be possible to begin making settlement and networks of interaction carries with it con- some suggestions about people’s conceptions of the environ- siderable potential. We have touched upon this in connec- ment and the landscape in which they lived, were a part of, and tion to the traditional preoccupation with land grants and that shaped their existence. These are just three or four possi- temple institutions. Yet over and above this, temple remains bilities among many. The point here is simply to illustrate the are useful markers of the presence of particular religious potential of the existing data. This can be understood as ex- sects that we also know about from the textual sources tending far beyond current (old) issues of societal change and (e.g., Bakker 2010). Charting their development and spread development, and realize that totally different paradigms of over space and time would reveal a great deal of information continuity are possible. pertinent to not only the religious history of, say, Hinduism That said, and bearing in mind all the limitations and con- in this area, but also its social and cultural dimensions. In straints of the existing data, we do have to reconcile this addition, the corpus of existing evidence considered here awareness of archaeological potential with the fact that we also reveals the existence of a number of early Buddhist cannot fully get to grips with any of these topics without doing cave sites. This is something that has not been picked up more archaeological research. For all that we can now say far on by mainstream scholarship on early Buddhism in South more than was previously realized, such are the scale of the Asia, with its tendency to focus on the more obtrusive and limitations with the data that we come full circle and are monumental remains that (coincidentally) provide far more forced to admit that we are essentially still dealing with dots in the way of art-historical material. An examination of the on maps and can only interpret what they mean with reference distribution of these sites in relation to earlier Megalithic to theoretical frameworks derived either from the study of monuments and wider environmental and settlement data equally as biased data sets (i.e., the texts) or from wider 116 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 archaeological literature. Yet, here too, we can consider these There is also something to be said for gathering basic limitations as potential avenues for research in their own right. information—getting a handle on the material culture from By returning to the archaeological evidence in the way we this region, establishing the first coherent pottery typologies, have done here, we achieve a better sense of what needs to developing chronological frames of reference, and so on— be done, and so what must be done in the future. This census which must surely constitute a valid and valuable research of archaeological sites and remains constitutes a valuable aim in its own right. There is a great deal of potential in the starting point from which to plan future investigations. application of quantitative methods, which can accommodate Consideration of the existing evidence clearly signposts some of the known limitations and inconsistencies in the where, regionally speaking, the gaps are in terms of research existing data and be used to identify patterns in those data. agendas, and geographical, chronological and thematic areas The systematic sampling for and collection of environmental of interest. Armed with this information, we can identify areas data would almost instantly transform both what we could do that need to be surveyed (and in some instances re-surveyed), with the archaeological evidence and our understanding of the and sites that could be excavated (and in some cases re-exca- ancient past. It is also worth pointing out that any and all of vated). Equally, and in a similar vein, we can admit the limi- these activities would represent far more meaningful and po- tations of the existing data and use the patterns that can be tentially useful endeavor than simply continuing to excavate observed to generate hypotheses. For instance, if we consider big obtrusive sites simply because they are there. the distribution of Buddhist sites in relation to earlier mega- In addition to these “potentialities of practice”, the compi- lithic sites in the region (see Fig. 12), we might posit the idea lation and consideration of this data set opens up a completely that the early Buddhist community actively sought to establish different area of research: the history of archaeological re- Buddhist sites in locations that were already imbued with search itself. There is already a large literature on the histori- earlier significance. Once we are equipped with such hypoth- ography of archaeology both within South Asia and, to a less- eses, it then becomes possible for archaeologists to devise er degree, within this region. Much of this has been referred to methods to test them. above. However, this scholarship tends to operate on the Fig. 12 Map illustrating the spatial distribution of Buddhist sites in Vidarbha in relation to the locations of earlier megalithic sites asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 117 somewhat theoretical level of the ideological frameworks Equally, recognizing that there will always be imperfect within which various key figures were working; and it is often data sets within archaeological research, we can see that tak- framed in the context of colonial and post-colonial agendas ing stock of the evidence that we have at our disposal opens up (e.g., Ray 2007). Crucial though these issues are, what we multiple avenues for research. Compiling this data set and have here is a data set that allows us to follow in the very placing it in a spatial framework enables us to explore and footsteps of earlier researchers, seeing where and how they build connections with other georeferenced datasets. In doing surveyed and excavated—precisely those invisible aspects of so we can identify patterns in the evidence that in turn allow us the past that have not been examined in preference to what has to make certain inferences about the practices and processes been examined. For example, when we consider the different the evidence reflects. There is scope to not only further our ways sites have been categorized, they reflect how past knowledge and understanding of existing questions (which in scholars thought about those sites. Similarly, the ways artifacts this area are almost entirely derived from and continue to be have been documented and understood speak of how people driven by textual scholarship), but also to investigate new thought about those remains and what they saw as valuable topics. These include, but are by no means limited to: ancient about them. It also speaks of subjects, objects, and data that demographics, human-environment interactions, and past have been totally ignored and therefore left invisible. In ex- conceptions and the making of the landscape. All of these amining these factors and charting them over time and space, are interesting points of departure from traditional foci of en- we would be able to access and map how we have developed quiry and represent clear avenues for future research that any- our archaeological knowledge, and why and how we think one can explore. Having a clear idea of the factors that limit about what archaeology has meant for different people. In what we can say of the existing data also helps define agendas doing so, we start to move into interesting new territory (at for future work. Regardless of the research questions being least as far as the archaeology of South Asia is concerned): asked, having gone back to basics like this and seen what the that of philosophies of knowledge and their construction. problems with the existing data are, we can now see exactly what areas need to be addressed to make resulting data more “valid” and less constraining. While on another level entirely, it also reveals a great deal of potential for the examination of 6 Discussion and conclusion histories of archaeological research and the creation of knowl- edge in South Asia. Pausing then to reflect, where has this exercise in returning to Recognizing all of this in the context of our case-study area the archaeological evidence taken us? What has it done? First justifies the importance of going back to the archaeological and most immediately, it has enabled us to identify the evi- evidence. At the same time, when we return to a broader view, dence that exists in a particular region. It has also made us the fact that there is such a noticeable disjuncture between aware of the bias and limitations inherent in that evidence. We interpretive frameworks, archaeological theories and the avail- have seen that in this area of South Asia, the limitations are able evidence across an area the size of South Asia raises some considerable. There is an absence of a great deal of informa- important considerations. That variable levels of archaeologi- tion that we take for granted in other archaeological contexts. cal visibility and relative “qualities” of data clearly exist pose This includes: a fundamental lack of typological and contex- problems for comparative studies. These are not necessarily tual understanding of material culture from certain periods; insurmountable, but must be realized and made explicit. little understanding of taphonomic processes that affect how Further, we have to assume that while the specifics of the we “read” and excavate archaeological sites; a limited idea of situation outlined here are unique to this area, there may well the activities that took place within settlements, or that extend- be a similar disjuncture between interpretive frameworks and ed beyond the central monuments that define religious sites; the available evidence in other areas of the world. Indeed, an absence of environmental data; little in the way of a spatial while specific concerns of scholarship might be different, sim- dimension in which to situate the evidence that we do have; ilar disjunctures are common in other areas where the histor- and only a single temporal frame of reference with which to ical past is considered stable and “known.” We might cite, for measure and chart any and all changes that might be perceived example, the study of the Iron Age in the Levant (Joffe 2002; to take place—one that is itself defined with reference to the Levy and Higham 2014) where archaeological studies have rule of kings and dynasties. Because of these issues, there is a long been informed by Biblical accounts; the study of histor- disconnect between the theories people have traditionally ical periods in China from at least the Zhou period, c. sixth to sought to explore through archaeology and the archaeological fourth centuries BCE (von Falkenhausen 1993;Min 2003); evidence itself. Demonstrating this, as we have attempted to and the use of archaeology and history in Island Southeast do here, serves to show that we need to exercise care when Asia (Lape 2006). These are by no means the only parts of considering what we can and cannot see in and say about the Asia whose study can bear witness to such a trend. Nor is it necessarily the case that issues relating to the limitations of the archaeological record. 118 asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 existing archaeological data and what can be done with them forgotten. And the fact that it is forgotten is not always real- are confined to the study of historical periods. We suspect that ized by those who lay claim to “knowing” what is innovative if we were to look more closely, similar patterns may emerge and new in archaeological method and theory. Quite aside in the ways that archaeologists have sought to study certain from the study of historical periods in South Asia, as archae- aspects of the Mesolithic or Neolithic in Asia, with reference ologists we will always need to remind ourselves of what we to certain ideas and theories of prehistoric lifeways developed really “know.” Whether it is in the interests of quantitative in the study of the European context. accuracy and resolution, or to ensure that what we can infer Accepting this, we are then faced with the question of from the archaeological data may have been the case. Doing whether we can necessarily rely on certain interpretive frame- so enables us to be sure that we can say what we want to say. It works without having the evidence to back up our suggestions is also a crucial step in developing new research agendas— and ideas. Following this line of reasoning, if we then enter- and a much more important one than simply jumping on the tain the possibility that existing interpretive frameworks may latest bandwagon du jour. not necessarily account for some (really quite large) parts of What this need to continually ensure that we know what we the world where a great deal of foundational work has not yet think we know actually means in practice is an equally impor- been carried out, we must ask ourselves: how sure are we that tant concern. As we have seen in South Asia it is often the case we do “know” how various aspects of past human existence that we cannot “ground” our theoretical ideas in the existing “worked”? If the archaeology of broad periods across large data because the resolution of those data is so low. This means parts of the world have yet to be studied—as the evidence two things. First, regardless of our theoretical perspectives and from South Asia suggests is the case—how sure are we that the data sets at our disposal, ensuring sound archaeological certain societal and cultural phenomena, or broad “civiliza- practice is absolutely key. We are not going to be able to tional” developments operated in the ways we think they did? answer the research questions quite as well as we would like So where do we go from here? In South Asia at least, it if the data being used have not been generated using strategies seems that there is a tension between the need for an eviden- designed to answer those questions. Second, there is clearly a tiary grounding of our ideas, and the need for ideas to interpret need for and great value in doing foundational research. As we the data. At a most reductionist level, we could argue that we have seen here, there are immense geographical, cultural and cannot apply any theoretical ideas derived outside South Asia temporal areas where a great deal of foundational research onto the South Asian record. Doing so might be repeating needs to be done before we can even begin to compare certain earlier mistakes by too simplistically and uncritically transpos- ideas. In South Asia we need things like a typological and ing certain interpretive frameworks, or falling back on chronological understanding of most artifact classes and a preconceived notions as to how sociocultural or economic basic grasp of the environment in which people were living structures “worked” in any given context. That said, we can- before we can begin interrogating and interpreting the archae- not trust that examination of the data alone in isolation from ological data we already have and will continue to find. the benefits of wider thought will give us the answers we This in turn opens up some important considerations that want. There are the obvious dangers here of engendering too extend far beyond the scope of this paper. When we realize positivistic an approach, resulting in too myopic a view of the that we still need to establish such basic things as pottery grounded data. We will always need theories to make sense of typologies for entire millennia on a subcontinental scale, there the data, and comparative studies have great value in stimu- is perhaps a need to recalibrate our concept of “value.” Right lating ideas, forcing us to revisit concepts, re-orient our en- now, at least in the West, foundational work is not as valued as quiries, and stimulate new research. Of course, this is not the perhaps it once was. We can see this in the way that “interna- first time that archaeology has been faced with this question tional journals” (by which we mean those edited and pub- (e.g., Shanks and Tilley 2016). In a sense, and as said before, lished in the United States, Europe, and Australia with well- this entire issue can be thought of as a basic problem of anal- developed international distribution networks) no longer pub- ogy, or as an aspect of the wider tension between empiricism lish reportage articles such as preliminary reports of surveys and interpretivism in the social sciences. Our own and, we and excavations, or the presentation of artifact typologies. feel, the generally accepted view is that it is both acceptable Such studies are not deemed to have as much “impact” as and welcome to explore the applicability of wider theoretical more synthetic or overtly research-oriented papers. The rea- ideas and interpretive frameworks. But as this study has made sons for this are complex and certainly worthy of further scru- clear, central to this has to be a clear and conscious attempt to: tiny. Without wishing to digress we suspect that such analyses (a) revisit the research questions that are being asked; and (b) would point to at least two factors. The first, and as we said at make sure that we can connect these theories with the existing the outset, is the widespread sense that archaeology as a dis- data. It is only then that we can test and adjust our ideas and cipline has already figured out certain topics. Whether con- interpretations accordingly. Again, this is neither a new nor sciously articulated or passively received from the certainty profoundly important point. However, it is one that is often with which much academic literature is written, the asian archaeol (2020) 3:95–123 119 pervasiveness of this notion leaves little room for basic foun- Given that so many parts of the world have not been examined dational research. This is because according to this chain of archaeologically, there is the distinct possibility that revisiting reasoning, the only things that can be considered “innovative” certain themes may well lead to the discovery of new dimen- and “interesting” are the next big ideas that we have not yet sions of those topics that are considered “done.” figured out, or the next whiz techniques that have yet to find Leading on from this, it is often muttered in faculties of an archaeological application. The second factor, and very arts, humanities, and social sciences in Western universities much a corollary of the first, is that within academia the value that regional studies have had their moment and are no longer and worth of scholarship has become conflated with the ques- relevant. The reasons for this are complex and have as much to tion of whether it will attract funding. This has contributed to a do with how regional studies have organized themselves in commercialization of research and professionalization of aca- Western scholarship as they have to do with changes in re- demia wherein some (thankfully not all) individuals appear search and teaching frameworks within academic institutions more interested in securing grants and gaining promotions and government funding priorities. The point that we would than in the research itself. It has also led to a situation where like to make here, however, is that accompanying this wide- the research projects that secure large grants are the ones that spread sense of the irrelevance of regional studies is an expec- help determine the future direction of the discipline. This in tation within departments of archaeology that individual turn only helps to perpetuate the notion that archaeology, as a scholars should define themselves not by their geographical discipline, has figured out certain problems and that we have area of expertise, but instead on the basis of thematic areas of the answers to certain questions. Indeed (so the implicit logic study (e.g., environmental archaeology, landscape, urbanism, dictates), this has to be the case in order to justify moving on to and so on) that are shared by others working in other parts of the next (funded) idea. the world. This is expected even when these same individuals Returning to the matter at hand, it would seem that the continue, perversely, to be defined by others within their own challenge for those working in areas where foundational re- faculties on the basis of their geographical area of study—as search needs to be done is to have a clear sense of what needs “the South Asian archaeologist” or “the South Asianist.” Yet if to be done and why it needs to be done, which leads us back to we accept the fact that we as archaeologists cannot operate on the importance of continually reassessing the current state of a comparable basis across the world, who is best placed to archaeological knowledge and understanding. While for those judge someone else’s contribution to wider scholarship on a working in other areas—who, through acting as editors of particular theme? Further, how do we know whether wider international journals or coordinators of university curricula, social theories that have developed over the last two hundred collectively function as the arbiters of archaeological impor- years, but that are essentially based on the study of a tiny tance, innovation and interest—the challenge is to recognize sample of the human past, really are (or should be considered that all of this is the case, and that at times this “big picture” to be) universal across the discipline? We would suggest that thinking has the unhappy consequence of engendering a par- there needs to be as much acknowledgement of the value of ticularly insidious type of parochialism. It may very well be different regional specialisms that we continue to use to label interesting and important to explore various “hot topics” (e.g., each other as there is for the methodological approaches and big data, climate, migration, population genetics, risk, resil- themes of research that unite us. ience and sustainability) in a particular geographical or tem- Acknowledgements The archival research required to compile the data poral context. But as we have seen here, sometimes the justi- presented in this article was carried out in collaboration with the Indian fication for and value of research is simply that we do not have Historical and Cultural Research Foundation, the Institut Français de a sound understanding of the material culture or environmen- Pondichéry and The British Museum. Research was carried out as part tal history of an area half the size of Europe for at least two of the Asia Beyond Boundaries project, an ERC Synergy project funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s 7th thousand years. We might even suggest that there is also a Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no. need to revisit certain topics that are generally thought of as 609823, awarded to Dr. Michael Willis. having already been dealt with in wider archaeological schol- arship. Topics such as the place of empiricism within archae- Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons ological method and theory, the archaeology of religion, or the Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adap- relationships between art and archaeology, or archaeology and tation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as texts appear to be no longer de rigueur because the momen- you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, pro- vide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were tum of wider (western) archaeological theory has carried the made. The images or other third party material in this article are included discipline as a whole on to new topics that are deemed more in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a interesting and important. This being the case, who is to say credit line to the material. 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