Mortimer Wheeler's Science of Order: The Tradition of Accuracy at Arikamedu

By Boast, Robin | Antiquity, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Mortimer Wheeler's Science of Order: The Tradition of Accuracy at Arikamedu


Boast, Robin, Antiquity


In February 1944 Mortimer Wheeler, having resigned his duties with the British 8th Army after the Salerno landings, was bound for India. Aboard the City of Exeter, in convoy to Bombay, Wheeler was planning another campaign -- to sort out the `scientifically deplorable' state of India's archaeological survey. Even before he had set a foot on Indian soil, Wheeler already had a plan. Like all good Officers, (1) colonial and otherwise, Wheeler had determined his plan of attack before landing. It is no good to reach a foreign field of a battle and just see what happens. This he had learned from his idol, Lt. General Lane Fox Pitt Rivers; that you must always begin with a plan of attack.

The origin for such determined action dated back to March 1938. The Viceroy of India, through the India Office, appointed Sir Leonard Woolley to assess the state of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) (Woolley 1939). The Survey had a long and distinguished history. Beginning with General (Sir) Alexander Cunningham as early as 1862, and reaching notoriety with Sir John Marshall's work in the Indus Valley in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Archaeological Survey of India became the largest such institution in the world. However, various levels of disinterest by colonial governments, first at the end of the 19th century and again between 1933 and 1944, led to vast hiatuses in the Survey's work (Roy 1996: 115-19). In Woolley's report this situation, characteristic in fact of prevailing practice and serious under-investment in most of the world, was presented as a situation where plentiful goodwill was destroyed by indigenous ignorance and mismanagement. (2) According to the report, the Indians had simply failed to keep up with modern methods developed in Europe. There was only one solution possible, namely to get a `good man from home' (3) to sort out the indigenous mess. Due to the strong wording of the report, and in consideration of the rising independence movement in India and impending war, the report was withdrawn. However, in 1944, on the recommendation of Woolley, Wheeler was called upon as the appropriate `good man from home' to modernize archaeology in India.

Wheeler's plan, lifted almost in its entirety from Woolley's Report (Woolley 1939: 4-7), was straightforward, though perhaps not so simple. In the north, the research would focus on the Indus and its relation to Indian history. At stake would be the character of what seemed to be incontestable invasions, and the establishment of a firm historical sequence. Wheeler's notes on his work in India, written on the City of Exeter, are quoted in Wheeler (1956). (Wheeler 1956: 192):

What was the material background of the Vedic hymns? What part if any did the Indus cities, representing one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, play in the formation of the Indian civilization of later ages? Of what sort were the Aryan invaders? Whence and when?

In the south, however, Wheeler foresaw a major problem, namely the complete lack of a datum-line for a secure chronology. Like Pitt Rivers before him, and most of his contemporaries, he saw a firm chronology as the `backbone' of a humanist history. Along with `developing the technical side of our work and to training the younger generation who will succeed us' (1956: 193), Wheeler, in the prophetic style of research that sets a stage and then fulfils it, determined to bring `order and significance to chaos' in southern India (1956: 193):

A potential datum-line is provided by the impact of Roman commerce upon central and southern India, with the consequent deposition of Roman coins and coin-hoards of known date. The careful correlation of these coins with the contemporary Indian cultures is an obvious starting-point for research. It has not yet been attempted.

This is exactly what Wheeler set out to do. Almost immediately upon his arrival at his headquarters in Shimla he set out to list the Roman coins found in southern India since 1775, and dispatched two of his officers to visit all the sites and assess the best for association with the Indian cultures. …

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