Archaeology and Identity in South Asia -- Interpretations and Consequences

Article excerpt

Whilst archaeological discoveries initiated by the Europeans have long encouraged a pride in India's past among its educated elite, there is even less evidence of nationalism influencing the practice of Indian Archaeology.

TRIGGER 1995: 271

In 1995 Bruce Trigger dismissed the role of nationalism within the archaeology of south Asia (1995: 271), apparently ignoring even the archaeological nature of the crest of the new Indian republic -- the Sarnath lion; and his comments have acted as a catalyst for this special number of papers, many of which explore the very real relationship between the south Asian nation-state and archaeology. We have expanded Trigger's tripartite division of nationalist, colonialist or imperialist archaeology (1984), to reflect the aspirations of additional units such as regions, religious groups and individual communities over the last 200 years. In so doing we have used the concept of identity, as offered by Northrup (1989: 63), to encompass these disparate groups:

Identity is the tendency for human beings, individually and in groups, to establish, maintain and protect a sense of self-meaning, predictability and purpose. It encompasses a sense of self-definition at multiple levels.

The contributors were briefed to examine the role of archaeology in the construction and transformation of modern social and political identities in south Asia, and suggested themes included: the relationship of local discoveries with broader national contexts; the use of archaeology in tourism to support regional constructions of identity; the influence of religious revivalism in national identity; the `Aryan question'; the role of diffusion as a theoretical mechanism for culture change; the archaeological visibility of caste; and the use and interpretation of historical texts. Another worrying phenomenon examined was the destruction of archaeology and monuments which are perceived to represent the identity of others; such attacks have been widely condemned as attested by the response to the demolition and damage done to monuments in former Yugoslavia (Chippindale 1992; 1994; Chapman 1994), Cyprus (Silberman 1989) and Sri Lanka (Coningham & Lewer 1999).

The focus in this collection of papers is very much from an archaeological perspective, but the concept of identity is complex and draws from an eclectic literature including anthropology, economics, politics, communications, international relations, social psychology, history, migrational movements, colonial mapping and ethnic studies. That there exists a complex relationship between archaeology, nationalism and identity is not a new idea (Kohl & Fawcett 1995). Archaeologists have been aware of the importance of interpretation, the political implications of this interpretation, the way evidence is exhibited, the social responsibility which they have, and the possible implications for human rights for some time (Gathercole & Lowenthal 1990). For example, a political independence movement usually tries to construct a defined identity in support of its claim to legitimacy, both for domestic and international purposes, and these are related to a need for recognition and security. But, the concept of identity is fluid and linked to different historical timeframes, when certain myths, symbols and writings are chosen to support a particular interpretation of ethnic stereotype(s). This can be manifested in how collections in museums are displayed and labelled at particular points in a nation's history, which in turn may be influenced by the reliance of archaeologists on funding from a state or other authority. There is also a tension between the identity of immigrants and the indigenous population in a multi-cultural society, in the selection of evidence and artefacts which are displayed (Gathercole & Lowenthal 1990: xvii). This can pose moral and ethical dilemmas for archaeologists when pressure may be bought to bear on them to support a particular interpretation to justify claims to identity and historical precedence. …