Ancient South Asian Archaeology (2/2)

joe at joe at
Tue Dec 3 14:04:19 UTC 1996

(A copy of this message has also been posted to the following newsgroups:
sci.archaeology.moderated, sci.archaeology,sci.lang)

Usenet followups set.  Posted and e-mailed.  This is a fantastically long
post split into two parts; if you would like to reply, please do read the
part at the end with more details about the distribution.  This is in
minimal digest format. The subjects are:

Part 1:

   1.  Invocation
   2.  References on Harappa
   3.  The Gangetic problem
   4.  The Archaeology of Ancient Indian Cities

Part 2:

   5.  The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia
   6.  More references on the Gangetic civilisation
   7.  Distribution


Subject:  5.  The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia

A slightly less cursory review.

If you're at all interested in the subject, you've probably heard of this
book already.  I'm going to develop a critique here, therefore, more fully
than in the case of Chakrabarti's book.  (Also, because I had more time in
the library where I examined this one...)

Allchin, F. R.  1995.  The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia:  The
Emergence of Cities and States.  With contributions from George Erdosy, R.
A. E. Coningham, D. K. Chakrabarti and Bridget Allchin.  Cambridge (and
New York, Melbourne): Cambridge University Press.  ISBN 0 521 37547 9
(hardcover) or 0 521 37695 5 (paper).

Note that George Erdosy has changed his name to Muhammad Usman Erdosy.

Allchin did not require unanimity of his contributors, nor did he attempt
the same sort of magisterial survey in his own chapters which he and his
wife accomplished in their earlier book.  The result is a strangely patchy
work.  I suppose it is, at the moment, the best source on early Gangetic
civilisation's archaeology, but it's far from the grand synthesis I'd
hoped for.


PART I  The background

I.    The archaeology of early historic South Asia - 7 pp.

The obligatory history and jeremiad.

II.   The environmental context (Bridget Allchin) - 16 pp.

An excellent treatment for the user, though I haven't the background to
evaluate the scientific accuracy.  She moves region by region, and in each
region describes the specific geographic context of at least the most
important urban sites.

III.  The end of Harappan urbanism and its legacy - 15 pp.

There is a fairly impressionistic review by region, covering the
archaeology of essentially the whole second millennium BC.  (This is why I
prefer Chakrabarti's for research purposes!)  Allchin's basic thesis is
that there was a major decline, but it turned around before everyone died;
then some centuries later there was another decline, this time wiping out
cultures everywhere but the Punjab; he blames the former largely on
tectonic and environmental causes, and the latter on a claim that the
rains must have diminished sharply, since nearby coastal cultures also
declined at the end of the second millennium.

IV.   Language, culture and the concept of ethnicity - 13 pp.

This is the book's treatment of the Aryans' arrival in the Punjab.  My
notes read, "Appallingly vague and speculative."  He argues that the
Aryans, who might have arrived in waves, were in each case a minority
taking advantage of disorder and decline to conquer and then acculturate
the population; thus he argues that Sanskrit came from elsewhere but the
early Aryans (the acculturated descendants) were indigenous.

V.    Dark Age or continuum?  An archaeological analysis of the second
emergence of urbanism in South Asia (R. A. E. Coningham) - 19 pp.

Using a sample of about a dozen second millennium sites from all over the
subcontinent, and a list of traits of urban society similar to Childe's
but more sophisticated, Coningham argues that most of these traits were
found someplace or other sometime during the millennium, so it wasn't a
Dark Age.  The implication that Gangetic urbanism didn't come out of
nowhere is not explicitly defended, and it's a good thing, as a given
trait might be found at only two sites at opposite ends of the
subcontinent.  Another impression I left with was that what urbanism there
was in the second millennium was practically anywhere *but* the Ganga

PART II The rise of cities and states

VI.   The prelude to urbanism:  ethnicity and the rise of Late Vedic
chiefdoms (George Erdosy) - 24 pp.

This chapter covers only the Ganga valley, for the first half of the first
millennium BC.  There's a brief note on chronology, but the rest of the
topical survey which dominates the chapter is excellent, treating
settlement patterns, material culture, and textual evidence on early
politics, in order.  Erdosy then proceeds to argue that "Aryan-ness", at
least in this region (but by implication also elsewhere) was no ethnic
trait but an ideological one, which fits in with his general argument that
later Vedic society was an authority-based chiefdom.
   I was very unimpressed with Erdosy's first publications, in the middle
1980s, and am surprised to find myself saying this, but this is the best
chapter in the book.
   That said, I don't agree with it at a fairly basic level.  Erdosy
accepts, as I never have, the argument that the state is represented
archaeologically by a four- level central place hierarchy.  He therefore
is obligated to find no states in the later Vedic texts, whose
archaeological correlates lack such a settlement hierarchy.
   My own interest has always focused on the process through the lens of
the city, and I'm convinced from his own and other settlement surveys that
there were indeed central places in this era which I would take as the
nuclei of states.
   In other words, the fact that he later develops a very short chronology
for urbanism fails to persuade me.

VII.  City states of North India and Pakistan at the time of the Buddha
(George Erdosy) - 24 pp.

The topical survey in this chapter doesn't equal the prior one but is
quite good, proceeding through chronology, settlement patterns, urban
planning, economics, and then literary discussions of cities and states. 
The conclusion, which essentially says the constant warfare among the
latter looks like a conceivable cause for the urban/state process, is less
   In this chapter, the effort towards a short chronology gathers much
force.  Erdosy accepts arguments from one Bechert that the Buddha's
mahaparinirvana really occurred in 368, not 486.  He also applies a very
solid-looking set of radiocarbon dates to demonstrate not that Northern
Black Polished Ware appears in 400 BC (as at first appears) but rather,
and probably correctly from what I know of the radiocarbon record, around
550 BC.  (At least at most sites.)  In turn, since much of the evidence we
have for truly urban character is tied to the NBP ware and not even its
beginning, he concludes that true urbanism begins perhaps 400 BC.
   I shouldn't judge in ignorance, but this looks suspect to me on a few
grounds. First of all, I haven't seen Bechert's arguments yet, and always
found the date of 486 pretty persuasive!  Beyond that, Erdosy makes light
of the very old stupas (he mentions Vaisali but not Sravasti and
Kapilavastu as being probably as old as the parinirvana), while I found
those site reports convincing.  I will need to examine the radiocarbon
dates myself before I really believe that his "early NBP" sites represent
the ware's earliest stages.  And, with Paul Wheatley, I've generally
preferred to define urbanism in relation to central places, not urban
   That said.  These two chapters are excellent complements to
Chakrabarti's site-by-site treatment, and the picture they paint of a
rather late development, while unpersuasive to me, is hardly a trivially
researched one.

VIII. Early cities and states beyond the Ganges Valley - 29 pp.

This is a detailed site-by-site survey across the first millennium (but
mainly its second half) and the rest of the subcontinent.  Allchin
advances few major arguments and relies quite heavily on pottery-typed
cultures.  If any settlement surveys are available to him, he doesn't
mention them as best I recall.

IX.   The rise of cities in Sri Lanka (R. A. E. Coningham and F. R.
Allchin) - 33 pp.

Yes, I'm serious:  this topic gets more pages than any of the above
chapters. They're devoted mostly to the authors' current excavations at
Anuradhapura, with some discussion of textual evidence and some of other

PART III The Mauryan empire and its aftermath

X.    The Maurya state and empire - 35 pp.

Here, finally, we get settlement hierarchies, as well as extensive
discussion of the ancient world's megalopolis, Pataliputra.  There's also
a lot about the textual evidence of the <Kautiliya Arthasastra>, which
Allchin (like most scholars) accepts as essentially a genuine 4th-3rd
century BC record.
   Since that document implies a stupendously developed country where (per
Erdosy) three centuries earlier there were neither cities nor states, I
tend to accept the minority view that it was written much later.  Ah,
   In any event, there are also discussions of early writing and coinage
on the subcontinent, and on what archaeology and the <Arthasastra> tell us
of weights and measures.

XI.   Mauryan architecture and art - 52 pp. (with many illustrations)

Being no art historian, I'm not qualified to say much about this chapter,
except that it has lots of nice pictures :-).  The survey appears to be
quite comprehensive.  Unlike the rest of the book, Allchin here favours
early dates consistently and also likes diffusionist arguments.

XII.  Post-Mauryan states of mainland South Asia (c. BC 185 - AD 320)  (D.
K. Chakrabarti) - 53 pp.

Yes, that's right, that's the crowning joke of this whole awkward
situation where two books are required for the job of one.  In case my
strictures (which, it must be obvious, are moved to some extent at least
by simple disagreements) had persuaded you that Allchin's book was
dispensable, the kicker is, that it contains the last chapter of
   Chakrabarti actually begins here with a fairly thorough review of the
political history; there follows his standard site-by-site review of the
evidence, which dominates the chapter.  Some pages at the end take up
writing, coinage, architecture, and art; unlike the site-by-site review,
these are almost devoid of references, and I find myself wondering whether
they were required burdens.

PART IV. Conclusion

XIII.  The emergence of cities and states:  concluding synthesis

If I understand correctly, Allchin's synthesis of the uncomfortable
distance between himself and Erdosy is as follows:  The Aryans, as an
ethnic group, *did* win conquests in the Punjab, thereafter acculturating
the people there, whence their ideology and its language spread to the
rest of South Asia.

I find myself recalling my sarcasm in my 1987 paper:  "Well, Sanskrit did
have an ancient grammatical tradition that might have appealed."


Subject:  6.  More references on the Gangetic civilisation

This is basically a miscellany, to fulfill past promises and make a few
notes before I go back to non-research mode.

First of all, Dilip Chakrabarti has been *very* prolific relatively
recently, and the books in question include a couple for which I
previously failed to give cites plus one which is evidently the current
reference on early iron in India:

Chakrabarti, Dilip K.  1993.  Archaeology of Eastern India.  New Delhi: 
Munshiram Manoharlal.  This, his book about West Bengal, turns out to be a
site survey on the Chota Nagpur plateau and an adjoining district in
Bengal.  Sorry for the mixup.

idem.  1990.  The External Trade of the Indus Civilization.  New Delhi: 
Munshiram Manoharlal.  Haven't seen it.

idem.  1992.  The Early Use of Iron in India.  Delhi:  Oxford.  Haven't seen it.

idem.  1992.  Ancient Bangladesh.  Delhi:  Oxford.  A full survey of
minimal material.

I think Erdosy's recent book is already in the RISA-L bibliography (and if
you haven't yet, please DO check out the debate and bibliography c/o


it IS worth it!) - anyway, I think it's already in there, but just in case:

Erdosy, George, editor.  1995.  Language, Material Culture, and
Ethnicity:  the Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia.  Berlin:  W. de

Finally, to make up for aiming D. K. Chakrabarti at Steve Whittet's
concerns for sea trade, here are a couple of references which between them
make a pretty good case for direct contact between Gujarat and Africa
(but, Mr. Whittet, please *read* them before citing...):

Possehl, Gregory L.  1987.  "African Millets in South Asian Prehistory." 
Studies in the Archaeology of India and Pakistan, edited by Jerome
Jacobson.  New Delhi (and Bombay, Calcutta):  Oxford & IBH.

Singh, H.  1982.  History and Archaeology of Black-and-Red Ware
(Chalcolithic Period). Delhi:  Sundeep Prakashan.


Subject:  7.  Distribution

First of all, Edwin Bryant and Moin Ansari are cc'd for reasons already
indicated.  I hope they'll forgive me the size of this thing.  I hope
they'll show up on Usenet or at least INDOLOGY to discuss these topics,
but whatever.  Mr. Ansari is also a moderator of
soc.culture.pakistan.history, and Mr. Bryant subscribes to RISA-L; I have
no objections to redistribution of any or all of these sections and would
actually, of course, be flattered if they're worth it.

I'm posting this to the INDOLOGY mailing list.  Please note that this is a
closed list:  as best I understand it, non-subscribers can't post.  I
recommend contacting the owner if you wish to find a way around this.  My
apologies to any subscribers who don't want this much about the subject,
but hey, at least it's not about Hindi...

I should think the easiest way to discuss this is to use Usenet.  I've
been hesitant to forward to INDOLOGY anything like the full context of the
arguments there, which is why I wind up making mega-posts like this.  The
Usenet debate to date does not merit archiving in the way the RISA-L
debate did, but it began November 17 and has all (to the best of my
knowledge) been posted to sci.archaeology, so it should be recoverable via
Dejanews despite the proliferation of threads.

This is posted to sci.archaeology.moderated because it seems to fit, and
also to sci.archaeology and sci.lang because those are where most of the
discussion thus far has been.  I have, however, *removed* sci.lang from
followups, in the considered opinion that this document really doesn't say
much about linguistics and there are existing threads which are better for
use to discuss that study.  I'm only cross-posting this one there as a
courtesy which I hope is not misguided.

Please note that sci.archaeology.moderated is in the followups.  If you
wish to follow up to this post, please consider whether it's likely to
pass the moderation filter; in particular, I'd recommend including some
references; or else remove sci.archaeology.moderated from the list of

Have fun with this, folks!

Joe Bernstein
Joe Bernstein, writer, banker, bookseller joe at
speaking for myself alone for soc.history.ancient, now back under
discussion in news.groups!

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