As a subject, history is associated with the project of modernity itself, for history enables an objective and conscionable assessment of progress, different in every measure, from the past. Understanding the past, however, is often a contextual exercise, when viewed via the lens of subjectivity and the mistaken use of hindsight. This is where archaeology steps in. Archaeology – a relatively newer branch within history – couples a scientific precision of fact, assessment of material evidence, with an imaginative interpretation of the past and its possibilities.

As Devika Cariapa’s India Through Archaeology: Excavating History tells us, an archeologist combines in her persona the serendipity of an adventurer, the meticulous efforts of a scholarly scientist, the sweeping awareness of a time traveller, and a multifaceted knowledge of various other subjects – philology (an understanding of historical languages), epigraphy (related to inscriptions, for example) and even geology. The book is meant for young adults but it will nevertheless engage readers of all ages.

Serendipity and science

Consider the example of VS Wakankar, who, in 1957, travelling by train from Bhopal to Itarsi, was “struck by the beauty of a series of low densely forested hills they were passing”. The “strange rocky outcrops” set his “archeological antennae twitching wildly”. What followed remade history in every sense, for Wakankar had chanced on Bhimbetka, the “world’s largest open-air prehistoric art gallery”, with paintings and engravings on nearly 700 caves and rock-shelters that dated between 1,00,000 to 3000 years ago.

It would be chance, even serendipitous discoveries, much like Wakankar’s, that would lead to a rethinking and rewriting of the subcontinent’s history – as numerous instances dating from Paleolithic times (two million years ago) to our own times in Excavating History show. The story of how the first major cities of the Harappan culture, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, were discovered, is now familiar – a saga that involved wandering soldiers, administrators, scholarly “Orientalists” and their abler (and often forgotten) Indian assistants and associates.

The history of the subcontinent was moved back – from what was described in the early Vedas – to over three millennia and even beyond, giving it new perspectives, newer mysteries in the bargain, and then a vital continuity as well, for textual accounts had earlier left large gaping holes in the subcontinent’s narratives of its own past.

Decades before the Harappan discovery, it was archaeology again – involving the combined efforts of philologists, linguists, epigraphers, and others – that was responsible for the unmasking of Ashoka, the ruler, pillars and edicts referred to as the king Piyadassi. And archaeology – as the excavations in Muziris in Kerala begun over the last decade show – continues to bring old stories to light, giving material basis to how the history of the subcontinent needs to be studied and understood. India Through Archaeology wisely tells us and its young readers that history isn’t to be mixed up with what ancient oral texts would have us believe. Rather, history must rely on a wide array of evidence – books, coins, stone tools, constructions – for historical truths to be established, with some certainty and with rational argumentation.

They also made history

It’s a serious, responsible task the book takes on, and the reason always given for why the young don’t find history fun enough. Yet Cariapa’s book, matched with some detailed illustrations and Ashok Rajagopalan’s amusing sketches and comic strips, belies this long falsely held belief as well.

The chapter on the discovery of Kanishka’s headless statue (in a village near Mathura by Pandit Radha Krishna, who was, as Cariapa tells us, an amateur archaeologist and antique collector) is a story richly told. It brings alive the old magic of the Silk Road and its many-hued traffic when people speaking different languages traded in exotic commodities. There was also the skill of sculptors and artisans of the Gandhara and Mathura schools – with their own unique ways of depicting the Buddha – and the wondrous details of how the Kushans introduced a new clothing sense, as shown clearly in their love for peaked turbans and stitched garments.

The chapter clearly highlights that archeology does what textual accounts of the past sometimes miss – a revelation of how ordinary people lived their lives. Hero stones that commemorated local folk heroes, land grants and coins issued by queens, and not just royal consorts, upend many a conventional and widely held erroneous belief that only kings made history. Moreover, just as archaeology resolves mysteries, it also shapes several tantalising mysteries in turn. For example, the construction of megaliths to mourn the dead were common across cultures at a similar point in time in South India and in Celtic Britain. Yet there is no evidence of such ancient cultures ever being in contact.

What lies beneath

Excavating History wears its knowledge lightly and tells its stories well. There isn’t a single ponderous note, nor does the book ever take on a sternly authoritative tone of the all-knowing expert. The timeline from the before present era to the near modern that shoulders every chapter is especially helpful, though an explanation of how evidence and excavations are dated (the radiocarbon dating method for example) might have been helpful, as would have been more details on marine archaeology.

This also leads to the question as to whether recent controversies associated with archaeology needed to be mentioned. But perhaps wisely, this book retains its focus on the riches unearthed thus far by archaeology, and hints also, like the proverbial iceberg, that there’s much more that remains to be excavated, strange and politically motivated controversies notwithstanding.

The story goes that the success of the Indiana Jones movies gave a new fillip to the study of archaeology. In 2015, an archaeology exhibition at Washington DC’s National Geographic museum brought together several artefacts (true and imagined) that featured in the four Indiana Jones movies. It was hugely attended. For its part, India Through Archaeology brings alive in a vividly direct way, the magic, the mystery, and the many methods that make archaeology key to understanding history, the past, and thus, our own stories.

India Through Archaeology: Excavating History, Devika Cariapa, Illustrated by Ashok Rajagopalan, Tulika Books.