Sudeshna Guha, Artefacts of History: Archaeology, Historiography and Indian Pasts. xiii+273 pp., 15 illus., bibl., index. New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2015. $59 (hardcover)
Sudeshna Guha has written a book that not only complicates the history, but also provides a searing critique, of the practices and historiography of archaeology and heritage in India. Artefacts of History is required (and perhaps uncomfortable) reading for anyone interested in that history, questions about the global circulation of knowledge, issues surrounding the role these practices have played in the making of the pre- and post-partition Indian nation-state, and the conduct and role of archaeology and heritage in ‘postcolonial’ countries more generally. Furthermore, Guha makes the reader rethink the history of Indian archaeology in ways that question the writing of that and other archaeological histories. Similar to the recent work of Christina Riggs on the history of Egyptology, her volume also prompts renewed consideration of the role such histories might play in helping to constitute archaeological and heritage practice that actually interrogates the categories and taken-for-granteds upon which it relies.
Guha elaborates her argument over an introduction, conclusion, and five densely-argued chapters which make clear the ethical, practical, and, above all, historical quandaries of archaeology and heritage work in a formerly colonized country. I found Chapter Two (“Nineveh in Bombay”) particularly interesting in this respect, not least for the novel way in which it urges caution in attributing universal relevance to reception histories that played out in Europe. Discussing the exhibition of Assyrian artifacts in nineteenth-century Bombay (a port through which collectors and objects transited between other seats and outposts of empire), Guha shows that the bewilderment experienced by European viewers of these objects—uncertain how to fit them into their contemporary aesthetic schemes—was not evidenced in India. Instead, Assyrian material displayed in the country received “high aesthetic valuations throughout the 1850s” (85). As Guha’s introductory chapter states, such reception histories demonstrate “the ambiguities and ambivalences that characterized the colonial pedagogic projects” (16).
Such ambiguities continue to have relevance. As Guha states in Chapter One (“Antiquarianism and South Asia: Questioning Histories of Origins”), the strategies used in recent histories of Indian archaeology “for presenting the field scholarship of archaeology as permitting better knowledge of the past … mirror those of the colonial historiography” (42). In Chapter Two, for example, Guha also elucidates the nineteenth-century work of James Fergusson, who buttressed his theories of racial connections between India and Egypt by making claims about the empirical superiority of field surveys and observation even as he drew on “a priori [and unconnected] assumptions” when carrying those processes out (92). Throughout the rest of the volume’s chapters, Guha shows how such practices continued. In Chapter Three (“The Connected Histories of Philology and Archaeology”), for instance, she demonstrates how, in the nineteenth-century, philological scholarship relating to India (or Indology) could sometimes represent a collaborative process between Indian and western scholars. At the same time, Guha shows how the colonial government ceased to promote Indology at the end of that century when “the utility value of archaeology for building a visible profile of its civilizational mission to document and preserve India’s past” became clear (117). Ironically, this strategy, as Guha states, is one that continues as “archaeologists of India in the twenty-first century embrace the utilitarian measure that had governed the colonial administration of Indology” (117).
Chapter Four (“Fashioning the Unknown: Gordon Childe’s Imprints upon the Indus Civilisation”) takes this argument further, questioning how Gordon Childe’s theories of diffusionism between India and Mesopotamia still play out in “an unabashed mapping of a questionable South Asian civilizational tradition” (182). Chapter Five (“Civilisation, Heritage and the Archaeological Scholarship”), meanwhile, continues this critique of contemporary archaeological practice in India by discussing how post-partition archaeological work in the country has adopted a nationalist perspective that is anti-colonial (or anti-neo-colonial) at the same time that it uses prehistoric archaeology in particular to emphasise “the possibilities of finding a deep antiquity of the trans-Asiatic contributions of the ‘Indian culture’” (236). It is a situation, as Guha states in her concluding chapter (“A Vision for Archaeology”), that may well “enshrine the validity of the authoritarian closure of rights to participate and debate in cultural domains that are not one’s own” (239).
This all adds up to a book that will make difficult reading for archaeologists (Indian or otherwise) invested in positivist method. It also makes for a book that is useful reading for historians looking for a critical and original history of the subject at hand and for archaeologists and heritage practitioners involved in moral debates surrounding archaeology’s historical entanglement with colonialism. To this writer, at least, it seems that the perpetuation of colonial era practices in archaeology has often been a topic set to one side; despite its fractious theoretical arguments, the narrative of archaeological practice often continues to be a Whiggish one. But what ethical questions are raised when practices long-dismissed as problematic and ‘out-of-date’ are shown to continue? Who is in a position to criticise this situation? As calls for the decolonisation of (archaeological) knowledge continue to be necessary, Guha has raised difficult but important questions. For doing so, she deserves considerable praise.