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Jaya Menon

COLONIAL ARCHAEOLOGY IN SOUTH ASIA: THE LEGACY OF SIR MORTIMER WHEELER
By Himanshu Prabha Ray
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. i-xii 291, Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 3 MARCH 2008

This is the third in a spate of books dealing with colonial archaeologists, following on the heels of those which concentrated on Alexander Cunningham and John Marshall. The protagonist of this book, Sir R.E. Mortimer Wheeler is well known for having trained Indian archaeologists of the 1940s and 50s and who established the Taxila School for the purpose. In fact, the practice of archaeology in the subcontinent as undertaken now by Indian archaeologists is largely the legacy of Wheeler. Wheeler is also a familiar figure for students of archaeology. Picturesque in both form and speech, his military demeanour, no-holds barred approach to and candid comments on the practice of archaeology in India prior to his appointment are legendary.   There are interesting nuggets of information, such as the discussion of the Archaeological Survey of India at the time of the partition of the country, particularly regarding concerns about the well being of the staff. There are also short discussions on the role of Indians, such as Ghulam Yazdani and M.H. Krishna, in archaeology. One wishes that scholars would investigate further the role of Indians, rather than concentrating only on the colonial archaeologists. In the context of an expanded role for the Archaeological Survey of India in Asia, Ray mentions John Marshall’s idea of ‘Further India’. One would, in fact, also have liked to know when the concept of ‘Greater India’, still current in certain university departments, came in as well as its politics.   It is in relation to the practice of archaeology that Ray’s book highlights Wheeler’s disparagement of Marshall and Mackay’s techniques of excavation. However, though that was the reason to set up the Taxila School, to train Indian archaeologists anew, the actual differences between Wheeler’s techniques and those practised earlier should have been more explicitly detailed out. We are left with his criticism of the bench-mark method and we are familiar with his article on archaeological strata in the journal Ancient India, but as Ray also pointed out in recognition of the ambivalence of his approach, that Wheeler himself acknowledged that Marshall’s dates were, in fact, correct. But for the layman as well as for the informed audience, the author could also have explained further his idea of selective stratification and its impact on the interpretation of archaeological data.   It is heartening to see that Ray is objective about Wheeler, whether ...


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