Experience: Archaeologist for a day

October 05, 2019

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Archaeologists from the University of Hazara excavate a Buddhist site at Bado Dheri, near the city of Mansehra
Archaeologists from the University of Hazara excavate a Buddhist site at Bado Dheri, near the city of Mansehra

Historical fiction has been my favourite genre of literature for a long time. I recently read The Curse of Mohenjo Daro by Maha Khan Phillips. Through a fictional story about the Indus Valley civilisation, the book offered me a chance to understand what life could have looked like back then in the regions that are today Pakistan.

After reading the book, the prospect of seeing archaeologists unearthing age-old artefacts suddenly became much more appealing.

My family belongs to the region of Mansehra in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which was once a part of the Gandhara civilisation. In July 2019, when my elder brother offered to take me to the site of an archaeological excavation close to our village, I was more than eager to go and take a look!

The excavation site at Bado Dheri is spread around an earthen mound, four to five metres in height. The archaeological team, from the University of Hazara, informed us that prior to the excavation, a Buddhist relic casket had been illegally removed from this mound, which is, unfortunately, a common occurrence in these areas.

The structural stability of the mound amazed me, considering how intact it was for something thousands of years old. It was a testament to the architectural skill and knowledge of the great builders of the Gandhara.

A visit to an archaeological site and seeing how excavation takes place makes one marvel at the civilisations that once existed on our land

Surrounding this mound was a grid of earth-filled perimeters marked on all four sides by a neon ‘Do-not-cross’ tape. These grids around the mound were expected to hold artefacts of importance. The site was more organised than I had expected. It looked nothing like the images I had earlier had in my mind of a place abandoned.

The archaeologists would gently remove earth from inside each grid to find objects of importance. This process required a great deal of patience. According to archaeologists, sometimes days would pass by with no important objects found.

Although the excavation was in its early stages, lots of pottery had been found. In fact, much pottery could be found in nearby fields, completely and totally exposed to the elements.

The mound at Bado Dheri from which treasure hunters had stolen archaeological items before the excavation started / Photos by the writer
The mound at Bado Dheri from which treasure hunters had stolen archaeological items before the excavation started / Photos by the writer

According to the archaeologists there, after running tests on samples they would be able to find out important information about the diet of ancient dwellers of Bado Dheri.

Towards the end of our trip I climbed up the mound and sat there, trying to visualise life at that very spot ages ago. Instantly, my brain conjured images of Buddhist monks clad in their traditional attire, giving offerings and performing all kinds of sacred rituals.

Over a break during the excavation, the lead archaeologist Dr Abdul Hameed offered us to join him and his team for a cup of tea. He informed us about the history of the region and answered all our questions. During this discussion, I wished my school friends too had gotten this opportunity to interact with an archaeologist and see him work.

This visit to the excavation site was an enlightening experience for me. It would be greatly beneficial for students if schools organise trips to such sites. Students would then be able to understand that the land the makes up Pakistan has held many faiths, languages and cultures for thousands of years. This would help make all students and teachers open-minded towards different cultures.

Archaeologists patiently collect items from the excavation site / Photos by the writer
Archaeologists patiently collect items from the excavation site / Photos by the writer

In addition, students would also get to know the scientific, art and culture-related accomplishments of Gandhara. For example, Taxila hosted world-famous universities and centres of learning 1500 years ago. Visiting archaeological sites can encourage young people to consider becoming archaeologists. As I prepare for my O Level exams, it’s becoming increasingly clear that most young people are not considering a career beyond the scope of engineering, medicine and business. I think this needs to change.

Most of the school field trips I see are focused on going to places with cool climates and mountains. As my school year starts, I plan to advise my school to organise trips to historical sites, in addition to the standard trips.

Published in Dawn, Young World, October 5th, 2019