Encountering the past on the suspicious terrain of the present

 –   ‘Oh Bhai, kichhu paichhen?’ [Have you found anything, brother?]

–   Hya, paichhi to. Iter dewal, ghar, matir khola, pathor ar pathorer bhanga tukra’ [Yes, we have. Brick-built walls, rooms, pottery, stone and stone pieces.]

–  Na, bhai, kichhu paan nai? [No, not these. Haven’t you found anything?]

–   koilam to..ei sab i paichhi. Anek kichhu. [I have already told you…we have found all these things.]

–   Dhan-sampad, shona-dana kichhu paan nai? Paileo to koben na. Sab nia jaben. [Haven’t you found any treasure, gold? You wouldn’t tell us, even if you find them.]

–    Aapnara to jatokhhan khuri tatokhhan boisa dekhen. ‘kichhu’ paileo to dekhten. Eihane ei rakam kichhui nai re bhai. Thakle jara agei it tuilya nia gechhe tarai paito. Tara to pai nai. Paile to hei gula beichcha tara dalan dito. [You stay still as long as we continue our excavation. You could have seen them even if we had found these things. There is no gold or treasure here. Those who have robbed the site and bricks would have found the valuable objects, if these things were there. If they could found them, they could be rich!]

–    Aamra ki bujhi? Amra ashikhita manush. Tai chairmain er baap Anis Chowdhury kintu oikhane [Gopalpur] anek kichhu paichhilo. Anek gulan kasti-pathorer murti. Hei murtir puja dewaii he moira gelo. Tomra amago koiba na. [Do we understand? We are uneducated people. The father of chairman (present Upazila chairman) found many things in that place (Gopalpur). He found many sculptures made of kasti-pathor. He arranged puja for those Hindu sculptures and he died for this sin. You wouldn’t tell me.]

Encountering the past on the suspicious terrain of the present
by Swadhin Sen

Theoretical polemics, discussions and researches on democratizing cultural heritage are central to contemporary cultural resource management or cultural heritage management. These debates hinge around the theme like, public participation and access to heritage sites and monuments, contestation of monopolizing expert knowledge on heritage issues, community engagement in heritage management projects, awareness raising programmes regarding protection and preservation of cultural heritage, etc. The circumstances, within which archaeologists like us in the margin of the ‘third world’ state work, particularly, during the fieldwork, compel us to rethink these polemics and discourses. In this short note, I will be referring to archaeological heritage as cultural heritage, excluding the intangible components.

The conversation above is just one of numerous encounters between ‘us’ (the professionals from the ‘centre’) and ‘them’ (the actual people who are living with the archaeological places, destroying them, and sometimes, preserving them) during our recent excavations at two archaeological sites in Ghoraghat Upazila of Dinajpur District, Bangladesh. In some of my early writings, I have argued that popular perceptions of the past and heritage must be taken into serious consideration if any effective measures against the indiscriminate plundering of archaeological sites in Bangladesh are sought for. I am here not talking about ‘raising awareness’ of ‘uneducated’ mass. Nor am I arguing for a wholesale submission to the logic of destruction of archaeological sites for expansion of cultivable land, for using bricks to build recent houses, or for choosing ‘human’ need in stead of ‘artefacts’.

The situation on ground is much more complex. Democratizing the cultural heritage, therefore, require a sincere and patient engagement with the complex articulation of power, land and legal system on grass root level. Communitarian identity politics, also, is needed to taken into account. Any archaeological ‘fieldwork’ is a collective team work. If the work is sincerely and seriously perceived and undertaken, if various tasks need to be done by maintaining the honesty, rigourousness and by respectful interaction with the locals, the pressure on the team becomes tremendous and multiplied.

The problems in managing an excavation are multilayered. Along with the funding, it involves managing a workable logistics, often in an uncomfortable territory. It also involves coordination with the local administration and law enforcement agencies, with local quarters of power, with the people you need to perform mundane daily activities and solve day-to-day problems (for example, power cuts, cooking, marketing, seeking workers in harvesting season, selection of workers from many, etc.). It also involves maintaining a respectful relation to the local workers. Day after day, after working for months under the summer heat, when every team member is tired, fatigued, psychologically non-receptive, temperamentally vulnerable, it becomes difficult to have a patient and democratic engagement with the burden of mass suspicion.

Perhaps, there are often logical grounds behind the grammar of distrust, if the ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ dichotomy is accepted and the inequality in contemporary neo-liberal consumption culture is considered. The increasing disparity between the ‘experts’, ‘university academics’, ‘professionals’ and local general actors plays a key role, I clarify. The condition of distrust on the state institutions and more importantly, on the ‘developmental enterprises’ by various non-government organizations also play their part on the structuration of the grammar of popular suspicion. When corruption is overwhelming in any government and non-government project on grass root level in Bangladesh, how can we expect that we will be greeted with equal respect and tolerance? Even if we have lesser funding and greater sincerity in spending the amount to attain as much archaeologically significant information as we can, many of our colleagues’ unscrupulous practice in the field generate an aura of generalization – everybody, who is working with government funds, is corrupt. Instead of spending the required amount, everybody is trying their best to fulfill their own pockets, the people think. This is the fundamental trend of perceiving the professionals from the ‘centre’ in the ‘margin’ of the state. The perception is not only confined to the domain of the popular; the local elites (such as, media personals, members of administration, local leaders of different political parties, local school and college teachers, etc.) assumes the same. When distrust, disbelief and suspicion are pervasive, democracy seizes to articulate. Or, is suspicion an essential predicament of the entailment of a perfectly working democratic culture? I am sure that this is not the kind of suspicion that is widely celebrated by the pundits as the ‘beginning of knowledge’.

Quite necessarily, there have been academic debates and interpretations on the notion and ideals of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ in such empirical enterprise as archaeological surveying and excavations. The subjectivity of different actors in a dynamic and often, antagonistic and manipulative structure of interrelationship, makes great impact on the ways the work is done. There is, however, an essential role of empirical data in archaeological fieldwork.

Our excavation team stayed in a rented house close to Raniganj Bazar, a prominent market place on the Dhaka-Birampur-Phulbari-Dinajpur highway. We had to encounter questions like the above not only during the excavation, but also during our daily trip to the market. We were enfolded into a ubiquitous popular suspicion and distrust. Even the people from administration who were eagerly helping us in sorting out minutest problems in the field, were under the spell of suspicion over what we were really looking for- gold? Sculptures made of kastipathor (a misnomer for the Black basalt and sandstone popularized dangerously by mainstream media and police)? Or, something more valuable beyond their recognition? Even the officer-in-charge of the local thana was not impressed, when we went to deposit a sandstone made pedestal owing to our sense of insecurity of keeping it in our rented house. He expected a statue of kastipathor. The journalists and reporters frequently asked the question, perhaps in a slightly modest and nuanced manner – ‘What exactly have you found? No, no, I mean if there are any ‘valuable’ or ‘sensational’ finds?’ Their sense of value is conditioned by the exchangeability of the artifacts in market place, not in terms of how the artefacts might contribute to understanding of the past society and cultures of people. The autocracy of sensational and valuable ‘objects’ strangles the democracy of things – a democracy that is more valuable to engage with the past people and their cultures in a meaningful way. The democracy of things (irrespective of added-value in terms of dominant disciplinary paradigm and also, market value as antics) detected, found and retrieved in archaeological fieldwork is an essential prerequisite to interpret history of the past peoples’ lives and their transformation.

Conversation with the locals and visiting persons
during the excavation at Parur Dhibi, Belwa, Ghoraghat

There are temptations and dominant practice of proclaiming sensitizing discovery in the mainstream media. The inescapable desire to consume a ‘glorious’ and ‘classical’ past covertly plays its part in the construction and articulation of suspicion. ‘Oh, you haven’t found the oldest or largest or most unique relics; your works are not significant’. ‘You haven’t dug out any civilization compared to Greek and Roman ones, your excavation is fruitless’. These are the perception of educated urban middle class. During the excavations, we are asked very tempting questions by many media professionals and visiting ‘educated’ citizens from these genres of perception of cultural heritage. Mainstream media expects breaking news of a sensational discovery that has far less significance in addressing and understanding the lives of past societies and cultures. Again, democratic norms and values in practice of the field and democracy of things turn into a handmaiden of the tyranny of nationalistic aspirations in the processes and production of the representation of ‘past’ and ‘cultural heritage’.

The surveillance of the locals, Parur Dhibi, Ghoraghat


This season we had to postpone our planned excavation on one of the sites at Biral Upazila. The site is a structural mound and there is a small contemporary temple of the local Hindu goddess Buri on the top. We tried to follow and complete every possible pre-excavation step correctly, as far as our knowledge and ability allowed. The committee of that temple gave us their verbal permission after our communication with them. We were content by our democratic practice. Suddenly, on a bright sunny day, the community leaders related to the modern temple over the mound organized a religious ritualistic performance, they claimed, in order to seek permission from the divinities affiliated to the site for allowing us to conduct excavation. The performance was elaborate. Hundreds of people gathered. Four men were carefully selected to perform the rituals. In that performance in conjunction with the rhythm of dhak (a kind of drum used particularly during puja, and performance pertaining to Hindu rituals), they were epiphanic.  Four different gods and goddesses revealed their presence and utterance through medium of human body and mouth. Specific body-acts and exhibition of physiological symptoms entailed the entire exercise. We were, however, not that fortunate. Two of the gods, as the epiphany disclosed, denied us permission. The revelations suggested that any excavation on the site would bring disaster to the community. Consequently, we had to leave the site and went for other option, that is, to excavate at Ghoraghat.

Performance of the epiphanic revelations

I do not simply take this event as the public display of ‘uneducated superstition’. Rather, we have found such perceptions and fear in relation to many archaeological places, especially those which are under reuse as places of worship by Muslims, Hindus and Indigenous nations. As a parallel example, I may cite enactment of the Native American Grave Protection Act (NAGPRA) after long protest and mobilization by the Native Americans. They did not simply want their past and the body of their ancestors to be the object of indiscriminate scientific inquiry and museum display. Yet, there are fundamental differences between these two kinds of mobilizations. In our case, archaeological research was denied by secular as well as religious sensibilities. The crux of the matter is, some of the local Hindus are allegedly illegally possessing a large portion of the debottara property (the property endowed for defraying the cost of worshipping a deity) of the temple.

The ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ were found to be enmeshed in a multilayered way in this particular case at Biral. ‘Secular’ distrust has been, I add, translated into ‘religious’ performance of epiphany, and vice-versa. I came across several local Hindu community leaders later. Secular hope and expectations loomed large. Will we be giving funds for the restoration and renovation of the temple? Would we leave the high and convex mound leveled, so that a fence could be used to enclose the edifice and the territory? Hope and desire bring to fore doubts and suspicions, I suspect!

One of the males in the process of epiphany at Biral, Dinajpur

Concurrently, the land as personal property is central to the formation of distrust. Settlement Survey generates and legitimizes forged document. Land registration offices produces fake documents of lease and ownership of khas, debottara, vested property lands. Most of the archaeological sites are on such lands, yet in many cases, the current possession of these lands is either illegal, or the ownership has been legalized through the process of corruption and forging. In case of Ghoraghat, the suspicion generates among the current possession holders because of their fear of loosing the land, loosing the continuous right to cultivate the land. Various strategies have been found to be developed to grab the land owned by the indigenous nationalities. The legal impediments in the transaction of the land and property owned by indigenous nationalities are being breached through a complex strategy and the land is not theirs anymore. The name of the excavated mound at Belwa – `Parur Dhibi’ (mound of Paru) – is derived from the name of the possessor Paru who was from the Santal nationality. I became suspicious about the transformation of the status of land partially into khas land and partially, into privately owned land. We are trusted neither by the forger, nor by the victims of forgery. At the same time, encountering such aspects of the land property and legal system, suspicion inflicts us. ‘We’ and ‘they’ – both became the victim of the pathology of distrust and suspicion.

Why would we spend money for digging some old things? Why are we sitting under the scorching heat of the summer sun and document, draw, measure and photograph? How so much labour is invested without some ‘material’ interest? Many of them are plundering the archaeological mounds to rob old bricks. Yet, many of them believe that we work so hard to get huge proportion of gold or extremely valuable sculptures of kastipathor. I must note that research and related works are not simply for immaterial purposes. We are being paid to do that. We would have publications and sometimes that might rarely bring some material gains. We are not doing some great job. We are simply doing what we are supposed to do as archaeologists.

Under these circumstances, many unresolved questions sneaks out from the blackholes of suspicion.  What does democracy in relation to ‘cultural heritage’ mean in the conditions we are working? How the ideals and practice of democracy are connected to the democracy in disciplinary, academic and professional practice of interrelated disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, cultural studies? How do the transnational agencies and funding agencies, including the developmental ones, act in conditioning relation between the democratic culture and cultural heritage? Can the democratic ideals and practice within the nation-state and among the nation-states be the structuring condition for the notion of democracy attached to cultural heritage? Can we encounter democracy on this suspicious terrain by simply labeling the popular domain as illiterate and uneducated, when claims to sensitizing pseudoarchaeological discoveries are circulated widely in media, and consequently, consumed fanatically by the nationalistic pride of urban educated middle class? Is this fanatic consumption and manifestation of cultural heritage democratic? Is the consumption of and belief in such weird discoveries as ‘oldest fortified city’ or ‘the cradle of Bangali nation’ at the site of Wari-Bateshwar ‘superstitious’? What kind of democratic culture of professional work perpetrates such massacre of the past and cultural heritage? These questions must be raised for delving into the complex terrain of suspicion and distrust in terms of democracy and cultural heritage.

Suspicion and distrust are, perhaps, one of the fundamental articulating principles of democratic culture. The principles, in another way, determine the extent, limit and scope of ‘democracy’ in any condition – in our case, in reference to the professional works on cultural heritage. Democracy of things is as much necessary as democracy of culture and cultural heritage. It could be the only available way, yet not the most effective one, to protect and preserve hundreds of archaeological sites in north-western part of Bangladesh from the land grabbers, looters, brick-robbers and corrupted land related legal system. Democracy in cultural heritage, simultaneously, can not be ensured by the nationalistic dogma of urban class. Democracy of cultural heritage must contest the despotic production and consumption of nationalistic pride through indiscriminate manufacture and circulation of the ‘oldest’, ‘largest’, ‘greatest’ discoveries by media and professionals.


07 June, 2013. 13, Bachelors’ Quarter, Jahangirnagar University

Photographs by Dildar Hossen and Author;

Swadhin Sen is Associate Professor, Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University.

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