This very impressive volume (with brilliant illustrations and maps) may be regarded as a landmark publication in Indian archaeology. The statement made in the Preface has been adhered to in its near perfection—‘a holistic exercise combining the expertise of many disciplines to understand the past material record of settlements as well as their interaction with a changing landscape.’ The work centres on excavation of the site of Balupur with a settlement history of c. 600–1800 CE, which is located in Malda district in the northern part of West Bengal. The study area forms part of the ancient region of Varendra which covers the districts of north Bengal and north Bangladesh, reaching its prosperity during the early medieval period, under the Pala-Sena dynasty. The importance of the volume is three-pronged. First, it dispels the common notion that sites in a fluvial dynamic zone like this are heavily disturbed, and hence cannot be held as indices of past human habitation.
Instead, through a painstaking study of the fluvial geomorphology of the Ganga-Mahananda interfluve where Balupur and many other associated sites are located—involving methods of archaeochemistry, sedimentology, sand mineralogy, phytolith analysis and archaeological excavation—it illustrates how population groups lived and adapted to a fluvially dynamic landscape. Sites like Balupur were buried yet very well-preserved as revealed by the excavation. Second, the ‘early medieval’ period is poorly understood in Indian archaeology and in Bengal defined and ascribed a chronology only on the basis of sculptural pieces and inscriptions. This work has tried to understand the phenomenon of early medieval from habitation settlements and an incisive analysis of material culture in its historical context. Third, it has built up a pottery index, hitherto absent, which may be treated as a chronological indicator for marking sites without substantial architectural and sculptural remains.
The volume begins with an Introduction followed by four major chapters with sub-sections. Chapter 1 gives a historical background spanning the reign of Sasanka to the Bengal Sultanate and later, covering the entire chronological period represented in the material evidence of Balupur. The Macro region is described, situating the archaeological settlements in their geomorphic setting. A critique of earlier work is made and aims of the current work stated. Chapter 2 constitutes a detailed report on investigations centring the site of Balupur. The drainage system in the Ganga-Mahananda interfluve is defined. Exploratory surveys were undertaken prior to the excavation to see the archaeological potential of the region. All material evidence was taken into consideration irrespective of chronology with inputs from local history and Cunningham’s reports wherever available. The excavation followed a technique not of horizontal layout but a vertical method to understand the relationship between cultural and natural layers at the synchronic and diachronic levels. This is crucial in an alluvial setting featured by frequent change in river courses. An additional merit of the work is the availability of a series of AMS and OSL dates. A detailed description of trenches has been done with meticulous care, season-wise. A composite stratigraphy with a cultural sequence helps the reader to understand a complex site with ease. At the end of the chapter an important query is raised on the urban-rural dichotomy often plaguing the study of historical sites in South Asia.
A strikingly new methodology has been charted out in the next chapter on pottery and other artefacts. The method of pottery classification has tried to provide ‘heuristic devices’ to organize data from various cultural phases. A diachronic study has been attempted which may be used as an index in future to designate pottery from different chronological periods. The usual parameters of classification based on colour, fabric, shape, variations in rim and other characteristics are followed but with some distinctive changes, for instance in shape. A notable observation is made on sherd count. The ‘brokenness’ of sherds can vary from type to type. Thus it has been rightfully stated that a higher proportion of sherds of a certain type in an assemblage does not imply the presence of more pots of that type. The concept of vessel-equivalent originates in the idea that every sherd is a certain proportion of the whole pot of which it earlier formed a part. Here the rim sherds have been analysed from this perspective. This is indeed a novel method in seeing the representation of different types, and perhaps has never been attempted in Indian archaeology before. The pottery types, likewise studied diachronically, add an immense value to the volume, accompanied by excellent images and line drawings.
Archaeological work shows that the settlement pattern of this area is characterized by clusters of major sites, segregated by areas with few archaeological remains, mostly isolated structural mounds. These major site complexes were again separate from the large permanent sites like Bangarh in Dinajpur district or Mahasthangarh in Bagua district, Bangladesh and the semi-compact dispersed settlements like Balupur. Buried sites like Balupur form a common feature of a floodplain in which structural remains and organic data are well-preserved. These ‘invisible’ or buried sites were overlooked by previous workers as very little cultural record was visible on their surface. Therefore human cultural adaptation was less understood, and architectural and sculptural pieces wherever available were considered as cultural indicators. Colonial accounts of settlements were consulted. Modern-day habitation patterns were observed to draw inferences.
Each chapter is accompanied by exhaustive notes. The appendices at the end of the volume carry detailed reports of the animal and human remains, phytolith study, archaeochemistry of the sedimentary deposits and dates.
Rarely does one come across a work which evades criticism. The authors may be applauded for a work which is sure to open a new avenue in archaeological research in India.
Bishnupriya Basak is Assistant Professor in the Department of Archaelogy, University Of Calcutta,Kolkata.
A composite stratigraphy with a cultural sequence helps the reader to understand a complex site with ease. At the end of the chapter an important query is raised on the urban-rural dichotomy often plaguing the study of historical sites in South Asia.