Archaeology is another primary source for a historian. The most important source for an archaeologist is the excavation method.
When a modern field archaeologist comes across an ancient site that needs to be explored he or she chooses a small area and digs vertically down until the natural soil is reached, below which no human habitation is possible.
Human occupation of a site results in the accumulation of material in various kinds, which in course of time becomes debris for the next phase of settlement.
An archaeologist’s task is to identify strata or layers which represent successive phases of occupation. Thus, the history of such occupation is broken into periods, I, II, III and so on, with I denoting the deepest and the oldest. If necessary, the periods are divided into sub-periods: la, lb, Ic. This periodization defines a site’s relative chronology.
Artifacts (mostly pottery fragments) from different sites are then inter compared to define a material culture on a cultural phase, often named after one of the sites. The next step is to try to establish an absolute chronology. Towards this end, suitable samples are collected from well-defined strata and taken to a laboratory where they are assigned absolute dates using techniques of Calibrated Radio Carbon Dating or Thermo luminescence.
Strictly speaking, the laboratory date is applicable to the specific sample. However, by extrapolation, it is applied to the whole assemblage. The extrapolation however, can be problematic. Although each date in itself is accurate, very often a large number of samples from the same layer yield widely different dates.
One must then ‘select’ a date, which represents the whole assemblage, keeping in mind the stratigraphy of the site and synchronism with the other sites. This method is uniformly applied to any archaeological site irrespective of its age and extent: right from the earliest layers of the Indus cultures to the Vijayanagar period.
Archaeological sources are further divided into epigraphs, coins and monuments. Epigraphs are commonly called inscriptions. The importance of epigraphs has been explained by E.J. Rapson as follows, “The inscriptions supply the most valuable evidence as to the political, social and economic conditions of the period and the country to which they belong. They testify on one hand to the restless activity of the military caste and on the other to the stability of institutions which were as a rule, unaffected by military conquest”.
Generally, the epigraphs are inscribed on stone and metals. The epigraphs of early India are in either Brahmi or Kharosti script. The epigraphs can be divided into commercial, donative, commemorative, literary, and eulogistic. The Hatigumpha epigraph of Kharavela of Kalinga is of pure eulogistic type.
Allahabad Prasasti of Samudra Gupta is also of the same category. The Nasik Cave inscription of Usavadatta and the Nasik Cave inscription of Gautami Balasri belong to the mixed type. The Rumindei epigraph of Asoka belongs to the commemorative category because it reads as follows, “King Priyadarsi, beloved of the Gods, when he had been consecrated many years ago, came in person and did worship. Because here the Sakya sage, the Buddha, was born, he caused a stone wall to be made and a stone pillar to be erected”. Copper epigraphs became numerous after the sixth century AD and they read like books. The historian has to ascertain the genuineness of the epigraph, as spurious epigraphs have become known.
Numismatics or Coins:
Coins are useful in many ways to reconstruct the history of our country. They provide the names of the rulers, fix the chronology, and help to decide the extent of the kingdom of the period. The discovery of the Roman coins confirmed that there was brisk trading activity between Rome and India and proved the economic prosperity and the sea-going activities of the people of India. From the figures of the kings on the coins, we can know the headdress worn by the rulers.
Coins indicate the general economic condition of the region at that juncture. Thus, a critical contextual analysis of the coins along with epigraphs and literary evidence yields very useful information to reconstruct the history of the period.
Next to epigraphs and coins, monuments, serve a very useful purpose in reconstructing history. Archaeological excavations conducted at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro brought to light the first urban civilization of India that helped trace the beginnings of Indian civilization to five or six thousand BC.
The excavations at Taxila throw fresh light on the Kushans. The Stupas, Viharas, Chaityas, the earliest temple structures, sculptural embellishments of Barhut, Sanchi Amaravati and Nagrjunakonda, the paintings in Ajanta and Ellora Caves, and the rock-cut temples of the Pallavas are helpful in gaining knowledge of the evolution of Indian art. Along with the monuments, the available pottery and artifacts made of beads, ivory, iron, and copper found in excavations also throw valuable light on the life patterns of early and medieval India.
A survey of the sources for the reconstruction of the history of India can be concluded with a cautious observation that a historian has to be extremely careful while picking what he considers authentic and valuable, by skillful analysis of all available sources by corroborating them from different angles.
Only then will a historian be able to make a valid historical generalization that can be useful in the reconstruction of history. Like any profession, history writing, analysis and interpretation is a specialist’s craft, requiring special skills to understand the process of history un-biasedly.