In this article we will discuss about the history of archaeology in India.

Col. Meadows Tylor of the early nineteenth century was one of the earliest to show interest in the archaeology of India. His interest, however, remained more concentrated on the south Indian Megaliths. Alexander Cunningham in 1861 and Robert Bruce Foote in 1863 began their explorations and recording of prehistoric antiquities of the country in the subsequent period.

While the former concentrated on the historic period and that too of the northern regions of India, the latter was more extensive in his interest extended to even the earliest Stone Age period. In fact the credit for reporting the first Palaeolithic tools from India is also given to Robert Bruce Foote.

The spectacular discovery of Harappa and Mohenjodaro during the early twenties of this century brought about a great deal of interest in Indian archaeology among the scholars. In 1930 Burkitt reported on Cammiade’s stone age tools collected from lower Krishna valley and also attempted to create a climatic succession for Indian Pleistocene’ period on Richardson’s line of what has been attempted in early African prehistory.


De Terra and Paterson in 1939 published their detailed geological study of the Potwar region in Punjab and also described the tools associated with the identified climatic succession. Almost in the same year Michael Todd reported an Upper Palaeolithic in stratigraphic context from Khandivli near Bombay.

In the strictly chronological sense, one can see that the rise and development of interest in Indian archaeology follows almost parallel with the same in France and England. In 1861 the Archaeological Survey of India was established and this was broadly the period when in Denmark the Prehistoric Museum was being established by organizing amateurists.

A.C. Carlleyle discovered microliths in the rock-shelters in Mirzapur along with Mesolithic cage paintings during 1863-1885. In European prehistory Gabriel de Mortilett was still to come out with the names of various traditions of the Palaeolithic period, and the real antiquity of some rock paintings discovered in Spain and France was still being disputed at this time. India, in this sense, has seen many firsts in the history of development of Euro-Asiatic archaeology.

A proper synthesis of retrieved fragments of the past was not attempted till 1950 when Stuart Piggott brought out the book Prehistoric India. Of course, works of Panchanan Mitra, on the same lines preceded Piggott’s by a couple of decades but the amount of material discovered till his time was too rudimentary to form a complete picture.


Researches in Archaeology of India for the period between 1861 to 1944 can be best compared with a stamp collection and had not formulated any theoretical paradigm calls it the Pre-Paradigm-stage). It was only in 1944 that Sir Mortimer Wheeler started baptising a series of Indian archaeologists into what Dhavalikar (1984) calls the ‘time- space’ perspective; the archaeologists in India could now collect their ‘stamps’ without damaging the corners and also learn the method of arranging them within a given ‘album’.

This could be achieved by adhering to type excavating technique evolved by Mortimer Wheeler and developing vertical sequencing of excavated material. The baptism could not, however, be carried on for a long period. By 1948 Wheeler left the country. But the missionary zeal of the new coverts, no matter how few they were, was enough to develop a distinct variety of archaeologists in India to whom the time-space frame was the only goal an archaeologist was supposed to serve.

In 1961, the first international conference of Asian archaeology was organized by the Archaeological Survey of India to mark the occasion of their completing one hundred years of existence. The deliberations of this conference, at many points, brought Indian archaeologists face to face with anthropology but the total pre-occupation of the former with pot sherds, stone tools or megaliths on the one hand and with terraces, layers and phases on the other, made them totally ignore the cultural logic of the renowned anthropologists.

From then onwards there has been no looking back. Archaeology in India has progressively moved away from anthropology. Any criticism of our inadequate chronology has been adequately met with by delving deeper and deeper in our vertical trenches. Inevitable requirement of natural and biological sciences to perfect our time sequence is being emphasized.


The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was established in 1961 and a plethora of radiocarbon dated started appearing from our Chalcolithic sites. In 1964, Deccan College, Pune for the first time attempted to bring together all the information gathered till then in Indian Archaeology. Almost in the same year (1965) D.D. Kosambi brought out The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline.

The book became an instant success in sociology, history and Indology. It aims at the reconstruction of Indian civilization as a dynamic process with the help of archaeological, textual and mythological basis whenever and whichever is available. In Indian archaeology this book did not even create a ripple. To most of the archaeologists his approach was as ridiculous as looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Subbarao’s The Personality of India (1958) made a much bigger impact than Kosambi’s work could. This was primarily because Subbarao’s approach was purely anthropogeographic and also such an approach has a common-sense level attraction as well. The establishment of a special journal for archaeology. Puratattva, in 1967 shows that by this time a marked increase in the number of scholars involved in archaeological research must have occurred.

University departments, museums and research institutes were generating fresh data from all over the country. A look through the contents of the early issues of this Journal can at once explain the generalized trend set for archaeological researches in India. The questions asked and dealt with are by no means unimportant, but nothing can be further from anthropology than these researches.

Archaeology in the United States during this period was passing through a series of reformations and rethinking. While Binford brought out his ‘Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Culture Process’; in 1965, Chang (1963) appealed for more studies in settlement archaeology. In 1967 Deetz gave an ‘Invitation to Archaeology’ for looking beyond material culture.

Orme (1972) came out almost openly to recommend anthropological models for culture studies. Allen and Richardson (1971) went way ahead of all by even recommending methods of reconstructing kinship from archaeological data. All this was so bewildering for the conservative school of archaeologists that Jacquetta Hawks (1968) could not help but bring out her apprehensions in print.

The only Indian to have reacted to Hawks was D.P. Agarwal (1970). The latter goes all the way to support the changes in archaeology where, increasingly, natural and biological sciences are being used. Surprisingly he does not comment on the need of these objectivized environmental data for serving the new paradigm that archaeology was adopting in the west.

Another Indian scholar after a short stay in California came back and wrote a book to emphasize the very important cause anthropology can serve in Indian archaeology. Again this solitary attempt to wed the two branches could not bring the desired change because of its rather sharp criticism of the existing school and theoretically weak arguments for anthropology.

It is evident that the preoccupation in India was increasingly getting tangled in environmental archaeology and the reasons for this are fairly evident. In the first place. India had always suffered from the lack of a scientifically demonstrative chronological framework. This, in the face of a Wheelerian obsession for constructing sequence, gave birth to a distinct chip on their shoulder.

In the second place, a large number of the new generation archaeologists in USA started reviving ecology as a dominant factor in moulding human culture. The seminar on Radiocarbon and Indian Archaeology plainly shows the effects of these developments in Indian archaeology.

A combined thrust of newer demands of environmental studies in archaeology on the one hand and the need to classify the enormous amount of data within an environmental frame on the other must have caused the emergence of the Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies in 1977.

The first volume of the organ of this society named Man and Environment appeared the same year. Sankalia’s updating work of Prehistory and Protohistory of India and Pakistan (1974) incorporates a considerable amount of the new body of data from the Middle East including the remarkable evidence from Mehergarh but discussion of culture-process is kept to the minimum.

In 1978, Allchin, Goudie and Hegde brought out The Prehistory and Protohistory of the Great Indian Desert. Allchin and Chakravarti’s A Source book of Indian Archaeology (1979) surprisingly does not even raise the issues which are relevant in any historical summary.

These are some others like Pant’s Prehistoric Uttar Pradesh (1982) or Jaiswal’s Chopper-Chopping Component of Palaeolithic India (1982) but these address themselves to fragmented areas or features. Agrawal’s latest book called The Archaeology of India (1982) attempts to summarize all the archaeological material of past researches apparently within a historical framework.

There is no theory in this book, not even broad generalizations. He does fall back on anthropology but only so far as the selections of chapter headings go, e.g., ‘The first farming cultures’. But he demolishes all hopes for anthropological archaeology when in the 7th line after opening the chapter on Prehistoric Art he writes, possibly he (the Mesolithic man) did not even believe in anything beyond the material. There were no gods, religion or after-life. One wonders whether Agrawal is describing the capitalistic western world of today!

Finally I shall like to briefly refer to the impact of New Archaeology of what Dhavalikar would like to call “Bin- Clarke’ revolution in Indian archaeology. Sankalia himself chose this topic for the D N Majumdar memorial lecture in 1974. The very fact that he chose to examine ‘New Archaeology’ in a very pointed fashion, should have made some impact on Indian archaeologists, but apparently they had no time for theory when they were busy with classifying ‘pots and pans’ or ‘stones and bones’ coming out of their on-going excavations.

The only reverberation of this was felt in 1985 when Deccan College organized a seminar on Recent Advances in Indian Archaeology. The proceedings report is edited by Deo and Paddayya (1985). Paddayya goes all out to initiate the Indian archaeologists to the concept and methods of processual archaeology – but alas what follows is the same stuff – although carrying such ambitious and misleading captions as ‘Cultural Ecology, of Early Man in India’ or ‘Cultural Ecology of the Neolithic India.’

The above discussion will clearly demonstrate that Indian archaeology still remains in what may be described as a “descriptive stage”. An analytical stage in archaeology cannot emerge without a sound theoretical foundation for the structure of culture or culture change.

Such a change seems a very remote likelihood without developing anthropological archaeology in India. Archaeology in our country has its umbilical cord tied to history and this kind of archaeology cannot help us much in understanding such a complex country as India.