MEHRGARH: Distinguished Icon of World of Archaeology

Of many splendid distinctions, Balochistan cherishes some as its pride-symbols. Mehrgarh is one of them. The discovery shattered many myths including the label of ’empty fortress ‘ often upheld about the Baloch Motherland. It firmed centrality of Balochistan in the discourse of genesis of human civilization. Its influence had a wider impact ranging from Hemalay to Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, even up to Sri Lanka and Australia. It was indeed a revolution as pervasive as I.T in contemporary context. It gave birth to various civilizations including Indus and Sarasvati ( Dr. Jarrige ). Beside Archaeology, it virtually enriched many disciplines such as Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, Theology, etc . To a great extent it paved the road to human development as the pioneer as well as the trend setter.

Mehrgarh is located at the convergence point of heritage trail. The historic Bolan valley, the cradle of civilization, Dhader and the principal seat of governance, Sibi, the treasure-house of tangible as well as Intangible heritage, all meet at Mehrgarh. The interesting thing about the heritage trail is that it was regarded so even prior to the discovery of Mehrgarh due to its role in history, spanning over thousands of years. However, Mehrgarh took it to unparalleled heights.

The distance of Mehrgarh from Provincial capital of Balochistan, Quetta, and its akin offshoots, is not more than 150 km. The road enters the historic Bolan valley through the gates of Kolpur and dips to negotiate hundreds of zigzag turns amidst lofty mountains to eventually emerge at Dhader Town. Before entering the Town a diversion on the right side of the highway, leads to Mehrgarh, the 9000 Years old Neolithic site, which is an icon of the World of Archaeology. It situates at the bank of Bolan river, which has an overwhelming significance in Baloch folklore. History bespeaks of River banks and often designates those as birth place of civilization across the world, such as Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, Saraswati etc. but Bolan is the oldest among those where genesis of early civilization flourished. Similarly Mehrgarh was the game changer of the science of civilization.

Archaeologists do wonderful things. The most interesting among those is their constant quest for new finds. Therefore, they seem to be locked in an inconclusive contest with themselves. As efficient trackers of distant times they chase traces bit by bit and reconstruct along scientific lines the human past. They invest their precious years to come up with tangible proof about genesis and growth of cultures that gave birth to civilizations. Their efforts not only identify the areas and people that remarkably contributed to the heritage of humanity but also filled wide gaps in understanding the development of human societies across the globe. So the world truly owes generous gratitudes to Archaeologists and the discipline of Archaeology. As pointed out at the outset, Balochistan had been a beneficiary of this science and enjoys the status of a heavyweight after the discovery of Mehrgarh archaeological site. The story of Mehrgarh is a story of impacts and influences. We deal with it extensively but first let me give a brief background how the French Archaeological Mission discovered it.

Balochistan constitutes about 44 % of Pakistan and is the largest province of the country. It’s entire territory is literally doted with ‘ Dumb ‘ i.e a term of Balochi language used for prospective sites found in or around existing townships and villages in the form of mud heaps. Such sites were detected initially through surfacing of scattered fragments of pottery exposed by torrential rains. The local population looks at them with suspicion and interprets those as potential sites of buried treasures of bygone kings that once occupied those elevated platforms. Owing to such misconceptions, they undertake diggings, plundering and ruining of sites in search of gold and other saleable precious materials. Mehrgarh was no exception.

The Archaeological Mission of France initiated excavations in Balochistan in late 60’s. The famous French Archaeologist Dr. Jean Casal headed the Mission while, beside others, Dr. Francois Jarrige and his wife Dr. Catherine Jarrige were among the members of his team. They chose to work on Nindowari site at Ornach, located in Southern Balochistan. The team was looking for the Harrapan influence and its furtherance westward as per popular trend of the time. The excavations continued for quite sometime uninterrupted and the Team had a plan to stay till its completion of the assignment. But in 1973, the Federal Government dissolved the elected and popular Government of Sardar Ataullah Mengal, Chief Minister of Balochistan, by imposing Governor’s rule in the province. As a consequence the area turned extremely volatile and the Mission had to abandon excavations due to precarious law and order situation. They winded up from Ornach and shifted to the comparatively calm and peaceful zones of eastern Balochistan to carry on excavations at a couple of sites in areas adjacent to Sindh border. The decision of shifting from south Balochistan to east, though taken under compulsion, proved to be a blessing in disguise towards exploration of Mehrgarh. Archaeology is fraught with such instances when small acts led to great discoveries, like the grand Xian Terracotta Armies discovery in China ( 1977 ) that surfaced while a farmer was digging a well.

As the story unfolds, we find one of the key tribal chiefs and an influential politician, Nawab Ghaus Bakhsh Raisani entering the scene. Nawab Raisani had been the Governor of Balochistan as well. Those who knew him well, considered him a keen enthusiast with a lot of demonstrated interest for the field of Archaeology. According to Dr. Jarrige, Nawab Raisani was the curtain raiser to identifying Mehrgarh Site to the French Mission. He invited the team and took them around to each Dumb of significance in the area and offered them his support and patronage in case they considered excavating Mehrgarh. The team comprised experienced members with impressive track record of excavations in Europe, Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia etc. They instantly started communicating with the Site by examining the pottery pieces and other related signs and symptoms scattered on the surface. They took keen interest in the site and promised conducting a preliminary study prior to shifting their focus to Mehrgarh. Their initial findings were startling by highest standards of the subject and each of the team members knew that they had set foot on a promising Site that might shake the world of Archaeology with many surprises.

As the excavations progressed the details started to bag headlines in the print and electronic media throughout the world. The research journals of Archaeology, Anthropology and other related sciences published articles and papers that aroused renewed interest and generated debates based on the findings of the French and Pakistani team. Dr. Jarrige took over as team leader after the short illness and demise of Dr. Casal. A number of interviews of Dr. Jarrige and other archaeologists with short documentaries of the site were flashed globally and Balochistan emerged to the center stage as the cradle of a unique Neolithic marvel, Mehrgarh, where history oversaw weaving of the genesis of civilization as back as 7000 BC.

The name Mehrgarh is not as ancient as sometimes maintained. It comes from Nawab Raisani’s family, probably one of Tribe’s elders, Mehrullah Khan, who had carried out farming there, establishing a village naming it as Mehrgarh. Since centuries, the area had been occupied by Baloch tribes mostly engaged in farming. In farthest retrospect, if we reconstruct Mehrgarh visualising its major merits for founding the first human settlement of South Asia, we would mark it as an ideal location. The major incentive must be Bolan River itself and its fertile plain banks that had been appealing to the hunters-gatherers poised to do something different. The next consideration might have been presence of wild fruits, animals and fish found in abundance to support and sustain the population. The conducive climate might have played an important role as well. The Sun also as the overwhelming source of light and heat and ultimately fulfilling spiritual needs too as an object of worship. A reflection of some of the attractions could be observed in paintings, drawings, carvings, motifs, seals and toys etc. Similarly symbols and decorative patterns made on jars , pots and other forms of pottery and crafts unearthed from Mehrgarh amply demonstrated their surroundings and social life.

Dr. Jarrige and his team were camped at Dhader close to excavation site. They maintained a simple site-office and a humble laboratory all without a look and facilities of both. The overriding force was their indomitable resolve to contribute pristine first hand archaeological knowledge of iconic significance about which the World never knew before. It was about a discovery par excellence that sent tremor waves from Balochistan to all continents with regard to human culture, its genesis, development and growth. It drew a line between the ever moving hunter-gatherer Palaeolithic and the settled, more sophisticated and creative Neolithic people. In other words Mehrgarh and Jericho ( Palestine) set the human agenda for the smooth march from simple society to civilization. The French team spent about 30 years of their lives away from the glamorous Paris in various tribal locales of Balochistan in a bid to discover and relink the disconnects of human history and heritage. They succeeded in their mission and earned profuse appreciations and worldwide recognition for their valued hard work. Their contribution is viewed with utmost reverence in Balochistan.

The Neolithic settlements at Mehrgarh comprised planned houses made of Sun backed breaks with provisions of keeping animals and cattle. They had storage facility and granary was part of structures. They had a drainage system to maintain certain hygiene standards. They used to burry the dead and therefore had cemeteries with sacred grounds beside. They had cultural spaces for celebrations and sports and lanes for crafts, toolmaking and creativity. Fear seemed to have been a riding concern therefore houses maintained basements and lower chambers. A candid view of the settlement patterns also exhibited the existence of a social hierarchy. It seemed that with the ascending timeline switching from Neolithic down to Bronze and Iron ages, the site and society both kept on perfecting with seven occupancy periods, assigning Mehrgarh a lead role in the discourse of early civilisations.

The first decade of excavations spawned 1974 to 1985. It entailed seven stages with varied features and distinctions. Precisely, the period from 7000 to 5500 BC. is termed as Mehrgarh I, Aceramic Neolithic, characterised with Early Food Production. Whereas, the subsequent period began from 5500 and up to 3300 BC. known as Mehrgarh II to VI, Ceramic Neolithic. The entire life of Mehrgarh was a microcosm of human society engaged in laying foundations for the budding human march towards civilization. It furnished social as well as intellectual nuts and bolts needed for fabricating the basic edifice for emerging civilizations in the World in general and South Asia in particular. One of the reasons for paramount interest in Mehrgarh globally is its compactness as a comprehensive model for societal development and human excellence as back as 7000 BC. With its progression to maturity, Mehrgarh exhibited an array of credentials qualifying to be one of the distinguished icons of the World of Archaeology.

Normally the Neolithic era is distinguished with sedentary settlements, polished tools, domestication of plants and animals and pottery etc. Notwithstanding its Neolithic features, Mehrgarh seems to have covered the extra mile. For instance domestication of animals was the fascination of the people in terms of food autarky, milk and meat, dress and footwear, travel and burden transport, sports and pastime, ploughing and farming etc. On the other hand, domestication of plants and agricultural initiatives supported the sustenance of society in terms of availability of a variety of food choices, abundance and autarky, storages and stocks, better health and peace of mind etc. As a consequence, the time once consumed in pursuit of hunt or searching for food on daily basis was saved for taking up creative and artistic activities that helped reduce gradually the crudity of one of the earliest human societies.

Among many attributes, the domestication of animals and plants were two major civilizational gains that thoroughly influenced the subsequent formative stages of nascent modern society that was taking shape at Mehrgarh. The consequential enterprises such as crafts, manufacturing, barter and trade, enhancement of strategic capabilities ( in battles and conflicts ), physique improvisation and indeed communication, were some of the aspects that registered significant progress towards acquiring cultural excellence. It is interesting to note that the people considered domesticated animals not only part of social life but, as revealed from excavations, they used to burry pets and favourite animals with the dead in order to mitigate their loneliness in the grave. One could infer from the burial tradition that it had been a symbolic expression meant to underscore the services of the tamed and domesticated animals both for the living as well as for the dead.

Agriculture registered a considerable boost once animals like Zebu ( Bull ) was available to the early farmers. It proved to be a game changer enabling them to accomplish more including bumper harvests and storing surplus stocks in granaries. As acknowledgement gesture, many households not only kept the Bull motifs out of reverence but also repeatedly painted Bulls on storage jars, food containers and pots of daily use. The decorative objects, motifs, symbols, figurines, drawings and paintings etc. were rich testimony of the high aesthetic taste of the Neolithic first- people of Mehrgarh practicing unique ideas for the first time. Besides, the evidence of barley, cotton, dates, nuts and various agricultural produce featured Mehrgarh as one of the earliest sites that laid down the foundation of an agrarian society that flourished amazingly at the banks of Bolan River.

The discovery of Mehrgarh was significant not only from archaeological perspective but it also generated multidimensional interests among social scientists. But , while archaeologists succeeded in piecing the bigger picture with considerable clarity, social scientists lagged much behind because of the intangibility of the subject matter they dealt with. Consequently, there is a huge disparity between archaeological and social knowledge on Mehrgarh. Today Mehrgarh is found in books, research journals, University courses, Media, both print and electronic, social media, on the websites and in lecture auditoriums which is encouraging but all that falls to the archaeological realm while social sectors remain almost blank. In other words, social interpretation of rich archaeological data was to be carried out by social scientists either left unattended or attempted vaguely turning Mehrgarh into an ancient enigma beyond comprehension.

There are numerous arguments encircling the feet dragging on the part of social scientists that are quite appealing but it is hard to deal with those here as it will unnecessarily make the write up bulkier. Let me pick up only three piercing questions. Why the excavations at Mehrgarh were winded up unceremoniously taking cover of a tribal conflict that was certainly manageable ? Owing to conspiracy theory, whether it had something to do with the status quo i.e protecting the so-called superiority of the existing well-established archaeological sites within country and abroad, to continue unchallenged ? Or was it geared up to prevent the consequential reinforcement of cultural identity of the Baloch as the first people and as civilization-givers ? Maybe questions like these and other related issues will be adequately addressed and will find due answers along scientific lines with the passage of time.

I tend to see it from another angle as well. We need to recognise that compared to tangible materials excavated by archaeologists, generally social scientists such as anthropologists and sociologists rely, beside knowledge of the subject, on their expertise and skills as well as a thorough understanding of the ‘heir-cultures’ in order to join dots correctly leading to credible inferences. It is quite long time that no researcher of substance has come to study people and cultures of Balochistan directly falling under the canopy of influence particularly in post-Mehrgarh era. Partly because of the tarnished image of the province espoused with various intimidating risks including securityand partly because of the presumption that indigenous experts could do it better, it remained gravely neglected. Neither image could improve, rather it deteriorated further, nor any scholarly endeavour worth the name had been forthcoming indigenously. It is irony that due to dearth or apathy of indigenous scholars, Mehrgarh remained marginalised and failed to get the required attention it deserved. Today Mehrgarh is faced with various challenges posed to it while seeking its rightful place in the domain of history, heritage and civilization.

As we conclude, let me say that some of the answers to the above questions have been furnished in my forthcoming book entitled ” Balochistan Under the Canopy of Mehrgarh ” wherein, while tracing the influence of Mehrgarh in South Asia and beyond, light has been shed on its amazing continuity in imprints of traits and cultural elements found even today in the contemporary Baloch Culture as the direct descendant of Mehrgarh civilization.

Monthly Sangat Quetta

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