Archaeological Sources

In the earlier section, we discussed definitions of history and historiography and its importance. Now in this section, we will find more details about historiography and archaeological sources which is the architect of the Historiography.

Understanding Historiography

To understand Historiography, we need to understand about various sources which help us, historians, to write and interpret the events properly. Whenever historians put their efforts to write about the history they can easily find sources for the writing because there are plenty of notes, manuscripts and edicts are which were written at that time depicting the status of society, economic conditions of that era.

Several real difficulties arise while writing ancient history. There is a point mentioned about history in the great Indian epic Mahabharata that “History is that ancient description which contains instructions of virtue, wealth, desire and salvation”. India’s ancient seers laid greater emphasis on those events which carried higher ideals rather than the actual happenings.

It was noted that in ancient Greece and Rome, there were historians assigned to write the accounts of their times. But we don’t see such historians in ancient Indians who wrote history. However, several writers wrote on many subjects, rarely wrote history.

Most of such ancient material has also been lost either due to destruction caused by invaders or natural calamities. This is why it seems to be a challenging task to rediscover India’s ancient past. Yet there are multiples sources from which Ancient Indian history is written. These sources are divided into two main groups.

Archaeological sources: Monumental remains, coins, pottery, handicrafts, etc. by which social, economic or any events in history can be interpreted are called archaeological sources. Archaeological sources may or may not be supported by any literary sources. The Archaeological Source can be divided into three groups, Archaeological Remains & Monuments, Inscriptions, and Coins.

Archaological Sites
Archeological Site

Literary sources: The written shreds of evidence such as legends, manuscripts, edicts, epics, etc. by which history of any era can be understood can be termed as literary sources. The Literary Source can also be divided into three groups, Religious Literature, Secular Literature, and Accounts of Foreigners.

Representational Image: The Puranas

Archaeological Sources of Early Indian History

The Archaeological Source can be divided into three groups, Archaeological Remains & Monuments, Inscriptions, and Coins. Beginning from the first phase of human life immense amount of archaeological evidence has been gathered through excavation & exploration. This evidence constituted a very important source of understanding of life in India during ancient age.

The archaeological excavation commenced around the middle of the 19th Century. The archaeologist such as Alexander Cunningham was in the forefront. They brought to light many hidden dimensions of life in India of Ancient age.

Some important Archaeological Sources

  1. Inscription – words that are written or cut into the surface.
  2. Coins
  3. Pottery
  4. Monuments
  5. Tools & implements
  6. Toys
  7. Ornaments
  8. Foodgrains
  9. Skeletons remain etc.

Significance of Inscription as Source of History

Epigraphy is the branch of knowledge that studies inscription. Beginning from age of Harappan civilization, several inscriptions discovered belonging to a different period of ancient age. These ancient inscriptions throw light on the socio-cultural, economic & religious life of people.

The object used for writing inscription help in understanding the material culture of the age. The Harappan use steatite as writing material. During the Mauryan age & later period, stone & copper plates are used for writing the inscription. The place of discovery of inscription helps in ascertaining the political boundary of the Kingdom or empire.

The discovery of Asoka edicts at Kandhar indicates that Afghanistan was within the Mauryan Empire. Similarly, the edicts found from Nepal Terrain indicate that the Mauryan Empire extended up to the foothills of Himalaya in the north (Lumbini, Nepal Terrain, etc). The inscription helps in understanding the language & script of age. The Asoka inscription informs that “Prakrut” was the most common language & “Brahmi” was the most common script during the Mauryan age.

The inscription contains the names, titles & other details of rulers. These details helped in the reconstruction of early Indian history in a chronological manner. The Mauryan history would have remained incomplete without the Asoka inscription. The true greatness of Samudra Gupta (330-380 AD) without the Allahabad pillar inscription.

The inscription also throws light on politico-admin institution & practices. The Ashokan inscription contains the designation & responsibilities of various officials. The inscription is an important source for understanding the socio-cultural life of ancient age. The Eran inscription (510 AD) provides the first recorded reference of Sati. Many inscriptions contain details of donation issued to the temple & monasteries. The inscription also throws light on the religious life of Ancient age. The Ashokan inscription helped in understanding the religious life of the Mauryan period. The Mora (village near Mathura) inscription throws light on Bhagvatism. The inscription is a valuable source for understanding the economic life of ancient age.

According to Lumbini (birth of Buddha) pillar edict, emperor Ashoka reduced the rate of land revenue for this village from one fourth to one third. This village was declared free from Bhaga (ceremonial gifts) given by village to state. The inscription contains details of welfare measures undertaken by the state. Ashokan rock edict informs that trees were planted along roads, wells were dug & rest houses were built for benefit of travelers.

According to the Junagarh rock inscription of Rudradaman (local Shaka ruler), Sudarshana Lake was built by Chandragupta Maurya and it was later repaired during the region of Ashoka.

The inscription also throws light on wars & battles. According to the 13th major rock edict of Ashoka, Kalinga was conquered by him in his 9th regional year. Allahabad’s inscription of Samudra Gupta provides a detailed description of its military achievement.

Significance of Coins as a Source of Early Indian History

Gold Coins of Kanishka
Gold Coins of Kanishka

History of coinage in the Indian subcontinent commenced during 6th Century BC when the Punched marked coins begin to be issued. These early coins were irregular pieces of silver having various symbols punched on them. The system of proper coinage commenced in 2nd Century BC the Indo-Greek was the 1st to issue coins having the name & effigy of the king (picture) date & title etc.

The punched marked coin was having little historical significance but the coins gain immense historical significance after 2nd Century BC. Numismatic is the branch of the study of coinage. Historians like Parmeshwari Lal Gupta rallied on info-provided by coins in the reconstruction of early Indian history. The metal used for making coin through light on the material culture of ancient age. The coins were issued in gold, copper, silver & lead, etc. by ancient rulers.

The names of Kings & dates found on coin helped in the chronological reconstruction of Early Indian History. The Chronology of Gupta rulers is almost entirely dependent on information provided by coins. Coins also throw light on the military achievements of various rulers. The Ashavamedha type of coins issued by Samudra Gupta informs that he was a great military conqueror. The Tiger Slayer type of coins issued by Samudra Gupta informs that he conquered Eastern India (Bengal) because tigers were found only in the forest of the East.

Coins also helped in understanding religious ideas & beliefs. Kushana’s coins contain various names of Indian-Iranian Ladies. Goddess Durga, Garuda & Peacock symbols found on Gupta coin help in understanding the religious life of age. The place of discovery of coins helps in understanding the territorial extent of Kingdoms & empires. The purity of coins reveals the levels of prosperity during a particular period.

The extent of coinage (number of coins discovered) through light on the level of trade and commerce. If more coins trade & commerce discovered during a particular period, it becomes clear that trade and commerce were in a development state. The paucity of coins reveals a declined state of trade & commerce. Coins also helped in the understanding of language & script of a particular period.

Comparative Significance of Archaeological Sources

Archaeological Sources are free from the challenges like interpolation & extrapolation because any attempt to change the content of an inscription or coin can be easily identified. Because of this Archaeological Sources are more reliable.

Literature is completely silent for more than 99% of the phase of human history in the Indian subcontinent because the number of literature sources of any kind is available for pre-Vedic age (before 1500 BC).

Archaeological Sources provide for more accurate chronological detail when compare with literature sources because the period of Archaeological Sources can be asteriated through the radiocarbon dating method. Archaeological Sources provide in-situ (on the same spot) info. These sources reveal life as it existed in the past because of this the history reconstructed through Archaeological Sources if it’s for more accurate & complete.

Archaeological Sources source is free from personal bias found in literature work because sources like monument, coins & other artifacts provide the same information AS was there when these monuments were built or coins were circulated. Contents of the inscription are also free from the personal bias of the writer because most of the instruction was issued by the state.

The true knowledge of progress in Science & Technology, Art & Archaeology, etc. can be collected only through the examination of Archaeological Sources. Archaeological Sources are free from class prejudice. These sources don’t differentiate between elite & commoner. They reveal a picture of a particular period without distortion. The material culture of a particular period can be better comprehended through Archaeological Sources. These sources enable a better understanding of ground realities.

Archaeological Sources provide a multidimensional picture because the social-religious, political-economic life, etc. can be comprehended simultaneously through an examination of Archaeological Sources. This is especially true when towns and cities excavated. Stratigraphic Analysis is possible only in Archaeological Sources. This helped in understanding the comparative chronology of different phases of human life.

Limitations of Archaeological Sources

  1. On many occasions, Archaeological Sources have to be interpreted by archaeologists/historians because of this there is a possibility of misinterpretation of Archaeologist Evidence.
  2. Archaeologist Excavation produces an immense amount of data, so handling of this data & preservation is a complex challenge.
  3. Archaeologist Excavation & Exploration are time-consuming procedures. It takes a long time in developing a true picture of a particular phase based on Archaeologist pieces of evidence.

Primary & Secondary Archaeological Sources

The primary source is likely to be more accurate because it provides a contemporary information & firsthand account. The primary source provides detailed information about the incident, a development described in it.

A primary source could suffer from the limitation of personal bias of writer especially writer was a court poet. Such a scholar living under the patronage of the king is likely to glorify the achievement of their master to overlook their failure.

The secondary source has the benefit of avoiding the personal bias of a particular writer because the author of the secondary source enjoys the freedom to draw information from multiple sources after the careful critical examination. A secondary source covers a longer period because of this long phase of human history can be comprehended by using one particular work itself.

A secondary source has the development of providing chronological details because events belonging to different periods can be classified chronologically without much difficulty. A secondary source can also suffer from the limitation of the primary source from which information was drawn by writers especially if limited primary sources are available.

The primary & secondary sources are equally important for the reconstruction of early Indian History because both supplement & complement each other. One type of source can be used to examine the authenticity of other sources.

Note: Both literary sources, as well as archaeological sources, can be classified into primary & secondary categories. While most literary work falls in the category of a secondary source, most of the archaeological evidence falls in the category of primary source. The evidence gathered through excavation & explanations is mostly primary because these belong to the period represented by them. Only some inscriptions such as the Junagarh Rock inscription of Rudradaman can be classified in the category of the secondary source. A particular literary work can be primary & secondary in parts because it may contain contemporary as well as non-contemporary information.

Examples of Primary Source & Secondary Source

  1. The literary work like “Arthashastra”, Kawndaka’s “Nitisar” & “Harshacharita” of Banbhatta are primary because they contain contemporary firsthand accounts.
  2. Literary work like “Mudrarakshasa” of Vishakhadatta are secondary Vishakhadatta lived in 6th Century AD & his book Mudrarakshasa deal with the Mauryan period.
  3. Kalhana’s Rajtarangini is one such source it contains the history from the Mahabharata age to the middle of 12th Century AD. The event of 12th Century eye-witnessed by Kalhana can be considered as primary & the events belonging to the earlier periods would fall in the category of the secondary source because these were drawn from other sources.