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Carving history

Now that more than one hundred archaeological sites belonging to prehistoric and historic times have been explored in the Khyber Agency

Carving history
Barikot. — Photos by Dr Luca

The archaeological richness of Pakistan is an established fact. Not only this, the precious heritage represents different historical periods and the story of cultural processes. Societies and cultures from prehistoric to historic times are visible in the material remains.

Such a historical process has recently been announced to have been explored in the Khyber Agency by the political administration and Directorate of Archaeology of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Another ongoing survey by the Federal Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) has documented a number of heritage sites in the Islamabad Capital Territory.

Since the scarce cultural resource of the country is seriously threatened by extinction, both the surveys garner considerable significance.

It is heartening that more than one hundred archaeological sites belonging to prehistoric and historic times have been explored in the Khyber Agency. The survey is crucial in many respects. This is said to be the first ever comprehensive exploration of the area, a situation which does raise other attendant issues. What is the position of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with regard to archaeological legislation in Pakistan? Is there any concerned department/authority responsible for administering archaeology in the tribal areas?

To these may be added another set of substantial considerations relating to historical/archaeological inquiry, preservation and potentials of cultural tourism in the area.

I would like to dwell on these points one by one so as to make the nature and importance of recent archaeological works intelligible.

Read also: The disowned past

Constitutionally, Fata holds a strange status in the federation of Pakistan. Territorially, it makes an integral part of Pakistan according to article 2 of the constitution. Pertinent to this, section 1 (2) of the Antiquities Act 1975 says that the act ‘extends to the whole of Pakistan’. However, at the same time Article 247 (3) of the constitution pronounces inapplicability of laws enacted by the parliament to Fata. It is only through presidential ordinance that such applicability becomes possible.

The need of the hour is to extend archaeological laws to Fata sooner rather than later with subsequent establishment of an administrative setup. And this would be like setting a stage for a greater and comprehensive archaeological performance.

In this situation, there prevails uncertainty so far as the antiquities legislation is concerned. After the devolution of archaeology through 18th Amendment, Fata theoretically comes within the jurisdiction of DOAM. However, practically archaeology of the area could not be administered by DOAM until and unless the Antiquities Act 1975 is extended to Fata through a presidential ordinance. It is also to be noted that the probable integration of Fata with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will automatically subject the former to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Antiquities Act 2016.

The problem of archaeological research and its legal context is not new in tribal areas. During the twentieth century, some archaeological surveys were carried out in the tribal areas. Sir Aurel Stein is a prominent name in this respect as he made explorations in Swat (1926) and Waziristan (1927).

The Political administration played a crucial role in connection to these trips while from a legal point of view the framework was provided by the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904. Whether this Act was extendable to areas not within direct suzerainty of the British is not clear at the moment, due to a lack of vivid and solid evidence, a recent archival study (Sir Aurel Stein and the ‘Lords of the Marches’ by Dr. Luca M. Olivieri) shows inconsistent attitude on the part of political officers at Malakand.

Bronze Age paintings at Kakai-kandao.

Bronze Age paintings at Kakai-kandao.

Notwithstanding this bureaucratic whimsical arbitrariness, officers of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) could not remain indifferent towards tribal areas. They were always, not unlikely with respect to the Native States, vigilant concerning cultural heritage of these areas from the point of view of both scholarship and preservation.

In the post-independence period, DOAM carried out a survey in Bajaur Agency in 1990s which is again an activity of dubious legality. The present survey in Khyber Agency also poses such questions about its legal legitimacy.

Another problem in this context is related to the absence of any concerned department in Fata about administering archaeology. It is undoubtedly a great pity. But the problem stems from inconsistencies in the legal framework. And due to these legal and institutional deficiencies, archaeological activity in Fata has been of uncertain character.

Now I shall come on to the issue of cultural heritage management in Khyber Agency (and Fata at large) and the associated concept of prospects of cultural tourism. Both can strengthen each other in a circular manner. The concept of cultural heritage is being operationalised in many countries in terms of sustainable development, through institutional apparatus for cultural tourism. And all this, in turn, necessitates and as such ensures preservation of archaeological resource.

Since such a programme attends to people’s involvement in matters of heritage management, multiple benefits can be achieved. Local people are offered economic opportunities. They are provided occasions of exposure which can compensate their actual isolation and sense of marginalisation. Since we are conditioned by our past, lessons derived from history can also be shared with the people to take benefits from.

Moreover, insights from popular historical traditions prevalent in a locality can also help scholars in interpreting their archaeological data. In this manner, indigenous people are not only passive receivers of knowledge but are viewed as partners in the whole process of knowledge production.

There is yet another issue which is the most important one from an academic point of view. It relates to the question of historical inquiry. What problem a particular historical investigation intends to address? Such a justification shows the strength and validity of a research project. And this is generally designated as ‘problem-oriented’ research. Nowadays, archaeological inquiries across the world aim at filling such gaps in our historical and cultural understanding. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the last colonial Director General of ASI between 1944 and 1948, vehemently propagated the concept of ‘problem-oriented’ investigation. And it was with this strategic planning that he did archaeology during his Director Generalship.

Turning to the current archaeological surveys in Khyber Agency, and in Islamabad for that matter, one can hope that the teams of researchers are cognizant of these facts. They should have included, as a previous notification ‘Archaeological Excavation and Exploration Rules 1978’ enjoins — besides archaeologists, architect, photographer and a chemist — experts from anthropology, geology, zoology, paleo-botany, paleontology, geomorphology etc. This is what is nowadays considered as the most cherished and valid approach in archaeological research, namely multidisciplinarity. Multidisciplinary approach has potential strength in successfully solving historical/archaeological problems.

Furthermore, it is multidisciplinarity which can successfully engage local people in archaeological research. It is again largely due to this type of research strategy that archaeological potentials of an area in terms of tourism and development can be ascertained. A good example in this sense was the ACT Project model jointly implemented by the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Italian Mission in Swat. It was a multifaceted model that integrated the new Museum in a network of tourist-friendly newly excavated and/or restored sites, managed with the contribution of both local communities and non-governmental associations.

The discoveries so far announced in Khyber have not been yet examined in a nuanced way. However, the assumption that the newly found rock carvings are probably 30,000 years old (?) is intriguing. One can hope that results of this scientific expedition will soon see the light of day.

What I have found more fascinating are the remains of the British period. But I shall point out that even before the British occupation of the Punjab, Peshawar and Khyber saw a perpetual conflict between the Sikhs and the Barakzai rulers of Afghanistan. There were built some military forts which have been mentioned in their reports by British agents, during the early 19th century, on political missions to Afghanistan and Central Asia via Peshawar and Khyber. References to other features such as wells can also be found therein. These reports can be used to the maximum advantage in the current archaeological investigations.

Since we already know about some of the Buddhist monuments in Khyber Agency, we shall expect further value additions to this historical repertoire. Some of the best examples, known to me, in studying Buddhist archaeology are works of Italian and British archaeologists, the first in Swat, and the second in the surroundings of Sanchi (India) by Julian Shaw. Publications of both can go a long way in interpreting Buddhist remains of Khyber Agency in relation to landscape and symbolic considerations.

Nevertheless, I suspect if all this can turn Khyber into another cradle of Gandhara civilization. Even the prospects of tourism do not appear so bright. We have great centres of civilizations such as Swat, Peshawar, Harappa, Mohenjo-daro etc. but lack of sound and vibrant cultural policy (with the exception of Swat, where the above-mentioned ACT Project effectively managed to relaunch archaeological tourism) has drifted them into historical oblivion.

By saying so, I do not intend to depreciate the worth of the archaeological work in Khyber (and Fata as a whole). The area can benefit maximally from such cultural ventures. The need of the hour is to extend archaeological laws to Fata sooner rather than later with subsequent establishment of an administrative setup. And this would be like setting a stage for a greater and comprehensive archaeological performance.

Rafiullah Khan

The author has done his PhD in History/ Archaeology. He is serving as Assistant Professor at Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-i-Azam university, Islamabad.


  • What an article. Focused, issue-based and all inclusive. I will not call it informative [merely] but educative one. All the committees working on FATA should pick this article to the table and must benefit from author’s relevant expertise and knowledge.

  • Very interesting and useful. Thank you very much – PB

  • An interesting piece of writing. Hope the political administration and the team involved in the excavation put it to the fullest advantage.

  • It is an interesting and thought provoking article. Author raised neglected aspects in Pakistan . Archaeolgists should focus on these problems and must follow the author’s suggested points.

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