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A journey through ancient Swat

Assessing the strength and vitality of Dr. Luca Maria Olivieri’s work in the field of Pakistan’s archaeology

A journey through ancient Swat

Dr. Luca Maria Olivieri is the last in the list of few archaeologists who have received the highly coveted civilian honour, Sitara-i-Imtiaz, in Pakistan. It happened this year on the occasion of March 23. It is, no doubt, a great pleasure for all those who know the veteran Italian archaeologist.

Sitara-i-Imtiaz is awarded to those whose contributions in their specific fields are highly appreciated and recognised in the context of great service to the country and its people. In this context, I would like to ponder upon Olivieri’s honour via assessing the strength and vitality of his work in the field of Pakistan’s archaeology.

In the first place, Luca Olivieri’s engagement with the archaeology and ancient history of Swat and his scholastic standing is demonstrated. The second part is an assessment as to what benefits we (Pakistani colleagues) in academic terms have achieved through our experience with our Italian colleague and Italian Archaeological Mission for that matter. It further shows what lessons can be drawn from this academic-interactive process in relation to the future of archaeology in Pakistan.

Coming to the first point, Olivieri’s scholarly engagement with Swat is the story of a long journey since 1987. Given this, he stands at the junction of two academic traditions, viz., old and new, in the field of archaeology of Swat.

The old programme started with the arrival of Professor Tucci (pioneer in Italian archaeology in Swat along with D. Faccenna and G. Stacul etc.) into Swat in 1956. It is a seminal phase telling the story of vital achievements both in pre/protohistoric and historic archaeology (the latter includes both ancient and medieval times). The old tradition is meant here for what is called the paradigm of ‘culture-historical archaeology’. This programme is useful insofar as to establish chronology concerning specific cultures. It also explains cultural change simplistically with model of diffusion/migration. All this fits in what is called descriptive research. It is obviously a colonial legacy in India and Pakistan. However, the seminality of such a work is beyond any question.

The new tradition owes much to the second generation of Italian archaeologists all through the last decade of twentieth century till now. I would particularly mention the names of P. Callieri, A. Vidale, A. Filigenzi and, understandably, Luca Olivieri. What they have to their credit is the introduction of new trends in the archaeology of Swat, and Pakistan at large. In strict theoretical terms, it may be expressed as insights taken from processual, post-processual and even post-colonial paradigms in the field of archaeology and used in archaeological research in Swat. By so saying, I do not mean that any one framework has been favoured in polemic manner. From Olivieri’s works it reflects that he has beautifully synthesised various concepts from different schools of archaeological theory.

Olivieri has also developed a sophisticated apparatus for cultural tourism into Swat. Moreover, locals of worker class of Swat have been economically embedded to the project in various capacities such as foremen, excavators, site attendants, etc.

Needless to say, this exhibits the level of scholastic maturity which Indian scholar, Prof. K. Paddayya, has advocated for. He says in the context of Indo-Pakistan that “it is particularly necessary to keep the complementary nature of various theoretical approaches in mind. Here the archaeological record not only possesses great time-depth, but exhibits tremendous diversity in its make-up [. . .]. The level of prior knowledge of the archaeological material of the area and period concerned, as well as the intellectual make-up of the archaeologist himself or herself, rather than blind allegiance to a particular theoretical orientation, should be seen as the guiding factors while opting for a particular research orientation. In the case of areas which are still archaeologically terra incognita the application of culture-historical approach has enormous significance. In those areas where a skeletal framework is already available, perspectives developed by processual and post-processual archaeologies are particularly useful.”

I would like, in the first place, to dwell upon two of Olivieri’s papers: “Archaeology and Settlement History in a Test Area of the Swat Valley: Preliminary Report on the AMSV Project, 1st Phase” (co-authored with Prof. Massimo Vidale, East and West, Vol. 56, Nos. 1-3, 2006) and “Behind the Buddhist Communities: Subalternity and Dominancy in Ancient Swat” (Journal of Asian Civilizations, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2011).

The first work deals with a number of periods and themes. It spans the time from protohistoric through historic to late-historic developments (approximately from 1700 BEC to 1400/1500 CE). The issues treated in the paper are as diverse as settlement (that how and by whom land was inhabited, appropriated, utilised and managed in response to environmental determinism), and landscape archaeology (people’s meaningful interaction with space as shaped by their socio-cultural notions). Social matters, such as people’s interaction and behaviour towards each other, especially in the context of centre-periphery and occupational terms, have been beautifully explained and interpreted.

The second article is also of the same significance as it deals with social and societal issues. It beautifully attends to the phenomena of subalternity and dominancy. Much sufficient archaeological data — painted rock shelters in the lower part of Swat district — has been investigated in the framework of subaltern archaeology.

Subaltern approach is intertwined with the academic environment of post-coloniality. It questions elitist narratives of history and simultaneously brings to the fore suppressed social realties. The programme, with an ideological stimulus and missionary zeal, was led by Ranajit Guha and others of the same ilk. It gives voice to those who have been unheard, unrecorded and as such socio-politically marginalised. In other words, the ‘excluded other’ is being highlighted, mainstreamed and historicised by subaltern scholars.

The ‘painted rock shelters’ tell the story of not just the social interactions as characterised by dominance and marginalisation but also signifies the whole culture and worldview of a subaltern community. The phenomenon has been explicated in the light of socio-political landscape, on the one hand, between Buddhistic elitism and the people of the ‘painted rock shelters’ and, on the other, between the urban gentry and the hinterlanders.

In addition, in Luca Olivieri’s works one can discern archaeology as being the study of lifeways of ancient people. Food procurement, garbage and abandonment make themes of his investigations.

What is more important is the scholar’s involvement with historiography of archaeology. This is a promising field and is considered a sign of the maturity the discipline of archaeology has attained. Olivieri has so far made significant contributions in this respect. Just to mention: “Outline History of the ISIAO Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan: 1956-2006” (East and West, 2006), “Frontier Archaeology: Sir Aurel Stein, Swat and the Indian Aornos” (South Asian Studies, 2015) and Sir Aurel Stein and the ‘Lords of Marches’: New Archival Materials (2015). The last study is based on archival material in relation to beginning of archaeological research in Swat and Malakand during the British period (I have also prepared detailed review of this work).

Last but not the least, our scholar has written a precise booklet, Digging Up: Fieldwork Guidelines for Archaeological Students, about archaeological methods. He has given careful attention to Pakistani context insofar as issues — such as legal, conceptual and practical — in excavations are concerned. This text is more important than the worldwide popular book of Sir Mortimer Wheeler e.g. Archaeology from the Earth as it presents an updated understanding about how to dig with a special focus on natural and cultural landscape of Pakistan.

Coming to the second point, we shall evaluate our experience vis-à-vis foreign scholars’ engagement with us. Dr. Luca Olivieri’s scholastic pursuits in Pakistan have been of great academic and professional advantage to us. First, he has developed a network of viable cooperation and collaboration. Beside other fields, his recently completed Archaeology-Community-Tourism Project (ACTP) entails multifarious lessons for us. Especially his programme of involving students from various universities — such as Peshawar University, Hazara University and Quaid-i-Azam University — in excavation and conservation is much appreciable. Similarly, he has been supervising some PhD students of Quaid-i-Azam University.

Dr. Luca Olivieri may also be idealised for his professional vigour and loftiness. In the framework of ACTP, he has published timely comprehensive reports of his excavations. One can disagree with his historical re/constructions and explanations, but it is not easy to question viability of his methodology.

Furthermore, Olivieri has also developed a sophisticated apparatus for cultural tourism into Swat. Moreover, locals of worker class of Swat have been economically embedded to the project in various capacities such as foremen, excavators, site attendants, etc.

All this can be used as a model in archaeological research by Pakistani archaeologists. As I have previously published in this paper about the dismal state of archaeology in Pakistan, those professional and scholastic weaknesses can be overcome by taking inspiration from academics such as Dr. Olivieri. And it is here that the fact of awarding him Sitara-i-Imtiaz makes great sense and is justified, of course.

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.

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