Thursday, June 13, 2024

Marine Archaeology in India: An ocean of despair or a glint of hope?

By Tiya Chatterji

Tiya Chatterji, Marine archeologist, author and scuba diver

‘The sea is an underwater museum still awaiting its visitors’- Phillip Diole

Oceans are a vast pool of resources, synonymous with underwater treasure houses. Globally, water has been the harbinger of human development and has seen major civilizations rise and decline. The maritime history of any country not only supplies clues to its past but also how the country/region received help from its geographical location, a lesson to learn and implement.

Marine Archaeology is an enthralling discipline that has captivated humans since time immemorial. The earliest evidence of diving comes from as early as the 3rd century AD, when Greek sponge divers were free diving with a skandalopetra (heavy stone) for as deep as 100 feet to collect sponges and souvenirs. Marine archeology is the sub-discipline of archaeology and has garnered attention only in the early years of the nineteenth century as for thousands of years, primitive tools and a lack of technological aid hindered underwater explorations, not to forget the constraints of working underwater. It can be defined as the study of the dynamics of the relationship between man and the seas.

India is a nation with a tremendous amount of history lying buried under the soil as well as the sea. Emphasis is given to the dynasties, civilizations, and history of the northern region of India, while the southern region keeps a blurry image. The maritime history of our country is glorious with an immeasurable amount of heritage both tangible and intangible awaiting to be discovered, lest it is lost to the ravages of time and human intervention.

India and its’ illustrious maritime past don’t demand an introduction. Our tropical country has been a thriving ground for early settlers and trading communities. It has been a maritime power for the last 5000 years, beginning from the Harappan times, evident in the construction of Lothal- The world’s first dockyard. The extent of our maritime heritage is spread from Gujarat to Bengal, but meagre efforts seem to be taken to showcase and preserve it.

Marine archaeology as a discipline has seen a late genesis across the globe, owing to various constraints of working underwater like temperature, unpredictable environment, marine species, nitrogen narcosis, and the lack of suitable technology. The advent of Aqua Lung in 1943 by the French naval officer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Air Liquide engineer Emile Gagnan, paved a breakthrough in Marine Archaeological Research. India was not far behind, and by the dedicated efforts of Dr. S.R. Rao, known as the father of marine archaeology in India, the year 1981 saw the introduction of this discipline in India. In the next two decades, various government agencies like the National Institute of Oceanography (CSIR- NIO Goa), Deccan College, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and Indian Navy, collaborated to initiate and execute pioneering offshore explorations in Dwarka, Bet Dwarka, Mul Dwarka, Somnath, Poompuhar, Mahabalipuram, Lakshadweep and so on. This was complimented by many on-shore and near-shore explorations and excavations at many sites such as Chilika and adjoining regions, Kalingapatnam, Machilipatnam, along the Rameswaram coast, Calicut, and Beypore amongst other sites.

The triumph of marine archeology in India was discernable due to the abundance of heritage. However, the success was fleeting, and despite credible endeavors, the fervor diminished. Noteworthy efforts like by the University Grants Commission (UGC) to set up a center for Marine Archaeology at Tamil University in Thanjavur in 1983, appeared to be limited as the center focused on traditional navigation and shipbuilding technology of peninsular India. The inauguration of the Underwater Wing at ASI in 2011 led to the promising extension of quality research, only for the center to soon become defunct. Presently, the discipline of marine archaeology is in a stagnant phase, with no colleges and institutes offering specialized degrees or training in the domain. This led to marine archeology no longer being mainstream with a handful of domain experts.

Marine Archeological explorations and research require a multidisciplinary approach with archeologists and scientists on board, exploring synergies. An interesting aspect worth mentioning here is the contribution of the Navy. The Indian Navy has been part of many marine archaeological explorations in the past, namely in Lakshadweep Island, Mahabalipuram, Arikamedu, Pondicherry, and Poompuhar. The survey vessels of the IN were extremely helpful in finding the archaeological finds as well as mapping the area.

One might think of the naval collaboration as irrelevant, but many countries are using their naval prowess to undertake marine archaeological studies. A splendid example here is the Colombian government, currently pursuing one of the most significant marine archaeological projects which will not only result in a windfall but will also uncover tremendous historical and cultural significance for the country. San Jose’ known as the ‘Holy Grail of Ships’ with treasure worth $ 20 billion was discovered by navy divers in 2015 and the government is set to recover the ship and the treasure which is resting nearly 3100 feet underwater. The project will be a collaborative effort, including the Columbian Navy as per reports.

Another interesting inference to put forth is the discovery of the wrecks of HMS Erebus and Terror, of the legendary Sir Franklin Expedition in 1845, now a National Historic Site. The doomed expedition set out to discover the Northwest passage and vanished with its crew of 129 men. After dozens of expeditions, 2014 revealed the wrecks with the help of Canadian naval divers. The Canadian government felicitated its naval officers and obtained new ships, equipped with the latest technology for further expeditions.

These case studies supply insights into the nature of such collaborations and the best use of resources to make such studies cost-effective while ensuring sustainability of the domain. Our maritime heritage is at risk from natural and human-caused factors which would result in the loss of the same. Their documentation and preservation for posterity is the need of the hour.

Marine archaeology being a niche discipline in India with a handful of domain experts could benefit with collaborative efforts especially with the Indian Navy, owing to the resources and skills they have. This in turn would result in the Indian Navy using their assets like survey ships, scientific divers etc.; to its largest potential contrary to their variable requirement while bearing in mind the expenditure already incurred for training and procurement. The most pivotal aspect here is the contribution to nation building and preserving the national heritage.

Study of the past is very intrinsic in nature as it helps us to discover our growth as a race, nation and individuals. India with its specular coastline of 7516Kms and the swathe of our maritime history as a result has produced a treasure trove of untapped maritime heritage awaiting discovery. The domain suffers from apathy and with no young marine archeologists in the making, the discipline is at a risk of becoming obsolete. There seems to still exist a sea blind attitude towards maritime heritage while hegemony plagues the system. A joint effort and a fresh perspective to fight the challenges is a prompt remedy. Such studies not only inspire us and bestow valuable lessons but also pave way for many allied revenue generation aspects like tourism and wreck diving.

There is a need to rekindle the maritime spirit and revive the domain of marine archeology in India and create our niche on the world map. National interest is the thread that must bind the marine archaeologists, scientists, Indian Navy and other pertinent agencies.

Tiya Chatterji is a Delhi based marine archeologist, author and scuba diver. She is also a film maker and founder of Archaic Minds.

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