News FocusUNMASKING THE INDUS

Trench Warfare: Modern Borders Split the Indus

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Science  06 Jun 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5881, pp. 1282-1283
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5881.1282

The bitter partition of British India in 1947 created a fault line through the middle of what was once the Indus civilization (see main text) that to this day prevents Indian and Pakistani researchers working on Indus sites from collaborating with one another or even visiting each other's excavations.

Farzand Masih, excavator at Ganweriwala, Pakistan. CREDIT: A. LAWLER/SCIENCE

FARMANA, INDIA—Vasant Shinde and Farzand Masih work a mere 200 kilometers apart, each perhaps an hour or so from the border between India and Pakistan. But neither archaeologist can visit the site of the other. “I'm excavating at Farmana,” says Shinde of Deccan College in Pune, India. “On the other side is Ganweriwala—but I can't know what's going on there or talk to the archaeology team.” Masih of Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan, leads that team and says he's eager for international collaboration, but for now including Indians is beyond his power. Nor can he visit Shinde's site.

That's because the fault line resulting from the bitter partition of British India in 1947 runs through the middle of what was once the Indus civilization, one of the world's first great urban societies from 2600 B.C.E. to its puzzling collapse in about 1800 B.C.E. (see main text). Back then, Indus merchants may have traveled freely over the region's plains and hills. But today the Indus's 1 million square kilometers are split between Pakistan and western India (see map, p. 1276). The cities of Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, and Ganweriwala are in Pakistan, while Dholavira, Rakhigarhi, and Farmana lie just across the border in India. Hundreds of other settlements are spread across the Indus plain in one nation or the other.

Each country has fought serious skirmishes in the Himalaya, built nuclear weapons with their adversary in mind, and laid claim to the Indian state of Kashmir. The politics make it difficult if not impossible for archaeologists from one side to roam the countryside of the other. “Secret police would follow us every step—if we could get a visa,” says one South Asian archaeologist.

Scientists on both sides say that a host of research topics would make more sense if done collaboratively. For example, understanding the complex geomorphology of the Indus and its tributaries can't be done without cross-border studies. Comprehensive analyses of ancient climate require regional sampling. And because the research communities are so divided, discoveries in one country may go unnoticed in the other; archaeologists say they have little knowledge of what takes place across the border. Given the lack of published papers and personal connections, even digital and virtual collaboration is rare.

Foreigners can make the trip between the two countries with relative ease, and a few European, Japanese, and American researchers frequently work on both sides. But archaeologists from India and Pakistan have only rare and fleeting opportunities to meet, such as at international conferences. “We need to be able to put together all the pieces,” says Qasid Mallah, a professor at Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur, Pakistan. “That includes the Indian portion too.” Adds Shinde: “It would be more beneficial if we could all work in both India and Pakistan, particularly for the students.”

Politicians and administrators in both countries have shown little interest in using archaeology as a tool for détente. The director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, Anshu Vaish, says her organization has no plans to push for more cooperation. And the recent elections in Pakistan, which resulted in an uneasy coalition, make dramatic initiatives from that side unlikely.

Vasant Shinde, excavator at Farmana, India. CREDIT: A. LAWLER/SCIENCE

To circumvent the political reality, Shinde helped create the Society of South Asian Archaeologists in 2005. Most Indian and Pakistani archaeologists couldn't afford to go to international conferences, so he proposed a new organization—registered under the Indian government but classed as a private group—to hold meetings closer to home. For the first conference in Mumbai in 2006, a few Pakistanis secured visas, although others did not. The second meeting was held 25 to 27 May in Shiraz, Iran, on neutral ground, and the next gathering is to be held in Sri Lanka in 2010. Shinde says that despite growing pains, the group now has 400 members from six countries. In the meantime, he and Masih will go about their respective business, so close, and yet so far.

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