Art of the state

The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia
April 5, 1996

Among the publications of Raymond Allchin is the widely used introduction to South Asian archaeology he wrote with his wife, Bridget Allchin. The present book complements that survey by dealing more fully with the early historical period. About half of the text was written by Allchin alone, the other half by his wife and by his pupils George Erdosy, Robin Coningham and Dilip Chakrabarti.

The aim of the book is "to review the broad developments leading up to and attending I an Indian urban style of life and culture". It focuses on archaeological evidence in the broad sense, including town planning, architecture, art history, numismatics and epigraphy, but endeavours also to take into account the textual evidence.

Introductory chapters assess the value of the archaeological projects in elucidating early historical South Asia and discuss the environmental context of Harappan urbanism, its ending and its legacy, and the problems concerning the continuity between the Indus civilisation and cultures of the early historical period on the one hand and the introduction of the Indo-Aryan languages to the subcontinent on the other. Next, the city states of the early historical period are surveyed by region, starting with the northwest and the Gangetic valley and ending with Sri Lanka. Then follows a discussion of the Mauryan state and empire with its celebrated art and architecture, and a survey of the post-Mauryan states of mainland South Asia (c 185bcad320). The book concludes with Allchin's synthesis, and a bibliography and index.

This is a most valuable and excellently illustrated book on an important theme. One of the most interesting issues is the emergence of the Brahmi script. Within the past decade, this issue has been revolutionised by the excavations at Anuradhapura (involving both Allchin and Coningham). "Inscriptions on pottery begin during the course of period J, which is dated by radiocarbon to between 450bc and 350bc, if not earlier I This would indicate that the use of writing began some two centuries earlier than the first datable inscriptions currently known from any other part of South Asia." However, "the earliest indication I is only a single letter I the first fragments of full inscriptions occur in the uppermost phases" of period J. Allchin suspects that "with more critical use of radiocarbon dating a number of excavated sites in India, which have produced inscribed potsherds, seals or sealings from hitherto imprecisely dated contexts, may also be found to yield pre-Mauryan as well as Mauryan materials".

It seems advisable to retain some caution, however. For as Coningham and Allchin admit, the radiometric determinations for period J are "somewhat unclear"; and there is recent conflicting evidence from German excavators. Nor does the book pay attention to important books (in German) by Oskar von Hinuber (1989) and Harry Falk (1993) that deal with the origin of the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts. Falk in particular argues rather forcefully that Brahmi was devised on the orders of Asoka, basing this conclusion on an extensive body of evidence.

Asko Parpola is professor of South Asian studies, University of Helsinki.

The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: The Emergence of Cities and States

Author - F. R. Allchin
ISBN - 0 521 37547 9 and 37695 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00 and £22.95
Pages - 371

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