Situated between the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and southeastern China, the fertile plains of Bengal have been the crossing point of traders and religious pilgrims for centuries. Today Bangladesh presents an array of cultural traditions, with the remains of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic structures dotting a green and vibrant landscape.

    The archaeological heritage of Bangladesh is now becoming better known outside the region thanks to the ongoing French-Bangladeshi archaeological project at Mahasthangarh, a large walled city in northwestern Bangladesh. It is the first international collaborative archaeological research project in the country and since 1993 the team has been conducting excavations led jointly by Dr. Shafiqul Alam of the Bangladesh Directorate of Archaeology and Prof. Jean-François Salles of the Maison de l'Orient Méditerranéen, Lyon. The team has excavated a portion of the city adjacent to the encircling rampart, seeking to understand the city's development over time.

    Artifacts from the excavations show links with the Ganges valley of the Indian subcontinent in both form and content and provide evidence that Mahasthangarh was a vibrant trading city in the Bengal delta by the late first millennium B.C.E. In addition to the excavation project, the team has engaged in survey around the site, using topographic mapping and the study of satellite images to discern how land use has shifted along the major river courses of the region. In this flat, alluvial region devoid of stone, ancient crafts makers turned abundant resources of clay into brick, tile and decorative terracottas. Several members of the Bangladeshi-French archaeological team are also engaged in documenting the traditional production of ceramics, bricks and other crafts in the area, before these processes are transformed by increased mechanization and the rapid adoption of imported plastic and metal goods. In addition to preserving a record of a disappearing way of life, these studies help us to provide models of the way in which large-scale crafts manufacture may have been practiced in the past.

    The archaeology of Bangladesh extends far beyond these major sites to include a variety of smaller towns and villages that dot the Bangladeshi landscape. For the earliest periods of occupation, sites like Mahasthangarh show that throughout the human history of the region, trade activities were sustained with other areas of the eastern Indian Ocean littoral. On a recent survey of a small medieval town site in another region of western Bangladesh, I noticed a fragment of Chinese porcelain among the thousands of potsherds that marked the presence of the site. The diminutive blue-and-white sherd was an immediate touchstone to the larger Islamic world of the 14-16th centuries. By the medieval period, even modest villages well in the interior of Bengal participated in a long-distance trading network that stretched from North Africa to China - a precursor to our own global networks and a reminder that the purchase and display of exotic goods among a collection of household possessions is not an exclusively modern trait.


    Archaeology as means of cultural identity

    For modern citizens of Bangladesh, the world's most densely populated country, cultural heritage is not a luxury but a touchstone of identity that has helped to forge a nation from a half-century of conflict. In 1947, the partition of the Indian subcontinent resulted in the separation of India from Pakistan. The latter was a country divided into two physical halves, East and West Pakistan, separated not only by geography but also by language and culture. In 1971, East Pakistan gained its independence and became the nation of Bangladesh.

    Since that time, the leaders of Bangladesh have been promoting archaeology, as well as theater, music and literary arts, to forge a distinct national identity. Museums, displaying representations of the past and present of the nation, were a particular focus of activity. Archaeology continues to be a focus of national heritage management and the Bangladeshi government has developed numerous museums and archaeological sites for public use. In addition to renovations at the historic Red Fort in the capital of Dhaka, a new archaeological museum has just been completed in the growing commercial city of Khulna. Museums of archaeology and folk life exist in the country's other large cities as well as at major archaeological sites.

    UNESCO's World Heritage list of protected monuments includes two of these sites, Paharpur and Bagerhat. The 8-12th century Buddhist monument at Paharpur is the better known of the two and attracts significant numbers of visitors from East Asian countries. The central portion of the site consists of a large monastic compound, in which dozens of monks' quarters are built into the wide wall that surrounds a central shrine. Between the monastic cells and the center shrine, there are numerous support buildings including the massive kitchens used to supply the monks' daily needs. The roots of Buddhism were particularly strong in this deltaic region of the eastern Indian subcontinent; long after the demise of Buddhism in India, monasteries continued to thrive in the region of Bangladesh. These developments helped to sustain Buddhism into the second millennium C.E. The Islamic city of Bagerhat, located in western Bangladesh, contains monuments that testify to the prosperity of the Bengal region and the riches that eventually attracted British colonizers. The site flourished from the mid-15th century and includes a number of restored mosques and tombs dating to the medieval era. Cities such as Bagerhat drew upon a large countryside and served as points of commerce and government with far-reaching effects. As sites worthy of global awareness and protection under UNESCO's World Heritage classification, Bagerhat and Paharpur receive international investment in the form of both funding and expertise to assist with preservation and documentation. In the humid Bengal environment, numerous climatological factors affect the preservation of archaeological remains, such as rising damp and salt efflorescence, which causes destructive salt crystals to form on the walls of standing structures. Funding from international agencies also supports the construction of fences and walls to demarcate archaeological zones, as well as the restoration and reconstruction of major sites.

    While international tourism is still limited, domestic tourism by a growing middle class has greatly increased local economic opportunities related to archaeological sites. The government's principal investments in tourist-related infrastructure have been made for local Bangladeshis, who have come to see museums and archaeological sites as attractive places for family gatherings. In a country with very few open spaces for public recreation and leisure, museums and their gardens provide a clean, attractive and inviting space. On Fridays, the Bangladeshi weekly holiday, archaeological sites become a zone of convivial activity and entrepreneurship.

    I have watched these developments over the past several years as a member of the French-Bangladeshi archaeological team at Mahasthangarh. In 1996, the first year that I went to the region, the weekly Friday holiday might bring one hired coach of passengers from a town 100-150 kilometers distant, along with a handful of local visitors from the nearby town of Bogra, most of whom arrived by car or minibus. By 1998, the number had grown to perhaps five buses and a significantly larger group of individual families. This year, a Friday meant 20 or more buses. With the new bridge over the Jamuna River putting the site within reach of day-travelers from the capital, the number is set to grow exponentially.

    Local commerce has grown to meet this escalating demand. When the site first opened, the village of Mahasthan had no facilities for visitors but by 1998 an enterprising family had set up a small tea stall near an open field where buses are parked and a few itinerant vendors sold country-made sweets and snacks. As year later, the tea stall had grown to include a section for seating, a glass-topped case for yogurt cups and a much larger selection of packaged biscuits, factory-made chips and snacks and bottled sodas. By next year, I expect to see simple meals being served at the tea stall and a refrigerator for the sodas will not be far behind.

    Another development at Mahasthangarh is the appearance of a privately published tourist pamphlet about the site, selling for about the price of a bottled drink . This booklet gives a rather fanciful history of the site but clearly fulfills a demand for the type of tourist brochures available at archaeological sites in other parts of the world. The local government museum has also responded to this desire for information by making available the official publications on archaeological remains in Bangladesh.

    While large sites such as Mahasthangarh, Paharpur and Bagerhat are actively protected, many smaller sites are rapidly disappearing from the landscape as farmers remove smaller mounds to recover building material and enlarge their agricultural fields. Several spectacular Islamic sites are particularly endangered by growing populations and by pressure on resources. The ancient capital of Gaur, an archaeological site that was once famously inaccessible, is now bisected by a paved road leading to a new border crossing with India. Heavily laden trucks rumble past the graceful Chhota Sona mosque, shaking the ground and causing potentially irreparable damage to the structures.

    The problems that Bangladesh faces in protecting these and other monuments are faced by all countries: finite resources to devote to cultural heritage; pressure on the land that makes it difficult to set aside large sections for archaeological protection; and environmental deterioration. Some of these problems are exacerbated by steps taken to alleviate other pressing needs such as improving crop yields and providing economic opportunities. Bangladeshi devotion to heritage has aimed for innovation and a sense of duty towards the legacy that will become part of the nation's future. The movement to open museums and to promote archaeological sites as venues for recreation combines many different purposes with a single intent: the preservation and protection of archaeological remains.

    While academics and intellectuals will always promote the need for cultural heritage, positive sentiments about archaeological monuments can also be generated through fond memories of family outings and school picnics. The will to protect monuments, especially when there is such pressure on land, must be strong and consistent; attaching a sense of identity to the past can be done successfully through leisure and entertainment as well as through appeals to intellectual heritage and national identity. The government's promotion of significant archaeological sites as venues for family recreation is a model that could be successfully adopted by other nations whose archaeological sites are under threat from rapid urbanization and land reclamation.


    Monica L. Smith received her doctorate in anthropology from the U-M in 1997. She held a postdoctoral research fellowship from the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies in 1998 and is now a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.