History is destroyed across the world every day. Roads need to be built, farms expanded, and homes constructed. The remains of ancient civilisations, which generally appear as gentle mounds on otherwise flat ground, are simply in the way.
Their destruction is often unintentional, unnoticed. In many ways, historical preservation is about luck. Sites survive not because they are actively protected, but because they aren’t in the way of modernity.
“The landscapes are full of heritage,” says Cameron Petrie, professor in South Asian archaeology at the University of Cambridge and the principal investigator of the Mapping Archaeological Heritage in South Asia (MAHSA) project.
Launched in 2020, it is a collaboration between Cambridge and a host of archaeologists and researchers throughout India and Pakistan to develop an open-source and free database of heritage sites throughout the Indus River Basin.
It aspires to be the first complete catalogue of heritage in the region and is funded in its current form until the end of March 2024.
The project’s goal is to combine data from both contemporary research and survey maps dating back to British colonisation.
It has currently digitised more than 9,000 records and identified over 6,000 possible archaeological sites they hope archaeologists will be able to survey in future studies. “In my time, I’ve watched things disappear and be destroyed,” says Petrie, who has conducted research in India and Pakistan since 2007.
Adding heritage sites to an online database does not mean that development will cease. Abhayan GS and Rajesh RV, professors of archaeology at the University of Kerala, who collaborate with the MAHSA project, say, “We are not saying that through this project we can save the sites, but we can at least have some data on them and say at least there was a site.” They have been excavating remains from the Harappan Civilisation in Kutch, Gujarat, since 2016.
They say archaeological and historical preservation is a delicate balance between academics, government and the local populace. The task is made particularly challenging since there are no existing laws requiring the identification of heritage sites in advance of development projects.
“Development should be sustainable by considering heritage,” Abhayan says, adding, “There should be more government investments.”
In many ways, MAHSA is about communicating with the present as much as it is about documenting the past. The project relies heavily on satellite imagery, digitised survey maps and machine learning in order to document heritage sites and assess their current status.
It makes all of these tools publicly available in order to encourage as much participation as possible. It also conducts workshops for college students, faculties, and facilitates discussions with nongovernmental organisations, villagers and other stakeholders in order to actively help find ways to both support development and preserve local heritage and histories.
“Having these conversations about heritage and what it is, and these examples of documentation, are important to the process,” Petrie says. “It’s not an on-off switch. It’s like a progressive thing. If a site is protected, often a fence is put around it. That means the things inside are protected, but the ones outside are not. The question is, where do you put the fence?”