Real-time accounts of archaeological finds


Extracted with permission from The First Archaeologist of the Indian World: Letters from Alexander Cunningham to JDM Beglar by Upinder Singh.


Considering the huge area to be covered and the limited manpower, the expeditions were diligently planned based on careful assessments of the areas likely to yield the most valuable results. Archaeologists did not blindly follow in the footsteps of Chinese monks Faxian and Xuanzang, as is often imagined. Xuanzang’s account was, of course, important for some sites, for example, Bodh Gaya. Both monks are mentioned in Rajgir’s discussion, but with reference to the location of the Sattapani cave, Cunningham remarked that “the curiously absurd descriptions of the Chinese pilgrims leave us without any really precise information.” He was therefore neither incredulous nor devoid of critical thinking.

The routes and routes have been carefully developed based on the gaps in existing documentation and areas of maximum potential. The beggar’s roads [J. D. M. Beglar was Cunningham’s Archaeological Assistant] have been specially designed to take it to places requiring photographic documentation. Cunningham determined where they might meet on their tours in order to confer and collaborate. Several letters speak of the need for detailed maps of known and unknown areas, and the importance of including maps in archaeological survey reports. But judging by the way Cunningham detailed locations, routes, and distances, it’s obvious he had plenty of maps on his mind.

As the two men traveled a lot, they had to anticipate each other’s movements and do calculations before deciding on the addresses to which they should send their letters. Different modes of transfer are mentioned: land mail, packet mail, Bangly, Bangly Dak, registered mail, Tongha Dak and ox train. Sometimes letters arrived at their destination after the addressee had left; sometimes they got lost in transit. The telegraph is mentioned for the first time at the beginning of 1877 and the references increase thereafter.

Upinder Singh


The First Archaeologist of the Indian World: Letters from Alexander Cunningham to JDM Beglar


Oxford University Press, 2021

The most remarkable thing about the letters is that they describe archaeological finds – many of major historical significance – as they were made, in real time. They give direct access to first impressions of the sites, to ruminations on their reach, to breakthroughs. Writing in the fall of 1875, he announced:

“I have proof that Pâṭaliputra was on the Son! This is why the Son was the Erannoboas of the Greeks, as I have always told you. (Letter n ° 43)

To Rajgir in December 1875:

“I spent 3 days in Râjgir – where I discovered several new caves – two of which are close to our so-called Sattapanni cave… my men first reached your cave from above -! Right above there are two real caves over 70 feet long each, but they have only ever been inhabited by bears. (Letter n ° 52)

In Mathura, in March 1882:

“I only found one sculpture of any value. It is, however, a very precious element: a group of Heracles killing the Nemean lion! I have the sculpture with me now. It is over 3 feet tall – I found it forming the side of an ox water trough and covered with a bit of brick wall and mud. Before recognizing the subject, I noticed the artistic merit of the sculpture. I intend to have it photographed in Simla by Craddock. (Letter # 155)

In a letter, Cunningham wrote about the findings of the Buddhist stupa and Gandhakuti (temple) in Shravasti, in another on the discovery in Sankissa of the pedestal of the elephant capital Ashokan. Sultanganj’s discoveries in 1880 unfold over several letters written in March and April 1880. Initially, Beglar found nothing; then he discovered a stupa, and later relics inside the stupa. Cunningham was excited and told him to send him the relics: “I wish to see them and draw them.” The high priest of Ceylon wanted the bone relic.

“I suppose he will call it a relic of Buddha and make the people of Ceylon bow!” (Letter # 167)

The letters transport the reader to the bustle of archaeological expeditions. Cunningham often traveled on horseback or elephant back. The elephant, the camels and the servants had to be sent in advance. Packing, weighing and loading the baggage into the train’s baggage car was a major operation. Sometimes the luggage arrived at the site long after Cunningham had reached; sometimes he realized too late that he forgot to pack an important item, for example paper. There are references to “khalassies” and to the servants of the entourage. Locating and hiring camels was a persistent problem; the camel drivers were unreliable and there was endless haggling over prices. References to the railway begin in 1874, but mention of camels and elephants continues. There were other modes of transport such as ox-trains, horse-drawn carriages, carts, tongas, horse-drawn carriages and phaetons. In October 1875, Carlleyle [Cunninghm’s second Archaeological Assistant] was thrown from his dog cart (apparently this had happened several times), causing a serious and permanent injury to his arm.

Apart from land travel, long and arduous journeys sometimes involved river crossings.

“The Sound is full of water and the crossing is difficult and very tedious due to subsidence and breakage of parts of the roadway. My elephant waded across the river, and so did my camels, without their loads. (Letter n ° 50)

There have been occasional accidents. Writing from Shekohabad in February 1877, Cunningham reported:

“All my books in boxes 3 and 4 are destroyed – The camel sat with them in the middle of the Ahsin river – and almost killed my cook too.” (Letter n ° 78)

There have been encounters with elephants and leopards. Sometimes there was death on the march. In January 1882, a member of the team named Gohar Khan suddenly fell ill and died.

The expeditions required the purchase of equipment such as ropes and stakes; organization of tents; and collect provisions and food such as bread, meat, butter, and tea for the camp. Writing from Sankargarh on December 18, 1874 and discussing where they might meet, Cunningham told Beglar that they should change base to Uchera, “where the water is good, the provisions are plentiful – and there has both a station and a post office “(Letter n ° 23). There were the expected occupational risks. In February 1875 he wrote from Bhilsa,

“Here I am in front of the Dâk bungalow, which has a broken roof, and which is also full of wasps. (Letter n ° 34)

The weather is a regular refrain.

“Furious wind — 3 weeks before its time.” I waded the Son easily, up to my knees only. (Letter # 139)

It is the heat that is most often mentioned:

“The heat came suddenly at the end of February. I managed to continue until I got to Uchera… I went to Allahabad by train and was devoured by mosquitoes [sic ] while waiting for money. (Letter n ° 36)

Cunningham found the heat debilitating and exhausting. Calcutta was too hot for him. In February 1882, he told Beglar that he found the heat of Calcutta unbearable: “I am melting very quickly now. I will be very happy to come out of this Purgatory ”(Letter n ° 154). Whenever possible, he retreated to the cool climates of Simla …

Money and accounts work like regular threads through letters. Cunningham sent frequent calls to his assistants for bills, vouchers, and receipts, and urged them to be careful with money. Bureaucratic errors and delays were sources of exasperation, as were the stubbornness of the Comptroller General and the ineffectiveness of the “Red Treasury Tapists”. The money was sent to archaeologists in the field in cash, money order, or check. Beglar often ran out of money and wrote for more; sometimes there weren’t any. Besides the money needed for official archaeological work, Beglar had personal financial problems. He wanted a raise, otherwise he was looking for a better paying job….

Apart from the weather, money and accounting, what emerges from the letters is how the archaeological work was carried out amid frequent illnesses. Beglar was a sick man, prone to fever and headaches, and Cunningham regularly inquired about his health … Advice is frequent.

“I’m afraid you’ve been in the sun too much. You should have greater respect for the power of the sun and always have pills on hand to cool the system, as well as quinine to prevent fever. I remember you exposed yourself bareheaded to the Sun in Bharhut in the most daring way, enough to anger Sûrya. (Letter n ° 57)

… In fact, several letters reveal that during the most productive years of his life, Cunningham suffered from debilitating physical illnesses. In June 1878 he had a lot to write, but had neither the time nor the capacity because he was “paralyzed with rheumatism”. He had back pain and could not sit up painlessly; he planned to treat it with applications of hot water followed by rubbing with camphor and brandy… On April 26, 1880, he wrote:

“My knee is getting stronger, but it’s a slow process. I can sleep on my right side and move around with just one crutch, so I’m fairly independent. But I have a nasty attack of diarrhea, which worries me. I’ll get to work on Hwen Thsang for you despite all the discomforts. (Letter n ° 127)

The discoveries Beglar made at Mahabodhi in 1881 greatly excited Cunningham and he was eager to see them for himself.

“Your discoveries in the interior are very curious; and I only wish I could climb to see the inside. But my right angle [ sic ] has been swelling a lot lately – and is now bandaged – and I’m pretty lame. (Letter # 146)

The punitive routine also led to exhaustion, especially as he grew older. This did not, however, tarnish his keen sense of purpose or his enthusiasm for his work.


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