Joint Pakistani-French-Italian Historical and Archaeological Mission at Banbhore
The site of Banbhore rises at the mouth of the Indus deltaic region on the northern bank of the Gharo creek, midway on the route from Karachi to Thatta, ca. 30 km from the present shoreline. It consists in a “citadel” encircled by bastions, and a vast area of extra moenia ruins – harbour structures, urban quarters, suburbs and slums, warehouses, workshops, artificial barrages. Altogether, the citadel and the surrounding quarters cover a surface of ca. 65 hectares.
The importance of the site is linked to its strategic position and the surrounding environment. As a matter of fact, various historical sources inform us about a harbour town at the mouth of the Indus delta which, due to its strategic position, played a central role since about the 3rd century BCE. Scholars have identified it with the harbour of Barbarikon – named by the author of the Periplus Maris Erythraei – and with the Sasanian and Islamic harbour-town called Deb/Debal/Daybul, first mentioned by the preacher Mani and by several later sources in Arabic and Persian, which provide a wealth of information. Even though such identifications are strongly debated and there is no general agreement among scholars, the location and the imposing structures of the fortified citadel of Banbhore on the Gharo channel make it appealing tentatively to link the site with those ancient towns.
In 2010, the Italian Archaeological and Historical Mission in Southern Makran and Kharan – led by Prof. Valeria Piacentini Fiorani, CRiSSMA (Centre of Research on the Southern System and the Wider Mediterranean), Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan – and the French Archaeological Mission in Sindh – led by Prof. Monique Kervran (CNRS, Paris) – decided to join efforts, scholarship and the data so far obtained, thus giving birth to an ambitious project, the Joint Pak-French-Italian Archaeological and Historical Research Project at Banbhore (Sindh). The CRAST (Center for Archaeological Researches and Excavations of Turin) joined the Mission in 2014, by sending Dr. Niccolò Manassero as Archaeologist on the Field in the January-February 2014 campaign; then, in December 2014, by signing a formal agreement with the CRiSSMA, and charging Dr. Manassero with the field direction of the Pak-Italian trench in January-March 2015.
The preliminary goal of the Joint Expedition was to “date” the site and get detailed and quantifiable archaeological evidence as to its urban structure and the wide range of activities carried out there. How ancient is the site? When was it initially settled? Might Banbhore have been the site of Barbarikon, the harbour of Scythia reported by the Periplus? Might the citadel be the Daybul stormed after a long siege, in 711-712 CE, by Muhammad ibn Qasim al-Thaqafi, which marked the conquest of the Sindh region by the armies of Islam? May this famous Debal/Daybul be also identified with Deb, where the apostle Thomas landed and started to preach Christianity through India?
The most pressing task of the Joint Expedition was to create a new, updated scale-study and contour-lines map of the site, the indispensable tool to proceed to further investigation and excavations. Such task was accomplished in the course of the 2011 and 2012 field-seasons through a topographic survey and a kite-photo campaign (Yves Ubelmann, Sophie Reynard, Alessandro Tilia) under the supervision of Monique Kervran. The citadel was carefully mapped within the whole circle of its bastioned walls, as well as some extra moenia quarters, the resulting map to serve as a permanent basis for every further investigation of the site (Alessandro Tilia). In the first proper archaeological campaign, November-December 2012, the Pakistani-Italian team opened two soundings in the central area of the citadel, south of the Mosque, concentrating on palatial structures, craft workshops, and a refuse pit. Artefacts from the latter provided important evidence of ordinary life at Banbhore and a nearly complete shape of a honey-comb mould. In the second campaign (2013-2014) - which marked the beginning of the collaboration of the CRAST with the CRiSSMA – the Pak-Italian team focused on the very centre of the site: here, two trenches were cut, across the “Partition Wall” and just west of it (Trench 7 and 8, respectively). The main aim was to provide new evidence with regard to the meaning and date of both the wall and the structures adjoining it. All in all, the structures unearthed seem to point to the following conclusions: (a) the so called Partition Wall was a late defensive structure, hurriedly built on other buildings, and when the population had already started to abandon the site - as some buildings dug in the course of the 2014 field season seem to suggest. (b) The unearthed buildings and intricate patterns of roads induced also to envisage precise plans of urbanisation in the course of the various phases of life of the site. The third campaign of excavation (January-February 2015) saw the Pakistani-Italian team focusing again on the central part of the site, though in a lower area between the Partition Wall and the Southern Gate. The excavation revealed an imposing building, continuously standing since the 9th century CE to the final days of Banbhore, and some other structures that were refreshed and widened several times, likely maintaining their function of craftshops. In fact, more than 4000 fragments of carved ivory, animal bones and shells were found, that witness an intense craftsmanship activity related to the creation of jewellery and furniture. A carefully built water-tank under the buildings was discovered as well, that reveals an attentive planning of the urban infrastructures, possibly coinciding with important political and social settings happened during the 9th century. An intense training activity was constantly offered to Pakistani scholars on the field, concerning archaeological methodology, topographic relief, potsherds' drawing and study, Meanwhile, the Pak-French team (under the direction of Dr Monique Kervran), focused investigation in the South-Western part of the citadel. The three campaigns revealed an intricated network of structures belonging to the Sasanian and Islamic ages in that part of the site, and the materials unearthed, both locally produced and imported from Iran, display a rich array of crafts, such as glass, ivory and shells, dating from the Islamic as well as the pre-Islamic eras, thus suggesting a constant role of Banbhore in the Indian Ocean trade through the ages. The fieldwork of the Pak-French team was constantly focused on the search for the ancient phases of life of the site, to answer one of the major questions the scientific community is facing since decades, namely how ancient is the origin of the settlement at Banbhore? For that reason, investigation on the natural morphology of the terrain below the cultural layers played a major role. To this purpose, the geomorphological and hydrologic survey and sedimentological investigations and tests carried out during the 2014 season have advanced our knowledge on the changes in the Indus’ course and helped us achieve a better understanding of the environment and the local natural habitat, the population’s distribution and its development (Sorbonne University of Abu Dhabi, under the direction of Prof Eric Fouache). Ceramic assemblages from the Pak-Italian trenches (studied by Dr Agnese Fusaro) document the “international” dimension of the site of Banbhore through the centuries, and provide clear evidence of the process of its “Indianisation.” Archaeometric analyses of recovered artefacts (glassware, ceramic vessel, little objects and beads, metals, coins, clay moulds etc.) - conducted by Profs Mario Piacentini and Anna Candida Felici, of the LANDA Laboratory of the Sapienza University of Rome – have supported and complemented the investigations, and shown that most of the potsherds are of local production, not imported ones. The re-examination of the written sources (Prof. Valeria Piacentini Fiorani) has provided a wealth of information referring to the late Sasanian and Islamic periods, data on military and political events taking place in Sindh, social and administrative institutions, commercial codes and economic activity, links and interlinks with the surrounding world. Preliminary results of the excavations seem to confirm the information provided by contemporary sources, and to a certain degree they confirm F.A. Khan’s statements on the main stages of life at Banbhore; at the same time these first campaigns have offered better insight into some specific issues. The Pakistani partner focused on the study of coins and some glass artefacts emerged from the excavation, in collaboration with the Corning Museum of Glass. The trenches have undoubtedly provided a clearer understanding of the organization of space and the combination of building materials, disposal and recycling of materials (either objects or construction materials) and the development of the fortification system which encased the city. Moreover, no less valuable data have been collected referring to domestic life and the context of the city, such as the religious communities within it, craftwork and shops, market activities, the production of goods - both for local consumption and for export - and other goods imported for a re-distribution market. The picture of a rich and extremely active town has came out, one where international trade played a major role through the Sasanian and Islamic ages: it is the aim of the next campaigns to ascertain whether the political and economic importance of Banbhore might already be actual in earlier periods as well.
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