Buried Treasure: An Acropolis on The Frontier

Amongst a century of detritus at the BBC, there lies some buried treasure. Between layers of fake news, preachy left-wing documentaries and un-funny comedy, the BBC’s iPlayer hides a gleaming gem of an old archaeology series. Each compact episode follows the historical investigations, carried out both here and in distant parts of the Empire, of Sir Eric Robert Mortimer Wheeler CH CIE MC TD FRS FBA FSA.

In 1970s London, two figures pass the House of Commons while deep in conversation. They are filmed again on the other side of Westminster Bridge, leaving a Watneys street-corner pub. Wrapped in discussion and portrayed in fetching and appropriate black and white, they pass a succession of pollution-pitted landmarks in the London of half a century ago. Is it seventies icons Victor Chandler and racehorse owner Mr Teasie Weasie Raymond discussing essential affairs of the turf? No, it’s archaeology’s Sir Mortimer Wheeler and the BBC’s Magnus Magnussen reflecting upon the former’s previous life more interesting.

As if an owner and his bookmaker, Sir Mortimer is attired in Fedora and tweeds, Mr Magnussen in a pale morning suit topped by (in the style of the times) an overenthusiastic bouffant covering too much of the upper ears. Many years after Sir Mortimer hung his pith helmet and baggy shorts in the potting shed and relegated his tools to Lady Wheeler’s gardener, the BBC felt obliged to a retrospective. The year was 1974, 16 years after Sir Mortimer’s final expedition which had been to Pakistan. After adjourning to a smoking room and afore a wall-mounted Persian rug, Magnus enquired, “Do you miss the excavations?”

“Oh no,” replied Sir Mortimer, “I knew my last expedition would be the last, and it was.” In case viewers might suspect a career ended by scandal, he hastily added, “A successful goodbye.” Sir Mortimer re-directed the conversation to 1902 when he was a small boy, and Magnus, he reminded his interlocutor, was but a dream. As every Puffin knows, in that year Lord Curzon was the Viceroy of India. One of his outstanding achievements was to revive the Archaeological Survey of India which, Sir Mortimer reminded us, had never previously entirely come to fruition. Sir Mortimer went on to tell an excellent tale of how the new department was headed.

Curzon telegraphed London and enquired of a suitable archaeologist to lead the renewed effort. Universities and museums were trawled. A telephone call was made to the British Museum, whose director volunteered an anonymous underling called Marshall. A competent junior colleague, Marshall could be spared without being missed. Putting down the phone, the director was called to elsewhere in the building. When he returned, he found standing by his desk a certain undergraduate named John Marshall who, by coincidence, had arrived on-spec to enquire about a possible future career in the museum service.

“Who are you?” asked the director.

“Marshall, Sir,” replied the visitor.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, Sir.”

“That was quick.”

With that, the director explained the role of Head of Archaeology at the India Survey to the wrong Marshall, ending with the somewhat premature question, “How soon can you go?” John Marshall explained he intended to marry, whereupon the director instructed his surprised visitor to find himself in Delhi six weeks hence. Although still a Cambridge student, Marshall was happy to accept and a month and a half later he and his puzzled bride were presented to Lord Curzon at the Vicroy’s House, a magnificent palace on the outskirts of Old Delhi.

Curzon was impressed with the couple, Marshall being the right sort and an old boy of the British School in Athens. Following some Wednesday afternoon sessions in the Vicroy’s office being instructed on how the entire subcontinent should properly be conducted, Marshall set off to meet his staff and get to know the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.

As those new to India often do, from Alexander the Great to, I must add somewhat immodestly, the Worth-Sayings, those fresh to the subcontinent tend to start at the top left-hand corner, the natural entry point to India from the rest of Asia by land, the North West Frontier Territory with its legendary Khyber Pass.

“Surrounded by mountains which are generally hidden by mist,” intoned Sir Mortimer as he held his chin and looked to the ceiling, “The most romantic part of the area if you use the word romantic, which I don’t.”

There, Marshall found a series of mounds, one very high, 60 or 70 ft. This was the ancient predecessor of modern-day Peshawar, the former capital of the Frontier, Pushkalavati, which, as every Puffin with even the most rudimentary understanding of provincial Sanskrik knows, means Lotus City.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
The Swat river and Pushkalavati mound.
Swat river and Pushkalavati mound just beyond,
Archaeological Survey of India
Public domain

Being an Athens man, Marshall assumed, “Here’s another Acropolis. I’ll dig it up and find another Parthenon.” After which he made haste with the dynamite. A state of affairs Sir Mortimer summarised as, “The first excavation of modern times but not using modern methods, as they hadn’t been invented.”

“To be quite frank, made an awful mess of the job,” concluded Sir Mortimer of a young man with training so inadequate that he wasn’t actually an archaeologist.

We jump to 1944, 42 years later. Another newly appointed director-general began his tour at the Frontier on a great plain romantically described by the unromantic Sir Mortimer as consisting of, “Great waving masses of sugar cane, waving like a sea. And rising out of these waves, like a battleship at anchor, was this great mound which represented the old capital city of Pushkalavati.”

Too modest to make mention of it himself, Magnus was obliged to explain that Sir Mortimer Wheeler had been the new Director General of the Archaeological Survey for India in 1944. Pictured with colleagues upon the dust, Sir Mortimer wore a crisp, white shirt (top two buttons undone), pith helmet and shorts. Rolled-up sleeves revealed an impressive wristwatch which one hopes has remained in the Wheeler family. Native colleagues stood about, dark-skinned and gangly even by native standards.

Sir Mortimer also sported what those in the know call the ‘Peshawar ‘tache’. A bushy addition to the upper lip nestling in, and only in, the particularly challenging parts of a gentleman’s shave that can’t be trusted to the rusty cutthroat razor wallahs of a North West Frontier souk.

But it was only 14 years after his 1944 appointment that Sir Mortimer had an opportunity to excavate Marshall’s ruins. An older and wiser Sir Mortimer was pictured, Fedora in the left hand, cigar in the right. The hairline had receded. The white shirt sat beneath a safari jacket. However, both the sun-scorched earth and the Peshawar ‘tache remained in situ. Worse still, in a changing world, Sir Mortimer had had to await the invitation of the Government of West Pakistan before digging rather than assume the silent consent of a good egg like Lord Curzon.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Pushkalavati mound.
Remains of Charsadda, probable site of ancient Pushkalavati,
Jona Lendering & Marco Prins
Public domain

“I dug there,” continued Sir Mortimer and, it being 1958 rather than 1902 or 1903, he had been able to call upon the air force to arrange aerial photography. Cold warrior Puffins may recall high-altitude flights from unaligned West Pakistan to neutral Finland (taps nose) as the latest photo reconnaissance kit pointed at any and all Soviet military installations in between.

Reading between the lines, what happened was this. Over tiffin, sweet tea and soggy pastries beneath a sun-bleached canvas passing for a mess (aside a mile and a half of melting tarmac), Sir Mortimer dropped into the conversation that it might be helpful if the cameras were turned on earlier. Perhaps next to his line of tents up in the hills? Make it easier to know where to start the first ditch. If the film subsequently runs out before capturing what lurks within the forbidding Arctic waters of the Kola peninsula, never mind Old Bean, there’s always another day.

Forty-eight hours later, a wallah arrived at Sir Mortimer’s encampment with an envelope containing the developed prints. Standing alongside his younger colleagues, two men from Cambridge and others from various parts of West Pakistan, he tore open the envelope and showed them the pictures asking, “What do you make of that?” Nice, rather muddled and not used to a quiz, they shrugged their shoulders. Only Sir Mortimer understood. He enlightened the lesser mortals, “This is the greatest discovery made in the Frontier of Pakistan for perhaps 100 years.”

What emerged via the photographs was a plan. The outline of a part-Greek part-Indian city showing lines of streets and lines of house walls at right angles and parallel to the streets. In the midst, the circular shape of a Buddhist shrine.

That afternoon, he went over to Shaikhan, one of the mounds amongst the ruins. Rightly, and again as if a racehorse owner, Sir Mortimer described the distance from his tent to the mound as three furlongs which, for Puffins below the age of ninety or unfamiliar with the Sport of Kings, is a distance of 30 chains.

“From the ground, the area looked like a tumult, like a cross Channel sea on a rough day. But from the air, from 1,000 feet up, the whole thing fell into place and was quite simple.”

Local farmers had found and robbed the brick walls of the ancient settlement. They’d dug trenches alongside the walls to scavenge bricks, leaving a city in negative with hollow lines where the walls had been. All this was verified two years after Sir Mortimer’s exploration following further work by a Mr Darney, a local Professor of Archeology at Peshawar University who had been a pupil of Sir Mortimer. “A very good fellow, a fine fellow. As one gets older, one boasts of one’s pupils,” observed Sir Mortimer as he eased credit away from Darney and back towards himself.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Athens coin of Pushkalavati.
Athens coin discovered in Pushkalavati,
CNG coins
Licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Digging revealed walls and hollows. Coins of ‘Meander’ were discovered right at the bottom, many feet down, proving this to be a Greco-Indian (or Indio-Greek) place dating from the middle of the 2nd century BC. In the manner set by the old director of the British Museum, Sir Mortimer stumbled over the name of a less significant chap than himself, “Erm, erm, as if to say, what’s his name, thingamy. Oh, Alexander The Great.” He’d entered India by land at the end of the 4th century BC, with Pushkalavati being captured by Alexander’s troops in 327 BC.

“As a bonne bouche,” Sir Mortimer continued, “I decided to find the defences of the city at that time. It took a trained division or corps of Alexander’s troops 30 days to capture it, implying it was heavily fortified.”

At which point the programme finished somewhat abruptly. Perhaps Sir Mortimer was stunned into silence by a premonition? These days, Pushkalavati has been renamed Charsadda. Rather than a sea of waving sugar cane, it resembles a higgledy-piggledy choppy cross Channel tumult of concrete that houses a population of 120,000. The archaeological remains survive but are rarely visited. The Foreign Office advises against all travel.

Puffins with an expert knowledge of geography will already be aware that 65 years after independence, further up the same valley, Miss Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for the audacity of wanting to attend school. Before we tut-tut at the Pakistanis, take a look at modern London. One yearns for the days of Lord Curzon, either of the Messrs Marshall, Teasie Weasie, absent-minded British Museum directors, Magnus Magnuson, Victor Chandler and Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

What will future archaeologists make of us?

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Sir Mortimer Wheeler.
Photo of archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, 1956,
Howard Coaster
Fair use: Provides identification, no alternative, low resolution


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