“As everywhere else,religion and power went hand in hand in Swat”

June 11, 2023

An interview with Prof Luca Maria Olivieri

“As everywhere else,religion and power went hand in hand in Swat”

Prof Luca Maria Olivieri has been excavating in Pakistan since 1987. He has been part of the Italian Archaeological Mission established in 1955 and is now part of the ISMEO and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Since 2011, Prof Olivieri has led the Mission. He directed the Archaeology, Community, Tourism (ACT) Field School project, which took place from 2011 to 2016. In recognition of his work, he was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz in 2017. Prof Olivieri has conducted excavations and research in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. His research has focused on the rock art of Swat. He has led excavations at the sacred Buddhist sites of Gumbat, Amluk-dara and Saidu Sharif I. He has also worked for over thirty years at the multi-phase urban site of Barikot (1400 BCE-1600 CE). Prof Olivieri is a prolific author with almost 200 scientific works, including numerous monographs and excavation reports. He teaches the archaeology of Gandhara at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice.

The News on Sunday: Did you always aspire to become an archaeologist?

Luca Maria Olivieri: I don’t want to talk too much about me. However, it has been a passion I have had since childhood. There was perhaps an underlying curiosity about things, people, and their origins and a sense of mystery that evocative names of past civilisations arouse in the soul of a child. Bear in mind that I was born and raised in Rome, where one literally grows up amidst extraordinary vestiges of the past. I remember that among the first books I asked my mother to buy me, there were The Guidaarcheologica di Roma by Filippo Coarelli and the Italian translation of Warwick Bray’s Dictionary of Archaeology.

TNS: How did you become a part of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan?

LMO: Towards the late ’80s, the Mission introduced the stratigraphic documentation system known as the Harris Matrix (invented by Edward Harris in the 1970s). With the application of the Harris Matrix, archaeologists create logical diagrams to document the top-down sequence of stratigraphic deposits and propose some patterns or make sense of the information through backward chronology. In this way, the documentation is more complete and less subjective. This technique was already practised at my alma mater, Roma La Sapienza, before I graduated. At that time, stratigraphic methodologies were making great progress in Italy. Domenico Faccenna and PierfrancescoCallieri, the Mission director and excavation leader at Barikot, respectively, needed young students familiar with these methods. For me, being a young archaeologist (specialising in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire), the offer of Mission to put into practice the methods I had learned at university was a fortunate opportunity. I still cherish it.

TNS: How did the Italian mission play a role in restoring the Swat Museum?

LMO: The museum was built in 1963, during the time of the Swat state, but as a Pakistan government building (perhaps, the first in Swat) with an Italian contribution. In 2010, after the end of the hostilities, when we resumed activities in agreement with the Pakistani archaeological authorities, we realised that an area as rich as Swat could not but have a functional museum, also for the preservation of artefacts from the excavations, which were resuming on a large scale. The museum was unfit for use for well-known reasons (it was damaged by an explosion in 2008. It had already been weakened by the 2005 earthquake), so, as part of the Archeology, Community, Tourism (ACT) project, in 2011, we decided to invest part of the funds from the Pakistan-Italian Debt Swap for its reconstruction. It was an extraordinarily important decision. The museum was reopened in 2013. There are nine galleries organised both chronologically and by sites (Barikot, Saidu, Butkara...), from prehistoric to pre-modern times, with more than 2,000 unique artefacts. In addition to stone tools, one can admire Buddhist sculptures and stelae, beads, terracotta and ceramic figurines, traditional jewellery, clothing and musical instruments. Quoting, “it is a visual paradise for specialists and visitors who can imagine Swat’s past and its social, cultural, and spiritual life.” I am very happy about the Italian support and its direct participation in this project.

TNS: Did the mission also restore the giant Jahanabad Buddha?

LMO: Obviously. It is a symbol of heritage affected by religious radicalisation. I would like to point out to the readers that the rock sculpture depicts a seated Buddha in a meditative position. It was carved in the 7th Century. In 2007, some insurgents defaced it. They first drilled through the face and shoulders of the sculpture, then inserted explosives and blew it up. Fortunately, only a few charges detonated and not the ones that had been placed to detach the head from Buddha’s body. It is an impressive sculpture on the rock face and an important testimony to the late Buddhist art in the valley and the region. In terms of iconicity, it is reminiscent of the gigantic Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Because of its beauty and importance, a quick and definitive intervention was needed, which we carried out as part of the ACT project. The restoration work took six seasons. If I may comment on that intervention by quoting myself, I would say that “the restoration of the Buddha sculpture was our moral and professional obligation to the people and heritage of Swat and Pakistan.” I am very happy about this.

TNS: How did the geography of Swat Valley condition the flourishing of Buddhism?

LMO: The Swat Valley is one of the few areas in the region where double harvesting is possible. Since its arrival, Buddhism has proposed itself as the protector of water and crops. The richness of Buddhist monasteries derived precisely from managing this surplus of resources. Swat, thanks to its microclimate, is a special area where rice and wheat are harvested from the same soils throughout the year. It is one of the most important bread baskets in the region, an important agricultural colony from the Achaemenids until recent history. The extraordinary agricultural wealth translated into power and prestige, of which various dynasties were an expression; one of the most important ones was the Odiraja dynasty (c. 100 BCE-70 CE). The delicate ecosystem depended on elements uncontrollable by man (climate, water): the role of Buddhism as the metaphysical guarantor of this balance fits into this plan, as narrated in the legend of the nagaApalala converted by the Buddha.

TNS: How did the foothills and mountain valleys help in the dispersal of crops and farming techniques in the northern parts of Pakistan and adjacent areas?

LMO: The process was the opposite. Swat in periods of climatic optimum accommodated crops that were not possible elsewhere, in such quantities above all. For example, rice was introduced in a period of climatic optimum around 2500 BCE. In a colder-arid phase in the first half of the first millennium BCE, there was a noticeable contraction of the archaeological record. In the subsequent warm-humid phase, rice cultivation exploded again, cotton was introduced and there was the so-called second urbanisation phase, whose peak was reached in the Second Century CE with the culmination of Buddhist monastic foundations and the peak of Gandhara artistic production. Not surprisingly, the subsequent cold-arid phase was accompanied by the collapse of the urban settlement pattern. The cities were abandoned and slowly the decline of Buddhism began. Climate and history are closely linked in Swat for the expansion and contraction phases.

TNS: What was the role of the Buddhist religious leaders in the river valleys?

LMO: Take the example of the Swat River. We see that the role of the Buddhist religion was associated with the taming of the wild force of the Swat River. The role of the Buddhist religious community could be understood by citing the mythical Indra, who killed the Vrtra, the drought demon and brought rain and prosperity to mankind. Thus, one of the tasks of the earliest religious communities was the regulation of water and other natural sources in the valleys.

TNS: What are the reasons one could see many Buddhist institutions adjacent to mountain passes, springs and trade routes?

LMO: The monasteries were real economic entities: they controlled agriculture, and served as temporary guesthouses for merchants (a strong community in Buddhism), invigilated the trade routes and controlled forest resources and high-altitude pastures. The Buddhist texts, especially theVinayas or monastic rules, clearly describe this situation. There was trade in metals, precious stones and timber, but the agricultural surplus was at the centre of the exchange network. The mountain passes of Swat, Karakar and Shahkot still show traces of the ancient routes.

TNS: What human skills and understanding were required to manage the vast network of Buddhist institutions?

LMO: The Buddhist communities were the only ones who could read and write. They had computing skills and were capable of managing complex operations such as the construction and maintenance of stupas, managing agriculture, knowing medical practices, agronomy, etc.

TNS: How did the conquest by the English make Malakand a “quarry area” for antiquarians, diggers and smugglers?

LMO: The process worked both ways. On the one hand, Swat and Gandhara were seen as land to be harvested to fill the imperial museums; on the other hand, it was with the colonial government that the first laws for the protection of archaeological heritage were implemented (1904). However, these laws did not apply to Swat, which was a princely state. The only good thing was that the ruling family (the Mianguls) hardly allowed anyone to work there until the arrival of Giuseppe Tucci in 1955.

TNS: To what extent did the establishment of museums in Britain and India, during the colonial era, exploit the archaeological sites of Swat Valley?

LMO: I have mentioned it before. The need to create a Buddhist narrative of the past (chosen instead of other ‘pasts’, e.g. the Islamic, Hindu and Jain heritage) led to the extraordinary yet chaotic exploitation of Buddhist sites. This occurred throughout the British Raj but reached its peak in Gandhara, whose visual art appeared familiar to Europeans accustomed to classical forms. With the British occupation of the North-West Frontier (now KP), many British officials, together with antiquarians and art dealers, excavated, collected, sold and exported artefacts. Aurel Stein called this “nefarious traffic.”

TNS: How did Dr Giuseppe Tucci play his role in legalising the excavations?

LMO: Tucci convinced the ruler of the Yusufzai State of Swat to introduce the Pakistani Preservation Act in Swat as early as the mid-1950s. The Italian excavations in Swat were thus the first conducted in Swat within a legal context. The first consequence of introducing the Pakistani Preservation Act was the construction of the Swat Museum. The first director was Qazi Inayat-ur Rehman, who, as an official of the Pakistani Department of Archaeology, took over the post on November 10, 1963. He held it until March 30, 1974.

The Stupa of Amluk-dara, 2nd-7th Centuries CE.
The Stupa of Amluk-dara, 2nd-7th Centuries CE.

The Swat Valley is one of the few areas in the region where double harvesting is possible. Since its arrival, Buddhism has proposed itself as the protector of water and crops.

The Buddhist Shrine of Gumbat, 2nd Century CE. ----- Photo courtesy ISMEO
 The Buddhist Shrine of Gumbat, 2nd Century CE. ----- Photo courtesy ISMEO

TNS: What are the common segments of Gandharan’s Buddhist architecture regarding stair risers and gates?

LMO: Gandharan art is Buddhist art, but it leaves much room, especially in its early stages, for the role of the lay donors, the rulers and princes, and the members of the elites, who are represented directly and indirectly in the entrance and stairways motifs of the stupas such as the decoration of the access stairways. Buddhism and power in Swat (as elsewhere) were very closely linked. One of the main characters, whom we know from a long inscription, the location of which is unfortunately unknown today, was Sevanavarma, the last ruler of the Odiraja (c. 50-70 CE), who possibly commissioned the construction of the Saidu Sharif stupa.

TNS: What was the politics of the stairway in the Buddhist monuments?

LMO: Looking at the decorations of the access stairways, one often finds motifs related to courts, to the ‘philhellene elites’ - beauty, self-praise, individual greatness, with so-called Dionysiac motifs and other Hellenistic motifs. One has to look from the Eastern Mediterranean as far as Bactria and perhaps as far as Gandhara to understand the Eastern Hellenistic phase (c. 250 BCE - 70 CE) in Western Asia. It was a creative era in the history of art, especially religious art. Generally, the decorations at the entrance of the stupas represented the visual world of the courts. Once you enter the stupa space, the air changes, and the visual focus becomes the life of the Buddha, previous lives and sacred stories.

TNS: Some archaeologists are of the view that the attached staircases were an architectural response to new urbane sense and demand. What do you think?

LMO: In a way, yes, but always seen as a process originating from the urbanised and phil-hellene elites. It is a question, we might say, of the “symbolic capital” of the society, where assets hold value and assure social status or pushes to reach power.

TNS: What was the social function of the inducted architecture?

LMO: The function is to memorialise the role of the lay donors: in Buddhism, the gift of a column, the construction of a stupa etc., at various levels represents an act of acquiring merit that is valuable for the future, a kind of spiritual investment. Statues, portraits in some cases, and signs of the elites (like the Hellenistic motifs) serve to make their role in the present and future visible and evident.

TNS: What are other decorative or mythological motifs?

LMO: Take, for example, the figure of the Vajrapani, a semi-divine figure who attains the status of a bodhisattva, even though technically he would not be one. He was the ‘protector’ of the Buddha. He almost always takes the form of a Heracles. Indo-Greek rulers, following in the footsteps of Alexander, who descended - it is said - from Heracles, chose Heracles as one of their symbols. Indo-Greek kings (2nd Century BCE) were not surprisingly the great defenders of Buddhism, at least according to Buddhist tradition. Let us imagine that the two phenomena are in some sense associated.

TNS: Why do some Buddhist structures show images related to religious stories, like Jatakatales?

LMO: The previous lives of the Buddha, narrated in the Jatakas, are also important because they create an alternative sacred geography different from that of the historical Buddha, closer to a ‘new sacred geography’ of the Gandharan region. We know many of these episodes from previous lives, the Chinese pilgrims tell us, were associated with real places and stupas in Swat and Gandhara.

TNS: What was the sociological division of architecture?

LMO: Compared to religious architecture, civil architecture is very poor. Evidence from urban excavations tells us this clearly. The only grand evidence, apart from a few palatial structures, are the defensive structures, such as the Indo-Greek walls of Barikot. Both these dichotomy and imbalance speak volumes about the role of religion in these societies. It is clear that there was a disproportionate investment in religious buildings; there is no comparison between the magnificence and complexity of these and the simplicity of residential buildings. People were willing to live modestly, content to improve their space to the point of ultimately satisfying their basic needs (shelter, defence, organisation of work). Monumental construction, i.e. that which was meant to survive the ephemeral needs of man, that which was meant to survive the contingency of time, was intended exclusively for worship. Even today, a similar effect occurs when one compares the elaborate architecture of early-20th-century Islamic shrines and the moderate and functional luxury of Miangul royal residences.

TNS: Did ecology and geography induce the inhabitants to opt for particular designs?

LMO: One important thing: people built far from rivers, and it was known that building on rock made buildings more resistant to earthquakes than building on clay banks. Man lived closer to natural phenomena and respected them instinctively, so to speak. Just look at what happened in Barikot. The city built well away from the river, grew on itself for many centuries, forgetting that simple rule, so that the seismic activity of the late 3rd Century CE earthquakes, amplified by metres of underlying anthropogenic deposit, razed it to the ground. The city was then moved, on a smaller scale, to the hill and its flanks (the ancient acropolis) and founded on safer rocky outcrops. Some of the buildings still stand out with considerable dimensions (up to a height of over 15 metres, for over 70 metres in length) huge structures that have defied any earthquake, even the most recent ones.

TNS: How was the Buddhist architecture different from the Hindu architecture in the region?

LMO: We have no clear coeval evidence of the two types. Large Brahmanical temples began to be built from the end of the 7th Century when Buddhist stupas were in ruins. The Brahmanical temples of the Shahis (two dynasties that controlled the Gandhara and western Punjab) era preserved Buddhist architecture. The large podiums transformed into huge rectangular substructures, but the cells are real, accessible buildings, partly derived from the building techniques of Buddhist shrines, but with non-local aesthetic features, which we should rather look for in the Salt Range and Kashmir, where these architectures precede those of Swat.

TNS: Rock sculpture art advanced in Swat Valley in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries. What were the contributions of natural and human factors to its flourishing?

LMO: The Late Buddhist rock art of upper Swat (an example of which is the Buddha of Jahanabad) is an artistic phenomenon that Swat shares with many Himalayan regions, in which such art and nature merge. We find it in Ladakh, Kashmir, Gilgit, all the way to Tibet. It is a Buddhism detached from the monasteries, connected to the preaching of masters and disciples who formed that extraordinary esoteric current that goes by the name of Vajrayana. According to Tibetan sources, one of the centres, if not the centre of this school, was in Barikot (Vajrasthana).

TNS: Why did it fail to sustain itself?

LMO: Buddhism in the monasteries declined from the 6th Century and in the Lower Swat area was replaced by the re-emergence of the Hindu substratum. The Shahi rulers chose Brahmanism as the spiritual force to support. Perhaps it is premature to conclude definitely, but I believe the decline of Buddhism can also be explained, as a co-factor, by a dramatic Eurasian climate crisis (Late Ancient Little Ice Age, 6th-7th Centuries CE) that destroyed Buddhist prestige relative to the ability to govern the bodies of water and weather, failing to control the famines that followed. A Hindu Kashmiri text, the Rajatarangini, speaks explicitly about these events.

TNS: What was the cultural life of Gandhara like, in view of the artefacts gathered from the sites?

LMO: Extremely rich but modest: despite the presence of imported materials, even luxurious ones, such as shell bracelets from the Indian Ocean or corals from the Mediterranean, life was marked by a certain moderation, or at least this is my impression. We have already seen that there were no lavish palaces. The investment focus was on Buddhist shrines.

TNS: What were the social acts, rituals and entertainment of those times?

LMO: Board games, many types, dice, ‘nine-man morris’ and wrestling and sports competitions. These people had descended from shepherd ancestors, who arrived from Central Asia in 1200 BCE (we know this from studies of ancient DNA), somewhat like the Pashtuns of today preserve an austere life. There were excesses perhaps among the ancient elites of Swat; wine and symposia were a bit of a weakness, we know that. The wine was produced in Swat, consumed in the courts and exported.

TNS: How do you define subaltern archaeology?

LMO: While Buddhist cities and sites lived their history as told by archaeology, a history witnessed by colossal ruins, other groups, those of the non-Buddhist substratum, lived on the margins, often involved in subordinate activities. Were it not for the painted rock shelters found by the dozens, we would not even know of their existence.

TNS: How do you fit the painted rock shelters and other forms of peoples’ expression into subaltern archaeology?

LMO: The painted rock shelters allow us to construct a more three-dimensional model of ancient society, at least for a thousand years between 500 BCE and 500 CE. In the later phases of the rock paintings, we already find explicit depictions of Hindu gods, Shiva for example, indicating that these subaltern populations would contribute to the Copernican revolution that brought the non-Buddhist religious substratum to the surface until the Hindu revival of the Shahi era.

TNS: How does the historiography of archaeology support subaltern archaeology?

LMO: Obviously, the texts are silent, except for a few tidbits of information that we can pick up between the lines of the texts written by Chinese and Tibetan pilgrims, whose curious eyes were ready to notice anything they would not have expected to find. In this sense, their accounts are often more immediate than those of Greek historians, who instead turned everything into something familiar, names, gods and geographies.

TNS: How do you retrospectively look at Italian Mission’s work promoting cultural tourism in Swat?

LMO: A great success. We hope that the increasingly important tourism, especially domestic and from Buddhist countries, will help safeguard the heritage, including nature. It is a challenge.

TNS: You have written a number of books, but your book Sir Aurel Stein and the Lords of the Marches: New Archival Materials is mainly referred to. Please tell us about it.

LMO: The discovery of the Malakand archival fund, published in that volume, had one special merit, I believe: that of having prompted many Pakistani scholars, especially Pashtuns, to deal with the archival heritage and with recent history. A new discipline of studies was born in Pakistan.

TNS: On the other hand, Digging Up: Fieldwork Guidelines for Archaeological Students is more popular among students. How do you explain that?

LMO: If it is so, I am happy about it. Yes, this was a pioneering work and I am proud of it. It was a book designed for Pakistani university students. The book was written without pretence to explain side by side the reasons and methods of the excavation - without intellectualism, on a practical basis. By the way, some years ago, a version was made in Pashto and Dari and published by the Afghan Institute of Archaeology.

TNS: Some students compare it with Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s book Archaeology from the Earth. What is your comment?

LMO: With all due respect to Mortimer Wheeler, his is a manual for those who run the excavation; mine is designed for those who do it. His is based on an outdated methodology; mine looks at innovations in archaeology, which prefer excavation in extension, not the archaeology of small-scale cuts and sections. However, both manuals stem from the great British tradition, although mine takes up the excavation management system typical of the Italian school.

TNS: What are the books on your nightstand?

LMO: Often one of the books by the greatest of Italian archaeologists and art historians, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli. He was an art historian and archaeologist. He trained a breed of Italian archaeologists. One of his engagements was to explore the relationship between Hellenistic, Etruscan, and Roman art.

TNS: What books do you recommend for aspiring/ young archaeologists?

LMO: Read the works of Domenico Faccenna, my maestro of excavation and interpretation. Most important of his works are available in English. For beginners, probably one of the most important of his many seminal works (I am here not considering his masterly excavation reports of Butkara I, Saidu Sharif I and Panr I) was his contribution to On the Origin of Gandharan Art […], published in 2003 in the journal Ancient Civilsations from Scythia to Siberia.

The interviewer has a PhD in history from the University of Malaya, Malaysia. His areas of interest are peasant history, colonial history, heritage and history of archaeology. He may be reached at junejozi@gmail.com

“As everywhere else,religion and power went hand in hand in Swat”