Digging India

Teresa Raczek at work n Chatrikhera, India

Long-running archaeological research draws professor back to share work with and love of country with students

Teresa Raczek has excavated at sites as diverse as Pueblo dwellings in the Southwest United States, Neanderthal caves in southwestern France and a pony express stop in Nevada. But she has put down her archaeological roots in northwestern India, where for more than 22 years she has returned to dig for answers to how people living 5,000 years ago settled into villages and built big towns.

An assistant professor of anthropology at Kennesaw State, Raczek has traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan seven times since she went there on a lark after graduating with a degree in history from Columbia University-affiliated Barnard College in 1991. She returned in 2003 to 2006 as part of her dissertation research while at the University of Pennsylvania, and almost every year since then.

On excavations and in lab work with research teams from universities in India and the U.S., and for three years since joining Kennesaw State’s faculty, she has continued to examine the technology of stone tools to determine how people in sites circling the ancient town of Gilund worked together and formed communities. By analyzing and comparing the raw materials, production methods and procurement of raw materials to make tools, Raczek and colleagues from Rajasthan Vidyapeeth University in Udaipur and Deccan College in Pune, India, are able to document the complex social, political and economic systems that formed in the area. The research has been funded by the National Geographic Society and the American Philosophical Society.

“My research questions are about early complex societies – that moment in time when humans moved from being mobile hunter-gatherers and settled down into villages, becoming farmers,” Raczek explained. “In this particular region, it was around the third millennium B.C. that people were just settling down, and in some instances they built these towns. And with that comes large complex systems.”

Finding similar tools and artifacts made of the same raw materials at sites in neighboring villages suggests how people shared technological skills and materials and offers insights into their economies, said Raczek. She has participated in research projects that excavated the mound at Gilund; surveyed lithic raw materials in the southern area of the Mewar Plain; surveyed and excavated the habitation mound site of Chatrikhera; and excavated an early habitation located on a sand dune in Jawasiya.

Her research has resulted in the publication of more than a dozen articles and book chapters and presentations to more than 30 national and international conferences. A book she edited with four colleagues, titled "Connections and Complexity: New Approaches to the Archaeology of South and Central Asia," was published in 2013. Her fourth book, "Excavations at Gilund 1999-2005: Artifacts and other Studies," is due from University of Pennsylvania Museum Press this year.

Raczek, who is proficient in Hindi and lives with host families in the villages where she conducts research, has immersed herself in the people of the region, in their customs, heritage and oral traditions.

For three years, she has engaged six Kennesaw State anthropology students in the excavation and analysis of tools and artifacts found at sites in Gilund, Chatrikhera and Jawasiya. The students work at the sites with Raczek, her colleagues and their students and live in a shared house with the host families.

“The students really become involved with the community and experience the local life,” said Raczek. “We live in the village in a house with no running water; we eat the local food and take bucket baths. Across the street are a temple, the milk house where farmers bring the milk each day and a giant tree where up to a thousand green parrots circle for about an hour then roost each night. And in the morning, after we are awakened by the temple bells and the birds, we have our tea and go off to the field, but not before the cows are milked. On off-days, we explore the medieval mansions in the city of Udaipur.”

This summer, Raczek took five students on a formal study abroad to New Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur and Agra to conduct ethnoarchaeological research on the production of traditional crafts like pottery and stone cutting and the people who do them. They conducted participant/observation research and blogged about their findings.

“It’s high-impact learning for the students,” Raczek said. “They learn interviewing skills, how to work with translators (the local people speak Hindi) and how to take detailed field notes.”

The study abroad reflects Raczek’s expanding interests into historic preservation because, except for Gilund, which is protected by the central government of India, all the other sites are highly endangered as farmers expand their farms to feed the growing population and towns undergo needed development.

“Archaeological sites are being plowed under throughout Asia,” Raczek said. “Development is a good thing for India in general, but it comes at a price".

An oral history project with local villagers at Chatrikhera also reflects Raczek’s interest in heritage preservation.

“We’ve reached out to the local communities to share what we’ve learned (from excavations and analysis) and to hear their stories,” she said. "History is very important to them, but it doesn’t mean they recognize the archaeological sites as being a part of that.”

-- Sabbaye McGriff