Presence and activities by the Italian Archaeological missions in Pakistan

Activities and latest discoveries in Swat, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa by the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan

The Italian archaeological activities in Swat (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province-KP) began in 1955, when Giuseppe Tucci, a famous Tibetologist and Orientalist, visited the region for the first time. Thus began the work that was to continue uninterruptedly until today, with the Italian archaeological mission of IsMEO, the institute chaired by Tucci (later IsIAO, now ISMEO), taking a leading role in the archaeology of the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent.

The Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan (IAMP) started sondages at Bir-kot-ghwandai (Bazira) in 1977 when Prof. Giorgio Stacul discovered the earliest sequence of the site (1700-800 BCE) with important discoveries of a typical painted pottery of Chalcolitic period. It was only later that the signs of the old city of Bazira were found (1984) in a trial trench by Prof. Pierfrancesco Callieri. In 1985, the defensive wall and a bastion of the city of Bazira were discovered; and in 1987, the same work was done. From the year 1990 to 1992, the southwestern corner of the old city was dig out. From 1993 to 1995, a survey of the entire area was conducted. In 1996, the whole ghwandai (hill) was taken on lease.

From the year 1998 to 2000, excavations on the upper top of Bir-kot-ghwandai were carried out. In this work, the Hindu Shahi temple and other relics ranging from Bronze Age to the Ghaznavid period were discovered. In the year 2001, activists tried to destroy the temple on the upper top of the ghwandai, which caused damage to the relics and structure of the temple. After this, IAMP covered the temple to be saved from further damage and destruction. In the year 2002, illegal excavation started at the centre of the site. This practice continued till the year 2008, as the army made the ghwandai a base against the Taliban, and the illegal excavations were no more possible and hence stopped.

From the year 2004 to 2007, fieldwork on the rock painting sites was conducted in the Kandak and other areas by Italian professionals, no fresh work was done in Barikot Ghwandai. Nonetheless, several excavated and non-excavated areas of the site, continued to be leased regularly by the Italians, so as to preserve the site for the future.  The excavation work was resumed there by the same professionals in 2009, which has continued until today, in 2021. During this period—from the year 2009 till 2021—twenty-one excavation seasons have been carried out.

The ACT project: archaeology and social mobilization

In the year 2014, work under the joint Italian Mission- Directorate of Archaeology and Museums of the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa “Archaeology, Community, Tourism – Field School-ACT” Project was conducted in Abba Sahib-chinah, Amluk-dara, Balo Kalay/Gumbat, Bazira, Saidu Sharif I, Jahanabad, and in the Ghaznavid mosque at Udegram. In all these places, most of the work within the ACT project was restoration. The Italian government spent 2.45 million Euro under the “Pakistan Italy Debt-Swap Agreement – PIDSA” for the ACT Project (which included the reconstruction of the Swat Museum and the restoration of the colossal Jahanabad Buddha).

This year’s excavation, carried out during the month of October 2021, brought to light the Shahi Vishnuite temple in its entirety. As it is known, only the podium remains of the temple (preserved for about 2 meters in height), the related floors, conspicuous part of the decoration with pilasters with pseudo-ionic capitals, remarkable examples of the original marble decoration of the Turki Shahi period. It is in fact in this period that the original temple was founded (c. 670-690 CE) with its sculptural decoration, which included at least three sculptural groups in white marble, including a life-size Vishnu, of which the Gadadevi had already been found in 2000, part of the Cakrapurusa in 2020, and this year the hand of the deity (Vishnu) holding one of his attributes, a conch-shell.

This excavation confirmed that the temple stood on the ruins of a Buddhist sacred area (for which the monumental terrace had been built in the 2nd century CE), and that the demolition of the same temple in the Ghaznavid era (c. 1020 CE) was accompanied by the production of stucco through a giant lime kiln in which the architectural remains (stucco and kanjur) and sculptural remains (stucco and marble) were fired, fed by the gigantic carpentry of the temple (of which the hardware was found) for the production of stucco, which was very important in palatial architecture of the Ghaznavid era.

After the exploration of a series of robbers’pits, the excavation revealed there a very important Buddhist monument preserved, despite the robbers’ vandalism, for three meters in elevation. It is a building on a podium apsidal on which stands a cylindrical cell that housed a small stupa. At the sides of the monument are a minor stupa, a cell and the podium of a monumental pillar. The staircase leading to the cell has been reconstructed in three phases, the most recent dating back to the 2nd-3rd century CE, coeval with a series of rooms in the form of a pronaos leading to an entrance that opened onto a public courtyard overlooking an ancient road, probably one of the road axes that led from one of the city gates to the center of the ancient city. The oldest staircase still bore in situ a dedicatory inscription in Kharoshti, paleographically of the 1st century CE, half of which was found overturned and reused in the late floor mentioned above. the coins found in the reliable layers are consistent with the ceramic material: the final phase presents Kushano-Sasanian and late Kushan coins, the intermediate phase, Kushan coins together with many inscriptions on pottery in Kharoshti, the foundation phase, Saka coins.

The most interesting information comes from the pre-Saka phases of the monument which, with a slightly different form, date back to the Maurya period and later Indo-Greek, as confirmed by coins and pottery. The phases preceding the foundation presented features dating both to the Iron Age and, after a deep layer of alluvium, at about 8 meters from the data point, pertaining to the Chalcolithic.

At the end of the excavations, more than 2200 objects (sculptures, coins, inscriptions, ceramics, ornaments, iron weapons, and stone tools) were found, restored and handed over to the KP Government (Swat Museum).

The Site of Banbhore on the Indus Delta (Thatta – Sindh) – The Italian Historical- Archaeological Mission

In the fifties of the previous century, F.A. Khan carried out a systematic campaign of archaeological excavations, which brought to light amazing information. Afterwards, the site of Banbhore fell again into oblivion until 2010.

On a secondary branch of the Indus, a bastioned citadel (55 towers) dominates the surroundings, which today are populated by a few villages and nomadic shepherds with their flocks. Surrounded by an “archaeological park” of more than 64 acres, it stands out as the outlet to the sea of the capital cities of a long past, international market and main harbour-town on the monsoon routes of the Indian Ocean, “sea/river and land” junction between eastern Africa and the Hindu-Iranian expanses, between the Orient (China and Inner/Central Asia) and the Occident (the Roman empire and Byzantium). Archaeological data (architectonic structures and archaeological evidence) combined with historical data provide a span of peopling of about 15  centuries, from the 3rd- 4th Century b. CE until the 12th–early 13th Century CE.

In 2010, Professor Valeria Piacentini Fiorani, at the time scientific director of Italian research in Makran and Kharan, and Dr Monique Kervran, scientific director of a French research group on the Indus deltaic region, were invited to join hands with Pakistani scholars, under the scientific-direction of Dr Asma Ibrahim, and to resume historical-archaeological research in Banbhore under the scientific coordination of Dr Kaleemullah Lashari. After two years break (2016-end 2017), fieldwork and historical research were continued as a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the General Directorate of Antiquities and Archaeology of Sindh and the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan.

The data so far retrieved are undoubtedly linking the site of Banbhore to the northern regions and to Inner-Central Asia, since pre-Islamic times. Archaeological structures and the archaeological evidence that come from the deep trenches confirm written/textual sources in Greek, Latin, Arminian, Persian and Arabic, in particular.  They enhance the major role played by the Site of Banbhore in given epochs, from pre-Islamic times (Greek and Seleucid) to Parthian-Kushan and, Saka dominions, from the Sasanian to the Islamic era. Then, the site was a major outlet to the sea of the Arab Abbasid Province of Great Sindh, and some later of the Habbari Emirate. With the disintegration of the Emirate at the start of the 11th Century, it became the capital city of an autonomous dominion and, at the same time, harbour- town and market of production and re-distribution of luxury goods much on request at the time.

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