Back to the field (or almost) in Bangladesh!

A blogpost by Coline Lefrancq

This year 2022 begun with the return to the field for the French-Bangladeshi archaeological mission in Mahasthangarh.

After two years, this moment was long awaited by the members of the mission. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 variant Omicron (this little prankster) also invited itself and forced us to revise the program initially planned. No excavation (suspended during a month and half in Bangladesh), no topography with drone, no restoration was possible but luckily for us archaeological work has more than one trick up its sleeve and we managed to analyze the pottery from the 2019 excavation campaign and to restart research in geomorphology!

Indeed, the mission – partly funded by the Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs (MEAE) and the ERC- DHARMA project Syn n° 809994 – started in 16 January and it is Vincent Lefèvre (musée Guimet) and myself who led the way. We first attended to several meetings in Dacca before joining Mahasthangarh where the beautiful camp house partially renovated thanks to the support of the French Embassy in Dacca was waiting for us (see the previous post ‘Facelift of the excavation camp house in Mahasthangarh’)! These first days gave us the opportunity to discuss about the religious environment of Mahasthangarh and to explore satellite sites with our colleagues Nahid Sultana (Regional Director of Rajshahi and Rangpur Divisions, Department of Archaeology) and Afzal Hossain (Architect in Chief, Department of Archaeology).


From left to right: Md. Afzal Hossain, Dir. Naheed Sultana, Dir. Vincent Lefèvre in Palashbari ©MAFBM


At the beginning of February, things started to get serious. The ‘ceramologists gang’ has struck! In addition to the four assistants who have been trained in ceramic management for almost 30 years (Rizaul, Ashraful, Zulfikar, Shopikul), the team has grown with the arrival of Murshid Kamal Bhuiyan, a new recruit from the DOA – Bogra Branch. We were also able to count on the considerable help of Audrey Bratko, a Master 2 student at the Université Lumière Lyon 2, France. While Audrey focused mostly on the drawing of potsherds, Murshid has also started to learn the basics of the pottery analysis. Very promising beginnings! This ‘merry band’ separated the potsherds, counted them, recorded them, drew them and photographed them. The raw data now needs to be analyzed using CAD technologies among others, which is part of my job in Paris. Thanks to this work, not only can we date the archaeological layers relatively and determine whether it is an undisturbed layer with homogeneous material or a disturbed layer with mixed material from different periods, but we can also work on questions of production technology (how the pottery was made?), use (what was it used for?) and exchange (which pottery travelled and why?). A look at the ethnoarchaeology is always helpful to provide ideas and ways of thinking to interpret the results. That’s why we all went to visit the pottery villages around Mahasthangarh. A memorable day that allowed Audrey and Murshid to better understand some of the theoretical concepts they had studied during their apprenticeship.


Audrey Bratko drawing a potsherd ©MAFBM


Murshid Kamal Bhuiyan classifying potsherds from previous excavations at Mahasthangarh ©MAFBM


The full “pottery team” visiting potters’ villages around Mahasthangarh ©MAFBM


Potter using a fast and heavy (electric) wheel in Namuja ©MAFBM


At the mid-February, we have welcomed a new French member in the mission, Yohan Chabot, a geomorphologist and a specialist of phytoliths who is studying the South and South-East Asian alluvial landscapes. He is also involved as a postdoctoral Fellow in the ERC project DHARMA since 2020. Thanks to him, the geomorphological studies in Mahasthangarh and its surroundings have restarted. The magic between Bangladesh and Yohan worked! Yohan found himself leading a small team including Hafizur Rahman (custodian of Dinajpur museum) and Afzal Hossain among others. But who better than Yohan himself to tell of his experience in the mission? He will do so in a blog post coming soon!


The geomorphological team with the auger ©MAFBM


Finally, just before the end of the campaign, we had the pleasure to meet His Excellency the Ambassador of France in Bangladesh, M. Garachon and his wife. This specialist of Burmese architecture headed several embassies in South and South East Asia during his career. He and his wife are both passionate about Asian cultures and it was with great interest that they visited Mahasthangarh as well as Paharpur (a UNESCO World Heritage Buddhist monastery) and Vasu Bihar. Since the beginning, the French Embassy in Dacca is a great support to the mission and once again, we were able to count on them to facilitate the organization of the mission.


SE M. Garachon, Ambassador ad interim of France in Bangladesh, and Mrs. Garachon visiting the archaeological site of Paharpur (UNESCO World Heritage) ©MAFBM


Even if not all the scientific objectives were achieved, we got very interesting results and we are extremely happy to have been able to go back to the field and see all our Bangladeshi colleagues and friends. Let us hope that we will go back again soon in autumn for the full archaeological package!

Northern rampart during the sunset, Mahasthangarh ©MAFBM


View of the paddy fields of the western part extra-muros, from the northern rampart, Mahasthangarh ©MAFBM

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