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The string of beads

  • Published at 06:18 pm December 23rd, 2016
The string of beads

I readily recall my first visit to Wari Bateshwar. Accompanied by the excellent Professor Sufi Rahman and his friend, a geologist, we walked from our vehicle across rice fields that were obviously part of the very wide and evident moat to the gap in the mud rampart.

It was impossible to tell the period of moat and rampart through which we passed, onto open farm land, although they bore a remarkable resemblance to Iron Age encampments in the UK.

We were greeted by kids bearing their latest surface finds, a bead or two, amongst them; finds encouraged by the professor in his work of community engagement, such as I had rarely experienced in the UK. I wondered if, introduced to such tangible evidence of heritage from such an early age, their obvious engagement and interest could endure.

Such involvement, and the finds were perhaps unsurprising on an already widely acknowledged archaeological site, carefully managed under the “community archaeology” philosophy I came to admire at various archaeological sites I subsequently visited in Bangladesh.

But it was, I suppose, the bracelet proudly shown me, later in the visit, by the wife of a local farmer, comprising of beads, readily identified to me as dating probably from the late centuries BCE, that truly stirred my imagination. They comprised, for the most part, agates, but also an identifiable amethyst and jade.

What jeweller, I wondered, crafted these beads of semi-precious stones? Who were the women, perhaps even the men, for whom the wearing of the beads represented such a show of status and wealth?

At that point, I could not imagine. But, above all, who were the craftsmen, and women, perhaps, who cut them so finely?

Subsequent travels in Bangladesh revealed to me such a huge array of  buildings from late centuries BCE onward, and evidence of other craft skills such as sculpture, that I became entirely enraptured by the evidence of history, heritage, and culture; it would be fair to say I fell completely in love.

Since then, taking advantage of the massive library of the world wide web, I have never ceased to research, and write, of that history and heritage, and the culture that evolved from it.

Jahangirnagar University, I was told, had “tens of thousands” of such beads from the site, and other sites around Bangladesh. Nothing could have convinced me, more surely, not only of the very rich history of Bangladesh that already intrigued me, but also seeing the beads proudly worn by a local woman, of the flesh and blood of that history.

In the years since, I have researched and written hundreds of thousands of words about the amazing peoples of these lands, and, certainly weekly, developed ever newer insights into the nation’s history as yet mostly untold.

Academic writers, of course, are usually tasked with evidence and with references for “peer group” revue. Sadly, Bangladesh, as a nation, seems lacking in much speculative history, the foundations of such study, as western nations enjoyed for centuries.

Who has never unwrapped a seasonal gift, and found within the wrapping the key to something that can bring excitement and pleasure for a lifetime?

For some, these days it is the laptop, the tablet, the smart phone, that first opens to a youth a world of information, communication, and entertainment.

Such a pity, perhaps, that it often appears to be the minutiae of the life, loves, and passions of those who strive for fortunes through fame that seems to engross so many of those young people today, rather than seeking to explore their own, incredible, world leading, past, which can offer such potential for a richer present.

An unparalleled heritage to bequeath their own descendants. “Too much information,” is a phrase, too, that describes the limitation of the use of intelligence and insight, to follow clues, to speculate, discover, and confirm realities.

Often, however, it requires only the self to wrap and gift that incredible past to the present. My own lifelong fascination with history, and the doors it opens to understanding both heritage and a true cultural appreciation, commenced, unforgettably, at a tender age, long pre-teen, in a remote, rural corner of Berkshire, the original Berkshire, in Britain, called Silchester.

Was that, I wonder, my first “moment of Zen?” Certainly it has produced, since, in my life, multitudinous such episodes of reflection, far from confined to, although certainly highlighted by, such as the famous “Rock Garden” in Kyoto, Japan, that opened whole new thought, many of which found expression in Bangladesh, as such as Paharpur, Mainamati, and Jahagadal.

How often, over the years, I have held in the palm of my hand an enormous diversity of small objects, and sought for the what, why, when, where, who, how; it has led me, almost like the fabled time machine, through many periods, places, and peoples.

At the time of my childhood, the BBC -- in those days more a part of real life than now -- carried a children’s program, How things began, dramatising history and prehistory in short, apparent eye witness accounts. Such a challenge to the young imagination.

Perhaps I never grew up because, of course, I no longer need the BBC to inspire me to take advantage of the extraordinary online opportunities to research around such objects. And, of course, not only objects ... whole towns, cities, nations, even peoples.

On the day of which I write, as a family we walked past a small, ancient church. Revelling, on the way, in the name, Julius Caesar, on one grave stone, through a gap in what seemed a massive stone-built wall, comprising, in large part, chunks of flint stones, which were common enough in the geology of the area.

Such treasures as the string of beads in the possession of a farmer’s wife at Wari Bateshwar; coins of the Sultanate -- not the gold, but the heritage -- the entirety of the tangible history and heritage of Bangladesh, are but pieces of evidence in an exciting story of who we are, where we come from, and how that past continues to influence our today

A stony track led across fields of stubble from recent harvest and, to my delight, almost buried in the soil, I found a piece of glazed pot. It was red in colour, with dry mud clinging to it. A piece of flower pot, I thought, familiar from the family greenhouse, one that adjoined the end of our family home.

A greenhouse which, I already understood, had been the coach house of the fine, late Victorian mansion that housed the new “Secondary Modern” school, as legislated for in our 1944 Education Act, of which my father had become the founding father.

As any child might, I rushed to show my mother this treasure of domesticity. She took it, and told me that the last person to handle this fragment of pot -- which she identified as Samian ware, explaining it as a piece of a very valuable family treasure of domestic pottery in Roman times -- was almost certainly someone who lived nearly two thousand years before.

Comparing it to her Coalport tea service inherited from her parents, she assured me that the bowl of which this was a fragment had, certainly, been treasured then, as much as her mother’s Coalport was by us.

Years later, travelling through North Bengal, my interest, bordering on obsession, in the heritage and culture of Bangladesh, was similarly piqued. We were driving on a road across those very flat flood plains, and noticed a hill beside the road. We stopped, to climb the hill, and found the soil rich in terracotta fragments, and shards of pottery.

I picked a piece of the nearly complete base of a pot. It was already clear that the hill covered an unrecorded site of yet another Buddhist Vihara. The piece of pottery was subsequently identified as 7th century in origin.

Such pieces can be the beginning of the myriad threads that lead any of us, not merely, as in Bangladesh, to ancestors, and the stories that eventuate in the present day, but even as I have found threads that weave into my own, and my nation’s history. A history that, even today, is memorialised in mansions and palaces, often financed by the peoples of Bangladesh.

Such treasures as the string of beads in the possession of a farmer’s wife at Wari Bateshwar; coins of the Sultanate -- not the gold, but the heritage -- the entirety of the tangible history and heritage of Bangladesh, are but pieces of evidence in an exciting story of who we are, where we come from, and how that past continues to influence our today, as it will our futures, all of us.

Today, my own garden, beneath a 19th century “lazy bed,” a method of cultivation lies an unexplained bed of flat stones; nearby, a large piece of flint stone, not native to the area, and what is probably part of a stone axe three thousand years old, offers clues to those who lived on this piece of land, long ago. The people who once were in a line of human society that will, hopefully, survive long after I am gone.

I wonder what my activities have contributed to my children’s and my grandchildren’s generations, and beyond?

A heritage that continues, at least in Britain, to literally enrich the present and almost certainly, future generations. The world of the wealthier, better educated peoples, continue to beat a path to Britain to share in the exploration of a past.

A past, in fact, a little richer, and certainly less lengthy, than that which Bangladesh has to offer to its people, today, and potentially, to millions of those who, like me, continue to search the past to enrich the present, and revel in it.

Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.