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The Franco-Indian Archaeological Mission in Ladakh (Mafil)

par Lemardelé Élise - publié le , mis à jour le

MAFIL’s website :

The Franco-Indian archaeological mission in Ladakh originated with the partnership established by Ms L. Bruneau (EPHE/CRCAO) and researchers of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 2007. The project is co-directed by Ms L. Bruneau and Mr S.B. Ota (ASI Regional Director, Bhopal) who have been conducting research in Ladakh, a region of the Indian Himalayas, for several years now, respectively on rock art and Neolithic transhumance sites. The MAFIL represents the only joint French – ASI archaeological mission to date and their cooperation is effective in fieldwork as well as in research dissemination and training.

The four-year plan for 2013- 2016 focuses on the valley of Nubra, the northernmost extension of Ladakh where a great number and variety of remains ranging from Prehistory to the medieval period were discovered (and surveyed in the course of four missions conducted between 2006 and 2011). The role of the Nubra as a gateway between northern India and Central Asia in modern times is well known. However the rock art surveyed by the above-mentioned missions reveals that the exchanges between the two geographic zones go back to the Bronze Age. The aim of the project is to gauge the extent and continuity of contact between northern India and Central Asia by establishing a chronological and cultural sequence of the valley’s rock art from the Neolithic to the medieval period.

This joint, interdisciplinary project involves a dozen international researchers assisted by engineers and students. In addition to environmental studies, further exploration and excavations will be conducted on four representative sites in the valley : a funerary site, a pre-historical rock art site, a Buddhist settlement and a medieval fortification.

The research will contribute to a better understanding of the southern expansion of human groups from the steppes to northern India during Proto-history as well as to a better understanding of the diffusion of Buddhism at the turn of the 1st millennium, and will be presented in annual articles, two monographs and an exhibition at the Central Asian Museum of Leh).

Financial and Institutional Support :

- Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Consultative Commission for Archaeological Research Abroad), Paris
- Centre for research on Eastern Asian Civilizations (UMR8155, CNRS/EPHE/ Université Paris Diderot/ Collège de France, Special Central Asia Programme, Gerda Henkel Foundation (Dusseldorf)
- Archaeological Survey of India (Delhi), Project for Indian Cultural Studies (Mumbai).
- Archaeological Survey of India, Delhi
- Project for Indian Cultural Studies (Mumbai)

MAFIL 2013 Mission

The first MAFIL mission took place from 25 August to 28 September 2013. The team was composed of 17 members : 9 French and 7 Indians, including 10 researchers (7 archaeologists and 3 environmentalists) assisted by 3 students (2 doctoral students and 1 Masters student) and 4 engineers (1 drawer, 2 photographers and an assistant).

The mission achieved its objectives : to establish a chronological sequence for the selected sites, study the ceramic material and plan future excavations.

It is noteworthy that the sites of Murgi, Tirisha and Deskit all present long chrono-cultural sequences. Rock art surveyed prior to the 2013 mission attested to human presence during the proto-historical period. Further exploration of the sites and their surroundings also testify to human occupation during both the pre-historical and historical periods.

Among the discoveries made during this mission, the lithic site of Tirishi is without doubt the most remarkable. This site is to date the only serious testimony to pre-historic human presence and occupation (most likely transitory) in the region at an altitude of 3000 meters. This imposing open-air site would have offered appropriate shelter owing to its geomorphic configuration (depression sheltering a lake), and the presence of andesite that served to manufacture stone tools probably explains why prehistoric human populations selected the site. In an intra- and cross-regional comparative perspective, the findings of the mission will be compared to other lithic sites of the Indus Valley and other high altitude regions such as the Karakorum, Hindu Kush, Pamir, western Tibet and as far east as the Altai.

The study of ceramic material is another of the MAFIL’s major contributions. For the first time, we have at our disposal techno-typological and stylistic data for the Ladakh region and more generally for the Himalayan region. An intra- and cross-regional study will be conducted in the future in order to determine the role of Nubra within the Ladakh region and within the ancient network of regional exchanges.

Indeed, the links with Central Asia observed through the rock art sites in Nubra must be confirmed by the analysis of other types of material (lithic and ceramic) and further digs. In order to do so, the project’s directors have selected the funerary sites of Deskit and Tirisha for excavations in 2014 and 2016 respectively. The surface-type of the graves (circular or rectangular stone enclosures) and their proximity to the petroglyphs suggest that they are related to steppe cultures of the Bronze and / or Iron Age. The aim of future missions is to corroborate this hypothesis. In 2015, excavations will be conducted in Murgi in order to gain a better understanding of this major rock art site (the largest in Ladakh) and its surroundings (rock shelters).

To conclude, the geographic location of the Nubra Valley and the diversity of the vestiges it contains make it an ideal site for the study of the development of high altitude populations. Significant chronological and stratigraphic research in the region remains to be done in order to better understand human migrations in relation to Central Asia, as well as human adaptation to high altitude regions.