Brian Wilson, US anthropologist and archaeologist, is currently in Goa working on his dissertation on Old Goa. His talk at the Fundação Oriente premises Fontainhas (6 December 2012, 5.30 pm, open to all) will discuss the background and preliminary findings of his research. He spoke to the Navhind Times in a candid interview.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how and why you decided to become an archaeologist.
I’m originally from Colorado, but when I’m not in Goa, my family and I call Chicago, Illinois home. Currently, I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and I’m spending the year in Goa completing my dissertation research, but truth be told, I did not always know what I wanted to be. I always achieved high marks in science and enjoyed the lab work I did in high school, so I started university with vague ideas about becoming a medical doctor or working in biology. While I enjoyed studying biology at the University of Colorado, I was constantly drawn to anthropology courses. Archaeology in the U.S. is often taught as part of a four-field anthropology department that includes linguistics, physical anthropology, and socio-cultural anthropology. I loved my first archaeology course, and I found myself filling all of my electives with courses in anthropology. I finally decided to double major in biology and anthropology, but it was clear that my interest was firmly rooted in latter. Once I had a chance to participate in actual archaeological field work and excavation, there was no other discipline for me. I have always been intrigued by other cultures and situations of culture contact. Archaeology allows me to explore the social issues I care about through the lens of anthropology while still using my training in the ‘hard’ sciences. I work to accomplish a greater understanding of not just our physical world but our social worlds as well—I even still get to wear a lab coat and safety goggles occasionally.
What brought you to Goa?
My Professor and primary advisor at the University of Chicago, Dr. Kathleen Morrison, works in and around the Hampi area in Karnataka. While I was trying to find a suitable location to conduct the research for my dissertation, I would travel to various sites in India after the excavation season in Hampi finished. Goa provided the best possibilities to answer the types of questions I want to ask in my research and was my favorite place to visit. After becoming a PhD candidate, I was very pleased to be awarded a Fulbright/Nehru grant, which funded my research here in Goa. The Fulbright/Nehru grant is a joint program supported by both the Indian and US governments. I also received some additional funding from the National Science Foundation in the US.
Of all the places in the world of historical interest, why Goa in particular?
Goa provides one of the best places in India and perhaps the world to research the particular questions I am asking in my dissertation. My work focuses on the historical and social production of space in Old Goa, and will be the starting point of a larger inquiry into the material cultural changes that occurred as a result of Portuguese colonialism. I am interested in the intersection of urban planning, agricultural production, trade, and the changing socialites that resulted from the increasing influence of global capitalism and colonialism. The Portuguese were the first European colonial power in South Asia, and in many respects, they set the stage and greatly influenced what was to come in the region. As the former capital of the Estado da Índia, Old Goa is a fantastic place to examine these issues, but more so, it is also widely still accessible to archaeological research. Most other parts of India that were centers of trade and colonialism in the early modern period—centers such as Surat or Pondicherry for instance—are still densely occupied cities today. Whereas Old Goa was largely abandoned beginning in the 17th century. All of these factors combine to make the city a superb and exciting place for my work.
How has your experience been here?
Fantastic! In particular, the Goa Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been exceptionally encouraging and accepting of my research allowing me access to their facilities and data. They proved especially helpful while I negotiated various bureaucratic difficulties. One particularly trying episode involved dealing with an import/export company and Indian customs while trying to have some research equipment sent to me from the UK. There were also the occasional suspicious landowners in Old Goa during my survey that did not want to allow me any access to their property. However, on the whole the Goan people have been more than generous, and once they were convinced that I am not some developer or inconsiderate tourist but rather a scholar interested in researching the history of the Goan people, the vast majority of Goans have welcomed me with open arms. It is hard not to like a place with such friendly people, amazing food, and beautiful landscapes. It is clear that the Goans love their land and culture with a deep passion and this is one of things that has defined my family’s experience here in many positive ways.
Any new insights into the city of Old Goa?
While I still have a lot of analysis to accomplish, there will certainly be a lot to write about the particular way people thought about and used the land in Old Goa and how these understandings and visions of the landscape changed over time. The Portuguese brought with them new ideas of spatial practice—meaning new ideas aboutspace, urbanization, and land use that go beyond the simple construction of buildings and allocation of space but also includes the attempted imposition of a certain type of order on the social groups and actions that are supposed to occur in these places. However, these ideas about spatial practice were seriously influenced by the realities of life in Goa and local ideas and production methods greatly affected the end result. Although these are not necessarily completely new insights into Goa, I think there is more to explore about the interesting intersection of local production practices and the newly emerging forces of global capitalism and how these combined to form a particular type of spatial practice in the city and its environs. What is even more interesting is that I think we see these processes repeating themselves in Old Goa today. The current climate of real estate development, rising property value, increasing tourism, population growth, and the influx of capital to the region is literally changing the face of Goa. It is creating new socialites and spatial practices in an intriguingly similar way to what went before during Portuguese colonial times. It is my hope that through achieving a greater understanding of the past, Goa can hopefully avoid some of the problems and ruptures that were experienced under colonial rule.
Any particular incidents/anecdotes that stand out during your time in the field here?
Besides the few encounters with local wildlife including a python, a cobra, some leeches, and more stinging ants than I care to count, my survey of the outer fortification wall of Old Goa was a particularly outstanding experience. I mapped and documented the entire outer fortification wall along with two colleagues from the ASI. Over the course of six or seven days, we surveyed the area from Panelim walking south and east to the village of Assozim and then north and east towards the Cumbarjua canal finally ending in the village of Daugim. The wall itself is a beautiful piece of cultural heritage but even more so the changing landscape and the beauty of scenery surrounding it had a large impact on me. It was quite amazing to walk from the high, relatively dry Kadamba plateau full of huge sink holes, forests, and plantations down to the low lying tidal flats and agricultural fields adjoining the Cumbarjua canal and on towards Daugim past mangrove swamps, small villages, and stunning lagoons. I feel that I was privileged to experience a genuine part of Goa that tourists often miss sticking to the beach belt and hotels—not to say my wife and I don’t love taking our daughter to the beach! Sadly, this beautiful ruin is under major threat from real estate and other land development and many sections are already completely destroyed or heavily damaged. It is my sincere hope that developers, urban planners, architects, heritage lovers, archaeologists—everyone concerned with the future of Goa—can work together to not only preserve this cultural heritage, but do so in a way that is mutually beneficial.
On the whole, you and your family have gotten quite used to being here, haven’t you? It must have been difficult, with a toddler, and with a wife having to put her career on hold during this stint.
We have really adapted to life in Goa. In fact, as our time comes to an end, we are realizing more and more how much we will miss our life here. Looking back on the experience, my wife and I both agree that it was more the preparation to come to Goa than the actual move that was really difficult. Of course, there was an adjustment period but the food, the weather, and the new friends we met made the transition very easy for us. My wife very luckily (and because she is brilliant at her work) has a position to return to in Chicago producing comedy theater at Second City. We are very thankful to Second City for allowing her to take such an extended leave of absence. My wife was also overjoyed to have all of this extra time to spend with our young daughter—who has perhaps adjusted to life in Goa the best out of all of us! Her favorite foods are now chikoo, chapatis, and dal fry.
What do you think you’ll miss most about your experience here? And what will you miss the least, or not at all?
Not being acclimated completely to the water here, I will definitely not miss having to boil and/or filter our drinking water every day. I am really going to miss most everything else, especially my new Goan friends… and the prawns curry rice!
Any advice to young people who think archaeology is like an Indiana Jones adventure? (I noticed you had his hat, but not his whip!)
Archaeology is exactly like an Indiana Jones adventure! Well, sometimes. I never use a gun or a whip and I have never personally have had to fight any Nazis—and hopefully never will! Otherwise, the excitement of discovery, the occasional run-in with a snake or spider, the travel to interesting places, all of these things are possible if you become an archaeologist. I know I am biased, but I think that it is one of the best jobs in the world. My advice to young people is no matter what you want to do, study hard and do well in school. The opportunities that will arise from educating yourself are limitless.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 4 December 2012)
Here’s Brian Wilson in action onsite when I accompanied him to Old Goa in May 2012: