Prothom Alo (PA): You've visited two archaeological sites of the Sundarbans. What do you think about them?
Sufi Mostafizur Rahman (SMR): In our view, the Sundarbans has been seen as a remote area and human settlement here is of recent times. It was never thought that any ancient human settlement could have been existed in the mangrove forest. But when we recently heard about some ancient archaeological sites there, we visited a few sites to learn more. What we saw there was literally amazing. It's an amazing discovery. We came to see a number of brick structures in Khejurdana area and examined the measurement of the bricks. The brick structures could have been 700 to 800 metres deep. This kind of brick was used around 1000 to 1200 years ago. Such bricks were last used in Bangladesh in the 13th century. We visited only two sites but heard that there are more places like this, which clearly indicate that there was once a large human settlement in the area. These structures obviously represent the Pala period (8th to the 12th century) but they could be of the Gupta period (320 to 550 AD), too. Further research is required to find out their dating. In relative dating, the structures could have been 1000-1200 or 1500 years old. No human settlement could have been set up in a high tide and low tide-prone area. The sites now get inundated during the high tide and a part of the area becomes visible during the low tide. These structures suggest that the sea was once far away from these human settlements. Further studies are required to understand this. But what we found so far can open a new chapter in Bangladesh history. For this, credit must go to Isme Azam for his scientific discoveries.
PA: Who used to live here? What did they do? Why did they disappear? Can we make any preliminary assumptions?
SMR: If we study popular history books of Sundarbans, we'll find that there were only a few settlements there during the Mughal period and this area was used for salt production then. Portuguese traders used to come here to buy salt. But, we don't know any history of this area before the Mughal period. Visiting this area, it looked like that local people might have produced salt and engaged themselves in salt-related trades. Many of the brick structures were like Buddhist stupas. But, further work is required to understand these structures. If we could find out the nature of the structures, we'll be able to say how long the people here stayed and based on this it could have been said why they became extinct. Buddhist civilisation flourished in Bangladesh from 750 to 120 AD. If these structures are relics of Buddhist civilisation, they could be abandoned as Buddhist rulers withdrew their patronisation in Bangladesh. We must study more whether these settlements were destroyed due to natural disasters or not.
PA: Do you think changes of nature could have affected this natural disaster-prone area in ancient time?
SMR: Nature still has the biggest impact on human life. Reconstructing the past by studying an archaeological site is still impossible in Bangladesh. But, this discovery in the Sundarbans has opened up a new horizon for us.
PA: What could be the overall significance of the discovery in the history of archaeology practices in Bangladesh?
SMR: Isme Azam discovered these archaeological sites in Sundarbans accidentally during a tiger census survey. Later, he continued his work like a professional archaeologist. Finding artefacts in places like the Sundarbans is marine archaeology which requires special training and technical support. It's a difficult task which was done almost singlehandedly by Isme Azam. He gave us traces of many artefacts. His name will be remembered as the main discoverer for finding the thousand-year-old civilisation in Sundarbans.
* This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Imam Hossain.