Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Can 'Technology' be a basis for Periodisation?

The theme of the first session of this club being 'Rethinking Periodisation in Indian history' made me think, and after sometime got me baffled! This was because like most of us, I couldn't visualize of any better way of periodising especially the history of the sub-continent other than grouping time periods and placing different historical episodes in them so as to bring out a complete or perhaps a wholesome picture of Indian history portraying after a specified time different historical events giving way to another. This process of periodising, essentially by grouping time periods should remain, as such a frame of reference is necessary for our convenience, but while periodising the history of the sub-continent we generally tend to overlook regional variations. In such cases it becomes extremely difficult for chalking out grounds on which comparison between different historical episodes can be made. At times periodising was done on religious grounds, i.e. marking of a period as Hindu or Muslim, ignoring the prevailing divergent or rather heterogeneous religious identities.

Hence while looking up alternatives for periodising history; specially of the sub-continent, I had this idea if technology could serve as a parameter for this, as periodising history needs a basis for being grouped under different time zones; a common factor which would serve as a binding agent, encompassing a variety of happenings throughout the historical clock. As earlier said that at times religion was taken as a basis for periodising history and even if we purposely omit varied religious identities, we find that religion does not associate itself with every sphere of human life like economy and is not always a prime factor behind every historical event. On the other hand technology tends to exert its influence over most human activities. By technology I tend to mean the application of scientific ideas as everyone knows, but in different lines of historical developments. Technology here essentially stands for new ideas which need not be extravagant.

We had the 'Stone Age' in pre-historic times, then came the 'Chalcolithic Age' marking the use of copper, followed by the 'Bronze Age' during the proto-historic times, and the coming of iron in the ancient times kind of revolutionized the human way of life. The use of iron could be seen in every sphere of life, in agriculture or economy, in warfare etc., and this marked use of iron led several historians term this period as the 'Iron Age'. Likewise if we take the period that we essentially characterize as 'Medieval', saw numerous technological developments, especially in mining and textile. High grade iron ore was used to produce initially damascened steel, and the introduction of spinning wheel in the 14th Century led to an improvement in cotton production, although Lynn White had queried the presence of this device in ancient India. Nevertheless, the medieval period saw many more such technological advancements like the Ain-i Akbari highlights the working of the imperial kitabkhana. Although kitabkhana can be translated as library, it was indeed a scriptorium, i.e a place where the emperor's collection of manuscripts was kept and new manuscripts were produced. The process of manuscript making involved huge amount of labour mobilising. Then as we all know that Firuz Shah Tughluq was responsible for construction of numerous canals, and also amongst many other things, the tas-ghariyal which was a metal cup perforated at the bottom which when put in a tub of water would be filled up and sink after twenty-four minutes and the people were informed about this by the beating of a gong; after every four hours there was a double beating of the gong. And the errors of the metal-cup were corrected by reference to a sun-dial. Among the regional kingdoms, in the south we find that the Vijayanagara empire which happened to be one of the mighty kingdoms of the peninsula during the 13th-14th centuries, had seven line of fortifications which was an innovation as it encircled not only the city but also its agricultural hinterland and forests, unlike earlier times. All these little examples give us the picture that technology had a prominent role in different historical epochs or ages.

While concluding I would only like to highlight that periodisation on an all encompassing ground seems impossible, however technology, which tends to touch various aspects of people's lives can serve as a basis for grouping different historical time periods.

-posted by Rituparna Das, Second Year, Presidency College, Kolkata.


Pratyay said...

Rituparna, your proposition is a very innovative one. As you have pointed out, the most common landmarks used conventionally by historians for periodisation are political [like fall of Rome, rise of British rule etc], economic [like rise of feudal economy,
Industrial revolution etc] and in some cases, socio-religious [like arrival of Islam, Reformation etc]. No periodisation has been attempted so far on the basis of technology, beyond the stone age, copper-bronze age etc. But these too, are usually clubbed together into a broader 'ancient period'.
Technology, however, is an extremely important aspect of human civilisation and has always shaped the latter in different decisive ways. As such, any attempt at grouping time-periods on the basis of technology will be very interesting indeed.

However, an infinite number of technologies have existed throughout human history. Obviously, in order to construct historical periods on their basis,
we have to identify a few key technologies that seem to have been important enough, and whose
use may have evolutionised/ typified an age. In order to adopt any particular technology as the
marker of any specific period, its importance has to be assessed by how and to what extent it affects
society/political/formations/ warfare/economy at large. And such a periodisation should have to be
based on a general understanding of the inter-relationship between technology and these other aspects of human civilisation. Only then could we then have a number of suceeding periods on the basis of the key technology that shaped economy/society/polity of that specific period.

Although you have named several important technologies of the medieval times, I would urge you to exert yourself a little more and think of a few decisively important technologies, not only
during the medieval period, but the entirety of Indian history, that have typified a certain period of time, and as such, can be adopted as the basis of a new scheme of periodisation.

Aman said...

It is a very interesting and innovative idea. Technology have played a very important role in the history of mankind. And for a country like ours periodisation of history by the help of technology can prove highly beneficial for our historiography.

Rituparna said...

Yes I completely agree upon the point that due to the presence of a variety of technologies throughout human history, it becomes an urgent need to recognise those technological developments which would characterize an age in historical timeline, as otherwise the presence of a variety of technologies if present in a single specified frame, will become cumbersome and create confusion. I'll try to bring out a way of highlighting some important technologies which could in turn help distinguish an age!

Again you are right Pratyay da, I mentioned a few technological developments and emphasized more on the medieval times for obvious reasons! At the moment if I think of what we know as ancient times, the Harappan town planning and drainage were remarkable, the Mehrauli Iron pillar which still stands rust free,shows exceptional metallurgical skills of the blacksmiths during the Gupta rule; and also the introduction of paddy transplatation in ancient India shows how incresingly technology was becoming a part of peoples' lives.

Anonymous said...

Well,your points are quite valid. But I must say that you all should also write about other(more interesting) topics like Reformation or French Revolution. I mean there have been 3 or 4 posts so far about perioisation. Posts on other topics would be highly appreciated. :D
- Random bloghopper. :D

somak said...

@anonymous:well, dats becoz the blog is about medieval history in the indian context and our first theme for seminar is periodisation. the commentator is merely a member and is only following the theme as given.

Anonymous said...

Oh,I see. :)
Anyway,I guess sometime later you would write about other topics. Like the Sultanate. Till then i'll be waiting. xoxo. :D

somak said...

sure, till then lets keep our fingers crossed!

Aman said...

Guys I am dying to read the next post please post it soon. Please. I was never more excited about Medieval History than now. So please.

sanmitra said...

i must say that this is a new way to re think the periodisation in history.....advancement in the field of technology was always a key determinant in history...technological developments are very important to read u can see that how the gun powder revolution,shaped the history of it will be great if we look into the periodisation through this enigmatic topic.....good one rituparna...

santanu sengupta said...

I must congratulate Rituparna for her very well thought and innovative proposition. I would just like to problematise the proposition a liitle bit. What happens to the periodisation scheme on technological innovation when we start thinking in terms of differential effects of a technological innovation or may be differential presence (ie. absence of a technology for some while it is present for some others). Then what possible periodisation could the human experience of technological innovation offer?Would it be one singular legitimate form or would it be many parallel equally legitimate periodisation?
Just a thought!

Pratyay said...

Santanu, I would like to point out that any periodisation is inherently arbitrary in nature. As such, the historian can never hope to do justice to every part of human society while adopting a scheme of periodisation. Since there can be practically nothing that can affect in some way or the other each and every section of the human society, there can be no scheme of periodisation that can take into account every social group. If we periodise on the basis of religion, what happens to the atheist/agnostic? If we periodise on the basis of political/military aspects, what happens to the laymen/civilians? If we periodise on the basis on economy, what happens to the beggars/nomads/vagrants? Similarly if we adopt any technology as a basis of periodisation, whether that particular technology affetcs all sections of human society would be the wrong question to ask. We have to acknowledge that our goal behind periodisation is to point out the gross similarities between decades/centuries/millenia. The very basis of such a conceptualisation is gross generalisation, much of which might be rejected if one goes to the micro-level of society/time. Periodisation, after all, is another grand narrative, that tries to explain some general trends, leaving out the rest. As such the choice of the historian is basically limited to which social group/phenomenon/process he/she wants to prioritise in his/her scheme of analysis and pick his/her catagory for periodisation on the basis of that preference.

Rituparna said...

I agree with you Santanu da,when you stressed on the 'differential effects of a technological innovation', which indeed happens to be an area of concern while drawing a timeline of historical events, which is why I'm trying to figure out certain important technologies which would aid characterizing an age. Here you must please pardon my ignorance,as I've just started acquiring knowledge of technological innovations in different periods. My school text-book know-how is unfortunately somewhat superficial, or I might have been able to cite some technologies after the 'Iron Age', common to later periods, in other words naming those technoligies which had successfully diffused in more than one sphere or aspect of human life.
Finally, I thank Pratyay da, who seems to have figured out my problem and suggested an attractive explanation by pointing out periodisation being inherently arbitrary in nature, because of which, it becomes difficult touching every aspect of human society.