During an excavation of an ancient temple to Vishnu in the city of Singuali, Madhya Pradesh, Indian archaeologists found something quite strange: a 1,300-year-old brick engraved with the face of a “bearded foreigner” wearing a skullcap. It’s a complete mystery as to who this person was, or why there is an engraving of them on a brick. Even more mysterious, despite the many amazing archaeological finds coming out of this temple—which, according to the Times of India, push the urbanization of this region back to at least 2,000 years—the project has now been unexpectedly and immediately shut down by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the government ministry responsible for overseeing archaeological projects. According to the Times, sources within the ASI say that a “section of ASI officers are apparently uneasy over the puzzling brick engraving.”
This excavation is the first work being done on the site in 150 years, and was apparently going quite well. The team had apparently identified more promising mounds to begin digging in, and were expected to employ over 200 locals as the work progressed throughout the year. The shuttering of the project came as a complete surprise and the justification for it even more surprising. The letter sent by the ASI reads:
“Permission granted for carrying out exploration in landscape archaeological studies on religious architecture of Sidhi/Singrauli districts in favour of Temple Survey project (TSP) stands cancelled due to unauthorized excavations carried out contrary to the permission issued only for exploration.”
If they were digging where they shouldn’t be, it wouldn’t be at all surprising. It would sort of be expected. But, according to an ASI official who spoke to the Times of India under the conditions of anonymity, archaeologists don’t usually need to ask permission to dig once they’ve gotten permission to explore a site. The unnamed official says:
“It is the duty and mandate of an archaeological officer to make excavations of an area where he/she believes that any area that is not protected contains ruins or relics of historical or archaeological importance.”
According to the Times, it seems as though the real reason for shutting the project down is what was being discovered. The “foreign face” engraving is apparently making the ASI uneasy, although the specifics of that uneasiness were left unsaid. Project superintendent Dr Madhulika Samanta described the uniqueness of the engraving:
“This is striking, as it means that a foreigner was allowed into the religious activities of the day. Such examples are extremely rare. Clothes of this type were not worn by people of the region in those days. The drawing on the brick shows the presence of such a person at a Vishnu shrine. The attire and features indicate a resemblance to such things found in West Asia.”
But why would that be cause to shut down the project?
The strange engraving wasn’t the only thing found during the excavation. The team also found a statue of Vishnu so unique that there are only a “handful” of similar statues that have been found, with this one being the oldest. Perhaps that’s a clue as to the ASI’s motivations. According to the team, the findings at the site had the potential to “add new chapters to the history of Central India.” According to Dr Samanta:
“The relics indicate the existence of a big city, which is rare in this region for the time. We have found several temples and monasteries of the early medieval period, but hardly any trace of big habitations such as this. There are very few such sites in India.”
One thing is for certain, no matter what the motivations for shutting down this excavation are, it only makes it that much more intriguing.