John Marshall

John Marshall

John Hubert Marshall (1876-1958) was born in Chester and educated at Dulwich College and King's College, Cambridge. After gaining experience at excavations in Knossos and various other sites on Crete between 1898 and 1901, he was appointed Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1902 by Lord Curzon, and he held the post till 1928. Marshall modernised the approach to archaeology, introducing a programme of cataloguing and conservation of ancient monuments and artefacts. In 1913, he began the excavations at Taxila, which lasted for two decades. Marshall was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE) in June 1910 and knighted in January 1915. Marshall retired from the post of Director General of Archeology in India in 1928 but was reemployed as a special officer for preparing reports on Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Taxila, Multan, Mandu, Delhi, Sanchi, and Agra, some of which have been published. Marshall departed from India in 1934 and lived in England until his death in August 1958.

Few people are as closely tied to the discovery of the ancient Indus Civilization as Sir John Marshall. As one of the most important Director-Generals of the Archaeological Survey of India, he is primarily remembered as an excavator of Buddhist sites, especially ancient Taxila, in northern Punjab near Islamabad. However his contributions to archaeological practice in general, his role in steering the attention of Indian archaeologists, including Daya Ram Sahni, Madho Sarup Vats and Rakhaldas Banerji, towards the largely unexplored sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro led to the recognition of the presence of a singular ancient civilization that once stretched across much of the western Indian subcontinent. In 1924, Marshall had the honor of publicizing this discovery , in an " uncharacteristically dramatic note" notes Sudeshna Guha in The Marshall Albums (pp. 166-7): "Not often has it been to archaeologists, as was given to Schleimann at Tyryns and Mycenae, or to Stein in the deserts of Turkestan, to light upon the remnants of a long forgotten civilization." In his three volume report on the excavations at Mohenjo-daro in 1925-26, Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization, Marshall recounted that "I myself unearthed the Great Bath and other blocks of buildings in the SD Area and explored as far as was possible the earlier remains beneath and around the Buddhist monastery" (pp. 12-13).

Despite this impressive record of achievement, not much has been written or is known about John Marshall. In her book Marshalling the Past Ancient India and its Modern Histories, Nayanjot Lahiri notes that "John Hubert Marshall, one of the acknowledged figures of South Asian archaeology, presents a strange enigma. Few dispute the fact that his tenure as director general of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 until 1928 created a new chapter in the conservation, exploration and excavation that included, among other things, the discovery and opening out of the Indus civilization for students of the Indian past. Yet that remarkable man, just short of turning 26 years of age when he assumed charge in February 1902, has remained a shadowy figure in many ways. No biography of him has been written to date, and even elementary details pertaining to his education and field experience prior to his Indian years are not available" (p. 299).

After his initial appointment, due to Lord Curzon's firm belief that archaeology in India needed an overhaul and the dormant Archaeological Survey of India required restoration, Marshall fought a continuous battle for resources with the Government of India. He thwarted a major attempt to cut funding for the Survey in 1922-23 that interrupted extensive excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro despite the initial promising finds in 1921-22. When a year later it became clear that a major discovery had been made, he used the publicity from these announcements to plump for increased funding that led to what are still the most extensive excavations at both sites from 1925 through early 1930s, even though he himself had retired by then, and retrenchment was again the call of the hour. This successful behind-the-scenes administrative manoeuvring in a constrained budget environment among both small-minded and sometimes visionary bureaucrats is one of his major accomplishments. (It is worth noting that in both India and Pakistan Ancient Indus archaeology and excavations still suffer from lack of adequate funding, with sources abroad often playing a key role in fieldwork and analysis despite the pride both nations take in the Indus civilization and new discoveries.)

To understand the importance of Marshall’s "tremendous presence" in the development of archaeology of the Indus Civilization, Gregory Possehl explains how his paradigm informed the earliest approaches, including the notion that there was a wetter climate, "striking uniformity at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa," and that “the Harappans were just as individual (interestingly he used the word "national" in this context) as the other civilizations, shown by the character of the domestic architecture and monuments like the Great Bath" (Indus Age The Beginnings, 1999, p. 109-110). Possehl further elaborates on this paradigm: "He found no reason to connect the language of the Indus people with Sanskrit, or its culture with the Aryans. In fact, he argued forcefully, and correctly, that the Indus Civilization was earlier than the Vedic period and that these cultures were the product of different peoples. Marshall, speaking on the Harappan language, said that so vast an area probably contained the native speakers of more than one language (1931e: 42) but that it was likely that these were within the Dravidian group" (p. 110). Marshall also proposed "a cult of the Great Mother Goddess evidenced by figurines" (for a contrasting view, see Shereen Ratnagar, The Magic in the Image, 2018), a great Male God, Pasupati or the Proto-Siva (1931f:52-3), a position that is not universally accepted today" and furthermore, Possehl notes that there is “little or no mention of warfare, or internecine conflict in Marshall's account of the Harappans (pp. 110-113).

Possehl offers a characteristically thorough evaluation of Marshall and the Indus Civilization in these words: "There are three things that come through in Marshall’s essays as theoretical positions, that were largely implicitly held. First, the Harappan Civilization was a member of a class of civilizations, most closely related to Sumer and the Proto-Elamites. It was “natural” that parallels would be found because of geography and this close relationship. Although it was not sufficiently close for the Harappans to be termed “Indo-Sumerian” the connection was real and important. He even included a simple list of finds that indicated close contact between the Indus and the Tigris-Euphrates (Marshall 1931h: 103-05). There was a continuity between the twentieth century and these distant peoples and he was justified in using historical and ethnographic observations to further his understanding of the Indus peoples. It also helped him to interpret the language and ethnic or biological diversity of the Indus population. Finally, Marshall was a scholar with a commitment to the epistemology of his field. We are not presented with a fait accomplis in terms of his propositions concerning the Harappans, but rather a reasoned argument, backed by a sophisticated use of other peoples work and insights. Even when he is wrong, as in the case for a wetter climate, Marshall offers his reasons for believing as he does, and this is a trait of considerable scholarly merit—certainly not found in all discourse on this civilization, even today.

In spite of some limitations Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization is an extraordinary report on an archaeological site, especially if judged against the standards of its day. First, it is thorough. There are full reports on the technical and scientific side of archaeology with separate articles written by experts on the fauna, flora, human remains, metals and the like. Second, it is both a descriptive and empirical report on the excavations as well as a synthetic work, one that seeks to relate the facts of the excavation to a larger set of ideas that give real meaning to the stones and bones. Combining descriptions and ideas in this way is an art and Marshall should be given a great deal of credit for orchestrating his three volumes in such a way as to hold these two levels of thought separate from each other in order to keep “fact” from “fiction.” While it is true that Mohenjo-daro was not excavated on a stratigraphic basis, and this was a method current by 1920, the report on the excavation is ahead of its time in many ways which speaks well of the Archaeological Survey of India and its leadership" (pp. 112-3).

Perhaps most significantly, Marshall recognized the "civilizational autarky of the Indus region through uncommon intuition," Nayanjot Lahiri has stated. She continues: "Nothing was actually known about the background from which the ancient civilization of the Indus had emerged. Only hindsight and the work of archaeologists who, since then, have slowly unearthed the cultural mosaic which makes up this background, permit us to say that Marshall’s conclusion was indeed correct. But, apart from its unerring accuracy, what makes Marshall’s conclusion exceptional is that it was articulated in an era when it was quite the fashion to see the stimulus of all high culture in ancient India as emanating from the West" (p. 331).

As mentioned earlier, apart from Possehl, Lahiri and Guha, little is available about Marshall in print or online. Sudeshna Guha's The Marshall Albums Photography and Archaeology speaks primarily to larger issues about Buddhist archaeological photography (though there is a photograph of the priest-king). Nyanjot Lahiri's Finding Forgotten Cities How the Indus Civilization was Discovered covers his role and that of other critical Indian and foreign archaeologists, while Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and its Modern Histories contain a number of her essays on his early days at the ASI. A select bibliography of Marshall’s work in provided below. Also noteworthy is an exhibition at the the Oriental Museum in Durham University - Taxila in Focus 100 Years Since Marshall - based on his photographs in their collection. A number of his texts at the ASI are available on, a fitting tribute to someone who built both an extensive library and insisted on regular detailed publications during his historic tenure at the institution.

Publications by John Hubert Marshall


Guha, S. and B. Chattopadhyaya. (2010) The Marshall Albums: Photography and Archaeology. New Delhi: Mapin.
Lahiri, N. (2005) Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization Was Discovered. Reprint, Bangalore: Permanent Black, 2011.
Lahiri, N. (2012) Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and Its Modern Histories. Reprint, Bangalore: Permanent Black, 2019.
Possehl, G. L. (1999) Indus Age: The Beginnings. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Ratnagar, S. (2018) The Magic in the Image: Women in Clay at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. New Delhi: Manohar.