Royal burial in Sanauli

The recent ASI excavation at Sanauli village in western Uttar Pradesh leads to the discovery of several burials, including that of a royal with chariots, swords and helmets, dating to 2000 BCE and belonging to the copper hoard culture.

Published : Sep 12, 2018 12:30 IST

 A royal wooden coffin and alongside it two chariots adjacent to each other excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India at Sanauli. The chassis of the chariots was made of wood and covered with thick copper sheets. The frame was made of copper pipes, including one for attaching an umbrella.

A royal wooden coffin and alongside it two chariots adjacent to each other excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India at Sanauli. The chassis of the chariots was made of wood and covered with thick copper sheets. The frame was made of copper pipes, including one for attaching an umbrella.

SANAULI in Baghpat district in western Uttar Pradesh, about 80 km from New Delhi, has been making waves in archaeological circles across the country with spectacular discoveries of coffin burials and chariots with burial goods such as copper helmets, copper antenna swords and red vases with flaring rims. Seven burials have been excavated so far, and spectacular among them is a royal burial with a wooden coffin with a lid that has carvings in high relief with a series of anthropomorphic figures, all of which have headgear that has two horns and a peepal leaf in the centre. Besides the face, the figures have broad shoulders and a torso.

The sides of the coffins have running floral motifs and they are covered by copper plating that runs around the coffins. The wooden coffin, too, has a copper sheet of around 3 mm thickness. It stands on four wooden legs, which too are covered with copper sheathing with carvings, and looks virtually like a sarcophagus. The coffin itself is more than 8 feet (2.4 metres) long and has a height of about 40 cm. Inside the coffin lay the body of a man, probably a royal, oriented in the north-west and south-east direction, with the head facing the north-west. The pit that held the royal coffin also had two full-sized chariots, besides other artefacts.

“For the first time in the Indian subcontinent, chariots have been recovered from any excavation,” said Sanjay Kumar Manjul, Director, Institute of Archaeology, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Director of the excavation. Arvin Manjul, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch-II, ASI, New Delhi, was co-director of the excavation. The teams that undertook the excavation were from the Institute of Archaeology, the academic wing of the ASI that conducts a two-year programme in archaeology for postgraduates in history and archaeology, and the Excavation Branch II.

One of the discoveries they made in the grave pits with wooden coffin burials was a couple of “antenna swords” that were 40 cm long. One of them had a wooden hilt with copper spiral wiring around it. “In the entire copper hoard culture, this is the first discovery of a sword with a wooden hilt wound around with a copper wire. These are typical objects of the copper hoard culture,” said Arvin Manjul. “They could have made sacrifices, using the sword with full force,” she added. But the most amazing discovery was of three full-sized chariots, two in the royal burial and the third in another burial with a wooden coffin. The chariots were made of wood, which has perished and commingled with mud. The wheels are decorated with three rows of copper triangles radiating from the centre. The whole composition looks like the sun’s emanating rays.

The chassis of the chariot was made of wood and was covered with thick copper sheets. The frame of the seat was made of copper pipes, including a pipe for the attachment of an umbrella (chhatravali), and the seat itself seemed to be semi-circular. Sanjay Manjul called the excavation of the coffin burials and the chariots “a unique discovery in the entire subcontinent”. They could be dated to “around 2000 BCE” and were “contemporary to Harappan culture”, he said.

He claimed that the discovery of chariots put India on a par with ancient civilisations in Mesopotamia and Greece, where chariots were used extensively. “We are now sure that around 2000 BCE, when the Mesopotamians were using chariots, swords and helmets in war, a warrior tribe here was using them as well.”

Sanjay Manjul was sure that it was a royal burial. “Otherwise, it is not possible to have so many intricate carvings on the coffin and other objects. They also show the sophistication and the high degree of craftsmanship of the artisan. Without copper plating around it, it would have been difficult to identify the wooden coffin because wood is 100 per cent decomposed and you cannot see the wood with the naked eye. We have found evidence of a textile impression on top of the coffin. All these show that they performed the rituals first and installed the coffin next.” Besides, the helmets, the triangles on the wheels and the antenna swords, all made of copper, had strikingly beautiful designs and patterns.

The previous excavation in the area, which went on for a year in 2005-2006 about 100 metres from the present site, yielded 116 burials but no coffins. D.V. Sharma of the ASI, who headed the excavation, had associated those findings with the Harappans and the extension of Harappan culture on the Ganga-Yamuna Doab. But Sanjay Manjul asserted that the coffin burials, which he excavated from March to May 2018, did not belong to Harappan culture. These burials, according to him, belonged to ochre-coloured pottery (OCP)/copper hoard culture which had developed in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab. Sanjay Manjul argued that some elements of Harappan culture could be traced in the excavations he had done now due to the site being a contemporary settlement. The process and the belief, he said, in the journey of the departed soul seemed to be the same as that of Harappan culture because the setting and burial process were very similar, but the manufacturing technique and the shapes of artefacts, including pottery, associated with the burials excavated now were different.

(The Harappan civilisation covered an area of about 1.8 million square kilometres in India and Pakistan. There are an estimated 2,000 Harappan sites, with about 500 in India, 1,500 in Pakistan and a few in Afghanistan. The Harappan civilisation can be divided into three periods: the Early Harappan, which lasted from circa 3000 BCE to 2600 BCE; the Mature Harappan, which was extant from circa 2600 BCE to about 1900 BCE; and the Late Harappan phase, which lasted from about 1900 BCE to 1500 BCE.)

One interesting burial pit revealed a small coffin, a chariot, a shield, a torch ( mashal ), an antenna sword, a digger, hundreds of beads and a variety of pots. A helmet was kept upside down at the base of the coffin, on the ground. There was a channel-like copper object below the coffin. The chariot is identical to the chariots found in the royal burial except for the pole and yoke, which have decorations with copper triangles. The shield is also decorated with geometrical patterns in copper. There were burials for a nobleman, a common man, a woman, a dog and a bird too. Arvin Manjul said, “All the seven have their own qualities. All have their own unique features.”

Sanauli is a typical village situated in a fertile zone of fields abloom with wheat and millets and brick kilns all around, their tall stacks belching smoke. This reporter visited the site on May 18 and 19, when the excavation had reached its peak. That was also when Arvin Manjul delicately brought out three necklaces made of cylindrical steatite beads, and Vinay Roy, assistant archaeologist in Excavation Branch-II, revealed the copper triangles on the wheels of the chariot in the royal burial.

The ASI team applied various scientific methods such as X-rays, computed tomography scan (CT scan), X-ray diffraction (XRD) and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to study the remains. “This is the first time that such analyses are being done on the site for an excavation,” Sanjay Manjul said. A mud lump upon being scanned under an X-ray revealed a star-like pattern on a copper sheet rivetted with copper nails on a wooden object.

Arvin Manjul said: “In all the seven burials the head was found to be on the northern side. The ritual pottery was placed on the north beyond the head and on the south after the feet. The copper objects were kept below the sarcophagi. Since copper was not available in the surrounding areas, they had used the copper sparingly. We have got a lot of beads.”

The ASI team could unearth the skeleton of a woman, too, and it was almost intact. The woman is wearing an armlet made of banded agate beads around an elbow. Behind her head are 10 red vases with flared rims; four bowls; and two basins, small and big. Two of the vases have lids. This was also a coffin burial but the coffin does not have copper plating around it. A thin antenna sword was placed in the north-western corner of the grave. “It is a symbolic sword. Maybe, she did not have enough wealth. So they kept a symbolic sword [and there was no copper coating around the coffin either],” Arvin Manjul said.

If these are primary burials, there are secondary burials too. Indeed, in this excavation, three types of burials were found: primary, secondary and symbolic. In the primary burial, the full body of the dead man was buried. In the secondary, the body was exposed to the elements and the bones that remained were given a burial in a grave. When the body of a dead person was not available, that is, he had lost his life in a battle or a wild animal had killed him and carried away his body, he was given a symbolic burial. A grave was dug for him and it featured funerary pottery and objects he was fond of. In a secondary burial at Sanauli, the bones of a dead man had been placed haphazardly and three garlands, made of cylindrical steatite beads, were found placed on the western side of the grave. A series of terracotta pots were found on the north-western side. The royal burial and the woman’s burial are examples of primary burials.

Interestingly, the ASI archaeologists located a dog’s burial and a bird’s burial, too, at the site. It must have been a pet dog because it had been buried with care and affection. On the eastern side, they found big-sized pots covered with lids.

The burials could possibly be dated to circa 2000 BCE, said Sanjay Manjul. “After we do a scientific dating, we will be able to tell you the actual date. But there are no iron implements. So it is certainly a pre-Iron Age culture,” he argued.

K. Rajan, Professor of History, Pondicherry University, assessed that the site belonged to the Late Harappan period. “In western Uttar Pradesh, we get ochre-coloured pottery, which is contemporary to the Late Harappan period.” It should be first decided whether the custom of burying the dead belonged to the non-Vedic period or the Vedic period, he said. Normally, burials were not available during the Vedic period.

Rajan said: “In the Indus Valley civilisation, we have come across several graves that belong to the Late Harappan period. We have hardly found graves that belonged to the proper Indus Valley period, that is, the Mature Harappan period, because we concentrated more on excavating the settlements.”

Sanjay Manjul said: “This type of pottery with elongated legs and flaring rims, found along with the coffin burials at Sanauli, are not available in the Harappan context. Copper objects such as the antennna swords and the ladle were not found in Harappan sites. An interesting feature of this culture is the elaborate burial process with coffins. Coffins have been reported from Harappan culture, but there is no plating around Harappan coffins. These coffins are different from the Harappan coffins. This is actually advanced, expert craftsmanship at Sanauli. This is sophisticated craftsmanship.... This excavation has thrown new light on Indian archaeology.” He asserted that the rituals relating to the Sanauli burials showed close affinity with Vedic rituals.

According to Sanjay Manjul, while he “appreciated and acknowledged the excavation conducted by Dr Sharma” in 2005-06, his (Manjul’s) observation was that the remains found at Sanauli during the 2018 excavation “belong to the OCP/copper hoard culture and not to the Late Harappan phase” as believed earlier. A trial dig was done in Sanauli village, about 800 metres from the site of the coffin burials, to locate the habitation site. The earliest levels in the trial excavation yielded pottery and habitational deposits such as chulas, or hearths. But these were yet to be dated.

Sanjay Manjul said: “It is yet to be confirmed whether the habitation site is contemporary to the burial site of the coffins.”

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