Excavations at Keeladi open a new window into old times

Excavations at Keeladi have the potential to throw light on the civilisational antiquity of the ancient Tamil country and its people.

Published : Oct 12, 2019 07:00 IST

Scientists from the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism conducting a survey at the Keeladi site on September 12.

Scientists from the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism conducting a survey at the Keeladi site on September 12.

The first major urban settlement to be unearthed in India was Rajgir, or “Rajagriha” (abode of the king), in Bihar’s Nalanda district and it was assigned to the 6th century BCE. Rajgir was excavated as early as 1905; since then, several excavations have been conducted and sites discovered around the region. Archaeologists confirmed that this was part of the Second Urbanisation Phase in India, the first being Mohenjo-daro and Harappa even though they were discovered only in 1924. Urban settlements are usually large and characterised by brick structures, industrial activity and water management, with agricultural and economic activities. A Second Urbanisation Phase situated in the south was never considered a possibility. It is in this context that the excavations at Keeladi have provided a new window to historians.

In 2014, when the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was digging at Keeladi, the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (TNSDA) was excavating at Alagankulam, a port city of the Pandya kings located where the Vaigai river meets the Bay of Bengal.

The Alagankulam excavations were carried out for seven seasons (a season usually runs from October to September) and evidence of four distinct cultures was unearthed: 4th century BCE to 1st century CE, where black and red ware (BRW) were found; 1st century CE to 2nd century CE where rouletted ware, amphorae and Roman coins were unearthed; 2nd century CE to 4th century CE in which BRW, grey ware and a specially named Alagankulam Ware (ceramics are usually compared with similar typology and for this ware there was no comparison, hence the name) were found; and in the topmost layer, Chola coins and Chinese ware were unearthed.

In the olden days, during the north-east monsoon, sailors from the West used the Pattanam port in the western coast in Kerala, avoiding Alagankulam on the eastern coast. Similarly, they used Alagankulam during the south-west monsoon, avoiding Pattanam. Goods were transported between these two points and to several other locations such as Madurai and Karur.

In 2013-14, the ASI conducted a survey and identified 293 sites along the Vaigai’s course. Keeladi was one of the sites and it covers an area of 110 acres (one acre=0.4 hectare). The mound identified at Keeladi is one kilometre from the village of the same name and to the west of the Manalur irrigation tank. The mound is locally known as “Pallichandai Thidal” and also as “Mettu Punjai”. The area was littered with black-and-red ware, red slipped ware, red ware, coarse red ware, black ware, terracotta discs, beads and other items.

The ASI began excavation at Keeladi with a team that was headed by Amarnath Ramakrishna for two seasons. He was replaced by P.S. Sriraman for the third season.

(It is important to know that the Adichanallur excavations in another part of Tamil Nadu were done in 1904 by Alexander Rea, who announced that it was a megalithic site. It was after 100 years that the ASI dug the site again, but the reports are yet to be published. The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has given orders to send the Adichanallur samples for testing and writing reports.) By this time Keeladi had gained a lot of attention, generating curiosity relating to Tamil antiquity. People flocked to the spot for a first-hand glimpse of the site.

TNSDA steps in

The TNSDA took up the fourth season during 2017-18. Learnings were borrowed from the ASI. Eleven trenches (each 10 m x 10 m) were laid in which 34 quadrants (4.25 m x 4.25 m each) were opened during this season and 5,820 antiquities were unearthed.

(A trench area is too large and hence quadrants are marked within one trench area with a gap of 0.5 m between each quadrant and only the quadrants are opened. Quadrants are usually opened only when there is a potential for finding objects in that particular trench area.)

It is in this context that the fourth season’s findings become crucial. The TNSDA, which has released the fourth season’s report, has already ventured into the fifth season which is proving even more interesting. The report was vetted by senior archaeologists outside the department, one of them being Prof. K. Rajan, who excavated the Porunthal and Kodumanal sites. The department plans to translate the report into several languages.

The stratigraphy of all the trenches at Keeladi from the lower level to the top level carries distinct features with the same culture. The most significant findings came from trench/quadrant YP7/4. There were three cultural layers found in this quadrant, the lowest layer being 353 cm to 200 cm below surface belonging to circa 580 BCE. The natural soil was found at 410 cm. These cultural layers are identified by archaeologists on the basis of soil deposit, soil colour, texture and the nature of the artefacts found. The middle layer being 200 cm and above was placed between the mid-third century and 1st century BCE. According to Prof. Rajan, the lowest level can be called Phase 1 of the Early Historic Phase and the middle level can be called Phase 2 of the Early Historic Phase.

What Keeladi tells us

First, Keeladi essentially comes under the Second Urbanisation Phase like Rajgir. The factors determining an urban settlement are the size of a settlement, its trade activities within the region and outside, the existence of trade routes, sophisticated technologies and industries, the existence of multiethnic and linguistic groups, usage of luxury/elite items, usage of script, a codified language, literacy level and the existence of statecraft. Some of these are evident from the artefacts obtained in the site (see table).

Second, the lowest layer has yielded potsherds with Tamil Brahmi (also called Tamili) inscriptions and graffiti. With additional evidence, this will attest to the use of writing during this period. The earlier view of a writing system in Tamil from the 3rd century BCE now gets pushed back to the 6th century BCE from the carbon sample obtained in the same cultural layer. Since this is a predominantly industrial site and not a habitational or burial site, more evidence must emerge.

Amarnath Ramakrishna has said that this could also be a habitational site as it contains finished goods. The establishment of carbon-dated reference may make Keeladi an “index site”.

So far, the Iron Age of Tamil Nadu was generally dated on the basis of pottery like BRW and other megalithic antiquities that could not be dated accurately owing to non-availability of radiometric dates for some earlier excavated areas. Testing of the Keeladi artefacts has cleared the air to a great extent. However, these conclusions are based on the limited data available at hand. When more artefacts are unearthed, there may be more surprises.

Key findings

While excavation is a major activity, following it up with accurate dating of excavated artefacts is important. This is done by testing them at certified laboratories. Reliable practices are followed around the world for samples such as terracotta, charcoal and other artefacts.

The charcoal obtained at the lowest layer was sent to the Beta Analytics Laboratory in Miami, Florida, United States. Charcoal and wood are considered to be the most widely used and preferred materials for accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating as these materials do not need complex pretreatment. Willard Libby, the Nobel leaureate and a pioneer in radiocarbon dating, has identified charcoal to be the most reliable material to carbon–date. For petrographic analysis, samples were sent to the Earth Science Department of Pisa University (ESDPU) in Italy. On the basis of the results obtained from these laboratories the following conclusions were drawn.

One of the significant discoveries in the site was the unearthing of heaps of pottery, suggesting the existence of a pottery-making industry at the site. The minero-petrographic analysis conducted on samples by the ESDPU revealed that the pottery was made from locally available material while a few pieces came from other areas. This suggests the existence of similar settlements and exchange of goods from neighbouring regions, probably through traders, craftsmen and visitors.

The archaeological material unearthed depicts the lifestyle of the Keeladi people, their commerce and the existence of industries at the site.

To quote from the report of the ESDPU: “It is worthy of note that in Keeladi the technological routine employed to obtain red and black ware is unvaried over the time; particularly, compositional and textural features are homogenous in potteries dated from 600 BCE to 200 BCE, testifying the convey of technology and raw material source exploitation over all the site occupancy.”

The AMS analysis of the carbon material taken from charcoal at the Beta Analytics Laboratory found that it belonged to 580 BCE. Charcoal was found at 353 cm depth, which is the lowest layer, and the potsherds with Tamil Brahmi scripts were found in the same layer. This charcoal was used for testing.

Nearly 56 potsherds containing Tamil Brahmi inscriptions have been found. Some of them read as “vananai”, “atan”, “kuviran atan”, “atanedunka”, “kothira”, “tira an”, and “oy”. Out of the 56 potsherds, more than 20 were found below 3 m depth from the surface and more than 50 per cent of them were black and red ware.

During its excavations, the ASI had unearthed 72 Tamil Brahmi-inscribed potsherds at a level of 2 m and they were dated to the 2nd century BCE. The inscriptions were read as “athan”, “tisan”, “uthiran”, “iyanai”, “vendhan”, “sampan”, “perayan”, “kuviran kuravan”, and so on. The potsherds with inscriptions have to be seen in a larger perspective. So far, 27 AMS dates have been received from four Early Historic sites of Tamil Nadu yielding Tamil Brahmi-inscribed potsherds: they are Keeladi (16), Alagankulam (4), Porunthal (2) and Kodumanal (5). The time range falls between 6th century BCE and 1st century BCE.

Rajan says, “Of the 27 dates, five dates fall between 5th and 4th centuries BCE, four dates between 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, 15 dates between 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, two dates between 2nd and 1st century BCE and one date goes back to 6th century BCE. The availability of more than a thousand inscribed potsherds in different stratigraphical contexts, besides considerable number of inscribed seals, rings and coins in different parts of Tamil Nadu, clearly suggests the long survival of this script. Of the 27 AMS dates, five fall in 5th century BCE. Hence, the availability of one date in 6th century BCE has to be studied along with the remaining AMS dates.”

The brick structures were found at the level of the second phase of the Early Historic period.

A ring well (diameter 92 cm and each ring with a height of 32 cm) emerged in another trench (A1/2), in eight courses, probably cut out of lower level of layer-1 and upper level of layer-2 and the same continues until layer-4. It was traced at the middle of the trench adjacent to the northern section.

The existence of a dyeing industry in Keeladi was already identified during the ASI excavation. The latest excavation yielded spindle whorls, sharply pin-pointed bone tip tools used for design creations, hanging stones of the yarn, terracotta spheres, copper needles and earthen vessels to hold liquid, which suggest the existence of various stages of a weaving industry.

Many objects excavated point to the artistic, cultural richness and prosperous lifestyle of the Keeladi people. Artefacts such as gold ornaments, copper articles, beads of gems, beads of semi-precious stones, glass beads, shell bangles, ivory bangle pieces and ivory comb from the site reflect this. A large heap of more than 477 glass beads indicates the presence of a glass bead industry. Agate and carnelian beads were found as finished products, suggesting that they might have been imported through a commercial network. (Several factors are taken into consideration including comparison with material identified from other excavation sites to decide if they were made in situ.)

Games and pastimes

Another important finding is the material relating to games and pastimes. Dice, both terracotta and ivory, gamesmen, and hopscotch evidence (around 600) have been unearthed. Even now the game of hopscotch known as “pandi” or “nondivilayattu” is prevalent in Madurai and its neighbourhood. Some 80 gamesmen of similar shape but of various sizes were also unearthed. The excavation also yielded terracotta figurines of humans and animals.

Sangam literature has several references to pastimes such as dice and other games, and the Keeladi findings seem to validate them. In his book, The Tamils 1,800 Years Ago , V. Kanakasabhai draws heavily on the evidence of the Sangam poems and from inscriptional evidence to paint a picture of a sophisticated society. Indrapala, Champakalakshmi and Rajan Gurukkal have also written on the trade and urbanisation of the region using these sources.

Sangam literature date

Until now, it was believed that Sangam literature belonged to the period from 300 BCE onwards, but this needs to be relooked at by scholars in the light of the current findings.

One of the faunal remains that was tested was found to be Bos indicus (also called Zebu cattle), a native species. These humped bulls are described in the Kalithogai for the famous “eru thazhuvudhal” sport still practised in this region.

Nearly a thousand graffiti marks have been found in addition to Tamil Brahmi script on potsherds. Some of the graffiti appears similar to the Indus signs. The department identified several of them but listed only a few single signs that resemble the Indus signs in its report.

The sign list provided by the Indus scholar Iravatham Mahadevan in his 1977 work The Indus Script: Texts, Concordance and Tables has been taken for this comparison and their numbers have been provided. Whether there is any connection between the two needs to be explored further.

The first systematic survey of the Keeladi region was done in the 1950s by Dr K.V. Raman of the ASI, who conducted a formal village-to-village survey in Madurai, Thirumangalam and Melur. In 2013, the Vaigai was chosen for archaeological exploration by the ASI for the role it played in the development of the early Pandya kings of Madurai. The objective was to understand the missing links of the Iron Age to the Early Historic period in the Vaigai river valley, according to Amarnath Ramakrishna.

A major chunk of the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu were from the Vaigai river region. So, Keeladi and all other potential sites close to the banks of the Vaigai were mapped. This river starts from the Suruli hills of the Western Ghats and meanders through Sinnamanur, Madurai and Paramakudi and drains in the Bay of Bengal near Alagankulam in Ramanathapuram district.

It runs for nearly 250 km and all the identified potential archaeological sites are by the riverside. There are numerous references to the river in Sangam literature. The south-west and the north-east monsoon fill the river like any other river in southern India.

The department decided to call Keeladi a river-based civilisation as it is on the banks of the river along with several other potential sites. Alagankulam has already been excavated at one end. Not much is known about the weather pattern and flow of water 2,500 years ago. The only reference would be the Sangam literature which talks about it, and the archaeology seems to validate it.

The Sangam literary works Akananuru, Purananuru, Madurai Kanchi, Kalithogai and Paripadal describes the grandeur of Madurai. The area has been continuously inhabited since ancient times. As in the case of Rajgir, which is referenced in the Pali Canon, Keeladi may be considered a case for Sangam literature.

A poem on Madurai city and one on Vaigai from the Sangam literature provide a glimpse:

“There are merchants who buy lovely gems, pearls

And gold and sell imported things from fine countries…

…their gorgeous houses are clustered together,

Appearing like a group of hills.” ( Madurai Kanchi -500)

“May I lose the great joy in the company of my friends who are as precious to me as my own eyes —Mavan who is the ruler of Maiyal town and cities surrounded by the famous Vaiyai River with abundant riches and unending prosperity, Anthai of long established Eyil town, Anthuvan Sathan of great renown, famous Athan Alisi, Iyakkan with intense rage and others!” ( Puram 71)

(translated by Vaidehi Herbert, courtesy www.learnsangamtamil.com).

It is important to note that some of the names in these poems are found on the potsherds and more research needs to be done on this. Prof. Dilip K. Chakrabarti (Emeritus Professor of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University), in his book Ancient Routes of the Deccan and the Southern Peninsula (2010), ascribes the general date of the formation of the Sangam literature to about 500 BCE and states that the earliest ancient Pandyan kingdom could be dated, even on the basis of the testimony of Megasthenes, to 6th-7th century BCE. However, these aspects may be left to scholars for more insight.

The department has commenced work on the fifth season and has taken some important steps. Instead of digging everywhere, it has decided to use three important tools to identify potential locations and execute the excavations in an efficient manner. Normally, field survey and surface exploration provide some leads to identify a site. Using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), nearly 15 sq km have been surveyed. Through this method, material such as clay, iron and magnesium are identified in the top surface up to a certain depth. This would help locate the mounds and potentially stronger anomalies (objects under earth).

The second step is employing a magnetometer. Of the areas identified by the UAV, the TNSDA shortlists those close to the earlier excavated sections of seasons 1-3 using the magnetometer. Further sections are identified and zeroed in. Then a ground-penetrating radar is used to further refine the areas indicated in the previous process. Structural anomalies are identified up to a depth of 8 m. These anomalies are positioned and marked with GPS information.

Now, excavations can be done in specific locations where objects are most likely to occur. These are mapped and reports will be made available to any agency wanting to excavate. This technology is being deployed for the first time in India at Keelaadi. The UAV and ground-penetrating radar support was taken under the guidance of the Institute for Remote Sensing Department of Anna University. The magnetometric survey was supported by the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism at Navi Mumbai.

In the fifth season, the department has already unearthed a large brick structure, a 16-metre-long wall with three rows of bricks exposed. It is a water channel-like structure, exposed at a depth of 50 cm, which is a continuous structural activity previously exposed by the ASI. The length of the structure goes up to 5.80 m and width 1.60 m. At the surface of the channel, an alignment of roofing tiles has been noticed, indicating the secondary usage of roofing tiles as flooring until the middle of the channel. A small terracota pipeline which may be a drain line has also been unearthed but is yet to be labelled. The details of these new findings are expected to be published at the end of this season.

The most significant features of the Keeladi excavations are, firstly, the enormity of structural features and the fineness of the artefact assemblage indicating urban character. The assemblage raises the question of the antecedents of what can be defined as urban culture. The material culture, technology, engineering and aesthetics reflected in the artefacts and features support this.

Ancient Tamilakam

The noted archaeologist P.J. Cherian says: “Treating archaeological sites in isolation is a bane of archaeological practices. South India is no exception. There are several sites in ancient Tamilakam (comprising present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala) and Muciri Pattinam or Muziris site at Pattanam on the Periyar delta region that have given both typological evidence and radiocarbon dates, again from secure stratigraphic contexts, confirming the beginnings of such a settlement to be around 1000 BCE.”

The Keeladi excavations so far have not produced any known religious motifs. Considering that only four seasons have been completed, we may have to wait for further excavations to see if any object relating to the faith of the people of the time is revealed. In Adichanallur, a mother goddess made of bronze was unearthed.

Cherian also believes that a comparative study of sites such as Veeram Pattinam (Arikamedu), Poompuhar, Korkai, Alagankulam and Pattanam (Muziris) in the hinterland sites of ancient Tamilakam could help unravel the civilisational foundations of south India.

The technological advances reflected in the archaeological data at Keeladi, Pattanam, Kodumanal and many other sites clearly bring out the industrial vigour of ancient Tamilakam. Keeladi, along with contemporary sites, confirm that the agrarian and technological revolution implied in the five thinai geographies of Tamilakam facilitated both hinterland and transoceanic trade during the Early Historic period. This is the milieu in which the Keeladi archaeological data become pathbreaking.

Keeladi has emerged as a significant site as archaeologists consider this as an index site. Earlier references were drawn from other sites to determine dates. For example, Arikamedu was dated based on Roman coins as a reference. Keeladi, with the carbon samples from the excavations by the ASI and the TNSDA, may provide “absolute dating” and become a reference for future excavations.

Interest in south Indian history began with British officials such as F.W. Ellis, partly because of curiosity regarding the country.

The latest revelations from Keeladi have rekindled interest in the region’s antiquity, offering tremendous scope and a lot of hope.

R. Sivanantham is Deputy Director of the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology. Sundar Ganesan is Director, Roja Muthiah Research Library.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment