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Odisha's Neolithic pre-history

The ASI discovers a separate Neolithic phase for the first time in Odisha’s prehistory, followed by a clear-cut Chalcolithic horizon, in its excavations at Suabarei in Puri district. The two levels are separated by a gap of one metre that indicates 600 years of unexplained non-occupation.

Recent excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Suabarei in Odisha’s Puri district have solved a few riddles surrounding the State’s prehistory and also firmly established its Neolithic past and Chalcolithic history. Importantly, the excavations, done in 2014-15 and 2015-16, yielded a Neolithic horizon for the first time in Odisha, with a gap of one metre separating it from the Chalcolithic stratigraphy, unlike in other sites in the State where the two are mixed up.

Scientific analysis at the site dated the Neolithic period to around 1750 BCE (3,750 years before the present) and the Chalcolithic period to circa 1215 BCE (3,200 years before the present). Significantly, Suabarei’s Neolithic past bridges the gap between the Mesolithic and the Chalcolithic pasts of Odisha.

Jeeban Kumar Patnaik, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch-IV, Bhubaneswar, and director of the excavation, was ecstatic about the finds. He said: “The excavations have proved that Suabarei was an important Neolithic-Chalcolithic site between the Daya river and the Gangua rivulet. It represents a rural, agro-pastoral settlement. The people who lived there belonged to the transition period from hunting-gathering to farming. This is evident from the charred animal bones, fish bones, copper fish hooks and charred grains found in the trenches. Presence of carnivorous canine teeth indicates the hunting of wild animals. The finding of fluted cores and chert blades shows the prevalence of some sort of lithic industry.”

The discovery of crude, coarse, gritty, hand-made pottery at the lowest level in trenches that belonged to the Neolithic horizon indicated that wheel-made pottery was yet to be introduced there. Besides, chisels made of basalt/dolerite stone belonging to the Neolithic period were found. The upper levels yielded painted, polychrome pottery made by wheel belonging to the Chalcolithic period. Circular huts with no post-holes were also found at the Chalcolithic horizon.

Nanda Kishor Swain, Deputy Superintending Archaeologist at the ASI’s Excavation Branch-VI in Bengaluru, visited Suabarei during the excavations and studied the artefacts and other finds. He also underlined the “gap” or “the clear-cut demarcation” between the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic horizons and said this was an indication that a Neolithic period was extant in Odisha. “In coastal Odisha, no Neolithic site had been discovered in a separate stratified context. Wherever Neolithic artefacts were found, they were stray findings. But at Suabarei, for the first time, a Neolithic phase has been discovered in a separate stratified context. This is of importance,” Swain explained.

Very few research projects had been done on Odisha’s prehistory until the Suabarei excavations. The work done in the past 100 years or so on the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic sites in the State were exploratory in nature or related to surface finds only. “Nobody had focussed on the Chalcolithic culture of Odisha,” Patnaik said. In 1985, Paul Yule of Germany and B.K. Rath of the Odisha State Department of Archaeology excavated a site at Sankarjung in Angul district and established for the first time the existence of a Chalcolithic site in the State, and carbon-dating indicated that it belonged to circa 800 BCE.

Later, B.K. Sinha of the Excavation Branch IV, ASI, Bhubaneswar, excavated the site at Golabai Sasan village in Khurda district and established firmly the Chalcolithic culture of Odisha. His excavation revealed a cultural level of Neolithic material. “But it led to a little bit of confusion. There was no separate Neolithic horizon. Both the Neolithic and Chalcolithic material were mixed up. There was no clear-cut space between the two horizons,” said Patnaik.

In the meantime, more sites were excavated by the archaeology departments of Sambalpur University and Utkal University. One of the sites was situated at Khameswarpalli in Sonepur district, which was excavated in 1997 and 1999. Archaeologists who took part in that excavation did establish a Chalcolithic level there. Then excavations at Harirajpur and Talapada, both in Khurda district, followed.

However, all these excavations were limited in nature; only vertical trenches, which are usually small in scale, were dug and no horizontal digging was done. The trenches were two metres by two metres and yielded only the cultural sequence of the site. “The settlement pattern at the site, the subsistence economy of the people who lived there and information on their day-to-day life cannot be detected by vertical excavations. However, horizontal excavations can be done expansively all over the mound and you get a variety of information on the settlement pattern there, the people’s subsistence economy, how the site is distribute,and so on,” explained Patnaik.

It was in this context that the ASI was looking for a Chalcolothic site in coastal Odisha. In 2013, the Excavation Branch-IV, Bhubaneswar, led by D.K. Khamari, its Superintending Archaeologist, discovered the Suabarei mound on the right bank of the Daya river which forms a part of the Mahanadi river system. The mound was in Poporanga panchayat, about 20 km from Bhubaneswar and lay between the Daya river and the Gangua rivulet. About 40 per cent of it had been destroyed at the time of its discovery. Besides, farmers had cut the mound to create a pond to irrigate their fields. The mound, as it survives today, is about 6,330 square metres in spread and has a height of 4.5 metres from the surface.

Khamari’s trial excavation on a part of the damaged mound yielded a rich quantity of antiquarian remains of Neolithic-Chalcolithic cultural affinity. The findings included polished stone celts, fragments of copper, a metal ring, an antler, charred bone pieces bearing cut marks, hopscotch squares, and so on. The ceramic assemblage found included black and red ware, red slipped ware, chocolate slipped ware, red ware and grey ware. Pottery included handis (pots), vessels, storage jars and perforated jars.

Jeeban Kumar Patnaik, who succeeded Khamari, conducted full-scale horizontal excavations in 2014-15 and 2015-16, laying out nine trenches, each 10 metres by 10 metres and more than six metres in depth. Each trench had a maximum of 12 or 13 layers.

Among the aims and objectives of the 2014-15 excavation were the following: understanding the cultural sequence of the site and confirming the materials found during the trial excavation of 2013; correlating with the other excavated Chalcolithic sites in Odisha; understanding the distribution pattern of the Chalcolithic settlements along the Daya river bank; and finding out whether the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic periods had separate horizons.

During the excavation, layer two yielded Chalcolithic elements such as copper rings, celts and beads of semi-precious stones. The third layer had a fish hook made of copper, celts, potsherds, stone pieces and charred bones having cut marks. There were charcoal pieces in the fourth layer and the remains of a circular hut with the impression of a rammed jelly. What is puzzling is that no post-holes were found in this hut.

The 2015-16 excavation yielded, in the sixth layer in a trench, two broken polychrome-painted pots, two polished stone celts and elephant bones. The ceramic assemblage included red ware, red slipped ware and chocolate slipped ware. A structural level was found in the form of a circular mud wall. The antiquities/structural remains recovered from layers two to six were safely put to the mature Chalcolithic period.

Sterile layer Patnaik, who has a PhD from Sambalpur University on “The Art and Architecture of South Kosala: A case study of Stellate Temples (6th-11th century), said: “This story [of layers yielding artefacts] continues up to layer 10. Then, abruptly, there is a gap of one metre or so of a barren layer. In this layer, there is absolutely no sign of any human activity. After this gap, we encountered the Neolithic level. Neolithic is older than Chalcolithic age. We had never come across this kind of sterile layer earlier in Odisha because we had found the Neolithic and Chalcolithic horizons mixed up at Golabai Sasan and Hikundi in Sonepur district. The Neolithic horizon began immediately after the Chalcolithic layer in these sites. There was no gap and it was difficult to ascertain where the Neolithic level started at Golabai Sasan and Hikundi.

“However, in Suabarei there was a clear-cut demarcation. There was a barren layer of one metre or so. This means it was not occupied by any human being. So we have concluded that the Suabarei site was occupied by the Neolithic people, then it was deserted and reoccupied by the Chalcolithic people. There is a clear-cut gap of non-occupation of Suabarei for 600 years. This situation has never happened in the other sites in Odisha. That is why Suabarei is an important site.”

The ASI’s archaeologists deduced that Suabarei was unoccupied for 600 years because radiocarbon dating revealed that the Neolithic layer at Hikundi and other sites belonged to a period 3,800 years before the present. The carbon samples collected from the Neolithic and Chalcolithic levels at Suabarei were sent to the Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Miami, Florida, in the United States for dating. The dates arrived at were that the Neolithic period at Suabarei belonged to 3,750 years before the present and that the Chalcolithic period belonged to 3,215 years before the present. The Chalcolithic layer in different sites in Odisha was also dated to 3,200 years before the present. The barren layer, therefore, indicated that the site was not occupied for 600 years before the Chalcolithic people settled there again. “These dates have put the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic dates in Odisha on a firm footing,” Patnaik said.

Suabarei solved a few riddles surrounding Odisha’s prehistory, he said. The two seasons of excavations established a separate Neolithic horizon for the first time in the State. In the Neolithic horizon, hand-made, crude, coarse and grit-tempered pottery were found. They were incipient, rudimentary pieces of pottery. Wheel-made pottery was yet to come into vogue. Chisels made of basalt/dolerite stone were found in the Neolithic level. This had never been found earlier.

The stratigraphy of Odisha had not been established properly until the late B.K. Thapar excavated a Neolithic site called Kuchai, where he found Mesolithic and Neolithic layers. But he did not find any other layer below them. “So our own excavation has provided a continuity to Odisha’s stratigraphy from the Mesolithic period to the Neolithic to the Chalcolithic,” Patnaik said.

The subsequent period is the Iron Age, or the Megalithic Age (see box on prehistoric period). Odisha did not boast of a Megalithic culture but had an Iron Age. The Iron Age horizon was found in the excavation at Golabai Sasan. So excavations at different sites in Odisha revealed step by step its Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Iron Age horizons, followed by Early Historical and Historical periods. “So the entire stratigraphy of Odisha is now available. We have succeeded in getting the Neolithic period in a stratified layer at Suabarei. This bridges the gap between the Mesolithic and the Chalcolithic periods of the State,” Patnaik said.

The Suabarei excavation revealed the existence of a cluster of circular huts belonging to the Chalcolithic period. “The huts were more than 3,000 years old. The absence of post-holes [to support the roof] is an important feature here,” the director of excavation said. Perhaps, a post was not needed because the huts had conical roofs which sat on the circular wall. The roof could have been made of straw, wattle, etc. Golabai Sasan also yielded the remains of circular huts, but their orientation was not known.

At Suabarei, the huts’ orientation was towards the east—their entrance was in the east. The huts’ basement was made of mud bricks. In the estimate of Patnaik, the absence of post-holes, the evidence of the use of sun-dried bricks in the inner periphery of the mud wall along with clay lumps, with an east-facing entrance and an attached verandah, were unique so far as the Chalcolithic culture of Odisha was concerned.

The archaeologists also encountered three to four working levels of excavations with rammed floors. Some levels had hearths. A large amount of animal bones, both of domesticated and wild variety, were found. Many of them had cut marks. It was clear that people ate goat, sheep, buffalo, deer, etc. They were fond of eating fish, turtles and crabs. Charred animal bones, charred tortoise shells, charred fish bones, fish hooks made of copper, roasted grains, black gram, green gram and Kulith found in the excavation proved that the residents survived by hunting-gathering, fishing and farming. Even today, the Gangua rivulet flowing about 500 metres on the western side of the site is exploited for fish. The Daya river is about 4 km from the site. The sea is about 30 km away. “Perhaps, the Daya river was flowing close to the site about 3,000 years ago because we found paleo-channels in trenches,” Patnaik said. A charred shark tooth with a deliberately done perforation at the centre, perhaps the tooth was to be used as a pendant, suggested some sort of sea link.

Artefacts found at the site included Neolithic chisels, adzes and celts belonging to the Chalcolithic period, beads made of semi-precious stones such as quartz, carnelian, agate and coral, terracotta pendants, sling balls, fish-net sinkers made of stone and domestic appliances such as pounders, grinding stones and pestles.

A lot of charred paddy was also found. There was rice husk. Pottery belonging to the Chalcolithic period had fish-net paintings. A skeleton of a dog was found in a trench. Several funerary pots were found around the dog’s skeleton, indicating that funeral rites had been done for the animal. The excavation yielded terracotta dog figurines.

Patnaik said: “Suabarei represents a rural agro-pastoral economy-based settlement. The people lived during the transition period of hunter-food gatherer to stock raiser stage. Though only limited quantities of painted polychrome pottery with geometric patterns were available, it indicated the people’s creative urge and imagination. Varieties of other pottery represented their progressive skill. The finding of fluted cores and blades of chert stone indicated the prevalence of some sort of lithic industry. Plenty of cut marks on the bones of domesticated and wild animals showed the people’s dexterity in manufacturing bone tools. Antlers used as arrowheads and other implements showed their artistic skill.”

The Suabarei mound where the excavation took place in two seasons between 2014 and 2016. It covers an area of 6,330 square metres and is at a height of 4.5 metres from the ground level.Photo: ASI
Labourers sorting out aretfacts found in the incipient levels of the Chalcolithic period at Suabarei.Photo: ASI
The discovery of a "hiatus" or a "clear-cut gap" in layer 11 as shown in the photograph, and in the following illustration, established for the first time in Odisha's prehistory the existence of a Neolithic phase clearly separated from the Chalcolithic level in a stratified context at a site. Until then, in other sites, the two levels were found mixed up. The "hiatus" varies in width from 30cm to one metre and was barren. The hiatus indicates, according to the ASI's estimates, that Suabarei had no settlement for 600 years after the Neolithic people abandoned the place and until the Chalcolithic people reoccupied it. Layer 12 in the picture (and the following illustration) belongs to the Neolithic period and layers 10 to two belong to the incipient and mature Chalcolithic periods.Photo: ASI
Illustration explaining the "hiatus".
Sun-dried mud bricks can be seen on the inner side of the mud walls of the circular huts.Photo: ASI
Burnt patches were found on the rammed floor of a circular hut indicating cooking or some ritual activity.Photo: ASI
A polychrome painted pot of the mature Chalcolithic period found in layer six of a trench.Photo: ASI
A huge terracota pot in one of the trenches.Photo: ASI
A hearth found in the upper levels of a trench. It was perhaps used for cooking. The inner side was coated with thick clay so that it could retain heat for a long time. It had projections on which different types of vessels could be kept.Photo: ASI
A typical fish hook made of copper and belonging to the Chalcolithic period. The Chalcolithic period belongs to the Bronze Age and was pastoral in nature. The Harappan civilisation also belonged to the Bronze Age but it was urban oriented. Copper is one of the ingredients of the alloy that is bronze.Photo: ASI
A stone fishing net sinker used by people who lived in Suabarei during the Chalcolithic period.Photo: ASI
A terracotta casket superbly crafted with four legs.Photo: ASI
Jeeban Kumar Patnaik, director of the excavation at Suabarei and Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch-IV, Bhubaneswar, examining a red ware found at the site.Photo: Biswaranjan Rout
Rice husk found embedded in clay in a trench. Roasted grains, black gram, green gram and horse gram found in the trenches proved that the people who lived at Suabarei knew how to grow crops. They belonged to a transition period from hunting-gathering and fishing to farming.Photo: ASI
A needle made of bone. It was used for stitching and a variety of other purposes.Photo: ASI
A copper ring belonging to the Chalcolithic period.Photo: ASI
An elephant skull, which can be dated to the mature Chalcolithic period.Photo: ASI
An elephant bone recovered from the excavation.Photo: ASI
Handmade gritty pottery remains found in the trenches clearly establish that Suabarei had a Neolithic past. These pieces of coarse pottery were made before the potter's wheel came to be used.Photo: ASI
Decorated pottery with impressions of nails, pellets, cords and mats and reeds were found at Suabarei.Photo: ASI
Remains of perforated jars that typically belong to the Chalcolithic period.Photo: ASI
Beads made of semi-precious stones.Photo: ASI
A Neolithic stone tool found in the lowermost level of a trench.Photo: ASI
Polished stone axes from the Chalcolithic period found in different layers.Photo: ASI
Stone tools such as celts and cleavers, stone fish net sinkers and points.Photo: ASI
Blades made of chert stone used by the people of Suabarei to skin animals. These blades were found in layer six in the trenches and so can be assigned to the mature Chalcolithic period (more than 3,000 years before the present).Photo: ASI
A circular hut belonging to the Chalcolithic period being excavated. The huts had mud walls whose inner sides were strengthened with sun-dried bricks and clay lumps. A unique feature of the huts was that they had no posts to support their conical roofs. Several such huts, all of which faced east, that is, the entrance was on the eastern side, were found.Photo: ASI
Rakesh Tewary, Director General, ASI, examining the pottery kept in the pottery yard at the site.Photo: ASI
The camp site near the mound with neatly erected tents and the pottery yard where segregation of the different types of pottery is done.Photo: ASI
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