Archaeology

Unearthing Asurdanga

Print edition : June 22, 2018

The excavation mound. The materials discovered included semi-precious stone beads of different shapes and sizes and microlithic stone tools. Photo: PHOTOGRAPHS: Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta.

Black and red ware. Photo: Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta

Carnelian bead. Photo: Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta.

Chalcedony bead. This microscopic piece of art was produced from the most primitive stone tools. Photo: Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta.

Fluted core in stone. Fluting is a technique that involves slicing out uniform blades from a prepared cylindrical core by applying constant vertical pressure. Photo: Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta.

Recent excavations at Birbhum district in West Bengal have led to the discovery of an artisans’ village, dating back 3,500 years, notable for its high level of craftsmanship.

Recent excavations at Asuralay village in Mayureshwar 1 Block of West Bengal’s Birbhum district have revealed an artisans’ village, dating back to the proto-historic period. Even though the site is yet to be dated, archaeologists believe that the settlement existed sometime between 2000 BCE and 1000 BCE. The various tools and artefacts unearthed in the excavation carried out by archaeologists of the University of Calcutta threw light not only on the high level of craftsmanship of the people of the region but also on the activities in the oldest settlements of Bengal.

Rajat Sanyal, head of the Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta, who led the excavation, in one of the trenches.   -  Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta.

Rajat Sanyal, head of the Department of Archaeology, University of Calcutta, who led the excavation, said: “In March 2015, we were exploring the Mayurakshi-Dwaraka interfluvial zone in Birbhum when, based on local information, we got to know of a huge mound known as Asurdanga in a village called Asuralay. We found on the surface black and red ware (BRW) pottery, that is unanimously accepted as the general ceramic type of the proto-historic period in different parts of the country. In Bengal, this period is dated between the early second millennium BCE and the early first millennium BCE.” Other kinds of pottery were also present in the site, including red ware, black ware and buff ware (pottery of a yellowish colour). The excavation began in March this year and concluded in April.

DISCOVERY OF ARTEFACTS

The most striking discovery in the excavation was the large number of beads of different shapes and sizes made of semi-precious stones, microlithic stone tools, and raw materials to make the artefacts. There was also evidence of extensive burning activities throughout the excavated trenches, indicating large-scale production of artefacts. “We found four ovens in a row, and huge quantities of charcoal and burnt patches on top of extensive mud floors on which production activities would take place. Large sections of these floors were still intact. What we found was probably the working area of the settlement,” said Sanyal.

The materials discovered showed a very high level of skill in the craftsmen of the settlement. Among the materials recovered was a tiny, perfectly made bead of just 1.5 mm size, with a hole in its centre for a thread to pass through. This microscopic piece of art is made of chalcedony and produced from the most primitive stone tools. “I really cannot answer how something as delicate as this could have survived thousands of years. It is a marvel how they could have created something like this,” said Sanyal. The biggest piece of bead that has been found in the site is 3.2 cm long, and made of carnelian.

The stone tools that the people of the settlement used to make the artefacts were mostly made of chert and quartz. Some of the tools were also made from bones of animals. Sanyal pointed out that the craftsmen had a specific technique, known as fluting, for making these stone tools. This technique involves slicing out uniform blades from a prepared cylindrical core by applying constant vertical pressure. “This technique is very common to many protohistoric sites in central India and the Deccan. But in Bengal we do not have enough evidence of this technique being used in the protohistoric period,” said Sanyal.

According to Sujit Dasgupta, former Deputy Director General of the Geological Survey of India, who has also been associated with this project right from the beginning, such chalcolithic sites can mostly be found in the upland region of the western fringe of the Bhagirathi. “However, unlike many sites in West Bengal which are highly disturbed by anthropogenic activities, this particular site has somehow escaped human activities, and the excavation recovered undisturbed materials,” Dasgupta told Frontline. According to him, the reason for the abundance of microlithic tools found in the site is probably the availability of hard rocks in the nearby area. “It is a wealth of a find, which looks like a factory,” he said.

Another interesting fact about the site is that it is a “single-cultural site”. “We often see cultural changes at various levels of excavation; for example, at one level we may find evidence of early historic settlement; at another, of yet another age. But our excavation at Asurdanga, showed findings of one particular age,” said Saptarshi Chowdhury, PhD research scholar, Department of Archaeology. According to Sanyal, Saptarshi and his colleague Bidhan Halder’s contribution to the project has been immense.

AN ARTISAN SETTLEMENT

One important fact that this excavation has brought to the fore is that during that period of agrarian settlements there were also highly skilled artisans. Sanyal believes that these crafts were one of the major subsistence activities of the settlement, along with agriculture. “The evidence from other excavated sites do not say that the artefacts were being made there; they were probably procured from other places. Whereas in Asurdanga, we are more or less certain that not only were they producing the artefacts there, but also supplying to other nearby regions,” he said. Interestingly, around 6 km from Asuralay is the famous site of Kotasur, a major early historic fortified city site that was excavated in the beginning of the 1980s. Sanyal believes that the site in Asurdanga was probably providing materials to Kotasur and the neighbouring areas. “That is why I called it an artisan settlement. I think this is a very important discovery, and I am sure there are more sites like this in the countryside that are awaiting discovery,” he said.

According to Gautam Sengupta, former director of the Archaeological Survey of India, who has visited the Asurdanga site, this is a very significant excavation, as it provides an insight into the workings of the earliest settlements in Bengal. “Even though it is a small site, what it reveals is of tremendous importance. We see that crafts production, agrarian subsistence activities and production of ceramics went hand in hand in the settlement,” Sengupta told Frontline.

He said another interesting fact that had emerged was that there could have been a link between the Asurdanga site and other sites of the protohistoric period in Bengal, such as Kotasur and Mangalkot. “This site did not emerge in isolation, nor did its craft. It was a part of a larger network. It is a big mound and there is scope for a lot more work. This discovery merits a long-term excavation project,” he said. The total area of the Asurdanga mound is about 17,300 square metres, of which only around 1,500 sq. m were excavated.

MYTH OF BAKASURA

Most ancient archaeological sites have some connection with the myths, particularly from the great epics. The people of the region also like to link their place to the Mahabharata.

The local legend is that the name Asuralay (the abode of the Asura) came from the belief that this was the dwelling of the terrible demon Bakasura, whom Bhima of the Pandavas had killed. During their exile, the Pandavas apparently hid in Kotasur, from where food was regularly supplied to Bakasura. One day Bhima volunteered to take the food to the demon, and slew him. The local legend is that the huge swamp of the Mayurakshi (of around 770 acres) was formed during the struggle between Bhima and Bakasura.

For many years the Asurdanga mound was given a wide berth by people of the region, perhaps out of fear or superstition. This probably accounts for so many artefacts being recovered in such excellent condition from there.

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