Unearthing a great past

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN Photographs: A. Shaikmohideen

THE Iron-Age urn-burial site at Adichanallur, about 24 km from Tirunelveli town in southern Tamil Nadu, has attracted nationwide attention for three important findings: an inscription in a rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script on the inside of an urn containing a full human skeleton; a potsherd (fragment of broken earthenware) with stunningly beautiful motifs; and the remains of living quarters (rampart wall, potters' kilns, a smith's shop and so on) close to the site.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) started digging the site in February 2004, about 100 years after the last excavation activity there. It is an extraordinarily large urn-burial site spread over 114 acres (45.6 hectares) on a low, rocky hillock on the right bank of the Tamiraparani river, close to a lake and surrounded by paddy fields and banana plantations. The first phase of excavation in 2004, stretched between February 4 and July 5. In the six trenches that were dug then, the ASI ran into a range of spectacular finds. Each trench was a square, 10 metres by 10 metres. T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist of the ASI, Chennai Circle, is the overrall director of the excavation.

A total of 157 burial urns were found, 57 of them intact and 15 with complete human skeletons inside. Many of the urns, especially those that contained human skeletons, were covered with another urn, in what is called a "twin-pot" system. They had been buried after cutting the rock in circular pits, into which the urns were lowered in a three-tier formation. The earliest burials formed the lowermost tier, which left enough space above to accommodate future burials.

Among the artefacts discovered at the burial site were a profusion of red ware, black ware, black-and-red ware, copper bangles, copper ear-rings, iron spear-heads, terracotta lids with tiered knobs, terracotta vessels that could be used both as lids and as bowls, globular vessels and long-necked utensils. There were vases, pots with exquisite decorations, broken daggers and swords made of iron. There were also Neolithic celts, iron implements, urns with clan marks and urns with hooks inside.

The urns with skeletons had inside them empty miniature vessels, rice, paddy and husk. The miniature vessels were of three types: bowls, small vases and pots. Made of polished blackware, they are thought to have had religious significance. These small vessels invariably had their lids on. The lids were decorated with dotted, floral or geometrical designs and were painted. Some lids had tiered knobs that looked like chess pieces.

One urn had the skeletons of a mother and a child. Some skulls had disintegrated, the bones had become fragile. Some urns were broken, and were filled with earth, obviously the handiwork of treasure-hunters. Three copper bangles and some copper chisels were also found at the site.

Outside, around the urns, were bigger pots, which were red ware. Iron implements, knives, daggers, spearheads and Neolithic celts used in farming were found around the urns. Some pots rested on ring stands of different shapes. The lids came in different shapes - conical, globular, and so on. More than a thousand pot-vessels were unearthed intact. Lots of terracotta beads in conical shape and hop-scotches were found.

What is fascinating is the discovery of urns with clan/tribe marks. Some urns had ornamentation such as thumb-nail impressions running all round the neck. The clan marks included three lines separating out from the top, with knobs, and garland-like designs.

Satyamurthy called the Adichanallur burial site "the earliest site in Tamil Nadu" and was sure that its history would go back to 1,000 B.C. "In our excavation, we have come across a culture earlier to the megalithic period. It is a well-stratified culture. The pottery is typologically different from that of megalithic pottery," he said. (According to archaeologists, the Iron Age in South India stretched between 1,000 B.C. and 300 B.C. The Iron Age and the megalithic age were contemporaneous in South India. The Iron Age signifies the beginning of civilisation).

The centrepiece of these discoveries is the potsherd with motifs in appliqu designs. It was found inside an urn which had a human skeleton. At the centre of the motifs is a tall, slender woman with prominent breasts and wearing a knee-length dress. Her hands are clinging to her sides and the palms seem to be spread out. Next to her is a sheaf of standing paddy and a crane is seated on the paddy stalk. There is a beautiful, young deer with straight horns and upturned tail. There is also a crocodile, and a knob mark. The appliqu designs were made using clay. A small thin rope was used to bring about the serrated effect in each motif.

Satyamurthy called the potsherd "a unique find because no such motifs have been found so far in burial sites in Tamil Nadu. These motifs resemble pre-historic cave paintings found in central Tamil Nadu, including Erode and Dharmapuri districts." Archaeologists are agreed that the depiction of the woman signifies the mother-goddess/fertility cult.

G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, who led a young team during the first phase of the excavation (other members were M. Nambirajan and P. Aravazhi), also said that the potsherd was "a unique find in the excavation of the Iron Age period, especially in South India." In other urn-burial sites in India, potsherds with such appliqu motifs have not been found so far. One expert, who found them "amazing" and "fantastic", said these motifs could be as old as 700 B.C. Arun Malik, Assistant Archaeologist with ASI, said: "Normally, such motifs are not found on pottery as they are generally seen only in pre-historic cave paintings."

Thirumoorthy said: "Adichanallur shows the importance given to the dead in Tamil society. The excavation reveals the mode of burial practice, the disposal of the dead, the religious beliefs prevalent then, and the socio-economic conditions of the people who lived here at that time."

The inhabitants of Adichanallur used an ingenious method to bury their dead. Thirumoorthy pointed out that these megalithic people were intelligent and had foresight because they used barren and not agricultural land to bury their dead. Besides, the urns were buried on a hillock, where they could not be flooded by the nearby river or the lake. "This is actually, a rocky hilly area. The urns were inserted after cutting the rocks in pit forms. It is not like digging the earth or sand. This is laborious work. Their intention was to accommodate the burials that would come later. That is why they went as deep as possible," he said. They obviously used iron crowbars to cut the rocks. The crowmarks on the sides of the pits could still be seen.

When the ASI started its digging at Adichanallur, it had two aims. First, to establish the date of the site and second, to locate the place where the people who used the burial site lived. Satyamurthy said: "Our main aim is to study the site, excavate it thoroughly and give a scientific date to it, using the carbon-14 dating method. We want to know the chronology or the sequence of the site and find out the nature of the culture that existed then. Another aim is to find out whether there was a habitational site nearby."

The question that haunts the archaeologists who have excavated the cairn (stone)-burial sites or urn-burial sites of the megalithic period in the South is: Where were the living quarters of the people who were buried at Amirthamangalam near Ponneri, or Perumbair near Chengalpattu?

The second phase of excavation, which began in February 2005, is currently under way on the north and northwestern slopes of the urn-burial site. If the aim of this excavation was to locate the habitational site of the people whose bodies were buried a few hundred metres away, it has succeeded in that objective. Among those taking part in this excavation are Nambi Rajan, Aravazhi, Arun Malik, A. Anil Kumar and C.R. Gayathri, all ASI archaeologists. Six trenches have been dug so far.

The excavation has brought to light the town's fortification/rampart wall, which was made of mud with stone veneering in parts. Three potters' kilns with ash, charcoal and broken pots were found, confirming, according to Satyamurthy, that this was a habitational site. "It looks like a crowded town which was busy. On the one side is the burial site. Within 500 metres you have the kilns, which means life was active. It may have been an urban centre," he said.

Nambi Rajan said the trenches revealed a man-made floor paved with lime plaster. There were holes on the floor to hold posts. . A few individual letters in Tamil-Brahmi script have been found on potsherds. Plenty of potsherds with graffiti, especially the ladder symbol, have been unearthed. Artefacts unearthed include carnelian beads, terracotta beads and so on.

Some specialists are of the opinion that Adichanallur must have been a busy mining and industrial centre. The making of bronze figurines, iron implements such as swords, daggers and arrow-heads and big urns showed that it was a busy industrial township, they say.

M.D. Sampath, retired Director, Epigraphy, ASI, Mysore, said: " The excavated objects at Adichanallur are valuable in the sense that a study of the finds will reveal a new vista to know the growth and culture of Tamil society, and how this society achieved literacy."

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