Tamil Nadu

Keezhadi dig to continue

Print edition : March 17, 2017

An aerial view of the excavation. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

ON February 20, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) granted permission in writing to its Superintending Archaeologist, K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, of the Excavation Branch-VI in Bengaluru to continue the excavation at Keezhadi, about 13 kilometres from Madurai in Tamil Nadu, where previous excavations yielded artefacts and other evidence that point to it being a Tamil Sangam age site. The letter was from Jitendra Nath, Director (Exploration and Excavation), ASI, New Delhi, conveying the permission of Rakesh Tewari, ASI Director General, for the third season of excavation up to September 30. Ramakrishna is confident of resuming the excavation by March 15 after signing an agreement with the landowners to dig quadrants on their land.

In November 2016, the ASI top brass told Ramakrishna that the licence for the third season was conditional on receiving a report from him on the excavation so far. Tewari told Frontline on November 25, 2016: “The licence for the third year will be given after the completion of the documentation of the excavation and the artefacts [found at Keezhadi] during the first two years. Otherwise, the report never comes” (‘More excavation only after report’, Frontline, January 20, 2017).

When this reporter contacted Tewari on January 8, the ASI Director General said Ramakrishna had submitted only “brief” and “sketchy” reports about the first two years. Permission would be given to him after he wrote “a detailed report”, the Director-General said. Ramakrishna later said he had submitted a detailed interim report on February 9 to the Director-General on the excavation.

Two seasons of excavation in 2015 and 2016 revealed massive brick structures, ring wells, drainage systems and furnaces dating to the second century BCE of the Tamil Sangam age. The excavation yielded 5,600 artefacts such as potsherds with Tamil Brahmi script, ivory ear-lobes, ivory dice, bi-conical gold beads, rouletted ware, russet-coated ware, white-coated black ware, beads made of semi-precious stones, big copper beads and terracotta figurines. In the lower depths were found iron implements such as axes, daggers, knives, forceps and black and red ware of the Iron Age.

Ramakrishna was sure that Keezhadi was “definitely a Tamil Sangam site” which was an “urban centre” and “a habitational site.” He added, “The discovery of iron implements proved at once that Keezhadi was an Iron Age settlement which evolved and continued into the Historic period. So this site is definitely a crucial site for Tamil Nadu to determine its cultural sequence.”

In September 2016, a controversy erupted over the decision to take the artefacts for further study to Bengaluru where the Excavation Branch-VI is situated. Kanimozhi Mathi, an advocate, filed a public interest petition in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court against the move and also pleaded that the trenches should not be closed. On November 24, 2016, Justices S. Nagamuthu and M.V. Muralidaran of the Madurai Bench permitted ASI to shift the artefacts to its chemistry branch headquarters in Dehradun or any other laboratory in the country. The judges allowed ASI to close the trenches because the land had to be returned to its owners.

Archaeologists, academics, students and others were chagrined when Frontline reported that Ramakrishna would not receive permission for the third season until he wrote a detailed report on the first two seasons. The ASI top brass was also worried because the issue had become sub judice. Leaders of political parties took up the issue with Union Minister of State for Tourism and Culture Mahesh Sharma. Informed sources said Sharma played an important role in the grant of permission. However, the letter from Jitendra Nath said: “The annual interim report of the work done comprising relevant section drawings, stratigraphy, and important findings, with illustrations should be submitted immediately after the completion of the work to this office....” All antiquities unearthed at the site should be documented in the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA) 3D format, available at the website of NMMA, the letter said.

It insisted that the “excavation report after the conclusion of the excavation, as per the Wheeler Committee report, 1965, comprising the facts of the excavation, the plan of the site, its stratigraphy, the relationship of buildings and objects to the culture or cultures, a brief definition of these cultures in the light of the present knowledge and a precise account of the work done should also be submitted within six months....”

Meanwhile, the Accelerated Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating of two excavated charcoal samples from Keezhadi sent to Beta Analytic, Miami, Florida, USA, revealed that they belonged to circa 200 BCE. “This is a perfect date which corresponds with the Tamil Sangam age,” Ramakrishna said.

T.S. Subramanian

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