In December 1884, Robert Bruce Foote, a British geologist and archaeologist, began collecting specimens at Kupgal or Peacock Hill, a few kilometres outside Bellary (now Ballari) as part of his work at the Geological Survey of India (GSI). In his notes published later by Madras Government Museum, Foote was to write that this hill “proved to be the most important Neolithic settlement in the country and was the most prolific in implements of all kinds and in all stages of manufacture, as it was the size of the largest neolithic manufacturing industry as yet met with in any part of India.” Included in his detailed catalogue of specimens were celts (a prehistoric stone or metal implement), adzes, hammers, hammer-axes, scrapers, choppers, chisels, basalt flakes, scrapers, corn crushers, mealing stones (a stone used for processing grains and seeds), and a variety of pottery items.
Foote travelled across south India on horseback for more than 40 years collecting antiquities that cast light on the prehistory of the region. By the time he began to pay close attention to Kupgal, he was already a pioneer on the prehistory of the subcontinent and his discovery of a hand axe dating to the Palaeolithic or early Stone age in Pallavaram (now part of Chennai) in 1863 revolutionised the study of archaeology in India.
Almost 140 years after Foote identified Kupgal or Sanganakallu, as it is now called, the Neolithic site spread over 1,000 acres continues to remain a fascinating archaeological site. When this writer ascended Kupgal, the ascent was made via a dyke of dolerite boulders and petroglyphs made by bruising rather than the use of pigments. There were horned humpback bulls, a crane-like bird, and even visages of ithyphallic humans, sexual scenes, and dancing figures. Among the remarkable ones was an entire human being to scale on the precipice of a boulder.
Foote’s legacy, fortified by his work in Rayalaseema and the finds from Sanganakallu itself, have now been immortalised by a museum known as the Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum (RBFSAM) in Ballari. Inaugurated in February 2020, the two-storey structure is the brainchild of archaeologist Ravi Korisettar, who led excavations at Sanganakallu for many years.
The ground floor narrates the story of human evolution and contains sections on the African roots of humankind, the subcontinent’s prehistory, the prehistory of Kalyana Karnataka (seven districts of northeast Karnataka), and the geological resources exploited by the Neolithic communities of the Rayalaseema region. Primitive stone tools used by these early communities are displayed. The highlight of the ground floor display are 14 replicas of our hominid ancestors gifted to the museum which includes the reconstructed skull of ‘Lucy’, the earliest known progenitor of mankind dating back roughly 3.2 million years ago.
The first floor, named after B. Subbarao, the first excavator at Sanganakallu, displays infographics and artefacts from the site, with information panels reconstructing the Neolithic and Iron age periods between 2200 and 700 BCE. A prized display is the reconstructed sarcophagus burial pot, described by Korisettar as a “multi-legged boat-shaped burial urn” marking the rise of a complex society. It was discovered near the Kudatini ashmound (mounds of deliberately accumulated cattle dung, the earliest monuments built by our Neolithic ancestors) about 20 km from Ballari. This discovery is important because this was the time period, Korisettar said, when “southern India saw the emergence of irrigated agriculture, large-scale production of material goods for trade and exchange among a network of early Iron Age settlements, marking the beginning of urbanisation as early as 1400 BCE”.
According to Korisettar there are two broad categories of Neolithic sites in the region: Neolithic village settlements and ashmounds, with Sanganakallu the largest Neolithic to Iron Age settlement, the period from 3000 BCE to around 100 CE. Later excavations at Sanganakallu and other sites in the region have also provided evidence of the diets of the people in these neolithic settlements. For instance, Korisettar has written that horse gram occurs in the earliest samples, at the lowest levels at Sanganakallu.
During his work, Korisettar was shocked to see large-scale granite quarrying at the site. This destruction of a natural environment that had the potential to shed light on our early ancestors prompted him to think of ways to save the site for future generations. With this intention, Korisettar and his team began to document the archaeological landscape while also approaching the authorities to stop the quarrying. The public outreach programme led to some positive developments. An underutilised building was identified for the museum with budgetary support from successive district heads of Ballari who have supported Korisettar’s vision. They also ensured that funds were raised as part of the corporate social responsibility initiatives of companies such as Jindal Steel Works, National Mineral Development Corporation, and Minera Steel. Ballari residents Santosh Martin and Ahiraj Mattihalli also helped Korisettar realise his dream.
Mattihalli, former journalist with The Hindu, said, “Prof. Korisettar was concerned that a substantial amount of Neolithic-era evidence at Sanganakallu was being destroyed by large-scale quarrying. He realised that the site should be protected. In the 2021-22 budget, Rs. 5 crore has been allocated for the museum and the site by the Department of Tourism.”
The specimens in the museum have been painstakingly collected by Korisettar over the decades. Korisettar said, “Museums are better than textbooks. My only aim is that the common man should learn about the past in as simple language as possible. I am also keen that students, teachers, and educated commoners visit the museum.” To this end he has begun collaborations with educational institutes in the region.
- In December 1884, Robert Bruce Foote, a British geologist, began collecting specimens at Kupgal, a few kilometres outside Bellary as part of his work at the Geological Survey of India.
- Foote travelled across south India on horseback for more than 40 years collecting antiquities that cast light on the prehistory of the region.
- Almost 140 years after Foote identified Sanganakallu, as it is now called, the Neolithic site spread over 1,000 acres continues to remain a fascinating archaeological site.
- Foote’s legacy, fortified by his work in Rayalaseema and the finds from Sanganakallu itself, have now been immortalised by a museum in Ballari.
- The specimens in the museum have been painstakingly collected by archaeologist Ravi Korisettar over the decades.