The excavations undertaken at Pattanam by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) have yielded the largest assemblage of Roman amphorae (transport containers of wine, oil and fish sauce) in the country, the most significant of these being amphorae of Catalan lineage.

As many as 1,100 fragments have been uncovered at Pattanam, 25 kms north of Kochi, where excavations have been on for three seasons from 2007 in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The largest group of Roman amphorae was previously found at Arikamedu, located on the Coromandel Coast.

The amphorae found at Pattanam are mainly from the period between 1st century BC and 1st century AD, with a smaller quantity continuing into the 2nd century AD and rare shreds of 5th century or later date. The excavations have also yielded a canoe and bollard (spike used to tie the canoe).

Carbon dating done at the University of Georgia in the United States has put the calibrated age distribution of the canoe and bollards as falling between 36 BC and 24 AD.

“Each season of excavations at Pattanam have been yielding new Roman amphorae, increasing the range of types and places where they were made and demonstrating the richness of this very important site. It is only through Pattanam that we are able to place the role of Kerala in the extensive trade network between India and the Mediterranean world. Most significantly, this is the first time Catalan amphorae have been found anywhere in India. These may have been collected and taken down the Nile to the Red Sea by merchants of Alexandria and later on brought to India,” said Roberta Tomber, an expert on Roman pottery from the British Museum in London, and P. J. Cherian, the director of the KCHR, here on Monday.

Most of the amphorae found at Pattanam and elsewhere in the country, they said, were used to bring wine. Catalan (the region around Barcelona in Spain) amphorae have a distinctive collared rim, grooved handle and solid base. “In 2009, we found the handle and some fragments of the body. Hopefully in 2010, we will find more as the jars were usually dispersed before they were buried on the site.

Another type of Spanish amphorae found at Pattanam is a jar for fish sauce, which must have been very popular among the Roman traders. In this case, too, we have only the handle from the 2009 excavations. The container has distinctive, long flat handles (ours is double-grooved), a hollow base and an out-turned rim. It was made along the southern coast of Spain, particularly in the region of Cadiz. Both belong to the period (1st century BC to 1st century AD) when Pattanam was commercially very active, they said.