Science validates history at Pattanam, located 25 km north of Kochi and identified as Muziris, lost port town frequented by Roman traders. Nuclear physicists have confirmed what archaeologists had proposed: the 3,000 year timeline of this village and its trade connections with Rome. Doubts, if any, about the antiquity of Pattanam appear settled.
Molecular biologists too are at work in Pattanam. Their DNA analysis of excavated human remains would answer questions about the origins of Pattanam inhabitants. Did Dravidians, Europeans and Africans live in this village near the Kerala coast?
Archaeologists of the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), over the last seven years, had unearthed thousands of artefacts in Pattanam.
Based on a careful analysis of the material evidence and a close study of the stratigraphy (layers of deposits), experts had suggested that Pattanam was inhabited from Iron Age (10th Century BCE to 5th century BCE) and Roman trade peaked between 1st century BCE and 4th century CE.
However, the KCHR did not undertake a comprehensive carbon dating of the objects so far. This had raised questions about the accuracy of proposed chronology. Suggestions about the multicultural setting of the lost city also needed supportive evidence.
Last year, the KCHR decided to corroborate their findings. They sought the help of G.V. Ravi Prasad of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS), University of Georgia, U.S. The CAIS, using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, analysed 13 organic samples that included bone fragments, charcoal bits and frankincense taken from different layers of two trenches.
The results validated Pattanam’s timeline and its links with Romans.
A sample of frankincense, probably brought from Saudi Arabia and found at 4.2 metre depth, is among the oldest objects. This, as carbon analysis reveals, is datable to 356 to 196 BCE and predates the Roman phase.
A piece of charcoal, found along with carnelian stone beads, gold filament and amphora shreds, at 3 metre depth is dated to 111 to 40 BCE when trade with Roman empire was active in Pattanam.
The only note of discordance between carbon and archaeological dating is regarding the layers containing bone fragments. The carbon analysis has found the bone fragments older than what archaeologists think.
Dr. Prasad, in a brief note provided by the KCHR, explained that this difference, which is about 300 years, could be due to the nature of the sample material.
“The carbon isotopic composition of a bone can be different after burning due to exchange with the fuel used for burning,” he said.
Study on skeletal remains
Niraj Rai, molecular biologist with the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, is studying the skeletal remains excavated in Pattanam.
“The morphological features of the remains suggest that they are of human origin,” he said. The samples, about 13 of them, would be tested at the advanced DNA laboratory dealing with ancient human skeletal materials in the CCMB.
“DNA would be extracted from the samples and the mitochondrial DNA would be sequenced and matched with both published and unpublished DNA data base of modern human beings throughout the world,” Mr. Rai said.
“Depending on the mitochondrial sequences and their match, we can ascertain whether the human remains are that of Romans or Dravidians or Africans.” The results of this analysis would be known in a couple of weeks.
P.J. Cherian, Director, Pattanam Excavations, said “this exercise, which corroborates the chronological assumptions derived from the excavation data, reiterates the importance of archaeo-science and need to invest more in this field. We expect the Archaeological Survey of India and Oxford University to directly participate in the excavations in future.’