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Pre-historic cemetery discovered in Kerala

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A ‘wood-henge’-like ritual monument, discovered at Anakkara, near Kuttippuram in Malappuram district.
A ‘wood-henge’-like ritual monument, discovered at Anakkara, near Kuttippuram in Malappuram district.

C. Gouridasan Nair

The necropolis could be around 2,500 years old

The first time in India that postholes have been found in the context of megalithic necropolis

Experts believe it is a promising site to study the Early Iron Age culture in Bharathapuza basin

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Archaeologists have discovered a pre-historic necropolis (cemetery) with megalithic cairn circles dating back 2,500 years, many ‘postholes’ that probably point to the ancient practice of ‘excarnation,’ a ‘wood-henge’-like ritual monument and a site of primitive astronomical intelligence at Anakkara, near Kuttippuram in Malappuram district.

Excavations at the site, a laterite plateau atop one of several primary hills overlooking the Ponnani river at Valayangad in Anakkara grama panchayat, have revealed three chamber tombs containing burnished black and red ware, black bowls and some iron objects commonly seen among megalithic grave goods. Archaic features of the burial type and the conspicuous absence of non-local artefacts among the interred objects suggest that the find is around 2,500 years old. Valayangad literally means the burial place with cairn (stone) circles, derived from the ancient necropolis of cairns.

Megalithic quarry

It is an extensive lateritic table-rock along the hill-top now truncated by a tarred road with boulder-outcrops on either side and many urn burials, umbrella stones and cairn circles in and around the red soil undulation.

The central part of the site has a one metre thick soil-deposit used for agriculture in recent times, which suggests systematic removal of all possible archaeological traces. On the table-rock surface there are three huge cairn circles at the western end and many postholes in the north-eastern and south-eastern corners. The site, archaeologists say, was evidently a megalithic quarry too as testified by axe-marks and half-cut residues on the rock all along the western side of the cairns.

“Megalithic cairns are not new to South Indian archaeology. But the occurrence of multiple rock-cut chambers inside and discovery of postholes in close proximity are extremely significant. This is the first time in India that postholes have been discovered in the context of megalithic necropolis and these are, perhaps, pointers to pre-burial excarnation procedures as well as to relics of an archaic observatory and primitive astronomy,” says Rajan Gurukkal, historian and Vice-Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. Dr. Gurukkal is the director of the excavation project which is being undertaken by a team led by well-known archaeologists V. Selva Kumar (Tamil University) and K. P. Shajan Paul (London) under licence from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The same team had done excavations at Pattanam, north of Kochi, that revealed Indo-Roman links through Malabar from early historic times.

Trade contacts

According to Dr. Paul, Anakkara is a promising site to study the Early Iron Age culture in the Bharathapuza basin and its implications for the development of later trade routes and contacts through the Palakkad Gap. “We have discovered steatite beads in the third chamber, not reported anywhere in Kerala, probably from Karnataka, and carnelian beads probably from Gujarat (Lower Narmada area). We could also trace some broken pieces of an unidentified copper object. These artefacts could be indicative of the earliest trade contacts in the region.”

Located in the east of the table-rock is a slightly larger posthole flanked by a few smaller ones, indicating probably the entrance area. A road separates this part from the rest of the plateau stretching towards the west where at the north-eastern corner exists a neatly cut circular alignment of small postholes, with a channel-like incision around the northern half.

“It is suggestive of a round hut of axial orientation typical of Iron Age. Nevertheless, that possibility is precluded by the fact that the site was a necropolis,” Prof. Gurukkal told The Hindu.

In the south-west, there are many postholes, some of which make clear circles. The nature of the holes suggests that posts must have been packed in by lateritic rubbles. Now remarkably clean after being exposed to heavy rainfall during monsoons for over two millennia, the rock surface rules out any chance of in situ finds of hole-fills containing rotted wood. Holes were presumably made from time to time as fresh additions and modifications.

The pattern of distribution of postholes, Dr. Gurukkal says, suggests that they could be of posts of mortuary platforms erected for exposing cadavers to vultures or other agents that accentuate the natural degradation of the corpse in the open air, but secure from animals.

“This was a worldwide pre-historic practice for separating bones for secondary burial that megaliths represent,” Dr. Gurukkal said.

“Similar posthole finds at certain necropolis sites of Anatolia, Syria, Greece, London and so on have been reported in connection with the Neolithic as well as Bronze Age cultures of secondary burial practices. Nevertheless, our trials of erecting posts in their holes, using insights of experimental archaeology, have turned out to be quite interesting and revealing because the posthole alignment looks exactly like the Woodhenge in England. The holes of uneven sizes, big and small interspersed, in a strikingly wide open site ideal for star-watching probably indicate patterns of heavenly bodies and are suggestive of primitive astronomical intelligence.”

The excavation of the cairn circle and archaeological experimentation with postholes are attracting scholars from the neighbouring States. K. Rajan (Head, Department of Archaeology, Pondicherry University), P. Rajendran (Vice Chancellor of Tamil University, Thanjavur), Athiyaman and Selvakumar (Archaeology Department, Tamil University), P.J. Cherian (Director, KCHR), Hemendran (Director, State Department of Archaeology) are among those who have already visited the site.


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