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Pattanam richest Indo-Roman site on Indian Ocean rim

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Brick structure assumed to be of the early historic period (2nd century BC-4th century AD).
Brick structure assumed to be of the early historic period (2nd century BC-4th century AD).

C. Gouridasan Nair

Most Roman amphora sherds are found there

West Asian contacts predates the Roman contacts

Life on the site was facilitated by artisan groups

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The three-year archaeological excavations undertaken by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) at Pattanam, north of Kochi, begun in 2007, have yielded the richest haul of Roman amphora sherds ever found from an Indo-Roman site on the Indian Ocean rim.

KCHR Director P.J. Cherian has said the third season (2009) excavations added weight to the assumption that Pattanam might be the oldest port site with extensive evidence of Roman contacts on the Indian Ocean rim. The peak of Roman contacts seemed to have been between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD.

The number of amphora sherds in the third season — around 500 — is more than that found in the last season though the area excavated was much lesser.

The initial inference from the field is that the majority comprises the Campanian type of south Italian origin with volcanic elements. Greek sources such as Kos and Rhodes and Egyptian and Mesopotamian amphora sherds have also been found. Pattanam has yielded more Roman amphora sherds (over 1,000) than any other site on the Indian Ocean rim, Dr. Cherian said in a press note here.

West Asian contacts

Another important inference of this season’s work is that the West Asian contacts predate the Roman contacts on the site. In all the three trenches excavated this year, glazed pottery (TGP) of Mesopotamian origin and rouletted pottery have been found in the Iron-Age-early historic transition layers. Amphora sherds are conspicuous by their absence. This means the site could have been commercially active before the arrival of the Romans, before the 2nd century BC. However, the site’s ‘floruit’ (peak period) seems to have been between the 2nd century BC and the 4th century AD.

The evidence further points to the possibility that the site had the benefit of the services of a large number of artisans and technicians, though not necessarily residing there.

The plethora of artefacts and structures indicates that this site could not have been provisioned without a skilled workforce of blacksmiths (large quantity of iron objects such as nails and tools), coppersmiths (copper objects), goldsmiths (ornaments), potters (huge quantity of domestic vessels, lamps, oven and other terracotta objects), brickmakers, bricklayers, roofers (large quantity of bricks and triple grooved roof-tiles), stone beadmakers, lapidaries (as indicated by a variety of semi-precious stone beads, cameo blanks and stone debitage), weavers (signified spindle whorls and jerry) and stonecutters/polishers.

Soil loci of blackish and grey hues indicate some type of kiln activity. Chemical analyses of the soil samples are necessary to confirm the nature of industrial activity, Dr. Cherian said.

Architectural features

The excavations during the last two years yielded architectural features, a wharf structure, a canoe, bollards, copper, gold and iron objects, semi-precious stone and glass beads, early Chera coins and late medieval Chinese sherds and a variety of eco-facts, including pepper, cardamom and rice. The site seems to have been first occupied by an indigenous population around 1,000 BC and continued to be active till the 10th century AD.

The AMS 14C (a carbon-dating method using accelerator mass spectrometry) analysis of the charcoal and wood samples from the Iron Age layer and wharf contexts have determined their antiquity as first millennium BC. The British Academy (BASAS) recently accorded recognition for the formation of an international research group based on Pattanam.

The third season excavations began on March 3 and will continue till the first week of May. This time also, the trenches produced structural remains and huge quantities of reused bricks and broken roof tiles. The intact bricks measured 40x20x7 cm. Local pottery sherds numbering over four lakh imply the density of habitation on the site, Dr. Cherian said.


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