Public participation provides fillip to Kerala’s antiquities research

Roman coins— more than 2,000 years old — found in Kottayam district, come up for documentation and study

June 17, 2014 10:47 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 03:08 pm IST - Chennai

The Roman silver coin identified as Denarius of Augustus.

The Roman silver coin identified as Denarius of Augustus.

A commendable initiative in Kerala to bring treasures and antiquities, which are isolated and hidden in private collections, for public viewing and research has yielded impressive results. Recently, a heritage enthusiast turned in two silver Roman coins — more than 2,000 years old — for documentation and study.

So far, this initiative has helped obtain many precious artefacts such as palm leaves containing valuable text on Ayurveda, a few Chola coins and more than 1,200 Chinese coins dating from 1st century CE to 15th century CE. Such voluntary sharing of information is viewed as a significant accomplishment, and experts say such initiatives would go a long way in unravelling and protecting the precious past of the State.

Sharing of information

The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) started this public participatory project a few years ago to encourage people to share treasures in their possession without fear or hesitation. It assured those who owned antiquities that the institute would return the objects after documenting and studying them.

Dr. P. J. Cherian, Director, KCHR, told The Hindu, “People who possess antiquities must not feel threatened by rules of acquisition and penalty. Such moves would defeat the very purpose of the rules. The KCHR wants people to share the details of antique objects freely. No artefact of archaeological value should be hoarded. It is the prime obligation of an enlightened society to ensure they are in the public domain.” He also added that if the state or any institution desired to retain privately-owned antiquities in their museums, there should be provision for compensation.

One of their best finds so far has been the two Roman coins discovered in Kottayam district and datable to 1st century BCE. KCHR researchers carefully photographed the coins and sent them for a professional assessment to an expert in the University of Rome.

A careful study has revealed that these two coins are original — each weighs 3.7 gm and is about 2 cm in diameter; contains a laureate head on one side and legend and figures on the other. One is a Denarius (small-minted silver coin) of Augustus, and the other is a Denarius of Tiberius. This find assumes significance in the light of growing interest in the ancient trade links with Kerala and excavations at Pattanam, a village near Kochi, identified as a trading settlement with Roman trade connections.

The urgency for such a people-friendly project was felt a year ago. A person from North Paravoor mining the Periyar bed for shell deposit at Chendamangalam found a small vase-like object. Upon cleaning it, to his surprise, he discovered that it was an ancient gold vase with a long neck and weighing seven sovereigns. He took it to a jeweller, melted it and made a gold chain for his wife. Worse, he did not even photograph it.

“This incident and many others like this clearly inform us the importance of creating awareness about the need to document and preserve valuable records,” Dr. Cherian emphasised.

Countries such as the U.K. have been successfully pursuing innovative schemes to record archaeological objects found by the public for some time now.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme launched in 1997 and managed by the British Museum, partner with people to promote interest in heritage and document artefacts discovered by them. This scheme so far has helped record 900,000 archaeological finds.

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