Carbon dating finds Asurgarh is Odisha’s oldest fortified settlement

The Asurgarh era spanned over three cultural phases from ninth century BC to second-third century AD

Published - April 24, 2022 08:07 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR:

Asuragarh fort excavation site is seen at Kalahandi district of Odisha.

Asuragarh fort excavation site is seen at Kalahandi district of Odisha. | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

The Asurgarh fortified settlement, which was excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Odisha’s Kalahandi district, has been ascertained to be the oldest among the major fortified settlements in the State. It dates back to the ninth century BC.

To determine the age of the ancient settlement, archaeologists deployed the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon technique, which established the Asurgarh era as spanning over three cultural phases from ninth century BC to second-third century AD.

The Asurgarh era has been compared with early historic sites in Odisha such as Sisupalgarh (near Bhubaneswar); Jaugarh, a fortified settlement on the Rushikulya valley (Ganjam); Manamunda (Boudh); Khalkattapatna (Puri); the port site of Manikpatna (Puri); Radhanagar (Jajpur); Kharligarh (Balangir) and Budhigarh (Kalahandi). Excavations were carried out by scholars to find parallels with early civilisations such as the Harappan Civilisation.

Modern carbon dating methods have not been used to determine age in any of the other excavation sites.

“We had applied the AMS radiocarbon technique on charcoal collected from the Asurgarh site. The landscape of Asurgarh attracted iron using people to begin their settlement around eighth-ninth century BC. The excavation revealed three periods of human occupation without any hiatus,” Dibishada Brajasundar Garnayak, archaeologist who is posted at the ASI, Meerut Circle, said.

Mr. Garnayak studied Asurgarh during his previous stint with the ASI, Bhubaneswar. He said the cultural sequence of the site could be divided into three phases — the Iron Age (ninth century BC to fourth century BC), early Historic or Rampart phase (second century BC to first century AD), and the Late Period/Decline of the settlement (second century AD to third-fourth century AD).

The analysis of artifacts and materials suggest that local inhabitants might have started to carve out a rural settlement in the landscape around ninth century BC. Subsequently, the settlement might have expanded along with development of iron metallurgy between fourth century BC to second century AD. This era was contemporary to the Mauryan period. During second century AD to third-fourth century AD, the fortified settlement is believed to have lost steam. “It might have declined due to the territorial expansion of a neighbouring State like the Satavahana and early Gupta dynasties, or due to ecological changes,” Mr. Garnayak said.

According to Mr. Garnayak, a total number of 417 antiquities have been retrieved from the site. Beads of coral, lapis lazuli, carnelian, glass, jasper, garnet, shell, agate, milky quartz, terracotta, kaolin, and soft stone, and circular discs made out of potsherds and stone, form the richest collection among the antiquities.

Apart from charcoal samples being tested by the AMS radiocarbon technique, there were relative dated objects such as a silver punch-marked coin of imperial variety, and bricks and terracotta roof tiles found at the site.

The excavation at Asurgarh was first conducted by N.K. Sahu on behalf of the Post Graduate Department of History, Sambalpur University, in March 1973. The site was selected for archaeological spadework in 2018-19 to shed light on the settlement pattern and to compare its relationship with the major fortified settlements in Odisha as well as the rest of India.

“The fortified settlement was built in such a way that water came from a distance of more than five kilometres to enter the reservoir (Udaya Sagar) located in the eastern side of the fort, which covers an area of 80.9374 hectares. The strategic layout of the outer fortification wall shows the efficiency of the water management system during the early historic period. Asurgarh is the only site in Odisha which shows such highly skilled engineering of water management in comparison to contemporary sites,” Mr. Garnayak elaborated.

The findings have generated huge interest among researchers. “After scientific estimation of the age of Asurgarh, researchers and academicians should take up further study to shed lights on social hierarchy that existed in the fortified settlement,” Lokesh Kumar Durga, a research scholar at the University of Delhi, said.

“Asurgarh must have been inhabited by different professional groups such as potter, goldsmith, agriculturist and traders. It means there could have been a social hierarchy in the settlement,” said Mr. Durga.

He said it’s fascinating to study how a rural settlement transformed into an urban settlement and subsequently became a trade centre in the hinterland.

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