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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

UNEARTHING HISTORY: Ancient brick structure found at the ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi. Photo: R. Ashok

UNEARTHING HISTORY: Ancient brick structure found at the ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi. Photo: R. Ashok   | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

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In 2013-14, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) carried out explorations in 293 sites along the Vaigai river valley in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts. Keezhadi in Sivaganga district was chosen for excavation and artefacts unearthed by the ASI in the second phase of the excavation at Pallichanthai Thidal of Keezhadi pointed to an ancient civilisation that thrived on the banks of the Vaigai.

Carbon dating of charcoal found at the Keezhadi site in February 2017 established that the settlement there belonged to 200 BC. The excavations thus proved that urban civilisation had existed in Tamil Nadu since the Sangam age.

The Union Ministry of Culture has announced that the third phase of excavation will begin in this month and go on for three years and ₹40 lakh has been sanctioned.

Meanwhile, the transfer of K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavations Branch (Bangalore), ASI, who has been overseeing the excavation work in Keezhadi, at a crucial juncture kicked up a storm recently..

The delay in approval, which ought to have happened in October last, and the alleged reluctance of the Central government in continuing the excavation kicked up a controversy and evoked widespread condemnation by various political parties, writers and film personalities in Tamil Nadu.

Here we give you a peek into what this excavation means for Tamil Nadu and the details of what the excavation has yielded till now.

 

Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Keeladi: Unearthing the 'Vaigai Valley' Civilisation of Sangam era Tamil Nadu

The excavation site at Keeladi.

The excavation site at Keeladi.   | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Excavations in the tiny hamlet of Keeladi prove that an urban civilisation existed in Tamil Nadu in the Sangam era on the banks of the river Vaigai. What links did this civilisation have with the Indus Valley Civilisation? S. Annamalai reports on the findings and the questions and answers they have thrown up

In the last week of September 2019, Keerthi Jeyaraj, Director of EduRight Foundation, flew from Texas, the U.S., to Pallichandai Thidal, a nondescript mound at the far end of Keeladi, a tiny hamlet located 12 km southeast of the historic city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The next week, three Sri Lankan Tamils arrived at the same spot. It was their second visit to the excavation site. Also on his way by rail was Chennai-based documentary filmmaker Amshan Kumar. To accommodate these visitors and thousands more, a temporary parking lot was created in Keeladi. A stall selling snacks and coffee sprung up at what looked like a new picnic spot.

An astonishing 1.16 lakh people visited the site between September 20 and October 10. The visitors flocked to the hamlet in curiosity and fascination following the publication of a report by the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (SDA) on September 18. Earlier, carbon samples from Keeladi had been sent to the Beta Analytic Lab in Miami, Florida, for carbon dating, a widely accepted tool to ascertain the age of archaeological and historical remains. The Lab had found that the cultural deposits unearthed during the fourth excavation at Keeladi in Sivaganga district could be safely dated to a period between 6th century BCE and 1st century CE. These place Keeladi artefacts about 300 years earlier than previously believed.

 

Findings over the years

The Keeladi tale began to unravel in March 2015. The first round of excavation, undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), unearthed antiquities that “may provide crucial evidence to understanding the missing links of the Iron Age [12th century BCE to 6th century BCE] to the Early Historic Period [6th century BCE to 4th century BCE] and subsequent cultural developments.”

The second round (2016) threw up strong clues about the existence of a Tamil civilisation that had trade links with other regions in the country and abroad. This civilisation has been described by Tamil poets belonging to the Sangam period. (Tamil Sangam, an assembly of poets, had its seat in Madurai between 4th century BCE and 2nd century BCE. The works of this period are collectively called Sangam Literature). This round was significant as it provided archaeological evidence about what was found in Tamil literature. Results of carbon dating of a few artefacts, which were released in February 2017, traced their existence to 2nd century BCE (the Sangam period).

 

The third round (2017) saw a delayed start. First, the excavation report was submitted late. Then the Superintending Archaeologist, K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, was transferred, in a perceived attempt to play down the excavation findings. Keeladi almost faded from public memory as there was no “significant finding” in the third round. This led to criticism that the excavation had been deliberately restricted to 400 metres. On the intervention of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, ASI permitted the SDA to take up further excavation on its own. Thus, the excavations in the fourth round were carried out by the SDA.

In the fourth round (2018), 5,820 antiquities were found. These included brick structures, terracotta ring wells, fallen roofing with tiles, golden ornaments, broken parts of copper objects, iron implements, terracotta chess pieces, ear ornaments, spindle whorls, figurines, black and redware, rouletted ware and a few pieces of Arretine ware, besides beads made of glass, terracotta and semi-precious stones.

The excavation site at Keeladi.

The excavation site at Keeladi.   | Photo Credit: S. James

 

A sense of history

The recent dating is very significant, says K. Rajan, archaeologist at the Department of History, Pondicherry University. “Based on radiometric dates recovered from archaeological sites like Kodumanal, Alagankulam and Porunthal [all in Tamil Nadu], we know that Tamili [the Tamil-Brahmi script] was dated to 5th century BCE. But the recent scientific dates obtained from the Keeladi findings push back the date by another century,” he writes in the SDA publication, Keeladi: An Urban Settlement of Sangam Age on the Banks of River Vaigai.

 

Commenting on the Keeladi findings, Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University, observes in an e-mail note sent to Rajan on September 26 that the recent excavations conducted in the State, including in Kodumanal and Porunthal, which have been “strengthened by a large number of radiocarbon dates, have brought about a sea-change in our understanding of the archaeological developments in Tamil Nadu, taking our gaze from megalithic burials and the finds of Roman coins to megalithic habitation sites and their chronological developments.”

The fifth round (2018-19), which ended on October 13, was a game changer. The SDA plunged into “guided excavation” using the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Survey, the Magnetometer Survey and the Ground Penetrating Radar Survey. “We wanted to blend technology with traditional wisdom in Keeladi. The lessons learnt are significant and the results are good. We are positioning archaeology as a multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary area of knowledge,” says T. Udhayachandran, Principal Secretary, Department of Archaeology. Guided excavation has led to the discovery of a lot of structures this round. The report for this is being prepared.

Keeladi: Unearthing the 'Vaigai Valley' Civilisation of Sangam era Tamil Nadu
 

The Vaigai Valley Civilisation

The Keeladi findings have led academics to describe the site as part of the Vaigai Valley Civilisation. The findings have also invited comparisons with the Indus Valley Civilisation. A researcher of the Indus Valley Civilisation and retired civil servant, R. Balakrishnan, points to the similarities in urban planning between the Indus Valley and Keeladi. Rajan refers to the cultural gap of 1,000 years between the two places: “This cultural gap is generally filled with Iron Age material in south India. The graffiti marks encountered in Iron Age sites of south India serve as the only residual links between the Indus Valley Civilisation and south India.” Some of the symbols found in pot sherds of Keeladi bear a close resemblance to Indus Valley signs. Graffiti marks are found in earthenware, caves and rocks in or near the excavation sites of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Brahmi script, found engraved on the outer surface or the shoulder of black and red earthenware in Keeladi, carries personal names, say archaeologists. According to the SDA report, “One of the sherds carries the vowel ‘o’ at the beginning of the name which is rarely found in both cave and pottery inscriptions.”

Udhayachandran affirms that the qualification of Keeladi as an urban habitat cannot be questioned as it reflects all the characteristics of an urban civilisation, with brick structures, luxury items and proof of internal and external trade. An interesting feature of Keeladi is that it has not revealed any signs of religious worship in all the five rounds. Till now, it has been a tale of an industrious and advanced civilisation that celebrated life. The artefacts unearthed at Keeladi are evidence of this. Recent finds include seven gold ornaments, copper articles, gem beads, shell and ivory bangles, and brick structures that point to the existence of industrial units. Structures that could have been used to convey molten metal or filter liquid strongly point to the existence of people who were involved in industrial work.

The SDA report concludes that the “recent excavations and the dates arrived at scientifically clearly suggest that the people were living in Tamil Nadu continuously... and the Keeladi excavation [has] clearly ascertained that they attained literacy or learnt the art of writing [Tamil-Brahmi] in as early as 6th century BCE during [the] Early Historic Period.”

The excavation site at Keeladi.

The excavation site at Keeladi.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

 

A sophisticated urban settlement

For Balakrishnan, Keeladi is significant for many reasons. It has given evidence of urban life and settlements in Tamil Nadu during the Early Historic Period. It was around this time that evidence for a second urbanisation started appearing in the Gangetic Valley. Keeladi has added greatly to the credibility of Sangam Literature. At the same time, he cautions that we should not feel intimidated by the ‘spatial-temporal gaps’ of 1,300 years and 1,500 km between the Indus Valley Civilisation and Keeladi.

To substantiate this point, he recalls the observations made by K. N. Dikshit in 1939 when he was Director General of ASI: “Considering that the conch shell, typical of the Indus Valley civilisation, and which seems to have been in extensive use in Indus cities, was obtained from [the] south-east coast of the Madras Presidency, it would not be too much to hope that a thorough investigation of the area in Tinnevelly District and the neighbouring regions such as the ancient seaport of Korkai will one day lead to the discovery of some site which would be contemporary with or even little later than the Indus civilisation.” This is exactly what has happened in Keeladi. Twenty-three bangle pieces made of shell and glass were found in the fourth round. Another Director General of ASI, B.B. Lal, had suggested in 1960 a possible link between the undeciphered Indus signs and the graffiti marks on black and red ware pottery of Tamil Nadu.

“Technology helped to fine-comb the search for structures in this round. The most significant find is the continuous brick structure that runs over 340 metres,” says B. Asaithambi, excavation in-charge at Keeladi. Over 900 antiquities, including unique signature Carnelian beads, were unearthed during this round.

At the end of the third round of excavations, an ASI official is said to have told a team of High Court judges who visited Keeladi that the excavated artefacts did not give a clear indication of the nature of settlement as urban or industrial.

But artefacts from the fourth round proved that Keeladi was indeed an urban habitation. Seventy samples of animal skeletal fragments, which were tested by the Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, show 53% of them belonging to oxen, cows, buffaloes and goats. This indicates that the habitants were predominantly cattle-rearing people. Balakrishnan is excited about the presence of oxen and cows belonging to the Bos indicus species. The hump of the Bos indicus species is referred to as imil in Tamil literature, which later came to be known as timil. The grandeur of this species, which was also present in the Indus Valley, lies in its hump, points out Balakrishnan. Bos indicus is also the icon of the ancient sport eru thazhuvuthal or eru anaithal (embracing the bull), which was prevalent in villages around Keeladi. In this sport, now practised as jallikattu, the contestant is supposed to hold on to the hump of the bull inside the arena for a particular distance or period of time.

The State Department of Archaeology’s comparison of graffiti found in Keeladi with Indus Valley signs

The State Department of Archaeology’s comparison of graffiti found in Keeladi with Indus Valley signs  

 

Analysis of samples of materials used in the construction of walls, sent to the Vellore Institute of Technology, has shown that every specimen contained elements like silica, lime, iron, aluminium and magnesium. “The long survival of these materials is due to the quality of material deployed in construction activities,” says the SDA report. More significant are the letters engraved on pots that clearly demonstrate the “high literacy level of the contemporary society that survived in 6th century BCE.”

It is inferred from the spectroscopic analysis of black and red ware by the Earth Science Department of Pisa University, Italy, that “the potters of Keeladi were familiar with the technique [of using carbon material for black colour and hematite for red] and knew the art of raising the kiln temperature to 1100°C to produce the typical black-and-red ware pottery.” They had also followed the same technique and materials from 6th century BCE to 2nd century BCE. “A few pottery samples of 2nd century BCE do contain earth content similar to that of other regions, thereby suggesting that they exchanged goods with neighbouring regions, probably through traders, craftsmen and visitors,” says the SDA report. The antiquities, taken together, suggest that the prime occupation of the people of Keeladi was agriculture, which was supplemented by the iron industry, carpentry, pottery-making and weaving.

Expanding sites

There is already a demand in the region to expand the excavation to more areas along the Vaigai so that there is archaeological evidence to prove the glory of life along the river in the ancient Pandya kingdom. Noted epigraphist V. Vedachalam supports the idea of an extended excavation beginning in Madurai. More evidence could be unearthed to re-establish the antiquity of Madurai and its relationship with towns and villages along the Vaigai. Su. Venkatesan, winner of the Sahitya Akademi award for his book on Madurai, Kaaval Kottam, and who represents Madurai in the Lok Sabha, wants the Union government to recognise Keeladi and its surrounding villages as a heritage cluster and declare Keeladi as a protected monument.

Udhayachandran says that the State government has already approached ASI to declare five villages — Keeladi, Agaram, Manalur, Konthagai (a burial site) and Pasiapuram — as the Keeladi cluster. The sixth round of excavation is expected to commence in mid-January. The State government has also decided to continue excavation in other sites and scientifically prove the link among places such as Adichanallur, Alagankulam and Mangulam.

Importance of carbon dating

Is carbon dating enough to establish Keeladi as the centre of the ‘Vaigai Valley Civilisation’ or connect it to the Indus Valley Civilisation? Researchers caution that unverified claims or positions may derail the effort at revisiting history. Udhayachandran says, “We have placed the available archaeological evidence before the intellectual community to ponder, discuss and arrive at a conclusion by comparing them with literary references.” He says more guidance and collaboration is required to come to conclusions on Keeladi. “It looks like we are sitting on a major city. We need corroborative evidence. We want to bring in more experts. People have a fundamental right to own history. That is why we have maintained transparency in the Keeladi excavations,” he says.

Recalling the late epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan’s observations about the continuity of Indus legacies in old Tamil traditions, Balakrishnan says that the unassailable identical place name clusters suggest that the Indus civilisation and the recalled “flashback memories” of Sangam Tamil texts are closely interlocked. However, more excavations have to be carried out in the Vaigai and Tamirabarani regions to conclusively figure out how close the the Vaigai civilisation was to the Indus Valley in “temporal terms”. More excavations in the region are required, he says, along with timely submission of reports.

 

Many institutions of higher learning have come forward to collaborate with the SDA in the scientific analysis of Keeladi’s artefacts. Madurai Kamaraj University is in the process of finalising its plans to conduct a DNA analysis of bones. R.M. Pitchappan, renowned scientist who has worked as Regional Director for National Geographic Corporation’s Genographic Project, which traced the origin and migration of man, will be the mentor for the project. Madurai Kamaraj University, according to him, is now looking at the feasibility of setting up an ancient DNA laboratory in Madurai itself. “Human genomic data of thousands of people are available and scientists from institutions like the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, have past experience in analysis of this data. They can be roped in for interpretation. Technology for DNA sequencing is also available in the country. By comparing ancient DNA with the available samples, one can deconstruct the migrational story of Tamil Nadu in the pre-Sangam period,” says Pitchappan.

The Keeladi excavations have triggered a healthy debate on Indian civilisation and added value to the discipline of archaeology. “Till now, we have been deploying orthodox methods of excavation tempered with our intuition but now technology has given us more strength by proving that our intuitions are right,” says Asaithambi, who has earlier worked in Alagankulam excavation. Keeladi could well be a priceless piece in a massive geographic jigsaw puzzle.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Fifth phase of excavation reveals discoveries unique to Keeladi

(Top) Two layers of terracotta pipelines found during 5th phase of excavation done at Keeladi by Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology.

(Top) Two layers of terracotta pipelines found during 5th phase of excavation done at Keeladi by Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology.   | Photo Credit: ma23terracotta pipelines_Keeladi

Two different terracotta pipes found horizontally decked one above the other

The recently-concluded fifth phase of archaeological excavation at Keeladi has unearthed a new find of terracotta pipes which are unique among all terracotta pipes found at other excavation sites in Tamil Nadu.

Among the new findings are two different terracotta pipes found horizontally decked one above the other.

According to Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology, that has taken up the 4th and 5th phase of excavations, the two pipelines could have been for different utilities.

During the course of 5th excavation in a particular trench (YD 6/3), the workers found some terracotta structure with a few projections of rim portion at a regular gap of 6 cm. This structure was found at a depth of 0.47 metres. Careful digging at this north eastern corner of the quadrant resulted in unearthing of roofing tiles arranged vertically at a depth of 0.52 metres.

Further, it revealed that the terracotta structure was a series of 10 terracotta pipes that were firmly fitted one into other to form a pipeline.

“This indicates that the pipeline could have been used for carrying protected water,” Director of Keeladi Excavation, R. Sivanandam told The Hindu on Tuesday. The rims of the pipes gave a spiral shape to the pipeline. Besides, it had holes on its top and sides.

A perforated lid of a terracotta pipeline that could have been used as a filtering device, found during 5th phase of excavation at Keeladi.

A perforated lid of a terracotta pipeline that could have been used as a filtering device, found during 5th phase of excavation at Keeladi.   | Photo Credit: ma23Keeladi

 

Just below this pipeline another row of different shaped terracotta pipeline consisting of three lengthy barrel-shaped terracotta tubes were traced. “This one was distinctly different in its shape and dimension from the upper row of pipeline suggesting that it (barrel shaped pipeline) had a different utility,” he added.

The officials were also delighted to find a major portion of a perforated lid which was in the shape of a dish. This lid that was fitted to the mouth of the barrel-shaped pipeline could have been used as a filtering device of water or some other liquid.

“Apart from this, it could also be surmised that the lid could have been used to prevent reptiles entering the premises through the pipes.” he added.

These terracotta pipelines were found closer to the spot where the Archaeological Survey of India had found some structural activity with bricks, tubs and water chute (open channel) during its second phase of excavation in 2016.

“It indicates that there was a link to both (structures) findings of different phases of excavation. We feel that the next phase of excavation in its proximity could reveal further extension of these structures,” an official said.

Different types of water channels, brick construction, evidence of trade relations with other domestic and foreign places, sign and letter usages only revealed that the civilization along the Vaigai river was much matured and had adopted advanced technologies.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Keezhadi excavation: MKU, Harvard University to collaborate in DNA study

Carbon dating of artefacts collected at Keeladi has revealed that urbanisation of Vaigai plains had happened in Tamil Nadu around the 6th century BCE.

Carbon dating of artefacts collected at Keeladi has revealed that urbanisation of Vaigai plains had happened in Tamil Nadu around the 6th century BCE.   | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Bones excavated from Keeladi, Konthagai and Adichanallur excavation sites to be studied

State Department of Archaeology will enter into a tripartite memorandum of understanding with Madurai Kamaraj University and Harvard Medical School to take up ancient DNA study of human bones excavated or to be excavated from Keeladi, Konthagai and Adichanallur sites in Tamil Nadu.

Principal Secretary/Commissioner of Department of Archaeology T. Udhyachandran said that a tripartite MoU would be signed among the Department of Archaeology, MKU and David Reich Laboratory of Harvard Medial School to carry out the study.

Carbon dating of artefacts collected during the fourth season of excavation at Keeladi done at Beta Analytic Lab, Miami, USA, has revealed that urbanisation of Vaigai plains had happened in Tamil Nadu around the 6th century BCE as happened in Gangetic plains.

The State Department of Archaeology has already collected skeletal fragments from Keeladi and Adichanallur.

“We are hopeful of finding more human bones in our future excavations at Konthagai, Keeladi and Adichanallur. These samples will be sent for ancient DNA study. It will predominantly reveal what kind of gene was in the human bones excavated/ to be excavated in Tamil Nadu,” he said.

The School of Biological Sciences at the MKU will be the collaborator for the Department of Archaeology on taking up the ancient DNA study, remote sensing of the sites and study of data. “We are collaborating with the best institutions in the world,” he added.

David Reich was involved in the study of ancient DNA from the samples from Rakhigarhi site of Harappan civilisation, the report of which was published recently. Retired Professor of School of Biological Sciences RM. Pitchappan, who has been roped in to coordinate in ancient DNA study, said that archaeologists, linguistics, anthropologists and experts in ancient DNH would come together to carry out this study.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Keezhadi excavations: Sangam era older than previously thought, finds study

Hoary past: One of the samples collected at the depth of 353 cm goes back to 580 BCE.

Hoary past: One of the samples collected at the depth of 353 cm goes back to 580 BCE.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Carbon dating suggests that the cultural deposits may be 300 years older than believed

In a major turning point in the cultural historiography of the ancient Sangam Age, the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department (TNAD) has stated that the cultural deposits unearthed during excavations at Keeladi in Sivaganga district could be safely dated to a period between 6th century BCE and 1st century CE.

This is the first time the date has been officially announced by the TNAD.

The new findings in the report, released on Thursday by Minister for Tamil Culture and Archaeology K. Pandiarajan here, place Keeladi artefacts about 300 years earlier than previously believed — 3rd century BCE.

One of the six samples collected at the depth of 353 cm and sent for carbon dating test in the U.S. “goes back to 580 BCE,” Commissioner of Archaeology T. Udayachandran said.

The report titled, ‘Keeladi-An Urban Settlement of Sangam Age on the Banks of River Vaigai’, was published by the TNAD.

The results from the fourth excavations suggest that the “second urbanisation [the first being Indus] of Vaigai plains happened in Tamil Nadu around 6th century BCE as it happened in Gangetic plains.”

The report also spells the site as Keeladi as against the erstwhile widely used Keezhadi.

‘Tamil-Brahmi older’

The recent scientific dates obtained for Keeladi findings push back the date of Tamil-Brahmi script to another century, i.e., 6th century BCE.

“These results clearly ascertained that they attained literacy or learned the art of writing as early as 6th century BCE,” the 61-page report stated.

Six carbon samples collected from the fourth season (2018) of excavations at Keeladi were sent to Beta Analytic Lab, Miami, Florida, U.S., for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating.

 

After analysing the AMS dates, archaeologist Professor K. Rajan felt that Keeladi presented strong evidence for some of the hypotheses. Skeletal fragments were sent to Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute in Pune, and it identified them of species such as cow/ox (Bos indicus), buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), sheep (Ovis aries), goat (Capra hircus), nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus), blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and peacock (Pavo cristatus).

“This finding suggests that the society in Keeladi had used animals predominantly for agricultural purposes,” Mr. Udhayachandran said.

Tamil-Brahmi potsherds

Fifty-six Tamil-Brahmi inscribed potsherds were recovered from the site of excavation conducted by the TNAD alone, the report stated.

Pottery specimens from Keeladi sent to the Earth Science Department of Pisa University, Italy, through Vellore Institute of Technology for mineral analysis, confirmed that water containers and cooking vessels were shaped out of locally available raw materials.

“Recovery of 10 spindle whorls, 20 sharply pinpointed bone tip tools used for design creations, hanging stones of the yarn, terracotta spheres, copper needle and earthen vessels to hold liquid clearly attest to the various stages of weaving industry from spinning, yarning, looming and weaving and later for dyeing,” the report added.

While three excavations were undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India, the fourth excavation was undertaken by the TNAD. The fifth excavation by the latter is under way. 

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Carbon dating confirms Keezhadi site is from Sangam era

An overview of the excavated trenches in a coconut plantation at Keezhadi with a pottery yard in the middle.

An overview of the excavated trenches in a coconut plantation at Keezhadi with a pottery yard in the middle.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Samples sent from archaeological excavations at Keezhadi have been identified as nearly 2,200 years old

For several years, experts had surmised that the archaeological site at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu dates back to the Sangam era.

Now, carbon dating has confirmed that two samples sent from the site are indeed nearly 2,200 years old.

The Keezhadi dig that started in 2013 provides archaeological evidence of ancient Tamil life that has so far been known largely from texts like Sangam literature.

While replying to DMK MP Kanimozhi in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, the Union Ministry of Culture informed the Upper House that the Archaeological Survey of India had sent two carbon samples from Keezhadi for carbon dating to Beta Analytic Inc., Florida, USA.

Carbon dating confirms Keezhadi site is from Sangam era
 

“Radio Carbon dating suggests that the samples go back to 2,160+30 years and 2,200+30 years,” stated the Ministry.

Archaeologists found deposits up to 4.5 metres deep and the samples (of carbon elements) sent for carbon dating were from the middle part – i.e. 2 metres, says ASI’s Superintending Archaeologist K. Amarnath Ramakrishna in Guwahati who led the excavations in Keezhadi earlier.

“We can now say for sure that the samples were from 3rd century BC,” says Mr. Ramakrishna.

Major find

Unlike many other archaeological sites excavated in Tamil Nadu, Keezhadi is a major habitation site.

“The last time habitation sites were excavated in Tamil Nadu was at Arikamedu. We zeroed in on Keezhadi after studying both banks of Vaigai river through its entire stretch from Western Ghats till the point it reaches the Bay of Bengal,” he says.

A total of 72 potsherds with Tamil Brahmi script were found at Keezhadi which had several Tamil names.

Iyanan, Uthiran, Vendhan, Santhanavathi and Saathan were some of the Tamil names found,” he says. When asked whether the Archaeological Survey of India was planning to set up any museum at Keezhadi, Superintending Archaeologist of Chennai Circle A.M.V. Subramanyam said such policy decisions have to be taken at New Delhi.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Ring well unearthed at Keezhadi

So far, over 24 pits have been dug across five acres as part of the fifth phase of excavation.

So far, over 24 pits have been dug across five acres as part of the fifth phase of excavation.  

Measuring 1.5 feet in diameter, the rings are made of terracotta

Nearly 45 days after the fifth phase of excavation commenced at Keezhadi, a ring well has been unearthed.

The rings, measuring 1.5 feet in diameter, are made of terracotta, and five rings are visible now. “So far, we have dug to a depth of 1.5 metres. We can say if the well goes deeper only on further excavation.

In the fourth phase, two such wells were excavated. The ring well is an indicator of the advanced water conservation technology of that period,” an official from the State Department of Archaeology said.

Water management skills

“The rings are designed with a locking system, so that they sit atop each other without any gap for the sand to pour in. Since Keezhadi is close to the Vaigai riverbed, the terrain is sandy in nature. So, in order to avoid the well getting closed by sand spillage, the top ring of the well has a raised edge. These features testify to the water management skills of the people who lived in Keezhadi,” the official noted.

So far, over 24 pits have been dug across five acres of area in the fifth phase. This is the second phase of excavation being carried out by the State Archaeological Department, as the previous three phases were carried out by the Archaeological Survey of India.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

HC disapproves of ASI's 'slow work' in Keezhadi excavation

The excavations done so far had pointed out to possibilities of a past civilisation on the banks of Vaigai.

The excavations done so far had pointed out to possibilities of a past civilisation on the banks of Vaigai.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

There seems to be an oblique motive behind the transfer of Superintending Archaeologist Amarnath, it says.

The Madras High Court Bench in Madurai on Tuesday expressed strong disapproval of the way in which the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was taking forward the excavation work at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu.

The excavations done so far had pointed out to possibilities of a civilisation on the banks of the Vaigai.

Wondering why the ASI transferred Superintending Archaeologist Amarnath, who was instrumental in excavating the site at the first instance, a Division Bench of Justices A. Selvam and N. Authinathan directed a public interest litigation petitioner on the issue to file another petition by June 23 with a plea to bring back the officer to Keezhadi for continuing the third phase of excavations.

Concurring with PIL petitioner Kanimozhi Mathi that the excavation works were slowed down intentionally, Justice Selvam said: “There seems to be an oblique motive behind the officer's transfer. You spoil the excavation works by doing such things.”

However, ASI counsel S. Shanmugaselvam said that Amarnath was transferred along with many other staff across the country.

When Justice Authinathan wanted to know what objection could the ASI have for establishing a site museum at Keezhadi, counsel told the court that 'Report Writing' work with respect to the artefacts excavated so far was underway at the ASI facility in Bengaluru and that the articles could be returned to the State government only after completion of the work.

Later, the judges adjourned further hearing in the case to June 23.

Ms. Mathi approached the court last year with a plea to restrain the ASI from taking away the artefacts outside Tamil Nadu. However, another Division Bench of the High Court permitted them to be taken to Bengaluru as it was told that 'Report Writing' facilities were available only there.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Keezhadi excavation: what was found and what they mean

In 2013-14, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) carried out explorations in 293 sites along the Vaigai river valley in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts. Keezhadi in Sivaganga district was chosen for excavation and artefacts unearthed by the ASI in the second phase of the excavation at Pallichanthai Thidal of Keezhadi pointed to an ancient civilisation that thrived on the banks of the Vaigai.

Carbon dating of charcoal found at the Keezhadi site in February 2017 established that the settlement there belonged to 200 BC. The excavations thus proved that urban civilisation had existed in Tamil Nadu since the Sangam age.

The excavation at Keezhadi has been carried out at two localities in the farm. “Both the places have yielded different items and we presume they represent a social hierarchy,” said Amarnath who was until recently working at the site. The bigger of the two locations with more number of trenches is said to be a settlement of educated rich people, as many jewellery, fine game stones, semi-precious stones and a dozen Tamil Brahmi inscriptions have been found. Beads of agate, Carnelian and quartz indicate that they had trade link with countries like Rome. The Tamil Brahmi letters found on pottery is all names of individuals such as, Thisan, Aadhan and Udhiran, which are typical of Sangam Age Tamil names.

The second locality has more of graffiti on pottery, bone tools and iron weapons. the fish symbol which was both an art and as a ‘sign representing a clan, was also unearthed. Red-and-black pottery, groove tiles used for laying roofs and the typical flat brick measuring 38 centimetres are the other indications that the city unearthed belongs to the Sangam Age.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

ASI begins third phase of excavation at Keezhadi

Digging deeper: P.S. Sriraman, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, launching the third phase of the excavation work at Keezhadi on Saturday.

Digging deeper: P.S. Sriraman, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, launching the third phase of the excavation work at Keezhadi on Saturday.   | Photo Credit: S. James

Four trenches to be dug in an area of 400 square metres

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) on Saturday began the third phase of excavation at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district, roughly 12 km from here.

P.S. Sriraman, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavations Branch (Bengaluru), ASI, who is now in-charge of the Keezhadi site, told reporters here that the excavation would continue through the end of September.

“We are hoping to make more interesting findings in this phase,” he said.

Four trenches in an area of around 400 square metres would be dug initially at the coconut groves at Pallichanthai Thidal in Keezhadi, where the excavation has been on since 2015, and the area will gradually be expanded throughout the third phase depending on the findings, he said.

Saying that ₹40 lakh had been allocated by the ASI for the third phase, Mr. Sriraman stressed that there was no shortage of funds.

On-site museum

He said that shifting of artefacts, likely to be discovered at the excavation site, to ASI offices elsewhere could not be ruled out for advanced analysis and ensure preservation of the artefacts.

“However, setting up an on-site museum, similar to the ones set up at various ASI sites, is under consideration. If that happens, all the artefacts will be brought here itself,” he said.

Highlighting that carbon-dating of two samples of charcoal from the excavation site has indicated that the human settlement at the site was around 200 BC, Mr. Sriraman said more samples would be sent abroad for carbon dating.

A total of 5,800 artefacts were found in the last two phases of excavation.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Keezhadi excavation to continue for 3 more years

Union Ministers Mahesh Sharma and Nirmala Sitharaman inspect the excavation site.

Union Ministers Mahesh Sharma and Nirmala Sitharaman inspect the excavation site.   | Photo Credit: G. Moorthy

Funds will not be a constraint, assures Union Minister Mahesh Sharma

Ending the suspense over continuance of Archaeological Survey of India’s excavation at Keezhadi near here, Union Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma on Friday announced that the third phase would begin in May. “The results [of excavation] have been good and inspiring. They point to the existence of 2nd century BC culture and civilisation. I promise to the people of Tamil Nadu that this will continue. We will ensure that there is no shortage of funds,” Mr. Mahesh Sharma told mediapersons after inspecting the excavation site along with Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman and ASI Director General Rakesh Tewari.

The Minister said that the excavation would go on for three more years and ₹40 lakh had been sanctioned for taking up the third phase. He claimed that Tamil Nadu and Tamil language were close to their heart and they had come to ensure that the excavation continued.

“We also want to assure the people of Tamil Nadu that there will be no shortage of funds. The excavation will be completed within a timeframe,” he said.

‘Site will be showcased’

The DG of ASI gave an assurance that the antiquities from the site would be showcased at the Government Museum in Sivaganga, Madurai and Chennai. While welcoming the State Government’s offer to set up an on-site museum, he said that the ASI would certainly consider all the options.

Mr. Tewari denied the charge that the ASI delayed sanction of funds as the site was in Tamil Nadu and attributed the delay to submission of report.

He said that the Standing Committee of ASI had also pointed to non-submission of report. “Without a report, excavation means destruction,” he said. The ASI did not have any bias, he said and recalled how it published the findings of excavation of 6th century artefacts in Kodumanal and Porunthal of Tamil Nadu earlier.

Answering queries on the transfer of K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavation Branch, Bengaluru, who was in charge of Keezhadi, to Guwahati Circle, the Minister said that it was a routine transfer effected with that of 25 others as per the new policy of ASI not to retain a Superintending Archaeologist in a place for more than three years.

Ms. Sitharaman wanted to know how could there be bias when the ASI did not even know what was in store in unexplored areas of Keezhadi. She pointed out that another person from Tamil Nadu, P.S. Sriraman, had been posted in the place of Mr. Amarnath.

Protest over delay, funds

Even as the Ministers were inspecting the site, a group of Makkal Viduthalai Katchi volunteers, led by former MLA Murugavel Rajan, raised slogans against the delay in funding and transfer of Mr. Amarnath.

A free-for-all was about to erupt when BJP members objected to the entry of MVK volunteers into the site and hurled dried parts of coconut trees at them. The police arrested 15 persons in this connection.

 

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Archaeologist involved in Keezhadi project transferred

The excavation site at Keezhadi near Madurai.

The excavation site at Keezhadi near Madurai.  

At a time when third phase of excavation is all set to begin

K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist, Excavations Branch (Bangalore), Archaeological Survey of India, who has been overseeing excavation work in Keezhadi near Madurai, has been transferred to Guwahati Circle of the ASI.

P.S. Sriraman, Superintending Archaeologist (in-charge), Jodhpur Circle, has been transferred to Excavations Branch (Bangalore), which is responsible for archaeological excavations in the southern States.

The transfer has come at a crucial juncture when the third phase of the excavation in Keezhadi is all set to begin as the Director General, ASI, granted permission for it in February after considerable delay and the initial funding for the third phase was sanctioned last week.

The delay in approval, which ought to have happened in October last year, and the alleged reluctance of the Central government in continuing the excavation kicked up a controversy and evoked widespread condemnation by various political parties, writers and film personalities in Tamil Nadu.

Sources in the ASI said the transfer had been made as per a recent policy change, which necessitated transfer of officials in the rank of Superintending Archaeologists every two years.

Mr. Amarnath has been serving in his present position for around three years and has been involved in Keezhadi excavation ever since the work began in 2015. In the two phases of excavation in 2015 and 2016, as many as 5,800 artefacts were unearthed from the site.

The results of the carbon dating of charcoal excavated from Keezhadi indicated that the settlement belonged to 200 BC, thereby providing strong evidence of the existence of a thriving urban settlement on the banks of the Vaigai since the Sangam age.

Expressing concern over the transfer of Mr. Ramakrishna, an archaeologist closely following the developments in Keezhadi said, “Such transfers are not generally made during ongoing excavations, particularly in the initial phases.”

“It is not merely an administrative work but rigorously academic. The archaeologist develops a keen understanding and knowledge of the artefacts being unearthed and consequently the associated culture, which is crucial for further excavation,” he said.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

A boost to Keezhadi finds

Archaeologists have found 5,800 artefacts in Keezhadi after two years of digging.

Archaeologists have found 5,800 artefacts in Keezhadi after two years of digging.   | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

Carbon dating vouches for its antiquity

Carbon dating of charcoal found at the Keezhadi excavation site in Sivaganga district has established that the settlement there belonged to 200 BC, according to K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist (Excavation Branch,Bengaluru).

The excavations have thus proved that urban civilisation had existed in Tamil Nadu since Sangam age. “So far there has been an impression that urban civilisation did not exist in Tamil Nadu. The excavations and carbon dating have disproved the opinion,” said Mr. Ramakrishna, who is heading the excavation project in Keezhadi.

Carbon dating was done at Beta Analysis, a Florida-based laboratory and the report was received in the first week of February.

“It is one of the top ranking laboratories in the world and is rated on a par with Arizona Radiocarbon Dating Lab. We sent only two samples and the report has been sent to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). We still have kept 20 more samples for carbon dating,” Mr. Ramakrishna told The Hindu on Tuesday. Carbon dating of a single sample costs ₹50,000.

Charcoals were found in stratigraphical layers at the excavation site at Keezhadi. “Even though small excavations were done around 150 places in Tamil Nadu we could not find charcoal in those sites. The presence of carbon in organic material helps establish accurate date as it normally exists for 5,560 years,” he said.

Mr. Ramakrishna added that a clear picture of the civilisation would emerge only if carbon dating of charcoal found in various stratigraphical layers are tested. Archaeologists have found 5,800 artefacts in Keezhadi after two years of digging. On Monday the Centre had granted permission for further excavations.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Nod for further excavation at Keezhadi

₹50 lakh allocation sought for current year to continue work at the historical site

After a delay of six months, the Central government has granted permission to continue the excavation in Keezhadi, where archaeologists have unearthed the biggest habitation of Sangam era, dated between 300 BC and 1000 AD.

“We received the permission on Monday from the Director General of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the fund is yet to be allocated. We have sought for ₹50 lakh for the current year,” said K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist (Excavation Branch), Bengaluru, who is heading the project in Keezhadi, close to Madurai city, but in Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu.

The letter from the ASI headquarters on Monday said the annual interim report of the work done comprising relevant section drawings, stratigraphy and important findings with illustrations should be submitted immediately after the completion of the work.

“All antiquities unearthed during the excavation will be documented at the site in National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA) 3D format, available at the website of NMMA,” the letter said.

Funds for excavation are normally allotted in October of every year. But in the case of Keezhadi, the government did not grant permission last year; but continuous efforts by political leaders and writers resulted in the Centre giving its nod. The issue was raised in Parliament by CPI(M) MP T.K.Rangarajan and DMK MPs Tiruchi N. Siva and Kanimozhi.

“It is a matter of great joy. The credit should go to all political leaders and writers who put pressure on the government,” said writer Su. Venkatesan, who spearheaded the campaign for continuous excavation.

Mr. Ramakrishnan said his team had submitted an interim report of the excavation. “We have unearthed 5,800 artefacts from what is considered to be a city from the Sangam Age. But we need to continue the work at least for the next 10 years to know about a civilisation that had existed for many centuries,” he said. ASI’s excavation has covered only an acre of about 110 acre private land and there is a need to study more areas. “We have not even covered one per cent of the total land. It is a private land but the owners have not raised any objection so far. We are doing our work without affecting the coconut trees,” said Mr. Ramakrishnan.

CPI(M) State secretary G. Ramakrishnan also welcomed the permission for excavation and urged the government to create an exhibition of artefacts unearthed from the site. “The excavation should be allowed to continue till the ASI gets a clear idea about the civilisation by the side of Vaigai river near Madurai,” he said.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Keezhadi: ASI refuses to commit to time frame on next leg of excavation

MADURAI, TAMIL NADU, 07/09/2015: The brick structure that resembles an ante-chamber found at the excavation site at Keezhadi near Madurai. Photo: G. Moorthy

MADURAI, TAMIL NADU, 07/09/2015: The brick structure that resembles an ante-chamber found at the excavation site at Keezhadi near Madurai. Photo: G. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: G_Moorthy

Says next phase can begin only after completing a log of items collected so far

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) on Tuesday refused to commit a time period within which it would begin the next phase of excavation at Pallichanthai Thidal at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district. The excavations conducted so far on just one out of 100 acres of identified land at the spot had led to discovery of 4,125 artefacts pointing to the existence of an ancient Tamil civilisation that could have thrived on the banks of Vaigai.

Appearing before a Division Bench of Justices A. Selvam and P. Kalaiyarasan that was seized of a public interest litigation petition related to the excavations, ASI counsel N. Shanmuga Selvam said that the next phase excavation would begin only after completion of ‘record writing’ with respect to the artefacts collected so far. He said that it was a laborious process which involved subjecting the antiquities to chemical examination.

Additional Advocate General B. Pugalendhi told the court that the Commissioner of State Archaeological Department had taken stock of all the artefacts that were excavated by the ASI in the first phase and recorded all of them on video as ordered by the court on November 24. He also pointed out that the ASI had so far taken away 1,800 artefacts to its laboratories in other parts of the country for ascertaining their age through carbon dating.

After hearing them, the Division Bench adjourned the hearing of the case by a week. Though the PIL was filed to restrain the ASI from taking the artefacts out of the State and seeking a direction to it to establish a site museum at Keezhadi, the court had, on November 24, permitted the ASI to take the excavated antiquities to the Laboratory of Archaeological Chemist in Dehradun in Uttarakhand or any other lab in the country for chemical examination and record writing.

The permission was granted since the ASI informed the court that shifting the artefacts to its laboratory in Chennai would not serve any purpose since the latter lacked the facilities required for scientific cleaning, analysis and documentation. The judges, however, ordered that the Commissioner of the State Archaeological Department must take stock of the antiquities by noting down the details of each artefact besides shooting videos and taking photographs before they were moved out of Keezhadi.

“After the scientific analysis, the excavated materials should be brought back and kept in Keezhadi or in the Sivaganga district museum or any other suitable building,” the court had ordered.

 

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

HC allows ASI to shift Keezhadi artefacts to Dehradun lab

High Courtorders detailed documentation before the antiquities are moved out

: The Madras High Court Bench here on Thursday permitted the Archaeological Survey of India to shift artefacts excavated by it from Pallichanthai Thidal at Keezhadi in the Sivaganga district to its Laboratory of Archaeological Chemist in Dehradun in Uttarakhand or any other lab in the country.

The artefacts point to the existence of an ancient Tamil civilisation that could have thrived on the banks of the Vaigai river.

Justices S. Nagamuthu and M.V. Muralidaran granted permission after the ASI informed the court that shifting the artefacts to a laboratory in Chennai would not serve any purpose since the latter lacked the facilities required for scientific cleaning, analysis and documentation.

The judges, however, ordered that the Commissioner of the State Archaeological Department must take stock of the antiquities before they were moved out of Keezhadi.

T.N. told to monitor work

The Commissioner was ordered to personally monitor the work of noting down details of each artefact, besides shooting videos and taking photographs of antiquities excavated during the 2015-16 field season. As for the artefacts excavated from Keezhadi during the 2014-15 season, the court was informed that they had already been moved to the Bangalore Circle Office.

Recording the statement, the judges directed the Commissioner to depute a subordinate to visit the Bangalore lab for collecting details and shooting videos of the artefacts shifted there, too.

“After the scientific analysis, the excavated material should be brought back and kept in Keezhadi or in the Sivaganga district museum or any other suitable building,” the court ordered.

Site museum

On the possibility of a site museum at Keezhadi, the ASI said it received “more than 120 exploration and excavation proposals in every field season and it is a tedious process to propose a site museum at any of the sites because the importance of the site can be established only after extensive excavation and post excavation analysis.”

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

TN for continuation of excavation in Keezhadi: Minister

State Minister for School Education, Sports and Youth Welfare, K. Pandiarajan, on Monday promised all possible help from the State government for the continuation of the excavation being carried out by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district.

Mr. Pandiarajan, along with Minister for Khadi and Village Industries Board, G. Baskaran, inspected the site on Monday.

Their visit comes close on the heels of a public interest litigation petition filed in the Madras High Court against moving the artefacts discovered at the 3rd century BC urban settlement to the ASI office in Bengaluru.

The State government has also evinced interest in setting up a site museum at Keezhadi to display the 5,300 antiquities that have been unearthed so far and has even offered to allot 72 cents of land for the same.

However, K. Amarnath Ramakrishnan, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, said that the excavation was at a very early stage and there was a long way to go before the site museum could be set up. “Keezhadi is a discovery to prove wrong all claims that Tamil Nadu did not have any urban settlement during the Sangam period. The brick structure with proper drainage system per se is a new revelation. Nowhere in Tamil Nadu have so many antiquities been discovered,” he said.

Excavation on 110 acres

The ASI has proposed to conduct excavation on 110 acres of private land close to the Vaigai river. “In the last two years, we have completed less than two per cent of the total excavation. We have to do it for at least 10 years,” he said, expressing confidence that many more significant discoveries would be made.

“All the antiquities need to be stored only in the ASI office in Bengaluru for further processing like carbon dating and preparing the reports before the actual process for setting up a museum could be taken up,” he said. Stating that he was custodian of all the artefacts, Mr. Ramakrishna said that he could hand them over to the State government after going through all the required procedures.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

History resurfaces

RARE RELIC: Potsherds discovered at Sulapuram site. Photo: Special Arrangement

RARE RELIC: Potsherds discovered at Sulapuram site. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: mamp15artefact1

City archaeologists and history students discover fragments of burial urns, ring stands belonging to the megalithic period in Sulapuram Village near Madurai

In what could be a significant development following the Keezhadi village excavations, which brought to light one of the biggest human habitations of Sangam Age, archaeologists of Pandyanadu Centre for Historical Research (PCHR) in association with the School of Historical Studies of Madurai Kamaraj University have discovered potsherds of burial urns and ring stands belonging to the megalithic period in Sulapuram Village near T. Kallupatti in Madurai District.

“It assumes importance as this was the period when people learnt the art of constructing houses and lived together in a community, which is quite evident from the presence of dolmenoid cists. People constructed houses with burnt bricks and were familiar with the technology. These fragments of urns and ring stands were offerings made to the departed souls,” says C. Santhalingam, the PCHR secretary.

The team, comprising R.Udhayakumar and T.Muthupandi, members of PCHR and MKU research scholars C.Pandeeswaran and K.Palraj, collected the fragments found lying all over 10 acres at the foot hills of Western Ghats in Sulapuram Village.

The fragments were first noticed by the local residents and were reported to Pandeeswaran and Palraj who brought it to the knowledge of the research centre. “These potsherds resurfaced after the rains on the western ghats. When the rain water flowed down the slope it eroded the soil and brought them to the surface. Some artefacts like the ring stands and urns are intact while some are found in broken condition,” says Santhalingam.

The team also identified the presence of cairn circles. Most of the potsherds including plates, cups, pots and ring stands are black and red in colour. All are well burnished wares. The ring stands were used to hold big round bottom pots. No scripts or graffiti markings are found on the surface of the potsherds.

“It was a transition period. People worked in groups and erected dolmenoid cists in honour of their ancestors. Also that was the time Tamil Brahmi inscription also came into being. We tried in vain to find out any inscription on the potsherds,” he says.

Agriculture and fishing must have been the main occupation at that time with people gaining the knowledge of making iron tools, sickles, ploughs. With beads and broken bangle pieces strewn all over the place and potsherds and dolmenoid cists talking about the 2,500 years old history, Sulapuram could as well be another Keezhadi in the making as the artefacts are comparable and datable to the same period.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Unearthing an advanced and vibrant civilisation at Keezhadi

Second phase of excavation throws up evidence of a huge urban settlement, a rarity in the State

More artefacts unearthed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the second phase of its ongoing excavation at Pallichanthai Thidal of Keezhadi in Sivaganga district point to an ancient civilisation that thrived on the banks of the Vaigai. Further excavation could establish it as Vaigai Valley civilisation, similar to the Indus Valley civilisation.

Archaeologists at the site opine that the brick structures and antiquities conform to the parameters that describe a civilisation.

This will dispel the popular theory that ancient Tamils lived as tribals and urbanisation happened much later. In the first phase of excavation, done in 43 quadrants from February to September 2015, brick structures and Rouletted and Arretine pot shreds that suggested trade links with other parts of the country and abroad were unearthed.

Significant finds

Among the significant finds in the second phase, which began in January, are two big-sized storage jars placed one above the other and connected to an underground terracotta pipeline and a two-layered furnace. “We have dug up 53 trenches in this phase to look at continuity and nature of structures. This is definitely a huge urban settlement, a rare one in Tamil Nadu. Its character as Vaigai Valley civilisation can be brought out through large-scale excavation over a decade,” says K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI.

A clear picture of the sophisticated habitat is emerging now with stone structures, oriented in cardinal directions, suggesting systematic urban planning. Pot shreds with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions point to the presence of a highly literate society. Graffiti of the sun and moon demonstrate that they had “astronomical sense” too. “The level of sophistication can be gauged from luxury and pastime items like the ivory dice, a game of an elite society,” says M. Rajesh, Assistant Archaeologist.

An in situ find of an engraved pot clearly places the site between second and first century BC. However, field experts are of the view that it cannot be compared to Harappa, except in terms of size. Harappa and Keezhadi are separated by time and distance of 1,200 years and over 2,000 km respectively. Senior epigraphist V. Vedachalam, who is the domain expert for the excavation, says that though Tamil Nadu had a unique culture during the Sangam period, micro-level variations have to be established through archaeological evidence, and antiquities found at the site will eminently serve the purpose. Keezhadi, according to him, is a site of abundant social, political and commercial significance. Existence of river valley civilisations in Tamil Nadu can be established by undertaking large-scale excavations on both the banks of major rivers.

Archaeologists are confident that Keezhadi will emerge as an “index site” to determine the culture of people living between Sangam and post-Sangam periods.

The ASI team has sent a proposal for extending the excavation into the third phase.



Further excavations could put ‘Vaigai Valley civilisation’ on a par with Indus Valley civilisation



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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

A dead city beneath a living village

UNEARTHING HISTORY: Ancient brick structure found at the ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi. Photo: R. Ashok

UNEARTHING HISTORY: Ancient brick structure found at the ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi. Photo: R. Ashok   | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

From a non-descript village, Keezhadi has gained an indispensible place in the history map of India.

As we enter the lush coconut farm at Keezhadi, a small hamlet in Sivaganga district, the tall trees sway in the breeze. But there is more to it inside this private farm. This is the place where an important part of Tamil history is being unearthed now by the Archaeological Survey of India. A set of four dozen square trenches have been dug out, to reveal what archaeologists call as one of the biggest human habitations of Sangam Age known so far. Just peep into them and you travel 3000 years back in time! Vadivel, the site supervisor, gives us a tour of the trenches which are neatly scooped out square pits, containing parts of homes like brick walls, wells, storages and mud vaults, pottery of various kinds and purposes and shells, glass, beads, rusted old coins, weapons and small tools made of bones and Iron, embedded in layers of soil.

As we walk around the trenches, peering down into them, one of the villagers engaged in contract work to dig the place, stretches her hand out from inside the pit. “This looks like a new find,” she says holding a thin off-white bangle. “This is a damaged bangle made of seashell. And it has a design carved on it,” observes Vadivel. This is how discoveries are made at an excavation camp, unplanned and unexpected! You just stumble upon history every now and then. Ever since last February, when the ASI started excavating the place, they have found something new everyday. “This project is a huge success. It’s astounding how this place has so much to offer. It must have been a big human settlement area,” says K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, the superintending archaeologist. “Now, close your eyes and visualise a city right here,” he says. It is indeed stupendous to imagine that the trees of Keezhadi stand on an old city.

Historians are on euphoria about the major find and postulate that Keezhadi could redraw the past of Madurai and push its antiquity by well over a millennium. “Through comparative dating, we place this site to be belonging to the 3rd Century B.C., which is over 2,500 years ago. However, the exact age can be arrived at only after carbon dating,” says Amarnath, who has worked on excavations in research of Indus Valley Civilisation in parts of Gujarat.

In a year-long survey conducted in 2013, the state Archaeology department had identified nearly 293 Sangam Age towns along the course of river Vaigai. “Our field of research included areas that fell within five kilometres from the river on both the banks, starting from the place of Vaigai’s origin in Theni district to the very end of the river in Ramanathapuram district,” says archaeologist Dr. V. Vedachalam. The places were classified as granaries, trading points, ports, habitation sites and living or dilapidated temples. Excavations were carried out at Varushanad in Theni and Azhagankulam in Ramnad.

The excavation at Keezhadi has been carried out at two localities in the farm. “Both the places have yielded different items and we presume they represent a social hierarchy,” says Amarnath. The bigger of the two locations with more number of trenches is said to be a settlement of educated rich people, as many jewellery, fine game stones, semi-precious stones and a dozen Tamil Brahmi inscriptions have been found. “Even the brick structures appear more refined.” Beads of agate, Carnelian and quartz indicate that they had trade link with countries like Rome. The Tamil Brahmi letters found on pottery is all names of individuals such as, Thisan, Aadhan and Udhiran. “They are typical Sangam Age Tamil names,” says Amarnath.

The second locality has more of graffiti on pottery, bone tools and iron weapons. “We have got the fish symbol, both as an art and as a ‘sign representing a clan,” says Vadivel. Red-and-black pottery, groove tiles used for laying roofs and the typical flat brick measuring 38 centimetres are the other indications that the city unearthed belongs to the Sangam Age. “Keezhadi could as well be the ‘Peru Manalur’, the city of Sangam Pandiyas mentioned in literature,” suggests Amarnath.

The excavation project is expected to be completed by September end and after taking samples, the site will be handed over to the owners. Keezhadi is open to public and students to visit till then.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Second phase of excavation begins

Having struck gold in the first leg in terms of archaeological finds, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) began the second phase of excavation at Pallichanthai Thidai of Keezhadi village in Sivaganga district on Monday.

The first phase, which spread from March to September 2015, threw up very interesting antiquities of the Sangam Age.

“We have begun the second phase with the encouraging results of the first phase, especially the impressive structural activity. More importantly, the site is very close to the historic city of Madurai and has immense potential to explore the Sangam Age,” said Sathyabama Badrinath, Regional Director (South), ASI, who inaugurated the excavation. She was confident that the archaeologists at the site would be able to link the structures they came across in the first phase in the current exercise.

“This will help in further exposing the already exposed structures,” she said.

K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist, said that though a tentative date of third century BC had been fixed for the site, the exact date could be determined only through carbon dating of the antiquities found so far. He was hopeful that carbon dating of about 1800 antiquities found in the first phase would be over in about six months from now.

The ASI Director General Rakesh Tewari had approved the second phase till September 2016.

A sum of Rs.15 lakh had been sanctioned for taking up excavation during this financial year. Mr. Amarnath said that 15 quadrants would be dug up to begin with in the second phase, closer to the old trenches. The site is located at a distance of 12 km from Madurai.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Decorative pot found in Keezhadi

Points to existence of urban habitation near ancient capital.

A beautifully crafted earthen pot with leaf decoration was unearthed at Archaeological Survey of India’s excavation site at Keezhadi near here on Thursday, adding to a repository of evidence pointing to the existence of an urban habitation closer to the erstwhile capital of Pandya kingdom.

The exquisitely crafted pot, measuring 72 cm in width and 42 cm in height, was found by an ASI team led by K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, Superintending Archaeologist.

“This is for the first time such a decorative pot has been found in a habitation site in Tamil Nadu during excavation,” says Mr. Amarnath. The storage pot contains pure river sand but its actual use could not be fixed immediately.

Two similar pots of different shapes have started to emerge in two other pits of the excavation site. The huge red pot, which is among a variety of earthenware discovered in the area, was found embedded alongside a water storage facility.

Noted epigraphist V. Vedachalam says that the kind of antiquities found at the site, ‘Pallichandai Thidal,’ reaffirm the belief that nestled among three ancient places — Konthagai, Keezhadi and Manalur — was an urban settlement that had trade links with North India and the western world during the Sangam Age. References to Manalur are found in Tiruvilayadalpuranam. During a later period, Konthagai and Keezhadi were merged as Kuntidevi Chaturvedimangalam and gifted to Brahmins.

A fossilised piece of bone, which could have been used in arrows, was found during excavation on Thursday. A square copper coin of Pandyan Peruvazhudhi with horse and turtle motifs was also found at the surface level.

The excavation has been extended to 43 pits and the first season will come to an end by the end of this month. The second season of excavation will begin in January.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Uncovered: Pandyas-Romans trade link

Madurai; Tamil Nadu; 16/06/2015. A damaged structure found at the ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi near Madurai on Tuesday. Photo; G. Moorthy

Madurai; Tamil Nadu; 16/06/2015. A damaged structure found at the ASI's excavation site at Keezhadi near Madurai on Tuesday. Photo; G. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: G_Moorthy

An excavation in Keezhadi, Sivaganga district, has thrown up a wealth of information on the flourishing Pandya trade with the west.

An ongoing excavation of a Sangam period habitation by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is poised to throw more light on the flourishing trade of the Pandyas with the west and their rich culture, which was the envy of the Romans.

The Bengaluru-based Excavation Branch VI of the ASI has taken up the excavation at Keezhadi village, 12 km south east of Madurai, in Sivaganga district.

Into the third month, the exercise has already thrown up very interesting antiquities – glass/pearl/terracotta beads; terracotta figurines; grooved roof tiles and early historic pottery.

“This is the ASI’s major excavation in Tamil Nadu after Adichanallur,” says K. Amarnath Ramakrishnan, Superintending Archaeologist and director of the current excavation.

Keezhadi was chosen after an exploration carried out through 2013-14 in 293 sites along the Vaigai river valley in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts.

It was found to possess archaeological wealth “that may provide crucial evidence to understand the missing links of Iron Age to early historic period and subsequent cultural developments.”

The excavation area, a mound, referred to as ‘Pallichandai Thidal,’ has a circumference of 3.5 km and spans 80 acres. It is contiguous to ancient settlements like Konthagai and Manalur. “We chose the mound raising about one to 2.5 metres above the ground level as it is relatively undisturbed,” says Mr. Amarnath. “We have found the finest variety of black and red ware bowls at the site,” says M. Rajesh, assistant archaeologist.

The most interesting findings in the 32 quadrants dug up so far are the damaged brick structures, including walls. The bricks are unique to early historic period and they measure 33 cm in length, 21 cm in breadth and five cm in height.

Noted epigraphist and domain expert for the excavation, V. Vedachalam, attributes the age of the remains to third century BCE to third CE. “The earthenware contains Tamil Brahmi script. The black and red pottery belongs to the Sangam period. The bricks belong to early historic period and similar ones were found in Kaviripoompattinam, Woriyur, Alagankulam and Korkai,” he says.

The presence of a number of large handmade grooved tiles suggests that the brick structures had a super structure with tiled roof, according to N. Veeraraghavan, assistant archaeologist.

The Roman ware found at the site supplement the historical references to a flourishing trade between the Pandya kingdom and the Roman Empire. Historically, these settlements would have been part of Kuntidevi Chaturvedimangalam, named after a Pandya queen.

The first major excavation of a habitation undertaken by the ASI in south Tamil Nadu will go into 2016. “The Director (Exploration and Excavation), ASI, Syed Jamal Hasan, who visited the site on May 15, was impressed with the findings,” says Mr. Amarnath.

The ASI is likely to extend the period of excavation by a year. The final report will be released after corroborating the antiquities with existing evidence and conducting various scientific analyses.

Research scholars from the University of Madras and Government Arts College, Krishnagiri, assist the ASI team in the excavation.

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Keezhadi excavation leads to ancient civilisation on the banks of Vaigai

Of kings and temples

The Sanctum Santorum of Arjuna Eswaram Temple. Photo: S.S. Kavitha

The Sanctum Santorum of Arjuna Eswaram Temple. Photo: S.S. Kavitha   | Photo Credit: mamp03namma-maintemple-1

Keezhadi is steeped in historical, religious and archaeological richness. Even a child from the village can play a guide to the 800-year-old Arjuna Eswaram temple.

Defaced Nandi

A defaced ‘Nandi’ at the entrance confirms antiquity of the temple renovated by Maravarman Kulasekra Pandiyan (1268-1311A.D.). The presiding deity is ‘Suyambu Linga’ in a 10x10 feet sanctum sanctorum with two podiums on each side.

On the top, an octagonal structure attracts everyone’s attention. A newly constructed mandapam next to the sanctum sanctorum has ‘Uraiyudayanayaki’, Lord Shiva's consort. In a peculiar arrangement, Ambal faces south and Dhakshinamoorthy faces north here.

Inscriptions

According to an archaeological source, the structure of the gopuram implies the then existing Dravidian style of vimana. Tamil inscriptions are found on the outside of the temple. One of them records that Maravarman Kulasekra Pandiyan (1268-1311A.D.) carried out renovation during his regime and named it Pandiya Eswaramudaya Nayanar temple. Another inscription says Koobakarayar, son of Malavarayar, one of the Pandya chieftains, established the statues of Natarajar and Sivagami Ammaiyar. He also requested that god and goddess be named after his parents – Surisuvaramudiaya Nayanar and Uthamma Piratiyar.

Yet another inscription of Kulasekra Pandiyan notes that people of the village sold lands to Koothan Thennadan Thiribhuvana Singa Thevan who hailed from Kannanur in Malayalam country. Arayan Suriyathevan alias Devendra Vallavan Viradarayan of Thurumoor dug out a river named Thiyagamsiriya Peraru.

King Kulasekra Pandiyan is the last king of later Pandya kingdom. The feud between his sons – Sundarapandiyan and Veerapandiyan – ended their regime paving way for Muslim invasion. Malik Kafur made his entry in 1310 A.D.

During the olden days, the village was called Kreedapuram. Later the name witnessed changes and resulted in Keezhadi, villagers say. According to archaeological sources, the old name of the village is ‘Kundi Devi Chathurvedi Mangalam’ alias ‘Kondagai.’ The temple which is known as Arjuna Eswaram was earlier known as ‘Mudi Vazhangu Pandya Eswaram.’ The temple got its name from the title name of King Maravarman Sundara Pandiyan I (1216-1238 AD).

People believe that the village has some links to Mahabharata. They say that Arjuna performed puja for Lord Shiva in the Arjuna Eswaram after taking bath in the temple tank. Now, there is no evidence of a temple tank.

During an archaeological excavation, the archaeologists unearthed terracotta figurines belonging to 12 century A.D. The figurines unearthed in the village are preserved at Thirumalai Naicker Mahal and Gandhi Museum.

The village also has temples for ‘Nallathangal,’ a lady who drowned herself with her seven children in a well and ‘Yamadharma Rajan.’ The temple of Yamadharma Rajan belongs to a particular family. It is believed that few decades ago a family gave the temple as a gift to the bride. Next to the temple lies an inscription bearing some details about the Yamadharma Rajan temple.

Abounding with such unique historical evidences, it is no wonder that Keezhadi is a sure attraction for the archaeologically inclined.

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