In January, eight years after the discovery of the Sangam-era Keeladi archaeological site near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Superintending Archaeologist Amarnath Ramakrishna submitted a detailed, 982-page excavation report for the first two seasons to the Archaeological Survey of India.

Ramakrishna and his team had discovered the early historic site on the banks of the Vaigai river that showed proof of a sophisticated urban settlement in ancient Tamil Nadu. Experts noted that the settlement’s dates broadly coincided with what is known as the Sangam Period, a glorious phase for Tamil art and literature. Keeladi will enter its ninth season of excavations in 2023 under the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology.

Ramakrishna had led a team that excavated 102 trenches in a 110-acre mound in two phases: 2014-’15 and 2015-’16. In March 2017, the Archaeological Survey of India transferred him to Guwahati from the Bengaluru Excavations Branch where he was posted. He had challenged the transfer but it was to no avail. In 2021, however, based on a direction from the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, Ramakrishna returned to Chennai to complete documentation work.

Ramakrishna said the report on Keeladi is the “first of its kind in Tamil Nadu” and took a year to complete. He had begun documentation work in December 2021 with a core group of 10 members comprising archaeologists, experts, draughtsmen, and photographers.

Nearly 6,000 artefacts were unearthed during the first two phases of the Keeladi dig, which the excavation report termed as a “unicultural” site. The report details how Keeladi became an urban centre due to a slow and steady growth in rice production, which also increased internal and external trade and commerce activities. The settlement was also an animal-based economy focused on cattle (cows and bulls), buffalo, sheep, and goats, dated between the 8th century before common era and the 3rd century common era.

According to Ramakrishna, the lack of detailed reports of previous excavations has posed difficulties in documenting Tamil Nadu’s historical record, for instance, in fixing dates. He said the Sangam Period is dated to 300 before common era to 300 common era, based on literary references but archaeology can authenticate these literary references. “It is important to excavate sites, but it is equally important to document everything”, Ramakrishna told Scroll. ​

At the Keeladi excavation site. Credit: Sundar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What does an excavation report entail?

This is the first-of-its-kind report in Tamil Nadu that provides in-depth information on every artefact that was excavated. In Tamil Nadu, ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] has carried out three large-scale excavations in Arikamedu, Kaveripoompattinam, and Adichanallur. However, an extensive report on these digs has yet to be submitted. All large-scale excavations must be elaborated with detailed information which will speak about the evolution of the site.

In the Keeladi report, we have plotted how much area was excavated – 1,650 square metres. This is just 2% of the entire mound. We retrieved seven lakh potteries, of which 1,03,000 were brought to the office for study purposes. We classified 13,000 pieces, and finally, only 1.78% was documented. These include potsherds [an archaeological term for shards or fragments of pottery] with graffiti symbols, Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions, and other shapes. That itself covers 400 pages of the report. We also recorded 5,765 antiquities.

Why is a report of this scale and detail critical?

Since we haven’t had such detailed reports in previous excavations, we are facing many problems in documenting Tamil Nadu’s historical record. We are unable to fix dates. How are we landing on the date 300 BC [before common era] to 300 CE [common era] for the Sangam period? These are things that require further study.

These dates are based on literary references, but archaeology allows us access to primary materials. The person who lived there used the artefacts, left them there, and went away so we could use them to authenticate literary references.

In Tamil Nadu, ASI, Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology, Madras University, and Tamil University in Tanjore have excavated many sites. But what are the results of these excavations? Since we don’t have clear outputs, we are unable to pin down the historical record. It is important to excavate sites, but it is equally important to document everything.

The report classifies Keeladi into three significant cultural periods: The Pre-Early Historic Period, the Mature Early Historic Period, and the Post-Early Historic Period. Elaborate:

We are getting cultural deposits to a depth of six metres at the site. Unfortunately, carbon samples are only available within 3.5-4 metres, and we are unable to retrieve carbon samples below that. One reason is there are brick structures, and we can’t break them to go deeper. Our dating methods fix the date at 300 BC, which coincides with what we classify as the mature period of the settlement.

But based on stratigraphy, we notice human activity below the four-metre mark with the retrieval of a fine variety of black and redware pottery, iron tools, Neolithic tools, and a variety of white-painted black and red ware. Based on that, there should have been a slow evolution of an urban settlement.

Due to agricultural activities over the years, much of the mound’s topmost layer has been destroyed. If the site had been dug when it was briefly identified in 1976, we might have found richer deposits. But in the last 40 years, more and more of the topmost layer has been removed. Due to this, we are unable to date how long the settlement existed. It could have been up to 500 CE, even till 700 CE, after which it was likely abandoned.

The reason for abandoning could be migration, and there isn’t much evidence of floods or earthquakes.

Are there any connections with the Harappan civilisation?

Debating whether this is Harappan or pre-Harappan is pointless. Instead, this is an excellent site that reveals the second urbanisation phase of the Indian subcontinent. We always talk about North Indian second urbanisation; we should try to study South Indian urbanisation also.

Urbanisation never happens in only one place. It happens in several places, which needs further study. This site could have the scope of offering some form of continuity to Harappa, but that must be analysed in future studies.

Only when we research and study other sites in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra can we relate to those megalithic sites and build a larger picture. I can simply say this is the beginning. We must travel more on a scientific path.

What were some of the scientific collaborations to produce this report?

We collaborated with the French Institute, Pondicherry, for phytolith studies [The study indicated the occurrence of Palms found at the lowest level in the excavation displaying an indigenous variety]. The Deccan College, Pune, for faunal remains [The study indicated the presence of dogs for security or as pets. It also revealed the presence of domestic horses, which is scarcely reported from south Indian historical sites].

We sent samples to Beta Analytics in Florida and [the] Inter-University Accelerator Centre in Delhi for carbon dating work. The ASI’s Chemical Branch helped test some of the coins and metallurgical aspects.

Will the ASI be handing over the artefacts to be displayed at the soon-to-be-opened Keeladi Museum set up by the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology?

The ASI DG’s office will make that decision. My work is to find the site, excavate, and report on the findings.