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EducationHistoryAdichanallur, site where oldest Tamil inscriptions were discovered, throws up more gems...

Adichanallur, site where oldest Tamil inscriptions were discovered, throws up more gems from history

Thoothukudi: The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) unearthed last week a gold diadem from a huge burial urn while excavating the museum site at Adichanallur on 8 August. This is the second gold ornament found at Adichanallur in the recent excavation phase.

Adichanallur is the site in Tamil Nadu from where the oldest inscriptions in the Tamil language dated between 905 BC and 696 BC were discovered years ago.

Excavations at the site had stopped about 2 years ago, which met with strongly criticised by Tamil people, especially politicians. They condemned the 'abandoning' of excavation at Keeladi, near Madurai, where a Sangam settlement had been discovered. The ASI recently began its excavations again at Adichanallur.

Two years after the controversy, Union Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in her budget speech of the year 2020 that Adichanallur would be one of the five iconic sites where the union government would order large-scale excavations to unearth a glorious past. And now, the ASI team has resumed the job.

More than gold in Adichanallur

ASI officials said the precious metal was found last week in Adichanallur last week inside a huge urn discovered in a pit with a diameter of 2.63 feet. The urn was interred into a rock of the same diameter. VP Yathees Kumar, who led the excavation, said the gold diadem was 3.5 cm long and found at the depth of 4.40 m. “The diadem is yet to be measured accurately as it is folded on both edges, and also its weight is yet to be ascertained as has sand content now,” he said.

Another ASI expert said the urn contained a number of objects that were made of gold, bronze or iron. As many as 20 iron objects — two inside and 18 outside the urn burial — were unearthed. On the outside, it contained 11 arrowheads, two spearheads, one hanger, an iron plate, a chisel and a long spear of 1.75 m with a decorated handle.

The bronze objects included a circular sieve, a cup with a stand, and two bowls. Interestingly, the cup had a moulded decoration. The urn also had a number of pots and red and earthen wares of varying sizes. As per the ASI expert, the urn also contained paddy husks. 

Collector K Senthil Raj said this was surely one of the most valuable findings unearthed so far in the recent excavation phase. This find perfectly suits all characteristics described by former ASI superintendent Alexander Rea in his Adichanallur excavation report of 1902. 

This excavation resumed after nearly one-and-a-half decades in the southern wedge of Tamil Nadu. It has yielded a wealth of materials, including gold, metals and human remains, which will help archaeologists reconstruct the framework of a civilisation that, by all accounts so far, was glorious and fairly advanced with bustling commerce, trade, general prosperity and transcontinental arrivals.

The ASI team led by Arun Raj, Superintending Archaeologist, Tiruchi Circle, found a perfect trench where a skull of a member of a clan that lived about 3,000 years ago was buried. The team also found a gold diadem, bronze artefacts, headgear, spear, arrowheads, dog toy and paddy, all buried alongside the remains. In the adjacent trench, a small gold ring, assumed to be that of a child, was found at a depth of 30 cm.

The first excavation

In 1903-04, British archaeologist Alexander Rea had unearthed a treasure of over 9,000 objects at the Adichanallur site. As the terrain had changed in over a century since, in the excavations during 2004 and 2005, the ASI found a lot of iron objects and some copper objects but no bronze or gold, as they were more focused on habitations.

In the last two weeks, the ASI team studied Rea’s report thoroughly and found clues and then harnessed technology to zero in on the trenches to be dug at three different sites when the excavation began in October 2021.

Using Geological Survey of India (GSI) data to overlay the maps, the team went for the dig in this particular trench about a month ago. The ‘C’ site, as they call it, has about seven possible burials of the heads of important persons of the clans that existed between 500 to 1,000 BC.

It was in the first trench that they found objects in bronze and gold similar to what Alexander Rea discovered at the turn of the 20th century. It was the gold diadem they were after. Rea had found 14 gold diadems. Now, they had found one, and possibly more were likely to be unearthed, when excavations continue next year.

Inland gold in Adichanallur

Gold was an inland source from the region located north of the present northern borders of Tamil Nadu. History has several pieces of evidence of gold workings in the neighbourhood of the Hutti gold mines in what is now District Raichur of Karnataka. Some of them date back to about 3,000 years ago, says Ravi Korisettar, an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. “The granulite [charnockite] terrain in Tamil Nadu is also reported to yield gold, but how long ago this gold was exploited is not known. However, from 1,000 BCE onwards since the beginning of the megalithic or Iron in south India, gold was a traded commodity. Not surprising therefore that it has been found in Adichanallur,” he says.

“Sanganakallu, a Neolithic and Megalithic site near Ballari in Karnataka, has yielded gold foils but in small quantities and not from a burial context like at Adichanallur,” he says.

“It is one of the best sites excavated after a century. All the artefacts unearthed are excellent,” says an academician-cum-archaeologist at Adichanallur on the condition of anonymity. He expects the ASI to unearth contemporary settlements as the excavation progresses further. Although gold has been found repeatedly during excavations in the country, the earliest in Tamil Nadu was in Adichanallur, he says.

“The diadem, a bejewelled crown or headband, is peculiar to Adichanallur,” he notes further.

Korkai connection

At some distance from the Adichanallur site, which sits at the top of a mound along Tirunelveli-Tiruchendur Road, there is Korkai, an ancient port city of the Pandya kings. As of now, the sea is rough due to the monsoon winds. When the sea calms by September, the State Archaeology Department plans to look for clues connected to an ancient civilisation at this site as well. “Around any port city, there will be satellite villages feeding it. Only then can an habitat survive. Adichanallur could have been one. The entire Thamirabarani river basin has to be surveyed to trace back the civilization,” says the retired academician.

T Satymurthy led the excavation here in 2004-05 as Superintendent Archaeologist, Chennai Circle. He says, “From what it looks like now, we can’t imagine the Adichanallur of 3,000 years ago. Then the Thamirabarani could have been 2 km wide, and the ships could have come up till the present site itself.” The previous ASI report on the 2004-05 excavations led by him was released in 2021, 15 years after it was ready. Prepared by Sathyabhama Badhreenath, the report has some interesting findings about the people of Adichanallur.

Maritime trade

The Iron cemetery of Adichanallur has thrown up interesting information on many branches of bioarchaeology, biological anthropology and social archaeology, the report states.

The Bio Report 1 of Raghavan Pathmanathan on The General Pathological Abnormalities of Adichanallur’s Pre-historic Humans showed the presence of various races during the Iron period at the sub-coastal, prehistoric harbour town at Adichanallur.

Associated materials along with the burials have yielded vital clues for maritime trade activities at the southern rim of the Indian Ocean.

Recoveries of many Tamil cultural artefacts in Vietnam, Cambodia and other South East and Far East Asian countries right from the Iron till the early 17th Century prove that there were aggressive free sea trade activities that flourished for a long time.

As per the report, the results on pathological skeletal and dental abnormalities were remarkable as such abnormalities had never been reported from anywhere else so far. Information on epigenetic variants, genetical pathology and osteogenesis may contribute significant clues in the field of evolutionary genetics and the various factors of stress and strain that operate upon the sea voyagers and settlers of Iron India, the report states.

The recovered skeletal biological data, however, was insufficient to draw a genuine conclusion on the structure of the ancient community. Therefore, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists and prehistorians should systematically excavate (study) this area, the report concludes.

Based on the ASI website, The Hindu, The New Indian Express and other credible sources of historical studies

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