Digging for the past at pattanam
Published: 26th September 2010 10:11 AM |
I had absolutely no idea what an archaeological dig meant till I went to Pattanam and stood on the edge of the trenches.
Media specialist Sashikumar, film-maker Ravindran and I went down a ladder into the pits with trowels in our hands and knelt on the ground as archaeologists explained to us how to use our trowels and what to look for. I was nothing less than amazed. To imagine that I was kneeling on ground that belonged to 1st century BCE! It was like magic. The past lies so close to us, unseen, a few yards beneath our feet and the things lodged in the layers of earth down there have a long story to tell.
I was holding an archaeologist’s trowel in my hands for the first time. You have to use it as delicately as a painter his brush or you could end up destroying a valuable find that has been waiting to be discovered for millennia. In fact, once the trowel clears the hard soil around a find, it is indeed the brush that comes into play to do the soft, final contouring before prying the ancient thing loose from the soil.
The startling thing about digging, I found out, is that actually you don’t know what you are looking for. You could find anything, from a piece of Roman amphora to a Macedonian coin to an Egyptian hairpin of bone to a stone necklace. Or a few grains of wheat left behind by a Chinese sailor who cooked a meal there. Or nothing, after a day’s hard work. Excavating is crazy. Because you are engaged microscopically with plain earth in a way that feels unreal.
Pattanam, a coastal village about an hour’s drive from Kochi, Kerala, is said to be the famed port of Musiris mentioned in ancient texts both Indian and Western. The earliest references known, by Greek historian Pliny and geographer Ptolemi go back to the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE. Pattanam was a natural harbour edging the calm lagoons of the Vembanad backwaters, forming a safe haven from the choppy Arabian Sea. It was also centrally situated for the traders from far-flung corners of the world who came there to buy what the Kerala hills are still famous for — spices like cardamom, and ivory which in those days was not a banned item. Some sort of a cataclysmic natural event seems to have closed off Musiris and Kochi emerged as the favorite trading port. Musiris vanished from history.
The excavation at Pattanam is the brainchild of the Kerala Council of Historical Research, whose chairman is Prof K N Paniker and director, Dr P J Cherian who personally leads the archaeological team which includes experts from the Archaeological Survey of India, the Pondicherry University, Thanjavur Tamil University and the University of Oxford. Also associated with the excavations are the British Museum, the University of Rome, the University of Durham, UK, and Sorbonne University, Paris.
The end of the dig at Pattanam is sure to be far off and so will be the final word. But what has emerged from the work so far is a path-breaking chunk of South Indian pre-history revealing the complexity of the Kerala coast’s global trade connections and the cultural melting pot it gave birth to more than two millennia ago. Pattanam points to the possibility of a robust culture with a cosmopolitan core having been active on the Kerala soil long before the Brahminical beginnings traditionally ascribed to it. That will not be to the liking of many
entrenched interests and there is going to be much gnashing of teeth for sure.