Keezhadi -- A goldmine of artefacts

The excavation at Keezhadi has shed light on ancient Tamil culture, traditions, lifestyle and art
Keezhadi -- A goldmine of artefacts

MADURAI/SIVAGANGA: I still get goosebumps thinking about the significance of Keezhadi,” says Madurai MP S Venkatesan. The excavations in the region have witnessed their fair share of ups and downs, and the State government is now working to uncover nuggets of history from Keezhadi, to shed light on the ancient culture and civilisation of Tamils.

Each new phase of excavation proves the richness of the sites at Keezhadi and the surrounding villages of Agaram, Manalur and Konthagai, says Dr R Sivanantham, commissioner (full additional charge), Department of Archaeology and director of Keezhadi excavation. 

“We have found two ring wells so far in the present phase. One has embossed decorations and the other is at the natural soil level. Generally, the mouth of the ringwell is decorated, but the latest ringwell has decorations around the ring.”

In Konthagai, skeletons were found in what could be a burial site spanning 5-10 acres. “For the primary burial, they would bury bodies at the surface level, and for the secondary burial, the bones would be retrieved and kept in an urn, or they would place the body inside the urn before burying it,” Sivanantham explains.

People from that era offered food (padayal) in pots along with the burial urns. The remaining sediments of food particles in the pots can help in tracing their food culture. There could be changes due to the age and bacterial influence, but it can lead to something, says Prof G Kumaresan, head of Madurai Kamaraj University’s (MKU) Immunology department. Samples of sediments in these pots, and grains, bacteria and plants, have been collected.

Kumaresan points out that skeletal remains were found not only in Konthagai in Sivaganga, but also in Adichanallur, Sivakalai in Thoothukudi, and Kodumanal in Erode, and are now being stored in freezers at MKU. Pointing out the necessity to blend the History, Literature and Archeology departments, Venkatesan says this would help amalgamate the findings of the excavation and understand the civilisation in detail. “The literature found has helped us understand their lifestyle through poems and texts, but the artefacts from the sites would give us more perspective.”

Noting that the literacy of that era was high, Sivanantham explains, “The pots had inscriptions, and since their depth varies over the pot, it implies that the inscriptions were made before the pots were glazed. Each pot has a different writing style. More than 70 inscribed pots were found, proving that a lot of people were literate.”

As they were literate, they also had trade connections within the country and abroad. “They made objects with an artistic sense in the industry and were experts in water management. Traces of a weaving industry were also found as different spinning objects were unearthed. Remains of animals — bull, peacock, and oxen — also prove people were associated with animals back then, Sivanantham says.

Venkatesan is excited to see the art tradition from that era. “The creators must have undergone years of hard work to hone their creative skills before they manufactured the products,” he points out. He emphasises that the reports of the previous phases of excavation should be published as soon as possible. “Those publications would be the basis for researchers and students to study new aspects in detail,” he concludes.

Keezhadi Museum to come up soon over 30,000 sq ft
Former chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami laid the foundation stone for an on-site museum in Konthagai, near Keezhadi, in 2020. The museum will display artefacts unearthed from the Keezhadi archaeological site. It is being constructed at a cost of  Rs 12.21 crore on a 30,000 sq ft plot

What’s been found in the latest phase

Significant artefacts, including ornaments and a stone axe, were found in the 7th phase of excavation at Keezhadi by the TN Archaeology Department. Here are the top finds

Female figurine
This terracotta structure is the head of a female figurine, with eyes, nose and parted lips. It has elongated ear ornaments, forehead ornaments, and a hair-bun on the left side, which are part of her headgear. Many such figurines have been excavated

Silver coin
This punch-marked coin weighs 2.2 g and was found at a depth of 147 cm. It has designs of the sun, moon, a bull, taurine, animal, and a geometric design on one side, and semi-circles and an L-shaped mark on the other. A similar coin was traced at a depth of 162 cm

Gold wire
This thin gold wire is believed to have been used for ear piercing ceremonies. Its unbent length is 4.5 cm, maximum diameter is 1.99 cm, and minimum diameter is 1.73 cm. It was found 109 cm beneath the surface in Keezhadi

Red globular pot
A red slipware globular pot was found at a depth of 139 cm along with semi-precious stone beads and micro glass beads. Both the height and maximum diameter of the pot are 25 cm, and the diameter of the rim is 11 cm

Games, semi-precious stones & ornaments 
Dice, hop scotches, weavers tools (spindle whorl), ornaments, a unique weighing stone (made of beryl), a hook, iron nails, a stone axe, potsherds with graffiti, intact bowls, pots, debris of bricks, a complete small pot, and hand grooved roof tiles, among other things, were found

What’s the excavation all about? 
The Keezhadi excavation site is a pre-Sangam settlement in Sivaganga district near Madurai, first excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and now by the Tamil Nadu Archaeology department. It lies on the banks of the Vaigai River and reflects ancient Tamil culture. The ASI conducted three phases of excavations, and the second contradicted widely-accepted perspectives by showing that Keezhadi was an industrial site. After the third round, ASI superintendent archaeologist K Amarnath Ramakrishnan was transferred suddenly before he submitted his report. The move was perceived as an attempt to downplay the significance of the findings from the site. Subsequently, the State took on the project, with the report on the fourth phase of excavations in 2019 putting the date of the cultural deposit between 6 BCE and 1st century CE and suggesting that urbanisation of the Vaigai plain happened as in the Gangetic plain. The findings also pushed back the date of Tamil-brahmi by another century to 6BCE. According to the report, Keezhadi was an urban settlement of a highly literate, prosperous people

‘Findings from DNA sequencing will change history’
“Tracing DNA sequences of the remains is bound to be challenging as they have undergone various climatic changes, bacterial processes, and were buried for years. But there are higher chances of DNA sequencing of remains stored in properly-lidded urns, compared to those buried directly. Not all samples from the sites may have DNA sequences, but a few will, and these few will change history and put the spotlight on the civilisation,” says Prof G Kumaresan, head of MKU’s immunology department. An ‘Ancient DNA Laboratory’ will soon be set up at MKU to study the DNA. Details of other DNA sequences from that age will also be collected, and related studies will be used to compare local DNA sequences from the excavation sites. Sivanantham said that if universities, including MKU (because the State Archeology department has an MoU with other universities) and laboratories reopen, they will get more proof and be able to dig deeper at the sites. There are also plans for the MKU to collaborate with foreign universities to study other aspects by scanning skulls and other remains at the sites. The team includes two retired professors of MKU - Pitchaiappan and K Balakrishnan — assistant professor Jeyalakshmi, from MKU’s immunology department, and Dr Maanasa Raghavan, from the University of Chicago. Samples have been sent for a soil test to date the microlithic tools

Groundwater springs hinder excavation in Korkai
Springing groundwater has been an impediment to the archaeological surveys at Korkai in Thoothukudi, and might limit the expedition from reaching the depth of 2.69 m, excavated 52 years ago in 1968-69. Water springs into the trenches even at a depth of 190 cm, say officials of the State Archaeology department. They have so far dug 19 trenches - 17 in Korkai and two in Maramangalam — and unearthed 511 artefacts from Korkai. However, four trenches in Korkai are underwater due to the springs, and excavation has ceased. The officials haven’t yet dug any trenches in the two cluster villages of Agaram and Arumugamangalam due to the high groundwater levels. As per the principles of archaeology, excavation is stopped at the groundwater level, as artefacts contaminated by water could yield varied dating results, say experts. An archaeologist, who pumped out water from the trenches to pursue the excavation, was told to stop by the advisory committee

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