What makes the archaeological site intriguing, why did it not receive the attention that Keezhadi does today, and what is being done there at present?

Adichanallur burials and pot shards stylised image
Features Archaeology Tuesday, September 29, 2020 - 17:57

Before Keezhadi, the archaeological site in Sivaganga district, came into the national spotlight, there was Adichanallur. Excavations from this site date back to 1876 when German explorer Dr F Jagor unearthed surprising finds, taking them back to a museum in Berlin, never to be returned to Tamil Nadu.

Another excavation was carried out a few decades later by Alexander Rea, a British explorer who was the then Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). He made significant discoveries at the site and the finds, considered to be an impressive catalogue of Iron Age artefacts from south India, are now displayed at Chennai’s Egmore Museum.

Then, for almost a century, the site gathered more dust, holding its aeons worth of secrets intact. In 2004, ASI under the Indian government went back to the site once again, this time bringing out 169 clay burial urns with skeletons from the excavation site spread across 114 acres. The team, headed by Dr T Sathyamurthy, made several significant findings, the reports of which were published only recently, more than 15 years later.

In April 2019, carbon dating results revealed that the relics from Adichanallur date between 905 BCE and 696 BCE, not just older than Keezhadi but one of the most ancient site in Tamil Nadu. And this is just one among the many fascinating discoveries that we know of Adichanallur.

TNM looks at what makes the archaeological site intriguing, why did it not receive the attention that Keezhadi does today, and what is being done there at present?

The early excavations and findings

Adichanallur is located on the lower valley of the Tamirabarani river in Srivaikuntam taluk in present-day Thoothukudi district in southern Tamil Nadu. Korkai, the ancient seaport mentioned in Sangam literature, is about 25 km from Adichanallur. Korkai is well inland today, with the sea receding several kilometers. 

In his book Catalogue of Prehistoric Antiquities from Adichanallur and Perumbair, published in 1915, Alexander Rea writes of his first visit to the site at the turn of the century, between 1899 and 1900. Beginning 1899 until 1904, Rea would go on to conduct annual excavations at the site.

But before Rea could get there, it was Dr Jagor who brought Adichanallur to light, way back in 1876. Several baked earthenware utensils, a considerable number of iron weapons and implements, great quantities of bones and skulls, and rice husks were some of the finds from Jagor’s excavations. These were first taken to the Museum fur Volkerkunde (Ethnological Museum of Berlin) and much later, in 1963, were moved to the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin.

Between 1899 and 1904, Rea unearthed several artefacts – while burials urns and skeletal remains form a major part of the findings, the iron and bronze objects held more interest for their craftsmanship. The golden diadems, iron weapons, agricultural articles and bronze artefacts were among the rest of the findings.

Speaking to TNM, Dr Sathyamurthy says after Alexander Rea’s excavation in 1904, such objects have not been found. “What he reported as findings – the vessels, golden diadems, weapons, etc – those were not discovered in later excavations. We found only burial urns and skeletal remains. Cultural remains were not found after 1904,” he says.

Dr Sathyamurthy continues, “In fact, some archaeologists say some of the materials may not have been found in Adichanallur at all. The problem was Rea excavated many sites.” However, the archaeologist says that Rea’s findings were taken to be authentic, with several reports subsequently being written based on them.

Who lived in Adichanallur?

Dr Sathyamurthy says that the skeletal remains found at Adichanallur are of mixed racial origins, indicating that foreigners may have travelled to the ancient seaport of Korkai, which is located not too far from the burial site of Adichanallur. He explains, “Dr Raghavan from Australia studied the skeletal remains and shared his reports with me. The thing is, people think that the skeletons belong to a single ethnic group, who were thought to be the original Dravidians. But that is not what we found.”

“Different types of ethnic groups lived there. It may have been a cosmopolitan city like Chennai. Korkai is not far away and Adichanallur can be reached via the Tamirabarani river. It could have been a big settlement,” he says.

Dr Pathmanathan Raghavan, a forensic anthropologist and a scientist of Jaffna-Tamil origin who was formerly with the Australian Research Council, offered to voluntarily study the skeletons unearthed at Adichanallur during the 2004 excavations. He then submitted three reports – one a skeletal biological album, the second on geology and anatomy, and the third on the pathological aspects.

Dr Raghavan’s reports come with significant discoveries but to understand how this perception came to be, we’ll have to go back to the start of the 20th century, to French neuroscientist Louis Lapicque’s brief stint at Adichanallur during the winter of 1903.

In his book The physical anthropology of the megalith-builders of South India and Sri Lanka, American Professor Kenneth AR Kennedy, an internationally known figure in the paleo-anthropology and prehistory of South Asia, covers several anthropological studies and their conclusions made up to the late 1960s.

burial urn from 2020 excavations

potsherd with motifs showing woman, a stalk of paddy, a crane, a deer, a crocodile (2004 excavation)

Kennedy writes briefly about Jagor’s findings at Adichanallur and says, “These were the first human remains from this prehistoric period in India to be brought to Europe for study, but their anatomical analysis was not undertaken until 1966.”

He notes that Lapicque had found evidence to support the thesis of two other French anthropologists – Jean Louis Armand de Quatrefages de Breau and ETJ Hamy – that an African racial element was discernible in “certain contemporary Indian populations”. Lapicque picked up a skull, that of a middle-aged adult female, from Adichanallur, studied its facial features and settled for the theory that proto-Dravidians shared African origins.

Then in 1930, Solly Zuckerman, a British zoologist, analysed two specific Adichanallur skulls from Rea’s excavations and made another significant analysis. He described one to be “clearly and unmistakably Proto-Australian” and the second Mediterranean. He found the second to have close resemblance to the Old Woman of Grimaldi (skeletons found in Italy) that supported the “Out of Europe” theory, which suggests that humankind originated in Europe.

But Zuckerman also wrote that the presence of two racially different skulls did not mean they belonged to different tribes. “It is obvious that their completely different forms imply the presence of two racial stocks. This does not, however, necessarily mean that the two individuals to whom these skulls belonged were members of different tribes; there has been so much racial mixture in the Deccan that collections of skulls from almost any tribe will exhibit marked variation in cranial form,” he observed.

Kennedy writes of Zuckerman’s findings: “Today it is difficult to appreciate the profound importance accorded to this study of two skulls, a report which shaped opinion for many years concerning the physical anthropology of megalithic man not only at Aditanallur (Adichanallur) but also for the entire subcontinent.”

Several early 20th century anthropologists believed aboriginal inhabitants of Australia had a deep connection with the Dravidians who were essentially from Africa and eventually migrated out of the subcontinent.

Then in 1963 came a report by two Indian scientists – Chatterjee and Gupta – who concluded that the skeletal remains at Adichanallur were not from a homogenous race at all. They said that a mix of Australoid and Mediterranean races led to the formation of Dravidian speakers.

“Skulls show resemblance with Veddid or Australoid and Mediterranean types in many characters. […] The Aditanallur series, therefore, is not a homogeneous one, rather a medley of characters of two physical types. From a broad perspective, it would be better to assign those to a race having Veddid-Australoid and Mediterranean strains, which also contribute towards the formation of the Dravidian speakers,” they wrote in their report.

About 40 years later, Dr Raghavan refers to his reports made on Dr Sathyamurthy’s findings and asserts, “Most skeletal analysis from Adichanallur yielded non-Indian results. They were Negroid (African), Australoid, Caucasoid (European and Mediterranean) and more importantly East and South-East Asian origins (Mongoloid).”

According to his study, the racial representations constituted - 14% Negroids, 5% Australoids, 30% Mongoloids, 35% Caucasoid, 8% ethnic Dravidian and the remaining of mixed trait population. 

He refers to his third volume and says, “Not all skeletons were healthy. 40% had pathological disorders, nutritional maybe, infectious and hereditary diseases. In fact, there was a deep pit on the supra  eye orbit ridge in one of the craniums that was thought to be a third eye but I verified it to be a puff tumour on the frontal sinuses. It is caused by a bacteria Streptococcus species that usually attacks sailors, deep-sea divers…”

photo courtesy Dr Raghavan (2004 excavations)

He concludes that the silk and spice trade routes brought many foreigners to Adichanallur, who may have eventually been buried there. He also notes that most of the remains were of late adults, over 50 years of age, (32%) and senile, over 60 years of age, (40%). "There were very little new borns and children that indicates that they may have lived prosperous lives," he adds.

The delayed reports and the long-promised museum

Significantly, in his 1914 report, Alexander Rea notes that quarrying was rampant in the area, posing a threat to the relics, even during the early 20th century, â€śOrders were given by Government to leave the site undisturbed, but these appear to have been unattended to, for quarrying has been going on continuously ever since, with the result that vast quantities of these interesting relics must have been destroyed,” he writes.

Over a century later, little has changed. In February this year, ASI admitted that an earthmover had accidentally destroyed several artefacts in a 75-metre stretch of the excavation site.

While skeletal analysis was done almost 15 years later, Dr Sathyamurthy’s reports too were only recently submitted. “There were some problems around the time I retired in 2005. I was not given the opportunity to write it then, when I had asked two years’ time to submit them. The government said that they had promised the Parliament that the pending reports prior to 2003 would be published immediately and so mine was put on the back burner,” he shares.

Roofing tiles from 2020 excavations

Neither have Dr Raghavan’s reports seen the day of light, forcing him to abandon a fourth volume, much to his disappointment. Leaving aside Jagor’s hauls to Berlin, that are presently neither displayed nor analysed, very little scientific research has been done on the skeletal remains.

Dr Raghavan points out, “While skeletal analysis is as good as DNA analysis, it is right to say that carrying out ancient DNA analysis on tropical deposits at this point will be extremely difficult because once you bring samples up, they get contaminated when exposed to environment. Burials under glacial conditions are more preferred for such studies.”

Dr Sathyamurthy highlights the need for an on-site museum at Adichanallur saying, “If the site is not there and only materials are there, interest may wane. We need a structure to keep up interest. An on-site museum is therefore important for sites like Adichanallur. Arikamedu in Puducherry is a good example.”

While a museum-cum-information centre built in Adichanallur around 2013 lies in a derelict state, the Tamil Nadu government announced that work has begun at the site to establish an on-site museum. However, experts point out that the museum should be state-of-the-art. “A proper scientific museum should come up at Adichanallur, which should have a skeletal biological section, a cultural section and a technological section,” Dr Raghavan adds.

On why many other archaeological sites have not received the attention that Keezhadi has, Dr Sathyamurthy says, “What they found in Keezhadi was discovered in many other sites in Tamil Nadu but not much publicity was given. There’s Poompuhar, Kaveripoompattinam... In fact, one of the latest sites as far as archaeology is concerned is Kodumanal (Coimbatore region). There they found the complete transition status of the people from pre-historic to early-historic period. That is an important site and at the time publicity was not given.”

“In fact, the most impressive findings we got was in Arikamedu in Veerampattinam near Pondicherry in 1945. We found a bigger structure but that was not taken into cognisance. Now the political will is there to find something for culture and so we’re doing it,” Dr Sathyamurthy says.

But even close to 1590 years later, we’ve merely scratched the surface, Dr Raghavan feel. “According to Dr Sathyamurthy only four to five percent of the archaeological site has been excavated. In my opinion, the analysis done on fully preserved skeletons is not going to give the full picture on the community structure. Unless until 60% of the area is excavated it is difficult to conclude the racial analysis. A full-fledge excavation at Adichanallur, the coastal area and even some parts of the sea bed needs to be done,” Dr Raghavan concludes.

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