Keezhadi sixth phase: What do the findings so far tell us?

TNM spoke to experts to understand the progress during this phase and the changes that the spotlight on Keezhadi is bringing to the field of archeology in TN.
Keezhadi adult sized human skeleton
Keezhadi adult sized human skeleton
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When the fifth phase of exploration at the archaeological excavation site in Keezhadi, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district, ended last year, several significant findings came to light. This included a possible link between the Indus Valley civilisation and Tamil civilisation through their scripts. It also led to theories that the Sangam era, considered to have started from 300 BCE, could have in fact started earlier, during the 6th century BCE. Then there was the possibility of the existence of an urban civilisation in Tamil Nadu, dating back to 2,500 years ago.

The sixth phase that began on February 19 this year is under progress, and has seen some interesting findings so far. The Tamil Nadu State Archeological Department has been working on the excavations simultaneously at Keezhadi, Konthagai, Manalur and Agaram, with the last three included in the Keezhadi cluster. In a first, the excavation was interrupted for almost two months when the lockdown was announced in India due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

TNM spoke to experts in the field to understand the progress during the sixth phase and the changes that the spotlight on Keezhadi is bringing to the field of archeology in Tamil Nadu.

Sixth phase so far

Some of the findings this year include a furnace at Manalur and a terracotta ringwell at Agaram (structures that were discovered during previous phases as well), six fully intact human skeletons at Konthagai, including one adult-sized skeleton, and weighing stones at Keezhadi amongst other items.

Speaking to TNM, Deputy Director of Archaeology and in charge of the excavations, R Sivanandam, says, “We have found bangles, and the core material used in these bangles indicate that there must have been a bangle industry. We have also found iron, more pottery, graffiti marks, and Brahmi script in the sites.”

Archeologist Santhalingam from Madurai who had closely worked with the excavations during the previous explorations says, “They [archaeologists] have a lot of expectations from the sixth phase. The ringwell was found during the first and second phases too. Konthagai was already identified as a burial site about 100 years ago. We were also able to see the top rim portion of the urns previously. We had expected to see skeletal remains and we’ve seen it as well."

“The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) surveyed 293 sites along the coast of the Vaigai and zeroed in on Keezhadi. The reason was that during some earlier activity, the locals had found a long brick wall. This was a clue for them to go ahead with the site and that turned out to be a phenomenal find. On that note, the sixth phase has not had any groundbreaking findings so far,” he adds.

“But they are expected to continue for a couple more months if the rains don’t interfere, so there’s still more time for us to say how this phase has been,” he points out.

“The inscribed pottery has helped in placing the period as BCE 580. Therefore such findings, coins from the Sangam period or Roman coins, will go to prove that they had strong trading activities and a good literacy rate. If we were to find more such structures, we’ll be able to understand the technology that they used in their architecture,” says Santhalingam.

He refers to the findings in Alagankulam in Ramanathapuram district where archaeologists found Roman coins, potteries and a cross-inscribed seal, that went on to prove strong links for trading activities with the Romans. “We found silver punch-marked coins, carnelian beads, and pottery with impressions (embossing) of artwork in them. Such artefacts will be able to further our conclusions. We will be able to advance the timeline. 580 BCE is the farthest we have gone, we hope to find artefacts that might take us deeper,” he adds.

Where did the present day Tamils come from?

The skeletons that have been unearthed this time have surely grabbed more interest among the public. Professor Dr K Balakrishnan from the Department of Immunology at Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU) is part of the small team responsible for the DNA analysis of the skeletons. While the university is collaborating with the state Archaeology Department, it is also in the process of roping in an American university to help with DNA sampling.

“We will also be setting up an ancient genome laboratory at MKU for which we are setting aside funds and have also identified a small building,” he says.

“The principle behind technology is that DNA is preserved in bones, especially in the human ear bones called the cochlear which is a rich source for DNA. We will be able to extract this DNA, study and establish the ancient DNA sequence. We will then be able to compare it with the present population’s DNA sequence to compare the number of mutations that have taken place,” he explains.

Dr Balakrishnan continues, “We can then calculate how much percentage of people from the ancient civilisation are related phylogenetically to the present day population. We can delineate which small population the ancient Tamil population may have originated from. All related questions can be answered.”

According to Smriti Haricharan, Assistant Professor at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, finding complete skeletons is indeed significant. “We often find secondary, ceremonial burials,” she says, adding that the questions have to go beyond just origins. “The boring question here is if it's connected to the Indus Valley civilisation or not. What did the people at Keezhadi do? How was their way of life? What did they eat, what kind of social segregation did they follow? These are some of the questions we should focus on,” she says.

While finding bones is a good source for further analysis during an excavation, Dr Balakrishnan points out that this is not the first time such bones have been found. “During the 19th century, hundreds of such bones were found in Adichanallur archaeological site in Thoothukudi district. These are preserved in Chennai’s Egmore Museum. Interestingly, molecular archaeology tests were not done in the bones and the government is now mulling DNA research work on these bones too,” he adds.

Just this February, the Finance Minister had announced that an onsite museum will come up at Adichanallur, where excavations began during colonial rule. A number of burial urns were found but the discoveries were not made public by the Archaeological Survey of India, to much criticism.

So far, the findings from Keezhadi have taken us back to 580 BCE. However, the artefacts unearthed during the Adichanallur excavations are the oldest, dating back to as far as 980 BCE. Therefore, undoubtedly, a lot of expectations are placed on finding artefacts in Keezhadi that could possibly beat the Adichanallur findings.

“This is along Vaigai karai (Vaigai shore) whereas Adichanallur is along the Thamirabarani karai (Thamarabarani shore). Madurai Pandian, in fact, moved north from Korkai (Thoothukudi district) as soon as the post was destroyed. We need to see if Keezhadi can beat Adichanallur in terms of timeline. That is the expectation,” Santhalingam adds.

Increasing interest

Santhalingam, who has worked in excavations in the past, shares that over the years, there has been a definite shift in the field of archaeology in Tamil Nadu. “It is surely attributed to the scientific advancements. There is quite a buzz around Keezhadi worldwide. People already have an affinity and interest towards Tamil and Tamil pride. Now Keezhadi has given us material evidence,” he says.

Smriti adds, “What is unusual but great is that a lot of archaeologists have published reports on the progress and findings. The State Department itself had released a multilingual report which is great, and we don't get them often enough.”

“We have been a part of Mangalum, Alagankulam, Adichanallur excavations that have been done. But back then, media exposure was limited and only research scholars were interested in knowing the findings. It is not so anymore,” Santhalingam adds.  Reports have shown that technology like geomagnetism, thermal mapping through drones and ground-penetrating radars (GPR) have accelerated findings from Keezhadi.

Talking about the challenges they faced a few decades ago, he says, “We also didn't have the facilities back then. We’d live in modest accommodations offered to us by a family in the village. Having given us their hut, the family would sleep outside. Access to the nearest tea shops might be a few kilometres away. All that has surely changed.”

Consequently, both Sivanandam and Santhalingam tell TNM that students are showing great interest in learning archaeology, with a handful being a part of excavations too. “Right now the state has a small team of archeology staff. Earlier there were about 30 of us, now there are about 10. They are working at Sivakalai, Adichanallur and Keezhadi clusters. In order to assist, MA and M Phil students are now employed under daily wages. Earlier we did not have that provision,” Santhalingam explains.

Acknowledging that more students have started enrolling in archaeology courses, Sivanandam adds that the state government has also introduced a new full-time, two-year Post Graduate Diploma in Archaeology course (that was previously a one-year course) to encourage interest.

“The authorities too are very encouraging. Udayachandran IAS [Principal Secretary and Commissioner, Department of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu government] has great interest in the language and in the excavations, and is doing his best for those working in the field. This will surely go a long way in attracting more interest in this field,” Santhalingam shares..

With the spotlight on this very significant excavation being made in 21st century India, Dr Smriti says that it is important to also protect the interests of archaeology.

“Archaeology itself is in a way a destructive process. Once you dig it out, you can’t put it back the way it was ever again. That's why there has to be a lot of caution. Thousands of pieces of potshards are being unearthed and every piece has an importance of its own. Having so many findings, it is more important than ever to go at a measured pace. There can’t be a compromise between the scale and quality of recording,” she asserts.

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