'No cursed treasures or mummies’: Meet one of the youngest female archaeologists in TN

From discovering wall murals to hitherto unseen inscriptions, S Deepika has many credits to her name, but the journey has not always been easy.
'No cursed treasures or mummies’: Meet one of the youngest female archaeologists in TN
'No cursed treasures or mummies’: Meet one of the youngest female archaeologists in TN
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There were two things that fascinated me as a child – archaeology and astronomy. Ironically, while one entails hours spent in the soil, carefully brushing away sandy grains, the other would quite literally propel you to the stars. Torn between the two, I resolved to not choose but to only remain fascinated by it.

But here is someone who did choose and is walking down the road less taken. Archaeologist S Deepika is among the very few female archaeologists in Tamil Nadu and is the only one in her age group.

A science student at school, Deepika was compelled to o her Bachelor’s degree in computers by her parents, relatives and friends. “The pressure was serious. Back in 2004, the IT boom was in full swing. I had no choice but to relent,” she begins. 

But her love for archaeology could not be contained. “I’d sit for hours in the library reading history books. I did drop out after a year,” she laughs. 

Understanding the subject

This was when, after weeks of carefully scouting, she enrolled herself in the History vocational course at Madras Christian College in Chennai. “Many did not know that such a course even existed and I had to deal with the tags associated with taking up history. I was sure of what I was doing, and this was the only course that offered archaeology and museology in addition to history. My batch had only seven students,” says Deepika.

Between 2005 to 2008, Deepika shares that her understanding of archaeology widened. “We started a forum and I was its treasurer. This was also when I understood no one knew about archaeology. Barring myself and one other student no one else had chosen the course for the sake of archaeology. This was the sad truth I had to accept,” she says.

Another major drawback was the lack of guidance. “While we have plenty of excellent scholars in history, we do not have enough colleges offering the right kind of course for those interested in archaeology. Madras University had a post-graduation course in archaeology, but what can you do for your under-graduation then? Some suggested I do a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry and then choose archaeology for my Master’s. It isn't the ideal choice,” she explains. 

Deepika went on to pursue her Master’s degree from Deccan College in Pune, a renowned institute for archaeology and linguistic studies. “The most exciting thing here was we had one student from each state of the country and there were plenty of women in my class. Those two years were the best,” smiles Deepika.

She also expanded her knowledge in archaeology. “All my teachers were extremely good in their respective fields. I also chose to take up scientific subjects – archeobotany and archeozoology, as opposed to the common art and architecture for my specialisation. This has surely given me a unique edge to be able to understand the whole process better,” she shares.

Unearthing history

When you’re an archaeologist, you may not run into mummies and cursed treasures, but you will have your share of exhilarating moments, she says. For her MA thesis, Deepika chose to do deal with ethno-archaeology, a comparative study of past and present. 

“I studied the pearl and conch fishery in the Gulf of Mannar. Of how it was several hundred years ago and how it is today,” she says.

While pearl fishery has been restricted to just cultivating oysters, people still indulge in conch fishing. It is called sangu kuliyal in Tamil and the tradition is continued in Rameshwaram and Thoothukudi districts in TN, says Deepika. “These shells are sent mostly to Bengal for making their traditional white bangles. There are references to these shell bangles being worn by women here in the Sangam period literature as well,” she adds.

This study was helpful when Deepika encountered shell bangles while she was working at the Harappan site in Farmana during her post-graduation. This popular Harappan site is in Haryana today. “The variety of shell used in the making of those bangles can only be found in the Gulf of Kutch or in the Gulf of Mannar. This explains the Lothal’s (in Gujarat today) connect with the Harappan site,” she shares. 

Deepika at Farmana

But the ultimate treasure for archaeologists in one that you and I would never imagine. “If you’ve chanced upon a garbage bin during your excavation, then that’s it! You’ve hit jackpot!” laughs Deepika. “You won’t believe the kind of findings we can make by sifting through someone’s garbage. From the kind of food they ate to the kind of things they used… It’s amazing.” 

Deepika is currently working on her PhD thesis that she began in 2015, 'Feminine Sculptures in Pallava Rock Architecture – A Socio-Religious Study'.

Historical eye 

Deepika has three main discoveries that she is quite proud of. She explains that as an archaeologist, “an eye form the past” is important. “You have to place yourself from when it happened and think from that period of time,” she says.

She stumbled upon an ancient wall mural in Tiruvottiyur temple that was thus far unrecorded and later chanced upon a 7th century AD Pallava Grantha inscription near the Pallava rock-cut cave temple in Mahendravadi.

Deepika was also able to record the earliest representation of Srivatsam, an iconography that represents Goddess Lakshmi, at a temple in Seeyamangalam. “While the temple in Seeyamangalam is quite famous for the very first Nataraja sculpture in Tamil Nadu, the Srivatsam above the Makarathorana above another famed sculpture of the two warriors remained unrecorded,” she explains.


She goes on to add that all these discoveries might not have come to light were it not for her guide and mentor, Dr S Vasanthi, the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist (retd.), State Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu. “Every time I called her with a hunch, she’d go to lengths to check my leads and enter them into our records. This is quite important for a student to stay motivated,” says Deepika.

While women, throughout history, have been at the receiving end of prejudices, a defiant-looking Deepika tells us that not once in her career has she experienced the kind of bias that women are usually subjected to in their workplace.

“I think it has to do with dealing with history. In my personal experience, history has always widened my understanding of human evolution and from that perspective, the gender bias seems very obtuse. I’ve never been asked to not travel late in the night or not do a particular task because I’m a woman. Those complexities do not apply here,” she explains.

Treasures you may have walked right past

When Deepika was doing her undergraduation here in Chennai, the students, along with the zoology department professor, had planned for an exploratory trip to Thiruvakkarai, in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. This village may be famous for the temple, but there’s another more interesting side to it.

“You may have heard of Thiruvakkarai Vakrakali Amman temple. But do you know there’s a geological park for wood fossils here?” she asks. This geological park, we learn, could be older than human evolution. “The trees have been fossilised here and this village is also a famous megalithic (burial) site,” explains Deepika. 

The process of fossilisation takes place due to a lack of oxygen when the organic compounds are replaced by minerals. These trees from several thousands of years ago have been petrified as fossils and have been preserved in this area.

Deepika also shares the first stone tools, dating to over 1.2 million years ago, to be discovered in the Indian subcontinent, proving that India too had a wealthy Palaeolithic history, were found in Pallavaram in the 19th century. Up until then, the Indian subcontinent did not feature in the Palaeolithic sites. It was a phenomenal discovery that lead to other findings across the subcontinent and Robert Bruce Foote, an English geologist who made that discovery, is regarded as the father of Indian pre-history,” she explains. 

Busting myths

Deepika talks at length about the misconceptions that are often associated with archaeology and history in the country. “People also think that if you’re an archaeologist, you’d know everything there is to know in the field. We’ve got plenty of subdivisions that we specialise in. For instance, I have not studied epigraphy, therefore I may not know what the inscriptions actually mean. I need an epigraphy specialist for that.” 

We also learn that archaeology in India focuses more on art and architecture than it does on scientific methods. “But we are changing that now. There’s a lot of awareness, findings from excavations are being sent to laboratories. Archaeologists are opening up to scientific ways now,” she adds.

“This popular notion that archaeologists deal with hidden treasures and solve ancient puzzles is one that gets to me. It is one of the most absurd portrayals, goaded on mainly by films and fiction,” she adds irritably. 

Most of these inscriptions bear details of who gave what, how should the temple be maintained, etc. “Back then, oil for lighting up the temple was of paramount importance. So these inscriptions had details of how such finances were to be maintained. Very rarely, have we found historical events recorded in these inscriptions.”

The representation of history in films and novels too can sometimes be over exaggerated explains Deepika.

“If you’ve seen an ancient wall mural at the Tanjore Big Temple, King Raja Raja, whose fame is incomparable, is actually dressed most modestly, wearing only a waist cloth. So are his wives. This notion that kings wore elaborate clothes and were extravagantly fashioned is a very pop-culture thing,” she laughs.

Raja Raja Chola encircled

Yet, history and archaeology are one of the most underrated subjects with very few students coming forward to learn it. 

According to Deepika, history cannot just be understood by reading a few books and possibly visiting a few sites. “If you’re bored on a Sunday, you should head to the Government Museum in Egmore. The kind of absurd history lessons you’ll learn there, would make you laugh and cry at the same time,” she smiles.

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