‘Pattanam site’s importance isn’t confined to Kerala or India … it tells us the world was here 2,000 years ago’


Archaeological excavations at Pattanam, a small village an hour’s drive from Kochi, tell a fascinating story of a cosmopolitan people who traded with the Roman Empire around two millennia ago. The finds point to the fabled port town of Muziris mentioned in the Greek text Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Muciripattanam in the Tamil Sangam literature. PJ Cherian, the project’s spearhead at inception, has resumed the dig this year on behalf of Pama, a transdisciplinary research collective, after it stalled in 2015. He spoke to Jiby J Kattakayam:

What led you to Pattanam?

Before a successful trial dig in 2004, we knew this could be an archaeological site with frequent reports of local people finding antiques. We visited the village and found the place was full of beads and potsherds. In 2001, a British museologist friend concluded after visiting the area that one pottery could be Italian because of its Vesuvius volcanic material. Many such factors, including ancient literary sources, prodded us to investigate further.

How do you conclude this village is Muziris?

There is clinching evidence. The only question is whether Muziris is confined to the 70 hectares identified as an archaeological mound or goes beyond it. Definitely it goes beyond. It will take generations to complete the excavations. DNA extract analysis of human skeletal fragments conveys a cosmopolitan society. Of 11 samples, four suggested South Asian, four West Asian and three Mediterranean origin. So an amazing mix of people were here. We found material from Gibraltar to Catalonia to Southern China; Pattanam artifacts were discovered at sites like Hepu in China and Khor Rori in Jordan. Pattanam has the Indian Ocean region’s largest cache of Meditteranean amphora jar sherds. Such culturally diverse material pointed to a port site. Then came the wharf discovery confirming a port. We have 38 radiocarbon dated materials dated between 0-400 AD. Stratigraphy offers clarity on the mound which is an elevated area with four metres of cultural deposits. It is a perfect mound though not easily discernible. Typology of materials like pottery, jewellery, points to extensive foreign contacts. Literary sources say the port was inland and it was a riverine island, 25 stades away from the sea (4.5 kms), nearly same as today. Though the site is now landlocked, its geomorphology matches with textual sources in many ways.

Do the finds align with knowledge of that age?

The area that is Kerala today was part of the larger Thamizhagam (area inhabited by Tamil speakers) when Muziris existed. Sangam literature portrays Thamizhagam as a beautiful people in the humanist sense, as very rational, not too much into religion or warfare. They were open minded, believed in technology, welcomed foreign trade and contacts. Most of these elements are present in Pattanam’s finds. We are yet to find weapons meant to harm people, cause injuries. There is only slender evidence of religion. Pattanam society was very organised, there was urbanisation and adeptness in technology. Despite digging just 1% of the 70-hectare mound, we have retrieved 1.3 lakh artifacts made of precious stones and metals like gold, iron, copper, lead, around one lakh beads and 45 lakh potsherds, and numerous terracotta works like ornaments. The variety of pottery, burned bricks and structures resembling warehouses, tiled roofs, toilets, ring wells, besides the wharf implies a very urban, organised society. The site’s importance isn’t confined to Kerala or India. It is beyond our imagination that people from 30 cultures were coming and going with their goods, technology, ideas and languages. A port site cannot exist in isolation; it has networks, operations and interfaces with umpteen port sites and the hinterland. Pattanam tells us the world was here and we went out into the world. The Chera kingdom had surpluses to trade. As shipments increased, entire society had to be tuned into the production processes. The Muziris papyrus agreement between the Alexandria banker and local merchant reveals a sophisticated understanding of trade. The period till the Roman empire’s fall was critical, but trade continued even afterwards.

Can technology help speed up digs?

In the 2014 digging season, Oxford University researchers suggested LIDAR and came with hugely expensive gadgets. The site is very clayish. Like any Kerala village, there is dense vegetation and an intense web of roots running across. Oxford said these two factors aren’t helpful to electromagnetic study. Ground Penetrating Radar works in desert sites with sand and no clay. Unfortunately Indian agencies are behind the technological curve. Recently, Tamil Nadu  introduced new technologies at some sites and their success could help everyone. In Pattanam, we have dug 66 trenches so far but because the site is intensely populated progress will be slow. However, the local people are enthusiastic partners. We are inviting civil society participation and professionals from all walks to join us. Every year, college students across India join us on the digs.

How did the Pattanam settlement end?

We have no indications how the site declined and the port disappeared. Geomorphic studies indicate Pattanam 2000 years back was some sort of riverine island with water bodies crisscrossing it. The usual flood theory was propounded but is inconclusive. However, many water channels are incapable of surviving beyond a few centuries because of silting. Modern Kochi port survives on dredging. Annual flooding might have pushed silt away at Pattanam for a long period and then stopped around 5th century.

How different or similar were these people to us?

They were great agriculturalists, traders, metallurgists. The papyrus document from 2nd century AD is the ancient equivalent of a WTO document. The loan agreement between the Muziris merchant and Alexandria banker had all the elements of insurance and guarantee and ensuring security for maritime goods trade across high seas. They were highly advanced, accomplished people, just like we assume ourselves to be. There is only slender evidence of religion at Pattanam, a piece of writing in Brahmi script referring to an amana, from the sramana tradition of calling someone a teacher. I think they took religion for thought systems rather than rituals. Other finds like sphinx seal-ring and Goddess Fortuna engraving are not religious in today’s sense: they were “pagan” attempts to attribute huge power to living things, to do good things. I believe people were totally irreligious.  Modern society affected by historiography built on religion may want to re-evaluate their ancestors. We don’t yet know Mohenjodaro’s religion but a sculpture looking like a modern priest was given a religious garb. No weapons were found at Pattanam. I believe these were very sophisticated people about whom the world will know more as the excavations progress.

How has Pattanam upended Kerala historiography?

Kerala historiography doesn’t approve of a society as advanced as in Muziris. General notion is pre-ninth century is a dark age. We assumed the ancient people were primitive and couldn’t cross seas but fact is they went transoceanic. Tamil Nadu has no problem with the Pattanam evidence but it creates controversies in Kerala. Thamizhagam of the Sangam age that held sway over most of South has been neglected here. After Madras state became Tamil Nadu we dissociated with the cultural entity that existed before 900-1000AD.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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