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Keeladi Archaeological Site

Keeladi Archaeological Site



  • Keeladi, a tiny hamlet located 12 km southeast of the historic city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu.
  • The Keeladi tale began to unravel in March 2015.

First round 2015

  • The first round of excavation, undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), unearthed antiquities that “may provide crucial evidence to understanding the missing links of the Iron Age [12th century BCE to 6th century BCE] to the Early Historic Period [6th century BCE to 4th century BCE] and subsequent cultural developments.”

Second round - 2016

  • The second round (2016) threw up strong clues about the existence of a Tamil civilisation that had trade links with other regions in the country and abroad.
  • This civilisation has been described by Tamil poets belonging to the Sangam period. (Tamil Sangam, an assembly of poets, had its seat in Madurai between 4th century BCE and 2nd century BCE. The works of this period are collectively called Sangam Literature). This round was significant as it provided archaeological evidence about what was found in Tamil literature.

Third round-2017

  • Results of carbon dating of a few artefacts, which were released in February 2017, traced their existence to 2nd century BCE (the Sangam period).
  • The third round (2017) saw a delayed start.
  • Keeladi almost faded from public memory as there was no “significant finding” in the third round. This led to criticism that the excavation had been deliberately restricted to 400 metres.
  • On the intervention of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, ASI permitted the SDA to take up further excavation on its own. Thus, the excavations in the fourth round were carried out by the SDA.

Fourth round – 2018

  • In the fourth round (2018), 5,820 antiquities were found. These included brick structures, terracotta ring wells, fallen roofing with tiles, golden ornaments, broken parts of copper objects, iron implements, terracotta chess pieces, ear ornaments, spindle whorls, figurines, black and redware, rouletted ware and a few pieces of Arretine ware, besides beads made of glass, terracotta and semi-precious stones.

Earlier history

  • Based on radiometric dates recovered from archaeological sites like Kodumanal, Alagankulam and Porunthal [all in Tamil Nadu], we know that Tamili [the Tamil-Brahmi script] was dated to 5th century BCE. But the recent scientific dates obtained from the Keeladi findings push back the date by another century.

The Vaigai Valley Civilisation

  • The Keeladi findings have led academics to describe the site as part of the Vaigai Valley Civilisation.
  • The findings have also invited comparisons with the Indus Valley Civilisation.
  • A researcher of the Indus Valley Civilisation and retired civil servant, R. Balakrishnan, points to the similarities in urban planning between the Indus Valley and Keeladi.
  • Rajan refers to the cultural gap of 1,000 years between the two places: “This cultural gap is generally filled with Iron Age material in south India. The graffiti marks encountered in Iron Age sites of south India serve as the only residual links between the Indus Valley Civilisation and south India.”
  • Some of the symbols found in pot sherds of Keeladi bear a close resemblance to Indus Valley signs.
  • Graffiti marks are found in earthenware, caves and rocks in or near the excavation sites of Tamil Nadu.
  • The Tamil Brahmi script, found engraved on the outer surface or the shoulder of black and red earthenware in Keeladi, carries personal names, say archaeologists. According to the SDA report, “One of the sherds carries the vowel ‘o’ at the beginning of the name which is rarely found in both cave and pottery inscriptions.”
  • Keeladi reflects all the characteristics of an urban civilisation, with brick structures, luxury items and proof of internal and external trade.
  • An interesting feature of Keeladi is that it has not revealed any signs of religious worship in all the five rounds.
  • Till now, it has been a tale of an industrious and advanced civilisation that celebrated life. The artefacts unearthed at Keeladi are evidence of this.
  • Recent finds include seven gold ornaments, copper articles, gem beads, shell and ivory bangles, and brick structures that point to the existence of industrial units.
  • Structures that could have been used to convey molten metal or filter liquid strongly point to the existence of people who were involved in industrial work.
  • The SDA report concludes that the “recent excavations and the dates arrived at scientifically clearly suggest that the people were living in Tamil Nadu continuously... and the Keeladi excavation [has] clearly ascertained that they attained literacy or learnt the art of writing [Tamil-Brahmi] in as early as 6th century BCE during [the] Early Historic Period.”

A sophisticated urban settlement

  • Keeladi is significant for many reasons. It has given evidence of urban life and settlements in Tamil Nadu during the Early Historic Period.
  • It was around this time that evidence for a second urbanisation started appearing in the Gangetic Valley.
  • Keeladi has added greatly to the credibility of Sangam Literature.
  • To substantiate this point, he recalls the observations made by K. N. Dikshit in 1939 when he was Director General of ASI: “Considering that the conch shell, typical of the Indus Valley civilisation, and which seems to have been in extensive use in Indus cities, was obtained from [the] south-east coast of the Madras Presidency, it would not be too much to hope that a thorough investigation of the area in Tinnevelly District and the neighbouring regions such as the ancient seaport of Korkai will one day lead to the discovery of some site which would be contemporary with or even little later than the Indus civilisation.” This is exactly what has happened in Keeladi.
  • Twenty-three bangle pieces made of shell and glass were found in the fourth round.
  • Another Director General of ASI, B.B. Lal, had suggested in 1960 a possible link between the undeciphered Indus signs and the graffiti marks on black and red ware pottery of Tamil Nadu.
  • Keeladi was indeed an urban habitation. Seventy samples of animal skeletal fragments, which were tested by the Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, show 53% of them belonging to oxen, cows, buffaloes and goats. This indicates that the habitants were predominantly cattle-rearing people.
  • Balakrishnan is excited about the presence of oxen and cows belonging to the Bos indicus species. The hump of the Bos indicus species is referred to as imil in Tamil literature, which later came to be known as timil. The grandeur of this species, which was also present in the Indus Valley, lies in its hump, points out Balakrishnan.
  • Bos indicus is also the icon of the ancient sport eru thazhuvuthal or eru anaithal (embracing the bull), which was prevalent in villages around Keeladi. In this sport, now practised as jallikattu, the contestant is supposed to hold on to the hump of the bull inside the arena for a particular distance or period of time.
  • Analysis of samples of materials used in the construction of walls, sent to the Vellore Institute of Technology, has shown that every specimen contained elements like silica, lime, iron, aluminium and magnesium.
  • More significant are the letters engraved on pots that clearly demonstrate the “high literacy level of the contemporary society that survived in 6th century BCE.”
  • It is inferred from the spectroscopic analysis of black and red ware by the Earth Science Department of Pisa University, Italy, that “the potters of Keeladi were familiar with the technique [of using carbon material for black colour and hematite for red] and knew the art of raising the kiln temperature to 1100°C to produce the typical black-and-red ware pottery.”
  • They had also followed the same technique and materials from 6th century BCE to 2nd century BCE. “A few pottery samples of 2nd century BCE do contain earth content similar to that of other regions, thereby suggesting that they exchanged goods with neighbouring regions, probably through traders, craftsmen and visitors,” says the SDA report.
  • The antiquities, taken together, suggest that the prime occupation of the people of Keeladi was agriculture, which was supplemented by the iron industry, carpentry, pottery-making and weaving.

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