Every sight has a story to tell

Tales that pots tell: Keeladi excavations

In 2015, on the banks of the river Vaigai, near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, archaeologists unearthed several artefacts dating back to the 6th century BCE. They offered many clues to the archaeologists about that civilisation: it told them about the language and literacy levels, the social hierarchy, and the age of the civilisation. What are now known as the ‘Keeladi excavations’ point to the existence of a literate society in parts of South India nearly 2,500 years ago!

In 2015, on the banks of the river Vaigai, near Madurai in Tamil Nadu, archeologists unearthed, among several other artefacts, a potsherd with the name ‘Kuviran’ scratched on it in Tamil Brahmi script. And that offered many clues to the archaeologists about that civilisation: it told them about the language and literacy levels, the social hierarchy and the age of a civilisation. What is now known as the ‘Keeladi excavations’ point to the existence of a literate society in parts of South India nearly 2,500 years ago! But how can broken pottery fragments give archaeologists such great insights into our past? 

Keeladi excavations, Tamil Nadu
Potsherds with graffiti revealing clues about an ancient society in South India

Pottery was invented around the same time that mankind opted for a sedentary lifestyle. Around 6500 years ago, man settled around  fertile river valleys and started cultivating the land. However, he had still not invented irrigation. So, to water his crops, he needed some way to carry water from the river to his field. The closest  available material was the clay around the river beds. It was malleable, inexpensive and abundant. Even better, it could be easily moulded to any desired shape. A roughly shaped and baked container was probably the first clay vessel to be born.

Late Neolithic pottery
Late Neolithic pottery (3600-3000 BCE) from Crete

Cut to many thousand years in the future. The potter now had the pottery wheel. This was a huge step in the evolution of pottery. The potter could now turn the pot as he worked on the clay. This led to a more symmetrical and uniform design. The potter was also creating scratches or patterns on the clay before they were baked. This was how the earliest pottery decorations came to be.

Pottery, Quetta valley, 2800-2500 BC
Pottery, Quetta valley, 2800-2500 BC

Over time, pottery has evolved to more complicated techniques and materials. But these old ware have stood the test of time and we still find fragments of early pottery at various archaeological dig sites. Why, unlike  any normal, natural material, have these ware not degraded? Thanks to a unique property, clay, once baked, becomes completely impervious to decay. It might break and fragment, but it will not degrade. This is a blessing for all  archaeologists who use these fragments to understand the lives and times of our ancestors. By using techniques like carbon dating, experts can pinpoint  the age of the artefacts with reasonable accuracy.

Dancing girl, Mohenjo Daro
Note the similarities between Mohenjo Daro’s Dancing girl and the figure found in Haryana’s excavated pot

In the Indian subcontinent, the  earliest known pottery was discovered  in Lahuradewa ( in the Gangetic Plain of Uttar Pradesh) and is dated to 7000 BCE. 

The most well known, of course, is the Indus Valley Civilization. The Indus Valley Civilization was spread over parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and lasted from around 2500 BCE to 1700 BCE. And it is interesting to observe how the archaeologists are able to put together a composite picture by observing the artefacts. 

The Dancing Girl is a symbol of Mohenjo Daro. And here is another picture of a potsherd from Bhirrana, Haryana, India. Observe the resemblance between the figures. Did two artists from these two different locations come up with the same design independently or did one inspire the other? It is like putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle, except that some pieces are currently out of sight.

Down south, the recent excavations at Keeladi, a small village near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, yielded many artefacts. Since 2015, archaeologists have dug up nearly 300 sites all along the Vaigai river – an area that is now called the Vaigai River Valley Civilisation.

One of the most exciting discoveries in Keeladi was the unearthing of potsherds with etchings, suggesting that there was an urban and literate society in Tamil Nadu nearly 2600 years ago. In fact, these discoveries have pushed the edge of known history of south India back by three centuries, from 3rd century BCE to 6th century BCE!

Keeladi excavations, Keeladi Museum
A black and red ware bowl found at Keeladi

Some of these fragments bore names like ‘Kuviran’ and ‘Aathan’. Archaeologists believe that these were not just names of the residents of Keeladi, but some of them were honorifics or titles, suggesting the existence of a hierarchy in the society.

The finds are not just restricted to potsherds. Excavations have yielded terracotta sculptures, gold jewellery, beads etc suggesting that the society was well to do and could afford these luxuries. They also found terracotta roof tiles and water pipes, suggesting that the people of Keeladi were knowledgeable in water management too.

Terracotta ring well, Keeladi excavations, Keeladi Museum
Terracotta ring well, Keeladi excavations

Another interesting fact is that these potsherds were discovered at various layers of the site. Those discovered in the upper layers have inscriptions in the Damili script, an early precursor of modern Tamil. A little deeper, the potsherds of the middle layers had inscriptions in both Damili and some other scratch marks. Epigraphists call these ‘graffiti’. And potsherds found deeper still bore only these graffiti marks. Some of these graffiti marks are remarkably similar to the Indus Valley script that remains undeciphered to this day. The Indus Valley Civilization existed around 2500 BCE, and we now know that the Vaigai valley civilization was at least as old as 580 BCE. Could this mean that the Vaigai Valley Civilisation was older than we know now? Or did the people of Keeladi have ties with the people at Harappa or Mohenjo Daro? Or did the Harappans migrate south?

The excavations are still ongoing and it is likely that they will bring us more answers and many more questions – all adding to our understanding of our past!

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  1. Potsherds with graffiti – Storytrails
  2. Late Neolithic pottery (3600-3000 BCE) – from Crete: Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  3. Pottery, Quetta valley, 2800-2500 BC – Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
  4. Mohenjo Daro’s Dancing girl and the figure found in Haryana’s excavated pot – https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-Dancing-Girl-a-small-bronze-statue-found-at-Mohenjo-daro-now-in-The-Louvre-Paris_fig10_286244261
  5. Black and red ware bowl found at Keeladi – Storytrails
  6. Terracotta ring well, Keeladi excavations – Storytrails
  7. Comparison of the graffiti found at Indus valley and Keeladi sites: Keeladi Museum, Madurai – Storytrails



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