Keezhadi charcoal and Tamil Brahmi
Two important developments, both related to archaeology, hit the headlines in September 2019. Both were immediately engulfed in controversies.
Two important developments, both related to archaeology, hit the headlines in September 2019. Both were immediately engulfed in controversies. The first development related to whether or not the Aryans invaded India around the time (circa 1500 BCE) of the collapse of the Harappan civilisation. On the basis of the DNA extracted from a female skeleton at the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana, Vasant Shinde, a noted specialist in the Harappan civilisation, argued on September 6, 2019 that there was no Aryan invasion of India and that no material culture was available to prove the Aryan invasion theory. The findings of a 28-member team led by him were published in the Cell magazine (Shinde et al., an Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers, 2019, Cell 179, 1-7).
Dr. Shinde was Director of Excavation at Rakhigarhi when the site was excavated during three field seasons in 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 by the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, Pune, in collaboration with others. He was then the Vice-Chancellor of Deccan College, a deemed-to-be university. He is now Director-General, Maritime Heritage Complex, Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat. He had told this writer in Chennai on August 11, 2018 (repeat 2018) that “The indications we are getting are strong – that the DNA [extracted from the woman’s skeleton at Rakhigarhi] is local. It matches only with the people of the [local] area…” He asserted, “The Aryans never came here. There is a lot of controversy about the date of the Aryans coming here…” After Cell published the paper authored by Shinde and 28 others, a big controversy erupted among people interested in the subject. Depending on which side of the political fence a person sat on, whether he belonged to the Left or the Right, he found in the research paper what he wanted to find: that the Aryans invaded India or they did not.
The other archaeological development is related to Keezhadi, a village about 12 km from Madurai but located in the neighbouring Sivaganga district, Tamil Nadu. Keezhadi is situated about two km away from the celebrated river called Vaigai which flows through several districts including Madurai, Sivaganga, and Ramanathapuram. The Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI, a Central Government organisation) spectacular excavations led by the young Amarnath Ramakrishna in 2015 and 2016 at Keezhadi yielded a bonanza of brick structures, brick walls, deep terracotta ring wells etc.. The artefacts unearthed included potsherds with Tamil Brahmi scripts, micro pearl beads, gold beads, ivory dices, shell bangles, ceramic ware and so on. All these established that Keezhadi was a Sangam age (circa 200 BCE to circa 300 CE), urban, habitational site. The potsherds with Tamil-Brahmi script established that a literate, educated and elite society lived there more than 2,200 years ago. The ASI’s third season of excavation in 2017, in the midst of an unseemly controversy, whipped up by Tamil zealots did not yield much. In the wake of the controversy, the ASI dropped out of the excavation at Keezhadi. The Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department (TNAD) received the licence from the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology (CABA) to excavate Keezhadi and it excavated the site during two field seasons in in 2018 and 2019.
What has attracted attention and scepticism now is the TNAD’s report released on September 19, 2019 that “the recent scientific dates obtained for Keezhadi findings push back the date of the Tamil Brahmi to another century i.e. 6th century BCE.” The report was titled, “Keeladi – An Urban Settlement of the Sangam Age on the Bank of the Vaigai River.” It added that “these results clearly” showed that the Tamil society had “attained literacy or learned the art of writing as early as 6th century BCE.” The TNAD made this announcement based on the dating of a piece of charcoal, found at a depth of 353 cm in one of the 11 trenches it excavated at Keezhadi in 2018. The accelerator mass spectrometry(AMS) dating of this charcoal piece done at Beta analytic Lab, Miami, Florida, dated it to 580 BCE.
When contacted for clarification, TNAD officials said two potsherds, each with two Tamil Brahmi letters, were found in the same layer in the same trench, where the charcoal piece, which was dated to 580 BCE, was found. So these two Tamil-Brahmi scripts, found on potsherds, were also dated to 580 BCE, the TNAD’s archaeologists said. But there is no mention in the report of the occurrence of these two potsherds in the same layer as that of the charcoal piece.
The operative portions of the report said: “The six carbon samples collected from the fourth season (2018) of excavations at Keeladi have been sent to Beta Analytic Lab, Miami, Florida, USA, for AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) dating and the reports have been received. The sample collected at a depth of 353 cm goes back to 580 BCE.”
“The Keeladi deposit could be safely dated between 6th century BCE and 1st century CE.”
After analysing the dates obtained from Keeladi excavations, Prof. K. Rajan, a noted archaeologist, felt that the recent excavations at Keeladi present a strong evidence to some of the hitherto-held hypotheses.
“The results suggest that the urbanisation of the Vaigai [river] plain happened in Tamil Nadu around 6th century BCE as it happened in the Gangetic plains.”
“Likewise, the recent scientific dates obtained for Keeladi findings push back the date of the Tamil Brahmi to another century i.e. 6th century BCE. These results clearly ascertained (sic) that they [the Tamil people] attained literacy or learned the art of writing as early as 6th century BCE.”
State Minister for Tamil Culture and Archaeology K. Pandiarajan released the TND’s report on Keezhadi findings on September 19, 2019. T. Udhayachandran, Principal Secretary and Commissioner, TNAD, was present. Dr. R. Sivanantham was Director of Excavation for TNAD’s excavations at Keezhadi in 2018 and 2019.
The report said elsewhere that potsherds with Tamil Brahmi occurred in large numbers in Tamil Nadu next only to that of pottery pieces with graffiti marks. A majority of the Early Historic sites excavated in the State had yielded potsherds with Tamil Brahmi script. Scholars called it Damili or ancient Tamil script. Potters inscribed the Tamil Brahmi letters on the shoulder of the pots they made when the vessels were in a wet condition. At Keezhadi, owners of the pots engraved their names on them after they bought them, that is, after the pots were fired/baked in kilns. Representations of various styles of writing supported this view. Besides, it showed that a high level of literacy prevailed in the Tamil society even in the 6th century BCE, the report said. At Keezhadi, 56 Tamil-Brahmi inscribed potsherds were found during the excavations done by the TNAD in 2018 and 2019. Surprisingly, the report spelt the word “Keezhadi” as Keeladi.
Epigraphists say that Tamil Brahmi is the earliest form of Tamil writing and its origin is dated, in general, to circa 300 BCE. The late Iravatham Mahadevan, a scholar in Tamil Brahmi script and the Harappan script, argued that the Tamil Brahmi script evolved from the Asokan Brahmi script and that the Brahmi script was brought to Tamil Nadu by the Jaina monks from north India. Emperor Asoka ruled from circa 273 BCE to circa 232 BCE. According to reputed scholars such as Dr. Y. Subbarayalu and Iravatham Mahadevan, Tamil Brahmi was introduced in Tamil Nadu after third century BCE and it was, therefore, post-Asokan. They have asserted on the basis of historical evidence that Tamil Brahmi cannot be dated to pre-Asokan times. Dr. Subbarayalu, former Professor and Head, Department of Epigraphy and Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur, has argued that the Brahmi script was adapted from some other area to write the Tamil language. In the initial stages of adaption, there were difficulties in using the script to represent some local sounds. Dr. Subbarayalu is now Professor of Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry, Puducherry.
However, other scholars, including the late K.V. Ramesh and M.D. Sampath, both former Directors of Epigraphy, ASI, Dr. S. Rajavelu, former Professor and Head, Department of Maritime History and Marine Archaeology, Tamil University, Thanjavur and the late P.R. Srinivasan, noted epigraphist, ASI, consider Tamil Brahmi as pre-Asokan. Dr. Rajavelu claims that Tamil Brahmi evolved on its own.
While Tamil zealots celebrated the TNAD’s announcement that the Tamil Brahmi could now be dated to 580 BCE on the basis of the dating of a charcoal sample to that date, scholars in Tamil Brahmi are sceptical about the claim. The announcement was music to the ears of the Tamil enthusiasts because they argued that Tamil Brahmi had evolved independently of the Asokan Brahmi and that it was pre-Asokan. But sceptical scholars argued that “multiple carbon dates” were needed to establish that Tamil-Brahmi’s origin could be pushed back to 6th century BCE. What led them to raise questions was that the report and another colourful 60-page booklet prepared by the TNAD on Keezhadi did not mention whether the charcoal sample and two Tamil Brahmi potsherds in question occurred in the same sedimentary layer or stratigraphy in the same trench. Top TNAD officials were cagey when specialists in Tamil Brahmi script and journalists asked them whether the charcoal piece and the two potsherds with the Tamil Brahmi script occurred in the same layer. After this writer made repeated inquiries with several TNAD officials, two of them said two potsherds, each with two Tamil Brahmi letters, occurred in the same layer as that of the charcoal piece. One of the potsherds carried the letters “thi tha.” The TNAD officials did not remember what the Tamil Brahmi letters were on the second potsherd. One of them said while one of the two potsherds was found at a depth of 300 cm, the charcoal piece was located at a depth of 353 cm. But they were in the same layer, he claimed. What made the specialists more suspicious about the report’s claim was that the report did not publish pictures showing the charcoal piece and the potsherds with Tamil Brahmi letters in situ in the same stratigraphy. No drawings were released either.
An authority on Tamil Brahmi inscriptions, who did not want to be quoted by name, asserted that “something seems to be fundamentally wrong” with the date of 580 BCE which was applied to the Tamil Brahmi potsherds. “Something is wrong” with the pre-Asokan dates ascribed to potsherds with Tamil Brahmi letters that occurred at Porunthal, Kodumanal, and now Keezhadi, he said. “To exaggerate the importance of Keezhadi, they are doing many things. Unless the entire report [on the Keezhadi excavations in 2018 and 2019) is published, I cannot talk about the correctness of the stratigraphical finds because I did not take part in the excavations,” he added.
He said: “Keezhadi has become a high political issue. Everybody is interested in Keezhadi without knowing about Keezhadi. Many of them are lay people who do not have any knowledge of archaeology. But they are creating hearsay accounts. They are spreading all kinds of false information. Even if TNAD wants to, it cannot reverse what these people are saying. Even if they [TNAD] say tomorrow that the dating has not been done properly, nobody will believe them. Such is the hysteria now.”
This scholar explained that AMS dating was more reliable when charcoal pieces were dated to 30,000 years to 20,000 years before the present. They were not so reliable with “recent dates” such as 400 BCE or 200 BCE, he said. “Even if the dating has been done properly, we cannot ignore the historical evidence, which is centred around 300 BCE. As far as Tamil Brahmi is concerned, it cannot be dated before Asoka. Even in north India, you cannot have anything [any script] before Asoka. But these people here are saying that the Brahmi script originated here and went to north India.”
Several scholars including Dr. R. Nagaswamy and Dr. Ajit Kumar insisted that “multiple dates” were needed to confirm that the date of the two Tamil Brahmi scripts could be pushed back to the 6th century BCE. Dr. Nagaswamy, former director, TNAD, who has done pioneering work in deciphering the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions on the brow of caves and rock shelters around Madurai and other places, congratulated the TNAD for the “good job” it had done at Keezhadi. He was, however, unhappy that some of the photographs published in the TNAD report bore no markings of the various layers in trenches. “You have to mark each sedimentary layer in a trench and separate them from each other. They should have shown the layers where the carbon samples, which were tested for their dates, occurred, ” he said. The TNAD had not revealed, he said, whether the charcoal piece dated to 580 BCE and the two potsherds with the Brahmi scripts occurred in the same layer. Dr. Nagaswamy added: “If they had occurred in the same level and there was no disturbance there, they can be dated to the same period… We need some more scientific dates and this report can be taken as a tentative report. This is a good discovery. I congratulate the State Archaeology Department for discovering so many material objects including gold ornaments, which look so beautiful.”
Dr. Ajit Kumar, Professor and Head, Department of Archaeology, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, also argued that “if there are more dates from different trenches, it will be a strong evidence” to prove the antiquity of Tamil Brahmi. “It is too dangerous,” he said, to conclude on the basis of one date available at Keezhadi that the date of Tamil Brahmi could be pushed back to sixth century BCE. “One date is too risky. Then we are on wobbly ground,” Dr. Ajit Kumar said.
Indeed, scholars pointed to the “contradiction” between the dates obtained for charcoal samples from the ASI excavations led by Amarnath Ramakrishna in 2015 and 2016 and the dates obtained from the TNAD’s excavation in 2018. The dates obtained for several charcoal samples from two of the ASI excavations were in the same range – between 220 BCE and 290 BCE. But the dates of all six samples obtained from the TNAD excavation fell between the 6th century BCE and 3rd century BCE. A big gap indeed between two sets of dates.
On the other side of the divide is Dr. Rajavelu who argued that, “It was people of Tamil country who invented the Tamil Brahmi, not the Jaina monks from north India.” A hero-stone with a Tamil Brahmi script had been found at Pulimankombai in Theni district. It was the only hero-stone with a Tamil Brahmi script. Another Tamil Brahmi script, on a menhir, was found at Dadapatti in Dindigul district. Dr. Rajavelu said, “We do not have Asokan Brahmi on hero stones. We do not have Asokan Brahmi on pottery. But we have Tamil Brahmi on pottery. It shows it was people’s script.”
A reputed archaeologist put the issue in a proper perspective. He called the date of Tamil Brahmi “a complex issue.” At Keezhadi, the date of the Tamil Brahmi had been pushed back to 6th century BCE (uncalibrated 580 BCE), based on a charcoal piece collected at a depth of 353 cm. It is a century earlier than the hitherto view of 5th century BCE. Till now, 27 AMS dates have been received from four Early Historic sites which yielded Tamil-Brahmi inscribed potsherds. The four sites are Keezhadi (16 dates), Azhagankulam (four), Porunthal (two), and Kodumanal (five). The reputed archaeologist said: “The time range falls between 6th century BCE and 1st century BCE. Of the 27 dates, five dates fall between 5th and 4th century BCE, four dates between 4th and 3rd century BCE, 15 dates between 3rd and 2nd century BCE, two dates between 2nd and 1st century BCE, and one date goes back to 6th century BCE. The availability of more than a thousand inscribed potsherds in different stratigraphical contexts, more than 100 cave inscriptions, and four memorial stones, besides a considerable number of inscribed seals, rings, and coins in different parts of Tamil Nadu clearly suggest the long survival of this script. Of the 27 AMS dates, five dates fall in the 5th century BCE. Hence, the availability of one date in the 6th century BCE has to be studied along with the remaining AMS dates. As suggested earlier, excavation is in progress and less than one per cent of the habitation area has been excavated so far. There is every possibility of getting more dates in future while extending the dig and the future excavations would throw more light on this issue.
“Besides these, it is time to appreciate both the Archaeological Survey of India and the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department for bringing to the floor invaluable artefacts. Every excavation solves some of the problems and hypotheses, and at the same time generates new questions that need to be answered in future. One must congratulate wholeheartedly all the archaeologists and technical staff involved in the Keeladi excavations…”