The excavation at Sivakalai
Excavations are on at Sivakalai, which is situated 40 km from Tirunelveli town in southern Tamil Nadu. It is an archaeological site to watch out for, and has considerable promise and potential, according to reputed archaeologists.
Sivakalai is an archaeological site to watch out for. It is a site with considerable promise and potential, according to reputed archaeologists. Sivakalai is situated about 40 km from Tirunelveli town in southern Tamil Nadu. But it comes under the neighbouring Tuticorin district.
As the images of perfectly made, half-exposed burial urns in the trenches at Sivakalai kept coming off the screens of Tamil television channels on the night of June 15, 2020, a sense of nostalgia overwhelmed this writer. For this writer was witness to about 160 big burial urns being meticulously excavated in trenches at Adichanallur in 2004 and 2005. There are similarities between the archaeological sites of Sivakalai and Adichanallur. They are both Iron Age, urn burial sites. Iron age was extant in Tamil Nadu from circa 1200 BCE to circa 300 BCE. Sivakalai and Adichanallur are situated just seven km apart. Both are situated on the banks of the Tamiraparani river. Archaeologists believe that both Sivakalai and Adichanallur are contemporaneous sites. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that Adichanallur could be dated between 905 BCE and 696 BCE. Experts have assigned Korkai, a nearby important port site, to circa 785 BCE. So archaeologists are confident that Sivakalai must have been thriving from circa 900 BCE.
While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle, did a spectacular excavation at Adichanallur in 2004 and 2005, it is the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology (TNAD) which is now engaged in the excavations at both Sivakalai and Adichanallur. The TNAD is also currently excavating the Iron Age, megalithic burial site of Kodumanal, near Erode, and the Sangam age site of Keezhadi, near Madurai. It is puzzling why the TNAD has chosen to dig at Adichanallur, Kodumanal and Keezhadi, which have been already excavated by the ASI. The TNAD's reluctance to go for new sites except that of Sivakalai is intriguing.
The TNAD resumed the excavation at Sivakalai from May 25, 2020, after the coronavirus lockdown interrupted the digging which had preliminarily begun in February.
If the excavation at Sivakalai has generated considerable excitement among professional, field archaeologists, it is not without reason. What is important about Sivakalai is that it is not only a massive urn-burial site but it has two big habitational mounds, which are more or less intact. While the burgeoning cultivation has destroyed the three habitational mounds of Adichanallur, including one at Adichanallur itself, and the remaining two at the nearby Kaalvai and Karungulam villages, the two big habitational mounds of Sivakalai have not been disturbed much. These two habitational mounds are at Sivakalai itself and the nearby Parakrama Pandiapuram village.
(Habitational sites are residential areas where people lived. Excavations at habitational mounds throw light on the kind of society that lived there, their way of life, what kind of houses they lived in, how prosperous they were, their customs, mores, jewellery etc.)
The credit for discovering the Sivakalai site goes to A. Manickam, a 44-year old teacher of history in a private school there. He discovered it in 2015. When contacted, Manickam said, "Every day, when I would go to school in the morning and return home after teaching there, I used to cross the site. I used to see the rims of urns jutting out of the mound; black and red ware potsherds; white painted black pottery; copper objects; knives, daggers and swords made out of iron and so on. An inexplicable feeling of joy used to overwhelm me." He wrote to the ASI, New Delhi and the TNAD headquartered at Chennai. Manickam sent pictures of the surface finds at Sivakalai to a TNAD official. The ASI sent two of its archaeologists from the Chennai Circle to explore Sivakalai. One of the two ASI archaeologists - a young and dynamic man - discovered the two habitational mounds of Sivakalai. In sum, while Manickam discovered Sivakalai's massive burial mound, a young and resourceful ASI archaeologist found its two habitational mounds.
Dr K. Rajan, a reputed field archaeologist who retired recently as Professor of History, Pondicherry University, called Sivakalai "a good site". He explained why: "So far, in the Tamiraparani river valley, we have not excavated a good habitational site except at Korkai. Although Adichanallur is one of the biggest sites in the Tamiraparani river region, only its graves were exaggerated. In the 1970s, Dr R. Nagaswamy [former Director, TNAD] excavated the Korkai site. After 50 years, they are excavating a very good habitational site now at Sivakalai. It may give a good picture of the life that existed during those times in the Tamiraparani river valley."
Dr Rajan pointed out that excavations at any habitational site would provide information on who were the people that lived there, what type of society they had, why they adopted the ritual practices found in their graves etc. Details of their life would be unravelled, he said.
An ASI archaeologist assessed thus, "Sivakalai is a good site. It has two big habitational mounds. It has been continuously occupied from the Iron Age to the present-day. We have a 19th-century inscription too in Tamil there." The estimate of another young archaeologist from the TNAD was this: "Sivakalai is a wonderful site. There could be a link between the Adichanallur and Sivakalai sites."
Two TNAD archaeologists, M. Pirapakaran and T. Thangadurai are leading the excavation at Sivakalai now.
Manickam, who teaches history up to standard X pupils in Sri Kumara Gurubarar Swamigal Higher Secondary School at Sivakalai, is delighted that excavation has become a fait accompli there. "Whenever I used to cross the area [with the mounds], I used to feel something important about it. I took my friend there. We saw an inscription there. We discussed it. Then I got interested," Manickam said. Every morning and evening, he would visit the mounds where he saw microlithic tools lying on the surface, rims of the urns jutting out of the soil, black and red ware, iron knives, daggers and swords, copper vessels and so on.
To go back a bit in time, Adichanallur (repeat Adichanallur) has a history of excavation. The urn-burial site was brought to light when a German, Dr Jagor, conducted a haphazard excavation there in 1876. An Englishman called Alexander Rea, who was a Superintending Archaeologist in ASI, excavated it between 1899 and 1905. A Frenchman called Louis Lapique also excavated the site in 2004. (Frontline, July 1, 2005)
The excavations done by Rea at Adichanallur yielded about 6,000 objects. They included potteries of different varieties; iron implements and weapons; bronze vessels and ornaments; some stone beads; lampstands, bell-mouthed jars, necklaces, swords, spears and arrows.
Rea's important discoveries were many urns with complete human skeletons inside. There were husks of rice and millets in small, funerary pots inside the urns. The urns with human skeletons inside had lids over them. As Rea himself observed, the position of the bones inside the urns suggested that the dead bodies had been set inside in a sitting or squatting position.
However, his most outstanding discoveries were several gold diadems with a hole on each end for tying them around the forehead. Several bronze figurines of the buffalo, the goat or the sheep, the cock, the tiger, the elephant and the antelope were found as well. Another important discovery of his was the figurine of the Mother Goddess. Rea systematically documented all the objects he found at Adichanallur's burials and handed them over to the Government Museum, Egmore, Chennai. Some of these objects are on display in the museum.
After a gap of 100 years, Dr T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, started re-excavating the urn burial site of Adichanallur in 2004. He was the Director of the excavation there. He immediately struck gold. The second field season of excavation took place in 2005, which was again successful. Dr Satyamurthy called Adichanallur "the earliest site in Tamil Nadu." His young team of enthusiastic archaeologists included G. Thirumoorthy, Arun Malik, Nambi Rajan and C.R. Gayathri.
The excavations revealed about 160 big, burial urns, 57 of them intact, and 15 with complete human skeletons inside. There were empty urns too with clan marks. The cornucopia of artefacts found included a staggering range of spectacular objects. They included a lot of black ware, red ware, black and red ware, copper bangles, copper ear-rings, terracotta vessels, pots and vases with beautiful decorations, Neolithic celts, iron implements etc.
Dr G. Thirumoorthy, who is now an Assistant Professor of History in the Central University at Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu, said then, "Adichanallur showed the importance given to the dead in the Tamil society. The excavation reveals the mode of burial practice, the disposal of the dead, the religious beliefs prevalent then, and the socio-economic conditions of the people who lived here at that time." (Frontline, July 1, 2005).
A unique discovery at Adichanallur then was a potsherd with motifs in applique designs, which were made using clay. The motifs included a tall and slender woman with prominent breasts wearing a knee-length dress; a young deer with straight horns and upturned tail; a crocodile; a sheaf of standing paddy; a crane seated on the paddy stalk; and a knob mark. An expert on such motifs on ceramics called this find "amazing" and "fantastic."
After the ASI's excavation at Adichanallur in 2004 and 2005, the TNAD is re-excavating it from May 25, 2020. But the Centre did not permit the TNAD to re-excavate within the 126-acre protected area that belongs to the ASI where the TNAD wanted to dig. So the TNAD is now digging outside the ASI' protected mound.
Rea explored (repeat: explored) 38 sites including Adichanallur and Korkai in the Tamiraparani river valley region from 1902 to 1904 CE. In Rea's estimate, Korkai was an important site but he did not dig there. He excavated only Adichanallur.
What is important about Sivakalai (repeat: Sivakalai) is that after 116 years, archaeologists have now found a big burial mound there. The burial mound is extant over an area of about 100 acres in the villages of Sivakalai, Betma Nagar and Meenakshi Nagar. Three types of burial urns have been found at Sivakalai: red ware; black and red ware; and the third, new variety of urns are made of clay mixed with lime. "The occurrence of this red ware mixed with lime is rare. We have got only a couple of such urns at Sivakalai," said an ASI archaeologist, who had explored the area earlier.
Some of the urns found at Sivakalai have clan marks similar to those excavated at Adichanallur. Iron implements, again akin to those found at Adichanallur, are scattered on the surface at Sivakalai. "We, therefore, assume that Sivakalai will be of the same pattern as Adichanallur," said an ASI archaeologist. A TNAD archaeologist too was confident that there could be "a link" between the two sites.
Sivakalai's two habitational mounds are found at Sivakalai itself and the nearby Parakrama Pandiapuram.
What is important is that both the burial mound and the two habitational mounds at Sivakalai are largely intact. On June 15, 2020, six urns were found in the burial mound there. Black and red ware have been found.
TNAD will soon be digging the two habitational mounds too, which will provide information on the ancient society that lived there. In the Tirunelveli region, habitational mounds have not survived because burgeoning cultivation has destroyed them. Water from the Tamiraparani river has led to widening agriculture. Although habitational mounds were found at Korkai, Agaram, Tirukolur and Ulakkudu, all situated in the Tamiraparani river region, they have been vastly destroyed. However, the habitational mounds at Sivakalai have not only survived but they cover a big area. "So this is a good site," asserted the ASI archaeologist, who explored Sivakalai and its neighbouring areas. "If we get bronze objects at Sivakalai just as we got a rich collection of bronze artefacts at Adichanallur, we can say that Sivakalai is coeval to Adichanallur. Sivakalai too can be dated to circa 900 BCE or even earlier," said an ASI archaeologist.