Unearthing the past

We talk to the Malayali archaeologist duo from Kerala University digging up the wonders of the Indus Valley, a cradle of civilisation, and other historic sites in Kerala
Excavation site at Padta Bet
Excavation site at Padta Bet

On a small hillock at Padta Bet, roughly 15 minutes on foot from the nearby Khatiya village, the only settlement for kilometres in the arid landscape that covers much of Gujarat’s Kachchh district, two Malayalis stood admiring their latest discovery: ceramics.

To be clear, traditional ceramics have been used for over 25,000 years. But their presence on the hillock, part of the Indus Valley, considered the cradle of Indian civilisation, suggested that this patch of land was once a settlement — a 5,200-year-old Early Harappan one.

This was precisely what the two archaeologists from Kerala University were after when they set out in March this year. On their previous visit to the region, in 2019, Abhayan G S and Rajesh S V, renowned for their expertise in Indus Valley, had unearthed a necropolis in Juna Khatiya, approximately 1.5 km away. This invariably also hinted at the presence of settlements in the vicinity.

“The ceramics we found at Padta Bet have similarities to the ones we found at the necropolis in Juna Khatiya, very distinct from the ones found elsewhere in Harappan settlements,” says Abhayan, assistant professor of archaeology at Kerala University, who, with Rajesh, has led several expeditions to the region since the initial survey in 2016.

Shards of history

But what do these pottery shards tell us? “Many things,” says Rajesh, one of the first archaeology graduates from Kerala University. “One, the role played by Harappan settlements in culture formation, and two, human habitation in this hot, barren terrain.”

The findings from Padta Bet indicate a thriving local ecosystem. “A considerable portion of ceramics appear to be of novel kinds,” explains Abhayan. These ceramic types are apparently a local tradition of this region and could be one of the unidentified pottery traditions of the Harappans.

While Rajesh specialises in aspects that concern ceramics (Early Harappan period), Abhayan’s expertise lies in zooarchaeology (Urban phase) — the study of the relationships between humans and animals over time. “The excavations also revealed remains of bones of cattle, sheep and goat, thereby indicating that animal husbandry was commonplace,” he explains.

This multi-disciplinary approach is indeed the norm during archaeological excavations. “Usually, there would be a geoarchaeologist, an archaeo-botanist, an archaeo-metallurgist… It’s always a team work,” says Rajesh.

Conducting studies from different disciplines helps formulate a better understanding of a site’s history and its nuances, and each idea augments the other, Abhayan elaborates. The discovery of a necropolis and subsequently, a settlement in the region; the use of ceramics and animal husbandry all indicate that the site was used by people in different periods.

In the case of Padta Bet, the duo and their team have estimated that it stretched from the Early Harappan (3900 to 2600 BC) to the Late Harappan (1900 to 1000 BC) periods, with 2600 to 1900 BC witnessing an urbanesque mode of living.

“By studying them, we can learn the cultural shifts over this period and what were their catalysts,” Rajesh adds.

The beginnings

The Indus Valley civilisation, which spans 5,000 years, has, no doubt, a ubiquitous presence in history texts, and a gravitational pull as far as Rajesh is concerned. “Though I harboured no interest in archaeology as a youngster, I got ‘pulled’ into it when Kerala University started its first batch in 2001,” he says. Since then, he has developed a deep passion for the field.

The same is the case for Abhayan, who is three years junior to Rajesh at the same university. “Kerala University’s archaeology course was the first of its kind in Kerala. There was no roadmap for us to follow,” he recalls.

The Kerala State Department of Archaeology, too, did not have much to flaunt, with a majority of their staff not hailing from a dedicated academic background.

“This invariably also meant limited opportunities for us graduates. Kerala left much to be desired when compared to states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, which boast active archaeology wings with specially trained staff,” says Abhayan.

Indeed, most of what the state archaeology department did back then was salvage work. This meant finding and keeping artefacts dug out randomly during construction and pipe-laying works.

“Also, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) did not have an excavation branch in Kerala. Only a branch which dealt with the conservation and maintenance of monuments. No fieldwork or explorations,” says Rajesh.

But so much has changed, the duo admit, and the impetus for this is, undoubtedly, the excavations underway to find the legendary port of Muziris.

The golden age

Kerala has been witnessing a boom in archaeological endeavours over the past 10-15 years. Though megalithic studies have been done here since the 1800s, the state only found a place on the archaeology map with excavations commencing at Pattanam.

“It soon paved the way for other excavations across the state — Kottapuram, Vizhinjam, the entire Malabar coast. How trade over the sea connected kingdoms on the rim of the Indian Ocean is now a popular field among scholars. Kerala and Tamil Nadu have much to offer towards this study,” says Rajesh.

Today, archaeology is not merely digging the ground, but rather a very well-thought-out and planned scientific endeavour with regular field trips, explorations, surveys and discussions. “The next 15 years will be the golden age of archaeology in Kerala,” he adds.

The findings that these forays into the past will be instrumental in tearing up our local history, which, penned by the West, “reduces our land and its people before the arrival of colonists in the 1500s as ‘barbarians’ incapable and undeserving of civilisation.”

However, the duo is apprehensive about the predatory nature of our tourism sector as it gallops to new heights. This, they say, is coming at the cost of several historical relics.

“Our focus should be on heritage tourism. But rather than confining tourism to colonial buildings in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, we must open it up to earlier eras as well. There are many splendid iron-age remnants in Thrissur, and several still dotting our coastline,” says Abhayan.

What’s next?

Having discovered what they intended to do at Padta Bet, the two now intend to extend the survey to neighbouring sites in hopes of finding other satellite settlements. On their radar is Lakhapar, yet another secluded village in Kachchh district.

As always, they will have ample support from their team, which has now grown to include post-graduate students from Kerala University’s archaeology department, research scholars and assistants, and occasionally, batches from other colleges, both in India and abroad.

“There’s also one more ingredient to a successful discovery — local support. The suggestions and advice of villagers are very important and can’t be overlooked. A major part of our survey is also talking to elders, educators and local historians,” says Rajesh.

“Our team is also planning an exploration at Punnakad in Malappuram. We already have received ASI’s permission for this. Training is underway and work will commence later this year,” adds Abhayan.

Other works

2010-13: An excavation work near Vizhinjam, a first-century port town, under the leadership of Dr Ajith Kumar of Kerala University

From 2013: A long-term international multidisciplinary research project at Navinal, Kachchh district in Gujarat

2016: Several excavations to unearth megalithic, medieval and iron-age sites and remnants in Kerala, including Arikkady or Kumbla (fort site) in Kasaragod

2016: Survey begins at Lakhpat taluk in Kachchh district, Gujarat, to find Harappan settlements; finally, zeroing in on Juna Khatiya

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