Archaeology in Kerala

20th March 2014


P J Cherian

The other day in Pattanam, central Kerala , we had an amazing opportunity to see an archeological site in progress and meet with the site’s director.  I’ve seen many artifacts uncovered by archeologists, especially in Egypt, but this was my first chance to visit an active site.

The site was first excavated due to some surface findings, with digging starting in 2007.  The site now includes 4 acres of land with nearly 45 separate trenches in a heavily populated area.  All but one of the trenches have produced artifacts thus far.  The effort is lead by P.J. Cherian, the Director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research.  The team is made up of 20-25 locals, which a rotating cast of visiting team members, including 12 people coming from Oxford next week and 4 or 6 coming from Australia in the next few weeks.  The excavation is mostly funded by the Kerala state government, and won’t be displayed publicly for at least a year.

Pattanam trench, 1 of about 45.

Cherian said one of the biggest obstacles to his line of work in India is a lack of interest and education among the population.  In the words of his son, “why do you need the history of 2000 years, isn’t 200 enough?”  Of course finances are also an obstacle, and it was clear his focus is on the research (at least for now) more than the eventual display of these artifacts.

The artifacts from the site go back as far as the Iron Age (1000 BC), covering 90 generations over 2,000 year period.  When speaking about the significance of the site, Cherian said this site yielded 4 million pieces of pottery–previously, only 700 pieces had been found throughout all of India.  Within the historical context, it has long been known that there was a major international port city in the area, but historians didn’t know its exact location.  The presence of artifacts from Mesopotamia, the rest of India, pre-Islamic Middle East including what is now Yemen and Oman, and Europe make him confident that this is that trade city.  The oldest layers contained evidence of regional travel, with successive layers containing evidence of trade from farther afield.

The sign that caught my eye

Towards the end of our visit, we went to the office/museum to see some pieces that have been unearthed so far.  On one of the signs, I noticed the term “feminist archeology” referenced and, of course, my interest piqued.  I asked Cherian about the term, and he responded that it refers to archeology that tries to imagine the worlds of women and children.  He said, “We never imagine women when we undertake archeology.  We just think of men, even today, because it is a male-dominated patriarchal society.”  In his words, this type of archeology attempts to answer the question, “where were your women, what were they doing?”  I’m glad that these questions are now being pursued by archeologists and that their absence from traditional archeology is being addressed.  However, it is a bit pathetic that women and children have historically been ignored by the field (and many others), and I find realities like this are the reason we need a term like feminism (as about to “humanism” or “equality”): the generic terms that sound inclusive have historically been exclusive, and that needs to be recognized if it is to be remedied.

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