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13 January 2008
Study points to 500 BCE Kerala maritime activity

Kerala (southwestern India), may have had maritime contacts with far off lands as far back in time as 500 BCE or even earlier, archaeological studies now suggest. The Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), which last year conducted archaeological explorations at Pattanam, 7 kilometres south of Kodungallur in Ernakulam district, says scientific analyses of material collected from the area have shown the maritime activity there to be as old as 500 BCE. "The artefacts recovered from the excavation site suggest that Pattanam, with a hinterland port and a multicultural settlement, may have had links with the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the South China Sea rims since the Early Historic Period of South India," said P. J. Cherian, Director, KCHR.
     The KCHR undertook the excavations in February-April 2007 and sent charcoal samples from the Iron Age layer and parts of a wooden canoe and bollards (stakes used to secure canoes and boats) to the Institute of Physics (IoP), Bhubaneswar. As determined through analysis, their mean calendar dates fall around 500 BC, with a span of uncertainty of less than a century, Dr. Cherian said.
     T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), said that the Pattanam findings were quite encouraging. He, however, called for more horizontal excavations with the involvement of experts to further validate the initial findings. This would call for excavations on a larger scale, he said.
     Dr. Cherian said Pattanam is the first habitation site of the Iron Age unearthed in Kerala. Since previous enquiries were confined to megalithic burials, no firm dates were available for the Iron Age, except in a few instances such as Mangadu (circa 1000 BCE) and Kunnoni. The 14C ages of the charcoal samples from the lower-most sand deposits in the trenches at Pattanam suggest that their calibrated date range (14C ages adjusted for past fluctuations of 14C in the environment) is from 1300 BCE to 200 BCE and 2500 BCE to 100 CE, respectively. The range, Dr. Cherian said, has been kept wide enough so that the probability of accuracy will be 95 per cent. This suggests that Pattanam witnessed the Iron Age occupation during the first half of the first millennium BCE. Indigenous people seem to have settled in the area during the Iron Age when it was covered by beach sand. The occupation must have been sparse as evidenced by mostly black-and-red ware and other typical 'megalithic' pottery recovered from the more than 60-cm thick sand deposits in the locality, he added.
     The 14C date range of the canoe sample is 1300 BC to 100 BC, (that is, 700 plus or minus 600 BC with 95 per cent probability). Dr. Cherian said the 14C AMS dates suggest that the Pattanam canoe can be the earliest known canoe in India. Corroborative analysis in relation to the other artefacts recovered is necessary for a clearer picture of the chronology of the site.

Source: The Hindu (9 January 2008)

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