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12 April 2012
Urn burial site discovered in southern India

A vast urn-burial site has been found at Mandapam, about 14 kilometres from Kancheepuram (Tamil Nadu, India), and dated to 1,800 to 1,500 BCE - 3,800 to 3,500 years before present. The importance of the site is that it belongs to a period earlier than the Megalithic Age or Iron Age in the region. The site, however, has been ravaged by quarrying for blue-metal. Earth-movers have sliced the big urns and smashed their contents.
     Dr Elango - lecturer in Tamil at Madras University, who visited the site a few times, says while some urns had ritual pottery and terracotta plates inside, others were empty. There were disintegrated human bones in several urns. More importantly, there were no cairn circles on the surface to mark the graves. The site could be as ancient as the Adichanallur site, another urn-burial site in Tamil Nadu, Dr Elango suggests.
     The Iron Age and the Megalithic Age are contemporaneous in south India, where the Iron Age was extant from 1,000 to 300 BCE. The discovery of urn burials without megaliths on the surface is mostly accidental. Such sites, without cairn circles, were not uncommon in Tamil Nadu. Dr Satyamurthy - former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India - argues it was a misnomer to call them megalithic sites because there were no big stones to mark them. So there was a phase when iron was used which was older than the Megalithic Age, which could be called pre-Megalithic/Iron Age in Tamil Nadu.
     Dr Padmavathy - retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department - said the upper age limit of the Mandapam site could be 3,500 years before present, judging from the coarse texture of the hand-made urns, and their flat and conical bottoms. "Mandapam is an ancient site, equalling Adichanallur in antiquity, and we should do a systematic excavation".
     When the Adichanallur site was re-excavated by Dr Satyamurthy in 2004 and 2005, he found 185 burial urns, including 90 intact and 36 with complete human skeletons inside. Among the artefacts discovered were red ware, black ware, copper bangles and ear-rings, iron spearheads, daggers and swords.
     The Mandapam site is analogous to the Adichanallur site in many ways, says Dr Satyamurthy: the urn burials are not associated with stone monuments; urns were placed a couple of feet below the earth's surface, above a natural rocky outcrop, were covered with lids, and the urns and associated pottery had no graffiti marks.

Edited from The Hindu (9 April 2012)

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