In 2013-2014, the Archaeological Survey of India had set out to explore the regions along the banks of river Vaigai in Tamil Nadu. Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts all were part of the 293 sites set up to unearth artefacts and ruins to discover the culture that might have existed aeons ago.
A Bengaluru-based excavation branch of the ASI took up the site at Keezhadi village, 12 km south-east of Madurai, in the Sivaganga district.
Three months into their excavation, the site began yielding interesting finds like beads made of glass, terracotta and even pearls. Other discoveries included figurines, roof tiles and also pottery.
One particular excavation area named – Pallichandai Thidal – was brimming with potential finds. The area – slightly elevated to 2.5 meters above ground level – is a mound with a circumference of 3.5 km, spanning 80 acres.
Due to this particular elevation of the Pallichandai Thidal, the site was relatively undisturbed and hence, housed intact bricks measuring 33 cm in length, 21 cm in breadth and 5 cm tall.
An earthen pot with leaf decorations was also unearthed at the excavation site, adding to a repository of evidence that points to the existence of an urban habitation closer to the erstwhile capital of the Pandya kingdom.
The exquisitely crafted pot 72 cm wide and 42 cm long was found by an ASI team led by Superintending Archaeologist K Amarnath Ramakrishna.
Combine that with other findings like pottery with a Tamil-Brahmi script, the initial assumption of the town belonging to the Pandyas was materialising.
A fossilised piece of bone was also found which could have been used as an arrowhead, indicating the use of weapons. Not only that, square copper coins of Pandyan Peruvazhudhi with horse and turtle motifs were also found at the surface level, pointing towards the fact that the society used currency in its day-to-day life.
Experts say that the town could have also played a role in the Roman trade of the day.
Two similar pots of different shapes have emerged in other pits of the excavation site. The huge red pot, which is among a variety of earthenware discovered in the area, was found embedded alongside a water storage facility.
The facility further pointed to another significant fact: the advancement of the society and the habitation during that time.
With such interesting finds, the excavation was extended to another year, and what they would go on to find would change pre-established notions.
The excavation continued to its second phase from 2015-2016 with about 1,800 antiquities unearthed. It was high time to call for carbon dating of these antiquities, where selected pieces would be sent to Beta Analytic Inc., Florida, USA, for the procedure.
Meanwhile, the excavation was shedding light on the history of Tamil Nadu. The archaeological team had dug up 53 trenches, an extraordinary number, considering the assumption that there was no large urban settlement; but these findings proved the opposite.
Noted epigraphist V Vedachalam told The Hindu that the antiquities found at Pallichandai Thidal reaffirm the belief that nestled amidst three ancient places — Konthagai, Keezhadi and Manalur — was an urban settlement that had trade links with North India and the western world during the Sangam Age.
Brahmi-inscribed pots, pastime games like dice, graffiti of the sun and the moon, all hinted towards a sophisticated civilisation on the banks of river Vaigai. All these led to the conclusion that the Sangam period was way advanced than it was earlier thought to be.
With this, the excavation was extended into the third phase, and the site was expanded to 110 acres of private lands.
In the meantime, the results of carbon dating from the Florida lab had emerged, and the artefacts were dated back to 200 BC. This meant that the findings related to a civilisation existing during the Sangam period.
Speaking to The Hindu, Mr Ramakrishna, who heads the excavation project in Keezhadi, said, “So far, there has been an impression that urban civilisation did not exist in Tamil Nadu. The excavations and carbon dating have disproved the opinion.”
As of the now, the 100-acre site has yielded 13,000 artefacts, more than enough to establish the notion of a flourishing civilisation that existed on the banks of the Vaigai.
The Keezhadi excavation continues well into the fourth season of excavation, with yields like small objects made of gold, terracotta figurines, a terracotta mould resembling a human face, two ring wells, ornamental objects made of ivory, and a large number of beads of different kinds.
Keezhadi is one of the most revered archaeological sites in India, owing to its habitation, which seems to co-exist with the period of the Harappan civilisation; a theory which had no basis even six years ago.
The State government has also shown interest in setting up a site museum at Keezhadi to display the 5,300 unearthed antiquities and has even offered to allot 72 cents of land for the same.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)