2,000-yr-old find in city backyard
A sprawling 35-acre stretch, flanked by a lake and a little hillock, in Siruthavur, 50 km from Chennai, is soaked in history. The Archaeological Survey of India has discovered a megalithic burial site here that dates back to over 2,000 years ago.
The site has more than 300 burial spots that could provide a rare peek into the period. Since the ASI began its excavation in July, the area has thrown up a treasure trove of sarcophaguses, or stone coffins, carnelian beads, iron implements and pieces of bones, all traces of an ancient civilisation that once thrived in the region.
“After more than four decades, the ASI has uncovered a megalithic burial site here. North Tamil Nadu, particularly Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu, Thirukazhukundram and Sriperumbudur, are known to have such sites. About 80% of the 162 ASI sites in the state are megalithic. But protecting the sites has proved a big challenge,” said Sathyabhama Badhreenath, ASI superintending archaeologist, Chennai region, while on a tour of the site.
While Siruthavur was put under ASI cover as a national protected site way back in the 1940s, there has been consistent erosion of the site due to the activities of squatters, who have been using the stone circles as fire stoves, and illegal sand miners. “We are trying to create awareness among the locals. But there should be a more concerted effort on the part of authorities to preserve the site,” pointed out Sathyabhama. Meanwhile, marauding trucks have been scooping out pieces of history only to be mixed in lime and mortar or garden soil in homes.
The ASI team which finally got to work in Siruthavur in Kancheepuram district has so far exposed eight burial pits. Some urns made of terracotta
Chennai: On the discovery of a megalithic burial site at Siruthavur, K P Mohandas, assistant archaeologist said “We have discovered that there are at least five different types of burial spots — two that used sarcophaguses, and some urns to bury the remains of the dead. There are so many strewn across this acreage.”
These are ‘secondary burials’ where remains of the dead, like bones, iron implements and the semi-precious carnelian beads, were found inside the 12-legged sarcophaguses or the two-and-a-half feet deep urns. The sarcophaguses are made of terracotta and engraved with fine design running around the edge. Some of the urns also made of terracotta were found covered with slabs.
The burials can be spotted easily from the stone circles — the area is marked by a circle of small boulders inside which the sarcophaguses are placed. The empty space is packed with sand and stones and finally a stone cap, a cluster of stones, placed above. So distinctive are the burials that the ASI team had little trouble identifying and digging them up.
Siruthavoor – Megalithic Burial Site
The megalithic burials of southern India— a wonderfully varied set of monuments— have long needed a chronology and a context.Broadly contemporary with the Roman and Sasanian empires, these dolmens, cairns and cists have continually raised contradictions with their material contents. The authors attack the problem using luminescence applied to pottery at the site of Siruthavoor in north-east Tamilnadu. Although sharing material culture, this ﬁrst pilot project gave dates ranging from 300 BC to AD 600, so exposing the problem and perhaps, in OSL, its long-term solution.
Siruthavoor lies in Kanchipuram district, situated along the northern coast of Tamilnadu,India and is adjacent to the Bay of Bengal (Figure 1). The area in which the Iron Age-Early Historic burials are located is bounded by the Siruthavoor lake (tank) towards the south anda hillock of around 31m asl towards the north, with a smaller hillock (below 15m asl) to the east (Figure2).ThegeologyoftheareaisrepresentedbyArchaeantoPrecambriancrystallineformations such as charnockite, granite gneiss and ultrabasic rocks, overlain by Mesozoicand Tertiary sedimentary rocks (Rajmohan & Elango 2005). Most of the megalithic burials at the site are built using charnockite, granite gneiss and lateritic rocks.Exploration, mapping and excavation were conducted at the site from 2007–2009. Although innumerable burials have been destroyed at this site by sand quarrying, over500 burials remained during the survey. Of these, 166 were of the cairn circle type, 141 were dolmens,157 were dolmens within a stonecircle, 38 were cists and 57 were of cist-with-circle type. The urn burials were harder to map since most of them have no stone append age visible on the surface. Eight burials were excavated. Burial 1 was a cairn circle type; burial 2 a sarcophagus; burial 3 a cist within a stone circle (Figure 3); burial 4 a dolmen without a circle (Figure 4); burial 5 a dolmen within a circle, with pottery sarcophagi (Figure 5);burial 6 a dolmen without a circle; and burials 7 and 8 (Figure 6) were urn burials. Burials 1, 4, 5 and 6 were intact, while burials 2, 3, 7 and 8 were partially disturbed or exposed.Burials 2, 7 and 8 did not have any associated lithic appendage visible on the surface.
“The pottery from Siruthavoor was, on the whole, badly preserved, making analysis of its form and fabric difﬁcult (Figure 7). Most of the anthropogenic disturbance of the burials at Siruthavoor was in the area around burials 2 and 3. A large percentage of what remains of the burials in this area indicates that they were cist burials. The surface material collected is similar to the material excavated in burial 3 including iron objects, carnelian beads and pottery (Figure 8). Between burials 2 and 3 and burials 4, 5 and 6, large boulders are indicative of possible dolmen type burials, but the surface ﬁnds here are very sparse. This gives tantalising possibilities of spatio-temporal correlations. However, the need for ﬁnerchronologicalresolutionbecomesevengreaterwhenoneconsidersanevolutionaryapproachto the study of the archaeological record (Lipo et al
. 2005).Surface ﬁnds such as microlithic tools, excavation of the Iron Age-Early Historic burials at the site and a Siva temple (dated to the ninth century AD from epigraphical evidence) at Siruthavoor indicate that the site has been occupied for a long period of time and through different cultural phases. No evidence of a habitation site has been found at Siruthavoor so far. During construction work near the Siva temple, villagers reported ﬁnding metal artefacts and pottery which match the description of Black Ware. However, this has not been corroborated. The undiagnostic pottery and the lack of associated organic material at Siruthavoor led to the choice of OSL as a dating method”
There has been a signiﬁcant improvement in the OSL dating technique in recent years,particularly using the single aliquot regeneration (SAR) protocol, leading to an expected accuracy of around 5–10 per cent (Bluszcz 2004). Of the eight excavated burials at Siruthavoor, ﬁve were dated using OSL (Table 1). All the samples were obtained from sarcophagiorurns containing burial remains, as these are one of the more permanent features present in each burial. Altogether, six samples of pottery, two from burial 5 (sarcophagi 5a and 5c), and one from each of burials 3, 4, 6 and 8 were dated.OSL dating was carried out at the luminescence dating laboratory at Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehra Dun, India. Samples of pottery sarcophagi or urns were crushed under subdued red light conditions. The luminescence was stimulated by exposure to blue light inaRisoTL-DA20 reader and measured as De(equivalentdose),the radiation trapped since the pottery was ﬁred. To get an assessment of time in calendar years, the De is dividedby annual dose rates deduced from the amounts of potassium, uranium and thorium in the pot fabric, measured by XRF. Soil originally in contact with the pottery was not available.
The “Megalithic” Iron Age Culture in South India – Joanna Sudyka