History lost...twice? ‘Muziris’ excavations in Kerala’s Pattanam face right wing wrath

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Article by Manas Roshan, Originally published in the Hindustan Times online edition on 20th Feb, 2017

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A decade ago, Pattanam was a quiet, nondescript village 30km north of Cochin. Even today, its narrow lanes wind past country houses and the sea always feels like it’s just past the next clump of coconut trees. But for many years, local children rummaging in the sand had found old glass beads and pot shards that pointed to ancient encounters. The village’s name, too, gave its secret away: The word has its origins in Prakrit, in which it could mean either a ferry or a port.

In 2007, the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), an autonomous body supported by the state government, began digging in the village and was immediately struck by the richness of their finds. Over nine years, the team of archaeologists unearthed over 1.29 lakh artefacts, some dating as far back as the Iron Age (years 1000 to 500 Before Common Era), and giving evidence of trade with the Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula at the peak of the Roman Empire (1st Century Common Era).

But in September 2015, the Archaeological Survey of India suspended KCHR’s license to excavate at Pattanam and launched an inquiry into the work it had done till then. This was in response to a complaint by the Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who claimed that the project was a “collective conspiracy and propaganda to claim that Pattanam was the ancient Muziris.”

Last month, the ASI, whose assent is mandatory for any excavation in the country, closed its inquiry and renewed the organisation’s license to dig at the site. But by then, funds had dried up and research had almost ground to a halt. The project now faces an uncertain future after the retirement in 2016 of KCHR’s director, PJ Cherian, who has steered the excavations from the start.

Archaeology is a mine-field in India, where the creation of a national identity has had to contend with the diversity that its people have inherited – a history of mixing, a fear of contamination. Simplistic notions of the past come up against a common problem: too much history.

At the time that excavations began in Pattanam, some historians had a hunch that the village was the site of the fabled Muziris mentioned in classical Roman and Tamil literature. Minor archaeological excavations in the past had turned up foreign pottery from the area. “Anyone familiar with archaeology could tell the difference between local and non-local materials among the finds,” said Cherian.

But the archaeologists weren’t prepared for the volume of material they unearthed: black-and red-ware pottery and iron implements traced back to the Iron Age; non-local ceramics and glassware pointing to trade with the Mediterranean in the Early Historic period (years 300 BCE to 500 CE); turquoise glazed pottery that continues into the medieval period (500 to 1500 CE); and even Chinese ceramics as recent as the 16th Century.