Archaeologists digging in the southern Indian village of Konthagai in the state of Tamil Nadu have found a rare and useful artifact. It is a rusted iron dagger, believed to be anywhere from 2,500 to 2,200 years old and was made by the Keeladi civilization. The Keeladi dagger was found next to the remains of a human skeleton inside a burial urn, which is one of 25 burial urns that have been unearthed at the same site over the past six months. The iron dagger blade is still attached to a remnant of the original wooden handle and scientists are hoping the wood will help in dating the weapon and thus also the artifacts found near it.
One of the 25 Keeladi civilization burial urns found at the site where the iron dagger was recently discovered in South India. ( Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology )
The Keeladi Dagger Was Clearly Made For Hand-to-Hand Combat!
The Times of India reports that the iron dagger is the first of its kind ever found at a Keeladi excavation site. It was a formidable weapon that appears to have been manufactured for hand-to-hand combat . It features a 16-inch (40-centimeter) blade, which was found broken, without most of its wooden handle, inside the urn. It was buried together with a human femur and skull, in compacted soil that helped keep everything very well preserved.
The rest of the dagger’s 2.5-inch (six-centimeter) wooden handle was found fully intact and in remarkably good condition. This is important, explained the leader of the Keeladi excavations, Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology deputy director Dr. R. Sivanantham, because the dagger’s wooden handle can be carbon dated to measure its precise age. By extension, once the archaeologists know when this object was made and buried, it will help them date other objects that were known to have been buried at the same time.
While the Keeladi dagger is unique for the region where it was unearthed, its style is similar to that of weapons used by warriors in Tamil Nadu during the Sangam Period, which ran from roughly the sixth century BC to the third century BC. This was a particularly glorious time in southern Indian history, when the Tamil-speaking people managed to create and sustain a unified kingdom.
The first Keeladi artifacts ever discovered, at an archaeological dig in the Tamil Nadu village of Keezhadi, seemed to indicate that Sangam Period may have predated the Keeladi civilization by a few hundred years. But later on, artifacts were found at Keeladi site that dated back to the sixth century BC, proving that the Keeladi civilization did develop at the same time as the Sangam Period empire was formed.
Ilango Adigal is the author of Silappatikaram, one of the five great epics of Tamil literature. Literature was extremely advanced in Sangam cultures. (Kasiarunachalam / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Sangam Period: A Time of Two Parallel Cultures
The Sangam Period is known for two things: its complicated politics and its high levels of literacy.
The unified kingdom of Tamil-speaking people in southern India and the nearby island of Sri Lanka was known as Tamilakam. Rather than being run by a single dynasty, Tamilakam was ruled by three simultaneously. These were the Pandya, Chola and Chera dynasties, which administered to the affairs of the larger empire cooperatively from inside their smaller southern Indian fiefdoms.
A few independent chiefs had some say over the bigger nation’s political affairs as well. But the heads of the Pandya, Chola, and Chera kingdoms were clearly dominant, which is why they were referred to as “The Three Crowned Rulers of Tamil Country.”
But the reason why this era is known as the Sangam Period has nothing to do with politics. That name comes from the Sangam Academies, which were highly respected institutions of higher learning organized by poets and other scholars in the Tamil city of Madurai. These academies produced an enormous amount of celebrated literature , the memory of which long outlived the memory of its unusual political arrangement.
In addition to its other accomplishments, it now appears that the Sangam Period produced an advanced urban civilization, created by the Keeladi people of which little was known previously.
In addition to the Keeladi iron dagger the dig site has also produced a wide range of artifacts ranging from these colored beads to coins, gold jewelry, ornaments, and semi-precious stones. ( Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology )
North and South India’s First-Millennium BC Civilizations
Conventional theories claimed that urban civilization in India in the first millennium BC had developed exclusively in the northern part of India, in the Ganges Valley region. But the Keeladi excavations have exposed this as an error, by producing a large amount of evidence showing that an advanced urban civilization had developed in southern India along the banks of the Vaigai River at approximately the same time.
That evidence includes:
- Thousands of well-crafted and valuable personal artifacts. Included are coins, gold jewelry and ornaments, semi-precious stones, pieces from board games, and pottery of various shapes and sizes, some of which is inscribed with script in the Tamil-Brahmi language that was spoken throughout southern India at this time.
- The ruins of many elaborate and well-constructed and planned buildings. Many were constructed from brick, and featured clay floors and tiled roofs supported by wooden poles. Water storage facilities were discovered, along with ceramic tubes that were apparently used to transport sewage out of homes.
- Ample evidence of industrial and manufacturing activity. Archaeologists have found brick kilns, ceramic workshops, cloth dying facilities, and weaving and spinning tools.
- Signs of animal husbandry and agriculture being practiced on a large scale. This is verified by the many ox, buffalo, goat, and antelope bones that have been discovered during the ongoing excavations.
Taken together, these discoveries reveal that the Keeladi civilization was quite advanced. Its exact relationship to northern Indian civilization is not presently known (did the two develop separately, or did they share a common ancestor?). But evidence of that relationship may emerge over the next few years, as archaeologists continue to explore the Keeladi site and continue to reveal their surprising and long-hidden secrets.
Top image: The iron dagger’s well-preserved wooden handle may help researchers date other artifacts found at the Keeladi civilization dig site in South India. Source: Tamil Nadu Department of Archaeology
By Nathan Falde