Urn site in India
© The HinduPottery and iron age megaliths identified from a structure at Aarpakkam village in Kancheepuram district of Tamil Nadu. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam
Dated to the pre-Megalithic/Iron Age period in T.N. - 1,800 BC-1,500 BC

A vast urn-burial site has been found at Mandapam village, near Aarpakkam intersection, about 14 km from Kancheepuram.

The importance of the site, archaeologists say, is that it belongs to a period earlier than the Megalithic Age or Iron Age in Tamil Nadu.

They estimate that the site is datable to 1,800 BCE to 1,500 BCE, that is, 3,800 to 3,500 years before the present.

The site, however, has been ravaged by quarrying for blue-metal. Earth-movers have sliced the big urns and smashed into pieces ritual pottery, bowls and terracotta plates inside the urns.

Quarrying has reduced the site to small lakes with deposits of blue metal jutting out and broken urns protruding in places. A stone-crushing machine is filling the air with dust.

Villager P. Mani, who discovered the site, reported it to V. Arasu, Head of the Department of Tamil, University of Madras, and S. Elango, lecturer in Tamil, Madras University. Dr. Elango, who visited the site a few times, said the flat/conical bottomed urns were buried only one or two feet below the soil surface. While some 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 of the graves to mark them. There were no graffiti marks on the urns.

The site could be as ancient as the Adichanallur site, another urn-burial site in Tamil Nadu, Dr. Elango suggested.

Cairn circles are big stones, i.e., liths, placed in a circle on the surface of the soil and urns are kept below them. The urns are also kept inside cists, which are compartments made of granite slabs. Since big stones/liths mark the urn burials below, they are called Megalithic Age burials.

The Iron Age and the Megalithic Age are contemporaneous in south India. Archaeologists say the Iron Age in south India was extant from 1,000 BCE to 300 BCE.

T. Satyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India visited the Mandapam site on Wednesday. He called it "an interesting site."

It was "one more instance where we can say with authority that there was a phase earlier than Megalithic Age in Tamil Nadu." He dated the site to between 1,800 BCE and 1,500 BCE.

While urn burials with cairn circles could easily be located, the discovery of urn burials without megaliths on the surface was mostly accidental. Such sites, without cairn circles, were not uncommon in Tamil Nadu. They included the Adichanallur site. It was a misnomer to call them megalithic sites because there were no big stones to mark them, Dr. Satyamurthy argued. So there was a phase when iron was used and which was older than the Megalithic Age, which could be called pre-Megalithic/Iron Age in Tamil Nadu.

Needed: systematic excavation

A. Padmavathy, retired Senior Epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, said the upper age limit of the Mandapam site could be 3,500 years, judging from the coarse texture of the urns that were hand-made and their flat and conical bottoms.

The ritual pots inside were made by a slow-wheel. "Mandapam is an ancient site, equalling Adichanallur in antiquity and we should do a systematic excavation at Mandapam," said Dr. Padmavathy.

When the Adichanallur site was re-excavated by Dr. Satyamurthy in 2004 and 2005, he found 185 burial urns there, 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 Hindu, March 14 and July 25, 2004 and Frontline, July 1, 2005).

"If the railway line between Tirunelveli and Tiruchendur, cutting across the mounds at Adichanallur had not been laid by the British, Adichanallur would not have to come to notice," he said.

Akin to Adichanallur

The Mandapam site was analogous to the Adichanallur site in many ways, Dr. Satyamurthy said.

In both the cases, the urn burials were not associated with stone monuments; the urns were kept a couple of feet below the earth's surface, above a natural rocky outcrop; in both, it-lines were absent; the urns were covered with lids; the urns and associated pottery had no graffiti marks; and while Mandapam is located between Palar and Cheyyar rivers, Adichanallur is located on the banks of Tamiraparani. (The pottery found in the habitatational site at Adichanallur, however, had graffiti).