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Skeletons, script found at ancient burial site in Tamil Nadu

By T.S. Subramanian



An urn containing a human skull and bones unearthed by the Archaeological Survey of India at Adhichanallur, near Tirunelveli town in Tamil Nadu. Twelve of these urns (below) contain human skeletons. Three of them, which may be 2,800 years old, bear inscriptions that resemble the early Tamil Brahmi script. -- Photos: A. Shaikmohideen

CHENNAI, MAY 25. In spectacular finds, the Archaeological Survey of India, Chennai Circle, has unearthed a dozen 2,800-year-old human skeletons intact in urns at Adichanallur, 24 km from Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. Three of these urns contain writing resembling the early Tamil Brahmi script. The dozen urns containing the skeletons form a part of about 100 fully intact urns unearthed in various trenches at the site, where excavation is under way. The urns were found at a depth of two to three metres. The finds may revolutionise theories about the origin of ancient culture in Tamil Nadu and the origin of writing in South Asia.

T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, the director of excavation at Adichanallur, said: "People generally think that megalithic culture is the earliest culture in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. In our excavation [at Adichanallur], we have come across a culture earlier than the megalithic period." The megalithic period in South India ranges from 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.

Dr. Satyamurthy called Adichanallur "the earliest historical site in Tamil Nadu." The ASI would conduct "a thorough exploration of the area" to find out whether there had been any habitation nearby. If such a site was found, it would be the first discovery of its kind in Tamil Nadu. So far, no habitation belonging to this period had been found in the State. He described the discovery of writing resembling the early Tamil Brahmi script on the urns as "very important."

Samples of the skeletons have been sent to the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad, for carbon-14 dating.


Along with the skeletons, husks, grains of rice, charred rice and neolithic celts (axe-like instruments used in agricultural operations) have been found.

The skeletons found in two or three urns show that prior to the megalithic period, these people used to inter the dead in urns along with the items they had used. Early Tamil Sangam works contained elaborate descriptions of the urn-burial custom. At Adichanallur, pottery belonging to the early historic period, which stretches from 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D., was found on the upper layers of the trenches and the urns were found below. So the discoveries at Adichanallur may go back to 7th or 8th century B.C., probably earlier than the Sangam period, Dr. Satyamurthy said.

He said that since the Brahmi script was found together with the skeletons, the date of the script could be determined if they could fix the date of the skeletons. "So far, we have been doing it on palaeographic grounds. Now, we will get a scientific date." He said that the script might refer to names.

Dr. Sathyamurthy said that the Brahmi script of around 500 B.C. had been found in Sri Lanka. Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala, former Director-General and now Consultant to the Archaeological Survey Department, Sri Lanka, called the discovery of the writing on the urns at Adichanallur "fantastic" and "very, very important." The evidence of writing on more than 75 pieces of pottery had been found in Sri Lanka and radio-carbon dating had established that they belonged to the period between 600 B.C. and 500 B.C. This discovery "sheds a completely new light on the origin of writing in South Asia," said Dr. Deraniyagala. Interestingly, there has been no evidence of habitation close to the cemeteries (burial sites) discovered there.

According to G. Thirumoorthy, Assistant Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, many artefacts had been found along with the skeletons at Adichanallur.

They included miniature bowls made of clay that were used in rituals, black and red wares of megalithic period ranging from the 7th century B.C. to 2nd century A.D., potsherds with graffiti marks, iron spearheads, knife-blades and hopscotches of various shapes including those in perfect circles. These hopscotches were used as weights, he said.

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