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Hunting for Muziris

The 38-year-old archaeologist has been in the limelight after he put forward a hypothesis, based on some striking pieces of evidence, that Muziris, the legendary seaport of the ancient world, stood at Pattanam, a small town some 12 km south of the Periyar rivermouth. In a chat with M. Harish Govind.



"Even from a small 1.5 m deep experimental pit in Pattanam, I obtained more than 1,000 shards."

THE TRADITIONAL view has been that Muziris was located near the Periyar rivermouth, somewhere near Kodungalloor, but what baffled researchers was the lack of archaeological evidence to support the ancient accounts, says Dr. Shajan. Excavations were done in the area in 1945 and 1967, but the pieces unearthed belonged to the 12th century, whereas Muziris had existed more than a 1,000 years earlier.

The absence of archaeological evidence on Muziris, however, was attributed to coastal changes resulting from sea erosion and monsoonal activity. It was also theorised that the remains of the seaport must have been washed away in floods during the 14th century.

Dr. Shajan and his associate, V. Selvakumar of the Centre for Heritage Studies, Thrippunithura, found clear geological proof that the sea had actually regressed from the coast where the seaport was said to have been located. "We felt we should be looking further inland rather than on the seabed for Muziris," says the archaeologist.

Radiocarbon dating of peat samples showed that Kodungalloor and Paravur areas were part of the sea some 5,000 years ago. By about 1,000 B.C., however, the sea had regressed and the coastline had more or less stabilised about two km west of the area where these two towns are situated at present.

Another clue that led the team to Pattanam was the finding, based on remote-sensing data, that Periyar had changed course during the millennia, and the river course was in the Pattanam area 2,000 years ago. "My view is that the Paravur Thodu, which flows near Pattanam, was the old channel of the Periyar," says Dr. Shajan.

Interestingly, the search for the remains of Muziris had so far been focussed on the northern side of the Periyar rivermouth. But satellite imagery and a study of sediments and sand bars showed that the ancient riverbed of the Periyar was located to the south. "Ancient accounts have it that after the ships were berthed off the coast, boats used to carry goods one km inland to Muziris. These boats must have used the tidal channel that exists near Pattanam even today," he says. Dr. Shajan and his team further noted that the site at Pattanam is an elevated one, which means that it was suitable for habitation during the time of floods. During his first visit itself, he had noted a prolific amount of ancient pottery shards, which was an uncommon thing in Kerala. "Even from a small 1.5 m deep experimental pit, I obtained more than 1,000 shards," he remarked.

The most important find was the rim and handle of a classic Italian wine amphora, which came from Naples and belonged to the late first century B.C. The amphora, which was used to transport wine and olive oil, had been identified from a number of Roman sites in India, including Arikamedu and Alagankulam in Tamil Nadu.

When Roberta Tomber, a classical archaeologist from the United Kingdom, came to Kerala last year as part of her quest for sites connected with Egypt, Dr. Shajan showed her the pieces he got from Pattanam, including the amphora bits.

"She became very excited and remarked the find had made her whole trip worthwhile," he recalls.Dr. Shajan says the soil deposit in Pattanam is only about two metres deep and controlled digging can be done in selected areas to unearth more archaeological evidence on whether it was actually the ancient Muziris.

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