Findings from Keeladi excavation site have a clear message for modern cities: Cherish your water, or perish
Today, as the peripheries of our cities experience a seasonal ‘Day Zero’ and our water future looks to become decidedly more temperamental, the Keeladi site almost serves as a ‘Back to the Future’ moment for our cities
Many ancient cities declined when their water source ran out.
Perhaps the Keeladi settlement, like others before and after it, existed on the river bank, and died as the river shifted course.
About 13 kilometres east of Madurai, on the spanking new Rameswaram highway, one turns right and heads through a sleepy village to a set of coconut farms. In between the coconut trees are patches of cleared ground with neat squares of earth dug out.
In those trenches and from that earth are emerging discoveries that suggest something quite special was going on here thousands of years ago. The latest radiocarbon dating of one of the samples takes us as far back as 580 BCE, or 2600 years ago.
Let us begin with the pottery – because that’s where it starts. As we walked in the coconut groves from trench to trench, we saw hundreds of small potsherds on our path.
Some were all red, but many were black on one side (the inside, as one student informed me), and red on the other – indicating Black and Red ware – a type of pottery in vogue more than 2,500 years ago, during the Sangam age. These small potsherds were the first outwards signs that gave a clue that something serious existed beneath the surface. The dig began in earnest in 2014 by the Archaeological Society of India. When I visited Keeladi for the third time in October 2019, the fifth season, now led by the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department, was wrapping up.
A different kind of find
The more than 5,000 antiquities suggest that this was on a different scale from the small tools, or burial mounds discovered until then. Keeladi was distinctive because it had far more ‘structures’ than other similar sites, says V Vedachalam, historian and epigraphist. Judging by the impressive water management infrastructure, their skilled craftsmanship, as evidenced by the tiny intricate boar seal (just about a centimetre in width), the thousands of black-and-red potsherds — many with graffiti on them, this appears to have been a sophisticated society.
Keeladi has yielded gold jewellery, hundreds of finely crafted beads — of terracotta, glass and carnelian, and game pieces. The ancient Keeladians were obviously generating enough ‘surplus’, to afford to the ‘extras’: precious adornment, industry and leisure/fun. One piece of sculpture — an old woman’s head — shows loving attention to a somewhat incongruous detail. What makes the sculpture so special are the sagging cheeks of the woman, beautifully and realistically rendered.
Keeladi also appears to have been an egalitarian society. One indication of this is the widespread presence of graffiti. Graffiti such as this is likely by commoners marking their property (‘This is my pot — please don’t take it’), suggesting a highly literate population as opposed to rock cut edicts ordered by rulers (of the ‘I’m so great’ variety).
Before I go further down this road, let me point out that in five years, only about 5-10 percent of the 110-acre mount has been excavated. It is dangerous to draw too many conclusions, other than to say, “Dig more”. However, one thing appears clear: Whoever they were, the Keeladians were masters at managing water.
Masters of water
Why do I say this?
Water-management infrastructure predominated in the finds.
Until now, at least three kinds of channels have been discovered: one was a shallow, broad channel — about half a metre across, a few inches in height and about 6 metres thus far excavated in length — lined with shards of broken terracotta roof tiles.
Nearby there was a beautifully crafted terracotta pipe which appeared to feed into a strategically placed pot, which in turn was placed on top of another pot.
The last type of channel was a closed channel, gently curved, with the curved portion buttressed with additional support — was this because the liquid was pressurised?
This channel ran close to a small, square, brick-lined tank at the site.
The different types of channels allude to different qualities of water being transported — the flat, broad, open channel could have been used to carry fresh water perhaps, where smell was not a concern. One possibility is that the closed channels were used to carry away smellier liquids — sewage or effluent, maybe. During an earlier dig in Keeladi, archaeologists unearthed four parallel water channels — which implied the movement of a lot of water — far more than a single household could use. And the sheer numbers of channels discovered now — there were several crisscrossing a 300 sq mtr stretch — suggest that this was an intense water-using site. The Keeladians were moving water strategically from place to place for some function.
One hypothesis is that the brick-lined tanks, the plentiful, diverse channels and the lack of domestic ephemera (at that particular locality) together imply that this particular site was some form of an ancient factory. But what kind? A find of ancient cotton from one of the tanks suggests this factory had something to do with clothing — a textile manufacturing unit perhaps? Supporting evidence comes from the report, ‘Keeladi-An Urban Settlement of Sangam Age on the Banks of River Vaigai’, which says that the…
“Excavation of 10 spindle whorls, 20 sharply pin-pointed bone tip tools used for design creations, hanging stones of the yarn, terracotta spheres, copper needle and earthen vessels to hold liquid clearly attest the various stages of weaving industry from spinning, yarning, looming and weaving, later for dyeing.”
No dye trace has yet been detected in the tanks. Does that indicate that this site was an ancient laundromat? Whatever this site was, what shines through is that the Keeladians were capable of organisation, of industry.
With industry often comes trade. More than 100 kilometres downstream lay the ancient port city of Alagankulam. The excavations at Alagankulam have yielded many Roman artefacts, and as a site it is contemporaneous with Keeladi, says Vedachalam. Perhaps 2,500 years ago, Keeladians sent their textiles woven and dyed at this site to the port down the Vaigai, and from thence onto far off lands. The Keeladi report cites:
“Strabo (C. 25. B.C.) stated that a Pandya king sent an embassy to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Pliny (C. 75 A.D.) mentioned about the Pandya, King Pandya and his capital Madura. Ptolemy (C. 130 A.D.) also referred Madurai as the royal city of the Pandyas.”
If there was trade with Rome, it is likely that some Roman artifacts would be found in this site. Were they? Some pieces of roulette-ware, characteristic of Rome, have been indeed found at the site. They had been sent for chemical analysis to check whether they were indigenous in origin or came from faraway lands.
While we wait for that piece of evidence to emerge, we can agree that water was central to their lives — for their industry, for their trade — it was the foundation and the key to their prosperity.
Why did they die out or abandon this settlement?
Before answering that question, let me mention that one interesting find was the ring wells, several of which were found at the site. Essentially, these wells used terracotta rings inside a shaft to prevent the collapse of the sides. These ringwells, as per Dr Pande, could have been used as either draw wells or soak pits, and were widely found across in India in the 4th-5th centuries BCE. Ring wells as draw wells are a clever idea when water was available close below the surface — in this case, about 5-10 feet below the surface. One explanation for water at such shallow depths is that the river Vaigai ran far closer to Keeladi 2,500 years ago.
Are there any other signs that the river once ran closer?
Yes. One is that the soil at the site is river sand. Another sign is the discovery, in at least three trenches, a sediment layer of shells.
There were also collections of pebbles — smooth, polished stones that were likely created by constantly running water. There is also literary evidence to consider: The Paripadal, a Sangam-era text, is said to describe the Vaigai as being perennial. Indeed, many other Sangam-era texts describe the Vaigai as being filled with water, says Vedachalam.
Many ancient cities declined when their water source ran out. Perhaps this settlement — like others before and after it — existed on the river’s bank, and died as the river shifted course. Today, the Vaigai runs well over a kilometre away from the ancient Keeladi settlement.
Back to the future?
As I walked through this wonderful treasure of a find, where the pots, beads and playing dice bear mute witness to an ancient settlement, a question arose: Who were these masters of water management? One suggestion (refuted by others, of course!) has been that they share roots with the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC). The IVC declined a good thousand years-plus before the thus-far dated Keeladi site — also laid low by the lack of water. Could the descendants of IVC inhabitants be involved in this site?
Comparing the figurine of the old woman’s head with a head shot of the bronze dancing girl figurine from the Indus Valley Civilisation, my completely untrained eye asks: do they appear related?
A far stronger clue is that many of the graffiti symbols from Keeladi are reminiscent of the IVC signs.
Far more evidence is required before drawing a conclusion, which bring us back to ‘dig more’.
But one thing is for sure: Both the Indus Valley residents and the Keeladians were masters at water management. Moving to the present, water is the foundation of our prosperity as it was for the Keeladians. We use it in our factories today, much like they did, even as we discover the power of recycling it. We use wells like their ringwells — deeper and more powerful, to be sure, but ours are reaching their limits and coming up dry, like theirs did before they perished. Today, as the peripheries of our cities experience a seasonal ‘Day Zero’ and our water future looks to become decidedly more temperamental, the Keeladi site almost serves as a ‘Back to the Future’ moment for our cities: Manage and cherish your water or perish.
The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution — India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at email@example.com.
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