Years to the Ground

A month-long exhibition on excavations from Pattanam, a village in Kerala, unearths layers of history through art and artefacts

Written by Uma Vishnu | New Delhi | Published:November 29, 2014 12:09 am
(Source : Express photo by Praveen Khanna) (Source : Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

The lanes of Pattanam, a village 20 km north of Kochi in Kerala, tell you a story. Hidden beneath layers of time and soil, it’s a story of Muziris, of a once thriving port city, of seafarers on the Arabian Sea whose ships brought in wine, olive oil and gold, and took back fragrant black pepper.

Now, a month-long exhibition put together by the Kerala Council of Historical Research (KCHR) at the National Museum brings alive that story of Muziris. A city on the west coast of India, it flourished between 1st century BC and 4th century AD, after the Romans conquered Egypt, and rose to become a key centre for trade between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean regions — exporting pepper, precious stones, silk, beads, ivory and pottery to West Asia and Rome, and bringing in gold coins, glass, wine and wheat. But then, Muziris disappeared from all known records. Nobody knew why, but experts believe it probably had something to do with the decline of the Roman empire sometime in 4th century AD. The search for Muziris went on for years until 2003, when a group of archaeologists put forward the hypothesis that Pattanam could be Muziris. After a trial dig in 2004, full-scale excavations led by KCHR director K J Cherian began in Pattanam in 2007.

The exhibition, “Unearthing Pattanam: Histories, Cultures, Crossing”, is based on the findings of that seven-year-long dig. It chronicles life in Pattanam through the pottery sherds dug from several layers — from black and red ware pottery of the Iron Age (c. 1000 BCE to 500 BCE), the transition period from Iron Age to the Early Historic period (c. 500 BCE to 300 BCE), the gold jewellery, copper and iron of the key Muziris period (1st century BC to 4th century AD), the koorayod roof tiles of the medieval period (c. 500 CE – 1500 CE), to finally the Chinese ceramics of the Modern Age (c. 1500 CE onwards). A floor below the exhibition hall is a replica trench, complete with excavation tools.

The exhibition has a section for children where they are given pottery sherds and sheets of paper and told to imagine what vessel it could once have been part of. They also get to wield a magnifying lens on a replica of the Tabula Peutingeriana  — a 12th century CE scroll based on a 5th century Roman map of the world — and identify key spots on the map such as the Western Ghats and Rome besides Muziris itself. Then there are photographs of a wharf complex – one of the most striking finds in Pattanam. The wharf had nine bollards to harbour boats and a warehouse and in the midst of this, a highly decayed canoe. Carbon dating revealed that the canoe belonged to at least the first century, making it the earliest watercraft excavated from an archeological context in India.

Also on display are the beads and gems that have been excavated from Pattanam. Every monsoon, the mud-and-gravel lanes of Pattanam magically come alive with beads in a dizzying array of colours, evidence that Muziris could once have been a bead-manufacturing hub. A Pattanam sketchbook by The Indian Express chief political cartoonist EP Unny is part of the exhibits.

“Not much is known of India’s maritime traditions. Pattanam —  and therefore Muziris — is an amazing discovery. With our Euro-centric approach, we’ve always celebrated the arrival of Vasco da Gama as the beginning of commercial connections with Europe. To think that the people of India had regular commercial interactions with Europe 15 centuries before Vasco da Gama is remarkable,” says Cherian, who is curating the exhibition.

The exhibition is on till January 10, 2015. Contact: 23019272

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