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Subject: Sources of ancient Tamil history, History of Puducherry, Mortimer Wheeler, Puducherry, Indo-Roman relations
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Statue of a girl with bird from the Arikamedu site
Location Puducherry, India
Type Cultural
State Party India
Arikamedu is located in Tamil Nadu
Location in Pondicherry, India

Arikamedu is an archaeological site in Southern India, more specifically Kakkayanthope, Ariyankuppam Commune, Puducherry. It is located at a distance 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) from its capital Pondicherry, in the Indian territory of Puducherry, where widely known archaeological excavations were conducted by Sir Mortimer Wheeler 1945, and Jean-Marie Casal in 1947–1950. The site was identified as the port of Podouke, known as an "emporium" in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and Ptolemy. Amphorae, Arretine ware, Roman lamps, glassware, glass and stone beads, and gems were found at the site. Based on these excavations, Wheeler had concluded that the Arikamedu was a Greek (Yavana) trading post trading with Rome, which started operating during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and lasted for about two hundred years only from late first century BCE to first and second centuries CE. Subsequent investigation carried out by Vimala Begley from 1989 to 1992 have modified this assessment and has placed the period of occupation of the site from 2nd century BCE to 8th century CE.

The significant findings at Arikamedu are the numerous Indo-Pacific beads, which has facilitated fixing the period of its origin. Red and black ware ceramics found here, known as megalithic stones or Pandukal in Tamil meaning "old stones", and used for marking graves have been in existence at the site even prior to and during Roman occupation of the site, and also in later periods.


Entrance to the Arikamedu site

Arikamedu is a coastal fishing village, under the Ariankuppam Panchayat, on the southeastern coast of India, 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) from Pondicherry, on the Pondicherry-Cuddalore road; it was originally a French colonial town. It is located on the bank of the Ariyankuppam River (for most part of the year the river is considered a lagoon), also known as Virampattinam River, which forms the northern outlet of the Gingee River as it joins the Bay of Bengal. As the site is located at the bend of the river it provides protection to the sea going vessels which dock here. The site has been subject to extensive archaeological excavations.[1][2][3][4][5][6] The archaeological site is spread over an area of 34.57 acres (13.99 ha) and has been under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India since 1982.[1]


The name Arikamedu, an archaeological usage for the excavated site, has its origin in the Tamil word, which means "Mound of Arakan” based on the figurine of an avatar (incarnation) of the Jain Tirthankara Mahavira found at the site. It is also linked with Viraiyapattinam or Virampattinam meaning "Port of Virai", a village that is next to Arikamedu. Virai, according to Sangam literature, was well known as a port and also for its salt pans during the Velir dynasty. Arikamedu-Virampatnam together find mention as Poduke, a major port in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea in the first century CE and as Poduke emporion in Ptolemy's Geographia of mid first century CE. Poduke is a Roman name and is also said to be a corrupted version of the Tamil name Potikai, meaning a "meeting place", also known for the local Poduvar clan.[2][7]


Grey pottery with engravings found at the Arikamedu site

The first mention about Arikamedu was made in 1734, in a communication from the Consul of the Indo-French colony of Pondicherry informing the French East India Company that old bricks were being extracted from the Virampattinam by the village people. The earliest mention of the Arikamedu archaeological site was by Le Gentil of France, who had been assigned by the King of France the task of observing the notable astronomical occurrences in the world. Gentil, after his visit to Arikamedu, had confirmed the earlier report of the Consul of the Indo-French colony. In 1765, when he visited the ruins at the site he had found the people of the village collecting large ancient bricks exposed at the river bank.[7][2] The villagers had informed him that the bricks were retrieved from an old fort of the king the Vira-Raguen.[7] In 1937, Jouveau Dubreuil, an Indologist, also from France, purchased antiquities of gem stones from the local children, and also gathered those which were exposed on the surface of the site. A particular antiquity that he found was an intaglio carved with the picture of a man. As a numismatist he identified the intaglio as that of Augustus Caesar. His find also included fine beads and gems. These antiquities led him to conclude that they belonged to the Roman Empire. Dubreuil also informed the local Governor of Pondicherry about his find and had called Arikamedu "a true Roman city." He had published a short note about his findings.[8][5][6][7]

In the early 1940s, Service des Travaux Publics carried out random excavations. Father Fancheux and Raymand Surleau, who were not qualified archaeologists, carried out the excavations at Arikamedu and sent a few antiquities to many Indian museums and also to the École française d'Extrême-Orient in Hanoi.[9]

Sir R.E.M.Wheeler, the Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, in the 1940s saw a few potsherds of Arikamedu site displayed in the Madras Museum, which he identified as Arrentine ware, an expensive ceramic made till 50 CE in Arizzo, Italy.[9] Thereafter, when he visited the Pondicherry Museum and saw more of the findings from the Arikamedu site, he was impressed and thought that he had found the links between the Classical Mediterranean and Ancient India.[7] Soon thereafter in 1945, the penultimate year of World War II, he mounted excavations in a scientific manner. He was looking for an archaeological site in India which could establish its cultural link, a datum of the Indian antiquities to the Greco-Roman period, and this quest led him to the Arikamedu site. These excavations also involved Indian archaeologists who got trained on the site. Wheeler published his findings in 1946. He had noted that for the local fishermen of the village, the antiquities were strange as it consisted of lamps, glass items, gemstones, cutlery and crockery, wine containers, etc. He also observed that traders traveled from west coast and from Ceylon, Kolchoi (Colchi) and the Ganges area to trade goods such as gems, pearls and spices and silk.[10][6] He carried out excavations in such a manner that none of the antiquities unearthed were subject to damage. This was followed by further investigations, after the war, from 1947–1950 by Jean-Marie Casal. His report of excavations was not as fully published in the same manner as of Wheeler's. It did not find popularity in India as his report was not written in English. However, his important conclusion was that the site belonged to an early megalithic period as he had also located megalithic burials marked by stones, locally known in Tamil as Pandukal close to the site.[10][5][7][11]

The excavations led to antiquities of Roman origin such as beads and gems, amphorae (wine making vats) with remnants of wine, a Roman stamp, big bricks recovered from an old wall, Arretine ware and so forth. From these antiquities Wheeler concluded that the site was related to a period of trading with Rome, and that it was first established by emperor Augustus. He also noted that this Indo-Roman trade lasted for a period of about 200 years, till 200 CE.[12][5][11] Wheeler had also found the Chinese celadon, identified to belong to the Song-Yuvan dynasty, and Chola coins from about the eleventh century, but these were rejected as despoiling items or remnants left by "brick-robbers". Items Chinese blue-and-white ware were also recovered from the site.[12][7]

Wheeler had noted that "Rouletted Ware" found at the site (designated as "Arikamedu Type 1" in the scientific study under the "Arikamedu Type 10 Project: Mapping Early Historic Networks in South Asia and Beyond") was not of an Indian origin but belonged to the Mediterranean region. The find of ceramic sherd, (titled as "Arikamedu Type 10) has also been investigated for its style and its spatial distribution.[13]

After a gap of several decades, in the early 1980s, Vimala Begley studied the ceramics find of the site and proposed a preliminary version of the chronology of the occupation of the site. At the same time she started researching on the beads, organized a proper sequential display of the artifacts of the site at the Pondicherry Museum, and brought out an information brochure.[10]

Begley obtained approvals to carry out excavations at the site in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Madras; she and K.V. Raman were the directors of operation from 1989 to 1992. Steven Sidebothom of the University of Delaware, who had back ground knowledge of Roman Egypt, was in charge of the trenching at the site.[12] Further excavations were done during six working seasons from 1989 to 1992, which led to a contradictory view that the brick structures and the wells investigated by Wheeler were of poor quality as they were founded on poor sandy foundations. The wood work was also noted to be of poor quality and the houses had no water proofing arrangements. The excavations also lead to a view that Arikamedu's Roman trading link was more of an inference. The excavations have now established that the trading with Rome extended to a period beyond that assessed by Wheeler;[6] that trading continued from the second century BCE to the seventh or eighth century CE.[12]

The extensive findings of glass and stone beads at the site provided Begley the link to Arikamedu's history. She identified the beads as the "Indo-Pacific beads", which were crafted at Arikamedu.[7] Based on the antiquities and structural features from the excavations, Begley and Raman established a revised sequence of six major periods of occupation of the site. Finds of new variety of Roman Amphorae ware also facilitated revision of the dates of occupancy.[3] They have also inferred that the site has been in continuous occupation since at least 2nd or 3rd century BCE to much more recent times.[12]


Site of the ancient harbour
Old brick built building structure

The excavated area of the mound was demarcated into two zones on the basis of occupation and elevation. Northern sector of the mound is nearer to the sea coast while the southern sector is farther away from the coast. The ceramic find of crockery and cooking vessels found in the northern sector were indicative of mass feeding of sailors and traders who camped there. Wine stored in amphorae was the principal item imported from the western countries during the later part of the 2nd century BCE.[12]

According to Wheeler the finds from the northern and southern part of the mound belong to the period from later part of 1st century BCE to 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Some of the structures identified are: a built structure of oblong shape 45 metres (148 ft) in length, with a divide wall, built with bricks with lime mortar plaster, used as a storehouse in the southern part;[3][4] in the northern part of the mound two walled enclosures with ponds and drainage system indicative of dyeing operations using vats meant to dye muslin for export; pottery ware both local and Mediterranean such as amphorae and Arrentine ware;[4] Arretine ware that belonged to the Terra Sigillata (stamped pottery) of 1st century BCE which went out of use by 50 CE;[3] the pink coloured amphorae jars used to store wine or oil had two handles with a yellow slip found in all layers of excavations;[3][4] also found was a wheel turned black ware; very few terracotta figurines, shell beads, gems, gold, terracotta, iron nails, copper percussion beater; red coloured fragment of a Roman lamp shade; an engraved emblem of emperor Augustus; and an ivory handle and a wooden toy boat. Based on these antiquities Wheeler had concluded that the Arikamedu was a Greek (Yavana) trading station. However, recent excavations by Begley has altered this assessment.[4][3]

The buildings found in the northern sector of the mound were also indicative of urbanization with people of different ethnic groups, both Indian and non-Indian, but it has not not been possible to date them in view of limited depth of excavations.[12]


In an international conference held in October 2004 by the Government of Pondicherry and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was decided that the Arikamedu site would be further investigated jointly for conservation as its ancient commercial link with the Romans had been established. During this conference, Government of Pondicherry had also decided to pose this site for inscribing as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO.[1] The site has been proposed by the Archaeological Survey of India for inscription by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site under the title "Silk Road Sites in India".[14]

See also


  1. ^ a b c
  2. ^ a b c Francis 2002, p. 27.
  3. ^ a b c d e f
  4. ^ a b c d e Singh 2008, pp. 415–17.
  5. ^ a b c d
  6. ^ a b c d Ray 2003, p. 127.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h
  8. ^ Francis 2002, p. 27-28.
  9. ^ a b Francis 2002, p. 28.
  10. ^ a b c Francis 2002, p. 29.
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ a b c d e f g Francis 2002, p. 30.
  13. ^
  14. ^


External links

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