Rome and Mesopotamia-Importers into India in the First Millennium AD

By Tomber, Roberta | Antiquity, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Rome and Mesopotamia-Importers into India in the First Millennium AD


Tomber, Roberta, Antiquity


Introduction

Recent fieldwork in India by this writer included a systematic programme to view and identify imported Roman amphorae. Such an undertaking was possible because of the extensive review of amphora sites compiled by Sunil Gupta (1993; 1997), which lists over 50 potential find spots. Although not all the material has yet been located, imported amphorae have been confirmed from 31 sites. However at approximately half these sites it was also discovered that amphora sherds thought to be Roman were actually Mesopotamian in origin. In 10 cases, the assemblage contained only Mesopotamian sherds, and Roman pottery was absent. The Mesopotamian vessels belong to a type known as 'torpedo jars' which have not previously been identified in India. After a brief mention of the better known Roman imports, this paper describes the Mesopotamian material and goes on to discuss the date, distribution and context of both types of import in India.

Imports from the Roman Empire

Roman amphorae, together with Roman coinage, are the most important artefacts for documenting exchange between the Roman Empire and India. In absolute terms, coins are the most prolific and most studied Roman find: for South India alone Turner (1989: 23) recorded 6000 denarii. If one includes Late Roman copper coinage this number is substantially boosted with over 4000 from Karur and Madurai in Tamil Nadu (Krishnamurty 1994: x). Although there are also growing numbers of amphorae, identification is more problematic and more difficult to verify through publication, especially in the case of body sherds. Rims, handles or bases are easier to evaluate, and some published examples can be seen to be non-Roman imports: for example, a supposed Roman vessel from the Contai region of West Bengal is an Islamic vessel (Chakrabarti 1999: Figure 56). Apart from the assemblages at Arikamedu (Will 1996; 2004) and Nevasa (Gupta et al. 2001), few amphorae have been identified to type in India. But since many Roman amphorae are well-dated and well-provenanced they represent an untapped resource for the understanding of Indian Ocean contact, as is well recognised by Indian scholars (e.g. Gupta 1993; 2002; Tripathi 1993; 2004).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Imports from Mesopotamia

Intermittent interchange between India and Mesopotamia is known from the Harappan period (late third/early second millennium BC), when it is demonstrated, for example, by Indus pottery in Oman (Mery 2000: 219-45), Gujarati pottery in Bahrain (Carter 2001; see also Salles 1993: 500) and by the oft-cited Persian Gulf seal found at Lothal in Gujarat (Ghosh 1989: 259). The intertwined relationship between the regions continues into the later first millennium BC/first millennium AD (incorporating the Sasanian period), as witnessed in documents (for a summary see Whitehouse & Williamson 1973: e.g. 31), and a growing body of artefactual data. Coins are the most prolific Sasanian artefact found in the sub-continent, particularly from the north-west: for example, over 300 are reported from Taxila (Marshall 1975: 790). But, although there has been some recognition of Sasanian finds as far east as Sri Lanka (Lang et al. 1998:11), coarse ware pottery, specifically torpedo jars, has not been recognised in India until now.

The torpedo jar is well-known throughout Mesopotamia and the Gulf (Kennet 2004: 63) (Figures 1 and 2), a distribution that supports its Mesopotamian source despite the lack of kilns. It occurs in assemblages of the later Parthian (c. AD 0-224) or early Sasanian (AD 224-379) through the Sasanian (to AD 651) and into the early Islamic period. Published quantified assemblages are rare, with Tell Abu Sarifa in south-central Iraq an exception. Here torpedo jars appear most frequently between Levels II (before AD 500, probably the third century) and V (AD 800-950), although the author draws attention to excavation problems that distort the ceramic patterns (Adams 1970: 91-2; see also Kennet 2004: 83). …

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