Revisiting Indian Rouletted Ware and the Impact of Indian Ocean Trade in Early Historic South Asia

By Magee, Peter | Antiquity, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Indian Rouletted Ware and the Impact of Indian Ocean Trade in Early Historic South Asia


Magee, Peter, Antiquity


Introduction

Although it is now well accepted that there was Indian Ocean trade long before Roman contact (Ray 1994, 2003; Morrison 1997), the influence of Mediterranean trade on ancient south Asia is still a matter of debate. In the last 60 years research on this issue has been played out against a swinging pendulum of academic interest that has now moved solidly into a post-colonial framework. This stands in contrast to earlier modes of thought, particularly those espoused by Wheeler, which are often characterised as emphasising Mediterranean contact as a major stimulus for cultural developments in the subcontinent.

Indian Rouletted Ware (hereafter IRW) and a number of other south Asian fine wares (Type 10, Type 18 and Omphalos ware) have operated as a proxy for these broader issues. As the wares occur around the time of increased Mediterranean contact with south Asia they were initially interpreted as evidence of a deep impact on local material culture production (Wheeler et al. 1946). More recently, several jointly authored papers by Coningham, Ford and Pollard (hereafter Coningham et al.) have argued on the basis of geochemical data that these fine wares were produced in a highly specialised and centralised framework that was embedded within pre-existing modes of production and distribution (Krishnan & Coningham 1997; Ford & Coningham 2005; Ford et al. 2005). In so doing, they have downplayed the influence of Mediterranean contact in favour of an interpretation that emphasises continuity in south Asian economic and social structures.

This paper re-examines the published data on IRW and other south Asian fine wares and suggests that a more nuanced and careful examination of this evidence indicates that the production and consumption of IRW differs considerably from that which had previously existed in south Asia. It is argued that the increasing importance of a powerful and economically successful maritime merchant class is critical to these developments.

Indian Rouletted Ware

It is now generally accepted that the production of Indian Rouletted Ware dates from the second century BC onwards (Begley 1983, 1988; Schenk 2006). The origin and production of IRW has, however, been debated since Wheeler's publication of his excavations at the south-east Indian port city of Arikamedu (Wheeler et aL 1946). Coningham et al. identify two major theories for understanding the origin of this ware (Krishnan & Coningham 1997: 925). The first, which they attribute to Wheeler, suggests 'a Roman origin for these wares due to the presence of Arretine ware and amphorae in the same level" (Ford et al. 2005:911). In fact, Wheeler and those working with him never equated the appearance of IRW with the importation of Arretine ware. In their initial publication of Arikamedu they state that IRW 'both preceded and outlasted the Arretine ware by an appreciable margin' (Wheeler et al. 1946: 46). The second theory, which Coningham et al. attribute to Begley (1983, 1988), accepts IRW as a locally produced ceramic but still argues for Mediterranean influence in its decoration. This latter opinion, namely that the rouletting found on IRW does indeed betray Mediterranean, but not necessarily Roman, influence, seems now generally to be accepted by most scholars. As Ray has pointed out, a possible source for this distinctive decoration may have been contact with settlements in the Arabian Gulf, many of which contain imported Hellenistic ceramics (Ray 1994: 75).

The question of where IRW was produced has also been debated. Coningham et al. and Begley suggest an origin in the southern areas of India and Sri Lanka (Begley 1988: 439). Schenk, relying upon limited XRD analysis conducted by Gogte (1997) and fabric similarities with Northern Black Polished Ware, raises the possibility of a northern, Gangetic origin for this ware (Schenk 2006: 136). This supports Schenk's argument that IRW is connected with Mauryan diplomacy and, possibly, the spread of Buddhism.

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