Situating Megalithic Burials in the Iron Age-Early Historic Landscape of Southern India

By Haricharan, Smriti; Achyuthan, Hema et al. | Antiquity, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Situating Megalithic Burials in the Iron Age-Early Historic Landscape of Southern India


Haricharan, Smriti, Achyuthan, Hema, Suresh, N., Antiquity


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Introduction

"A thousand megalithic cists might be excavated with the utmost care [in south India] without any significant addition to our knowledge of their chronology" (Wheeler 1947: 185). The chronology of the Iron Age-Early Historic 'megalithic' burials continues to be a problem, 65 years after Wheeler's statement. The burials are spread over a large area, including the Vindhya range, Deccan plateau and peninsular India, with some outliers in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern parts of India (Banerjee 1956; Gururaja Rao 1972; Leshnik 1974; Sundara 1979; Brubaker 2001). Their grave goods indicate contacts with not only other cultures in India, but also with Rome, Mesopotamia and Sri Lanka (Tomber 2007; Rajan 2008). Understanding the burial rites and their chronology is necessary to elucidate the socio-cultural, religious and even economic aspects of this period in southern India, which in turn add to our knowledge of the relationships between the various cultures at this time.

The burials have been classified in a variety of forms: cairn circle, dolmen, cist burial, urn burials, sarcophagi and combinations of these (Krishnaswami 1949; Gururaja Rao 1972; Leshnik 1972; Rajan 2000). Mohanty & Selvakumar (2002) observed several sites that have more than one form of monument, with a number of variations in their external and internal architecture. Moorti (1994) states that even broadly classified types, for example stone circles or cairn circles, vary considerably in their shape, size and nature of deposit and are rarely similar in all aspects. The use of 'megalithic' as an umbrella term encompassing such varied burial practices over a long time span is based on the fact that most of the burials are associated with some kind of stone setting. They have also been thought to share particular grave goods: iron artefacts and Black and Red Ware (BRW) pottery. However, this assumption seems to compound the problem further, rather than being explicatory, and here we prefer to use the term Iron Age-Early Historic burials instead of megalithic burials (except in Table 2 where the term megalithic has been retained, as excavation reports of habitation sites refer to a 'megalithic' phase, making the period they refer to ambiguous).

In some parts of peninsular India, like northern Karnataka, the dates of the burials have been pushed back to the beginning of the first millennium BC. Thomas et al. (2008) have recently used both thermo-luminescence (TL) and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) methods to date pottery samples from a site within the University of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, obtaining dates of 2145 BC and 2795 BC (TL) and 1995 BC and 2505 BC (SAR-OSL) respectively. These align well with radiocarbon dates from Brahmagiri, northern Karnataka, with an overall range between 2140 and 1940 BC (Morrison 2005). However, these are exceptional; few scientific dates are available, a problem aggravated by few burials having any surviving organic matter (Moorti 1994; Brubaker 2001; Morrison 2005).

In Tamilnadu (Figure 1), the 'megalithic' burials are believed to date from 800-900 BC to AD 400-500 (Gururaja Rao 1972; Leshnik 1972; Allchin 1974; Rajan 2000; Mohanty & Selvakumar 2002). The later part of this Iron Age-Early Historic period famously features material from Rome and other neighbouring lands, which has been used to help with the chronology. Wheeler (1947) based his dates for the burials on the occurrence of Roman and Satavahana coins at a habitation site at Chandravalli. Leshnik (1974) used material from Taxila to date material from the Iron Age-Early Historic burials of southern India. Tomber (2007) drew attention to the fact that much of the Roman pottery found in southern India that had previously been consigned to the late first century BC to second or third centuries AD can now be extended to the sixth or even early seventh centuries AD.

Radiometric dates obtained from excavated burial sites in Tamilnadu, such as Paiyampalli (North Arcot district) and Kodumanal are 640 [+ or -] 105 BC (Possehl 1994) and AD 1550 [+ or -] 90 (Joshi 1993b) respectively. …

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