The Origins of Iron Working in India: New Evidence from the Central Ganga Plain and the Eastern Vindhyas

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Introduction

The date and origin of the introduction of iron artefacts and iron working into India has remained a controversial research problem, not unconnected with the question of its association with the supposed arrival, in the second millennium BC, of immigrants from the west, as implied by the Rigveda. Around the middle of the last century, iron-working origins in India were dated c. 700-600BC (Gordon 1950; Wheeler 1959). Subsequently, a combination of an association with Painted Grey Ware (PGW) and the advent of radiocarbon dating began to push this date back towards the second millennium, a period which had in fact favoured by some scholars earlier in the twentieth century (Chakrabarti 1992:10-12).

Radiocarbon dates from Ataranjikhera and early deposits mainly at Kausambi near Allahabad, Jakhera in district Etah in the Ganga Valley, Nagda and Eran in central India, and Hallur in Karnataka suggested dates around 1000 BC (Table 1) (Subramanyam 1964; Banarjee 1965; Chakrabarti 1974; Nagarajarao 1974). At the same time Chakrabarti (1974: 354) challenged the view of a western origin, stating "there is no logical basis to connect the beginning of iron in India with any diffusion from the west, from Iron and beyond", and further (1976: 122) "that India was a separate and possibly independent centre of manufacture of early iron."

Since then there has been fresh evidence for even earlier iron-working in India. Technical studies on materials dated c. 1000BC at Komaranhalli (Karnataka) showed that the smiths of this site could deal with large artefacts, implying that they had already been experimenting for centuries (Agrawal et al. 1985: 228-29). Sahi (1979: 366) drew attention to the presence of iron in Chalcolithic deposits at Ahar, and suggested that "the date of the beginning of iron smelting in India may well be placed as early as the sixteenth century BC" and "by about the early decade of thirteenth century BC iron smelting was definitely known in India on a bigger scale". On the basis of four radiocarbon measurements, ranging between 3790 + 110 BP and 3570 + 100 BP, available for the Megalithic period (without iron) Sharma (1992: 64, 67) has proposed a range of 1550-1300 uncal. BC for the subsequent iron bearing period at Gufkral (Jammu and Kashmir).

On the basis of this evidence a date of around 1300/1200 BC has been suggested for the beginning of iron in India and c. 800 BC for the mid Ganga Valley (Allchin & Allchin 1982: 345; Prakash & Tripathi 1986: 568; Gaur 1997: 240). Chakrabarti (1992: 68, 164; 1999: 333) has observed that at Ahar it would be the first quarter of the second millennium BC and in Malwa soon after the middle of the second millennium BC. However, the early dates for iron at Ahar and Komaranhalli have been refuted on the grounds that the Ahar deposits are stratigraphically uncertain (Gaur 1997: 244; Agarwala 2000: 197, 200).

More recently, early contexts containing iron at Jhusi, located on the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna in district Allahabad, have been dated to c. 1107-844 cal. BC (Tewari et al. 2000: 93). The early Iron Age deposits of Komaranhalli (Karnataka) and Veerampura (Andhra Pradesh) have given TL dates in the fourteenth to twelfth centuries BC and radiocarbon dates in thirteenth to tenth centuries BC (Table 1) (Deo 1991: 193); while in Vidarbha region (Maharastra), contexts containing iron have given radiocarbon dates between fifteenth and twelfth centuries BC (Table 1).

Recent findings in Uttar Pradesh

This paper briefly reports the results of some recent excavations conducted by the Uttar Pradesh State Archaeological Department under the leadership of the present author and their implications for understanding the beginning of iron-working in the Central Ganga Plain and the adjacent part of the Vindhyas. This has further implications in defining the beginning of iron in the subcontinent as a whole. The excavated sites are Raja Nala-ka-tila (1996-98), Malhar (1998-99), Dadupur (1999-2001) and Lahuradewa or Lohradewa (2001-2002) (Figure 1). …