Edited by Vimala Bagley

The Team

  1. Vimala Bagley
  2. Iravatham Mahadevan, National Fellow , ICHR
  3. K.V.Raman, Prof. Head of Department ancient History & Archeology, University of Madras
  4. Steve E Sidebotham , Asst. Prof. History , University of Delawar
  5. Peter Francis Jr., Center for Bead Research
  6. Kathleen Wamer Slene , Prof. Chairman of de. Art History and Archeology, University of Missouri , Columbia

The Objective of the Excavation

To understand the nature of commerce existed between south India and Mediterranean basin during what is known as Indo-Roman period and to study an ancient port town, how it functioned and what sustained its economy.


1. The Ancient Settlement

Although overseas commerce may have began early in the first century B.C., ( or earlier still ) and continued through early first and second centuries its prime time was from the middle of the first century B.C to the middle of the first century A.D. During this period how and why Arikamedu became a center of commerce on the Coramandel coast are unexplained questions which should, nevertheless be pursued as the archeological evidences are examined.

2. Location of the Settlement

The location of the ancient port is something historians of ancient sea trade find it difficult to explain for two reasons 1. The port is quite North on the Coramandel coast to be convenience for direct overseas trade with the Mediterranean 2. Arikamedu is NOT known to have been connected with any inland metropolitan center to serve as an outlet for its overseas commerce.

Since the Coramandel coast has virtually no natural harbors nearly all the ancient ports were located in the estuaries of the rivers or on water inlets, which provided shelter from the onslaught of the open sea during stormy weather and under ideal conditions could also berth small sea faring vessels and other boats.

Arikamedu as the archeological evidences suggest was NOT a temporary sea faring facility in ancient times.

3. Ariyankuppam river

Unlike today the drainage pattern of the Gingee river system was apparently somewhat different in ancient times. Today Ariyankuppam River is more like a brackish lagoon, the level of water in which varies according to the season. During the monsoon access to the sea is possible in catamarans and small boats but sand bars blocks the passage for any deep water navigation.

But maps of 17th and 18th centuries and other records suggests that Ariyankuppam was navigable at its mouth ( Deloche 1980) N.For’s map of 1750 indicates 12 brasses of water in the mouth of the river. A brass is equal to the length between outstretched arms

4. Suttukeni Megalithic site and its connection with Arikamedu

Upstream on the Gingee River is Suttukeni or Suttukeni site, of the richest Megalithic burial site excavated in south India so far (Casal 1956). Present dating suggests that the burial at Suttukeni was contemporary with the earliest settlements at Arikamedu. Whether there was any communication between Arikamedu and Suttukeni is difficult to determine since the only common denominator between the two is the so called “Megalithic Pottery”, which is also widely distributed in time and space that it cannot be considered as an indicator of direct contact. A fragmentary bronze vessel found at Suttukeni ( Casal 1956) and several pieces of jewelry amongst which decorated gold spaces, tour holed- gold separator , stone head making especially pecking are the common connections between Arikamedu and Suttukeni.

5. Layout of the Settlement

Wheeler’s excavation divided the archeological site in to Northern and Southern sectors. There is indeed undisputed evidence that Mediterranean products have arrived at Arikamedu in fairly substantial quantity but who brought them via which route and why to Arikamedu are as yet unresolved questions. The archeological evidences only indicate that into the Iron Age or Megalithic settlement of the Southern sector , brick architecture was introduced and new ceramic forms and fabrics including the so called “rouletted wares” were appeared and at some points Mediterranean products shipped in Amphora vessels also arrived .

No precise date or when this first occurred can be determined as yet.

From the architecture as interpreted by Archeologists it appears that Northern sector is generally regarded as Port Area and the Southern Industrial and Residential.


In the Southern sector, the most distinctive and recurring structural form is a small brick lined enclosure identified by earlier excavators as either a tank or a pit or a sink , depending upon the details of its form. The enclosures vary in size may or may not have drainage and some are noticeably battered. The best preserved example of a tank is near the river front in the extreme south , Casal’s group I , area R.S measuring 3.50m x 1.10m as the top interior tapering to 2.50 x 0.80 m at depth of 2.10m ( Casal 1949: 22) . The pit / sinks, on the other hand are square and smaller. The tanks seems to have built in pairs, for instance bac A and bac C.

Of all the excavated examples Tanks A and B in AK IV are the most elaborate and seem to have been placed within courtyards . These brick enclosures initially date from the period of “Indo-Roman” trade and probably renovated and used in later time.

Arikamedu was a textile production center

As for function the enclosures identified as tanks have usually been considered as part of “textile dyeing” complex, originally proposed by Wheeler. Textiles have been considered as a major item of export from Arikamedu.

These tanks without paved floors or drainage outlets as identified by archeologists fro Madras University (AV90- brick enclosures) which are similar in dimension and have no discoloration of the sand or soil. Such enclosures are found more in the Northern Sector. Functionally these tanks were “storage of industrial or agricultural products”

The tanks in any event appear to have industrial function NOT domestic use.


The most distinctive architectural feature in the industrial complex ( AKIV) in group II are the additional tanks and massive walls over 75m long traced in several trenches running diagonal to the river with its southern face finished for viewing ( Casal 1949: 24,28). Casal considered it to have been a “wall of a six meter wide water reservoir fitted with wells on the floor for the uninterrupted supply of water during the dry season”. Wheeler suggests that these walls may rather have been a defensive revetment.

The industrial area seems to have continued to the North of the reservoir”.

Along the northern wall of the reservoir remains of small scale, workshops working in metal , glass, semi precious stones , ivory and shell ( Casal 1949)

Large chunks of raw glass sheets mica and other waste materials are exhibited in the Pondicherry Museum.


The continued use of Megalithic pottery in Casal’s Group II suggests that the original population of Arikamedu was not displaced nor their culture obliterated with the commencement of overseas trade. If the “Graffito” on the Sigallata shred is indeed in Megalithic form of writing, it would further suggest cultural continuity through the first half of the first century AD


In Trench ViB4 of group II remains of a shop or storage room with “in site” conical vessels on the floor were found.( similar conical vessels were found in Wheeler’s AKI) . In Casal’s trench ViB4 a shred of Terra Sigallata with a signature was also recovered; which Howard Comfort (1991:141) dates to 30 AD. On the exterior of the shreds is a graffito in what appears to be Megalithic form of writing. The presence of Sigillata, rouletted ware and megalithic pottery suggest that the Arikamedu industrial town was active in the first century BC and first half of the first century AD.

So far in south India, terra Sigallata is found only in Arikamedu It is assumed that the users of Sigallata were westerners residing at Arikamedu who imported for their own personal use.

But if this graffito is in Megalithic writing and is the sign of ownership it would appear that some Sigallata was either sold bartered or gifted to the local population who must have been affluent or important enough to own it.

The users of Sigallata probably lived in the “warehouse area” of the Northern sector where the remaining shreds were recovered.

(Sigallata: Impressed with seal. Pottery decorations with impressed marks.

Sigillation: impressions with seal or stamp

Sigillaria: Large tree like fossil lycopod, marked with rows of scars resembling the impressions of a seal)


The highly fragmentary section of the Terra Sigillata and morphology of numerous other pottery forms from the southern sector indicate that “some space in the Southern sector was for the residential purposes”. The possibility remains that “the residents were interspersed with the industrial and market places as is quite common in contemporary towns”.


The northern sector has always been regarded or identified as the area where port facilities were located. Wheeler excavated walls of a brick structure, which could have been a “warehouse” (size 50m in length). According to Wheeler this structure date back from AD 25 or slightly later in the second quarter of the first century. It represented “Port Facilities” when most of the Sigillata and amphora were imported. The early port facilities were timber constructions since cut timber, rope and other objects were found by Wheeler.


Although the so called Rouletted ware is present all along and so are other fine sherds , over 90% of Pottery belongs to a grayish brown coarse ware with white/ gray slip and a variety of forms from incurved dishes and bowels to large jars.

The graying brown coarse ware of the Northern sector is very different from the so called Megalithic pottery of the southern sector in fabric , technology and morphology. The users of graying coarse ware pottery appear to be the earliest known settlers of the northern sector and associated with the settlement are the first Mediterranean imports brought either by them or to them by other traders.

The pottery was extensively used in the northern sector and the adjacent space. The forms range from storage jars to cooking vessels with carbon residue on the exterior to fine ‘table ware” dishes and bowls.

In the northern sector although mainly a port area some space were also used for living by merchants / sailors. The range in “Table wares” from coarse to fine in addition to imports may suggest social/ economical stratification.

The spatial distribution of Amphora shreds within the site indicates that a fairly large quantity comes from the northern part of the site. Many users of the products shipped in Arikamedu wine, Garum Sauce, or Olive oil must have been used.

There was an industrial waste dumping ground for shells and semi precious stones were also found in the northern sector. This suggests that there were some small scale industries in the northern sector.


Elizabeth Lyding Will’s study at Arikamedu excavated patches of water resistant Pazzolana cement which was used by Romans in the construction of under water installations. This indicates that Roman merchants had a role in the construction of Port facilities at Arikamedu.


There is considerable evidence to suggest that the site occupied during medieval Chola times ca 10 AD. Finds of Chola coins celadon pottery and other East Asian glazed ceramics suggest occupation of the site and some involvement in the medieval East West maritime trade .

Numerous medieval Chola coins have been recovered from the site . Wicked lamps at many museums including Aurobindo Ashram Library indicate that Arikamedu was occupied by Chola and Pal lava rulers.


In 1771-73 a missionary (monseigneur) Pigneau de Behaine, designated Bishop of Adran built a seminary and residence on the eastern part of the mound for the Jesuit missionaries driven out of Siam. The seminary abandoned in 1783. The ruin of the seminary is known as Mission House. What survive today are two pillars of the portal/entrance, a small brick structure to their west and a wall of the interior with six (6) arches.

Le Gentil (1779) who visited the site before the construction of the seminary spoke about the ancient structures found in digging near the bank. The scenic beauty of the location and availability of the bricks could have been the reason for choosing the site to build the seminary.

The remaining walls of the seminary clearly indicates the use of mixed styles of bricks and the road leading to the south appears to be paved , possibly with large size bricks pilfered from ancient sites. The French reused the site for bricks as well as for constructing new building throughout their rule.


  1. Earliest known settlement at the is in the southern sector dating perhaps from the 2nd century BC by people whose pottery relates to the Iron age ( megalithic) cultures of south India. The original settlers continued to live during the period of trade with west.
  2. Trade with the Mediterranean seems to have been at its height between 50BC to 50 AD. The north and south sectors were occupied by two different ethnic groups. Interactions between the occupants of the two sectors are reflected in the pottery but the primary coarse ware used in the two sectors remained different.
  3. Both sectors were imported goods primarily from Mediterranean basin such as Amphora wines, Olive oil, ceramic lights , Sigillata sherds etc. Extensive usage was by people inhabited in the northern sector.
  4. Industrial wastes were found in both sectors. but shell wastes came form North
  5. The industry/ commerce associated with Tank/Pit structures was in the southern sector and was probably the market areas as well.
  6. No pottery –tile making areas were identified .
  7. Living quarters were found in the northern sector near the port.
  8. There is ample evidence for a settlement and overseas commerce with the East in medieval Chola and later times.
  9. The site was once again settled in 18th century .A Mission House was built for Jesuits



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