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Excavations at Arikamedu

With deep regret I must report that after a long illness Vimala Begley left this life on 21 March 2000. Her contributions to science were of the highest quality;
she will be greatly missed.

Arikamedu, on the southeast coast of India just south of Pondicherry, is the most famous archaeological site in southern India. Discovered in the 1930s and quickly linked with Roman trade, it was excavated three times in the 1940s. The first excavation was an amateur French endeavor. R.E.M. Wheeler conducted the second and best-known campaign. J-.M. Casal conducted the third.

For years, Wheeler was cited for his view that a sleepy Indian fishing village had been built up by Roman traders into a major port that flourished for a few centuries until the Romans left. The village then fell back into obscurity.

Beginning around 1980 Vimala Begley of the University of Pennsylvania became interested in the ceramics of Arikamedu. The identification of Western wares and the problems associated with the "rouletted ware" at the site intrigued her. Simultaneously, my interest in Arikamedu began. Visiting the Pondicherry Museum convinced me that Arikamedu was an important beadmaking site, unique because of its production of both stone and glass beads.

Over the next several years Begley and I worked independently on material from the site, visited it several times, wrote papers, worked with the Pondicherry Museum and other depositories and helped make Arikamedu a protected archaeological zone. From 1989 to 1992 Begley directed a joint U. Pennsylvania and U. Madras excavation there; I was the "small finds man." We are currently working on the report. Volume I is just out. Volume II is to be completed in the summer of 1997.

Some of the preliminary results follow:

1. Arikamedu was occupied far longer than had been thought and must be considered a South Indian city rather than principally Roman. The lowest levels we could reach go back to the second century B.C., long before the Romans came. My historical investigations indicate that Arikamedu was occupied down to the seventeenth century, and a date nearly as recent is confirmed archaeologically, at least tentatively.

2. The chief product of Arikamedu must have been beads. It is the first place known to have made small, drawn (cut from a tube) glass beads, the types found almost universally for two millennia. Its stone bead industry was also impressive, and its lapidaries made several important innovations in the field.

3. Workers in the glass bead (Indo-Pacific bead) industry migrated to other places: Mantai, Sri Lanka; Khlong Thom, Thailand; Oc-eo, Vietnam; Srivijaya/Palembang, Sumatra; Sungai Mas, Malaysia; Kuala Selinsing, Malaysia; and Takua Pa, Thailand have now been identified as housing such work. This constituted the largest and longest-lived glass bead industry ever. (See the Indo-Pacific Bead page.)

4. Instrumental in these moves must have been a power with more influence than the beadmakers themselves. As rich as India is in precious stones, glass has always been considered an inferior substitute and the status of glass beadmakers has always been low. A guild no doubt made the link between the beadmakers and the powers-that-be who would have had to give permission for these moves. Of them, the Manikgramman is the most likely. Not only does "manik" mean "bead," ("grammen" is guild), but the Manikgramman are known to have been active at least at Takua Pa and Srivijaya/Palembang.

5. The stone beadmakers were in part Pandukal (Megalithic) peoples, who were probably responsible for obtaining the raw materials and making about half of the stone beads. Among the lapidary innovations were the making of black onyx and citrine. See Roman Maps and the Concept of Indian Gems.

6. In the sixteenth century when Arikamedu was abandoned, the population split into three groups. The fishermen and farmers merely moved a half-kilometer away to the village of Virampatinam. This name is essentially the same as the ancient name of Arikamedu, Viraipattinam (Arikamedu, "mound of Arakan" is a later name applied to the site because Jain figurines were found there).

The glass beadmakers went to Papanaidupet, Andhra Pradesh, near the Renigunta Gap in the Eastern Ghats. The attraction may have been Guddimalam (Gudar), an old guild center, blessed with good glass sand.

The stone beadmakers went to Vellur, Thanjavur and/or Tiruchchirappalli (large southern cities) to continue their craft.

The fishermen are still at Virampatinam. The glass beadmakers are still at Papanaidupet. Stone beadmaking survived down through the end of the last century, but no trace is now left.

7. The status of Arikamedu must be revised. Wheeler's picture of a sleepy fishing village suddenly awakened by enterprising Romans who built stone buildings and a port, then fell back to sleep when the Romans left is nonsense. The glory of the site is due to local initiative. The place was important and the beadmaking industries well established before the Romans came. The Romans went there precisely because it was an important port. After whatever constituted the Roman "emporium" was gone, Arikamedu was still very much in touch with the West, sending its gems that direction (see Berenike: An Egyptian Red Sea Port page) and receiving wine and other amphorae-packed Mediterranean products for centuries.

8. Its impact on world trade (and dare I say culture?) was impressive. Arikamedu products (glass beads, stone beads, ceramics) were in Indonesia by the first century B.C. The West demanded the garnets, prase, citrine and other stone beads and agate cameo blanks produced in Arikamedu. Between ca. A.D. 1 and 1200 Indo-Pacific beads (not all of which were made at Arikamedu proper) account for 62.2% of all beads of all materials excavated at all archaeological sites as far away as the Philippines.

The Arabs took Indo-Pacific beads to East Africa and across North Africa, through the Sahara to the Forest Zone of West Africa. The Portuguese were obliged to get them from Arikamedu (they bought them in nearby Nagapattinam, the major neighboring port) because they were in demand in Mozambique.

9. Thus, a whole new chapter in the history of the World System is being written. The old Euro-centric view that any significant innovation must have a European or at least Mediterranean origin has long been shattered. The role of South India in world commerce has never loomed so large as it does now. There are striking parallels between Indo-Pacific beadmaking and later techniques and technologies in Europe and America. The Indian prototypes are a millennium or more older. Why?

Developments in the entire region are documented in back issues of The Margaretologist, for sale in the here.

Bead Emporium: A Guide to Beads in the Pondicherry Musum is available here.

A complete treatment of the "mother site" that made Indo-Pacific beads and many stone beads is in Vimala Begley, ed. The Ancient Port of Arikamedu.Volume One has just been released; Volume Two (with the beads) will follow.

It will be announced here first.


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