Interview with P.J. Cherian

in Interview
Published on: 22 April 2016
The Pattanam Story: Interview with P.J.Cherian, Director, KCHR

Sahapedia: Could you share the story of the Pattanam excavations, and the challenges of showcasing it at the national capital?

P.J. Cherian:  Pattanam is a small village in Ernakulam district, Kerala, located about four kilometers from the Indian Ocean coast. It is a densely populated coastal village, a sleepy hamlet. In the 1990’s, news started coming of curious things found at Pattanam. Objects like beads, pottery and bricks, were reported as being found on the surface as well as from subterranean contexts.

Soon, archaeologists, historians, students and researchers from nearby colleges and universities started visiting Pattanam. Prima facie it was evident that the place was special, because lots of things were visible on the surface itself. Actually those brickbats, beads and pieces of pottery had been lying around for long. Some children even had amassed collections of beads which they had retrieved from the courtyards each time it rained.

Random surface surveys led to a trial excavation in 2004 by the Centre for Heritage Studies, Thripunithura, and that gave stratigraphic evidence of the archaeological importance of the village. Pottery with non-local origins was also found during that excavation. Unfortunately there was no follow-up of this trial excavation for three years. In 2007, the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) stepped in after getting the ASI’s permission to undertake full-scale excavations at Pattanam. The Council organized the excavations from a multi-disciplinary research perspective. KCHR has been excavating the site for the last eight seasons, and the research project has now evolved into an international project in material culture studies.

A lot of archaeological evidence was unearthed during the excavations. They point to the transformation of an Iron Age settlement into a trans-oceanic commercial port in the Early Historic period. The site, which is now understood as an archaeological mound, has five cultural layers—representing the Iron Age, Transition, Early Historic, Medieval and Modern periods—which span about 3000 years.

The exhibition in the national capital is the first major exhibition on Pattanam finds, though we had organized a couple of displays at the site to create awareness among the local people. The primary aim of the National Museum exhibition was to showcase the finds in their larger socio-cultural context. It was a challenge. To achieve our ends, we started by explaining the excavation procedures, and how excavation finds are studied. That was how we conceived a short film depicting excavation procedures. Initially we thought it could be entirely an animation movie, but we later opted for a video-documentary because of cost factors. It was shown at the opening section of the exhibition.

Another objective of the exhibition was to demystify archaeology. People should know it is not a treasure hunt for exquisite objects, but concerns life in the remote past. The ordinary, seemingly trivial objects from Pattanam may not appeal to people preoccupied with present-day concerns unless contextualized and understood as something directly linked to their ancestry. So, the overarching question regarding the exhibition design was how to get the message across to people that archaeology is something relevant to their present and future. The general apathy towards archaeology is because we archaeology researchers fail organically to link the past to the life of our times.

Archaeology, a vital knowledge domain, is also one of the youngest disciplines, maybe just one and a half or two centuries old. But we have to concede that it is a very challenging knowledge domain, more complex than most other social science disciplines, requiring multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches. It can never be a standalone discipline. Another interesting aspect of this discipline is the physical labour and the multi-tasking. We wanted to bring out all these aspects simply and subtly.

Another effort was to showcase the finds as part of the different cultural phases evident at Pattanam. We are getting materials dating as far back as 1000 BCE. We have over three dozen AMS radio-carbon dates from Pattanam samples. Based on those dates and other indications from stratigraphy and the typology of artefacts, we have tried to demarcate the cultural phases of the Pattanam site.

You know human history is divided into the Palaeolithic Age, Mesolithic Age, Neolithic Age, Iron Age and so on—different ages based on the dominant material or tool that defined that particular culture or phase. At Pattanam the first evidences of life are from the Iron Age. After that comes the Transition and Early Historic periods, when human beings took to writing. Some researchers call this phase Proto-historic. We have multiple written sources for that period in Greek, Latin and classical Tamil. The bulk of the artefacts recovered from Pattanam belong to the Proto-historic/Early Historic periods. We have also recovered material from the medieval and modern periods at Pattanam. There is an obvious discontinuity in human habitation after the decline of the Early Historic phase.

That could also be the reason why this site remained in oblivion till recently. We have tried to explain all these aspects with representative exhibits.

Another challenge was to highlight this material from Pattanam as evidence for a global network. There is every possibility that Pattanam could have been or was part of the port site that we know as the fabled Muziris. There are many references in written sources to the port city known in the Indian subcontinent as Muciri Pattinam, and as Port Muziris to peoples to the west of India. Here I should add that, ideally, we should not be referring at all to modern identities like India when we talk about those times—there was no country India then, similarly, all westerners, or anyone who came from outside the subcontinent, were called ‘Yavanas’ in the written sources. In Sangam literature it is mentioned that the Yavanas used to refer to Muciri Pattanam as Muziris.

So if Pattanam was Muziris, or Muciri Pattinam, it was also part of a larger web of relationships, because each port was not an end in itself. Pattanam had either direct or indirect connections with 40 other port sites from south China to Gibraltar. This is a huge connectivity. Probably for the first time in human history, people from different cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe were travelling from port to port. And in that chain of ports, Pattanam seems to have been a significant link. We wanted to highlight that aspect by showcasing the artefacts that travelled to Pattanam from faraway ports and cultures.

We also wanted to sensitise children, so there was a Creative Corner for kids in the exhibition hall. We tried to tell them that objects have a biography as much as we humans. Objects too have a life cycle: they undergo changes in value and meaning during use, when they reach a new context, and so on. And, just as people die, an object too disintegrates. Then sometimes they are reused, often for purposes different from the original. Children were asked to contextualize the objects, for example, the pot sherds. We asked them to imagine what that pot might have been used for, and whose pot it might have been etc. I think it was a beautiful experience for them, children joyfully engaged in contextualizing artefacts from the remote human past. They obviously treated them with respect and care.

These were some of the concerns around which we developed the storyline of the exhibition.

Sahapedia: You say that you have excavated about 1% of the archaeological remains in Pattanam?

PJC: Actually Pattanam is a typical archaeological mound, whose formation is a wonder of nature—a gradual and prolonged process of sedimentation that happens when people live in one location. The extent of the Pattanam mound is about 111 acres. It was here, like a child in a womb, that the old remains were protected. And yes, we have excavated only 1% of the mound or 60 trenches so far.

Sahapedia: And your collaborations are going on extending: you recently had a team from China coming and working?

PJC: Yes. One important aspect about archaeological research is that it is multi-disciplinary and collaborative. Especially in a port site, you need to have experts from different parts of the world to study the things emerging from it. For example, we recovered artefacts that were from Europe, Africa and China, which nobody in India could have understood in totality without the help of experts from the British Museum, Oxford University, Pisa University or the Palace Museum China. In fact, besides studying the Chinese Porcelain, the team of experts from China also lent their technical support to create a database for Pattanam Pottery. And they are training our researchers in petrographic analysis. A team has also been invited to visit the Palace Museum to acquire hands-on experience in the archaeo-science practices there.

I should say we were fortunate to get academic inputs from many leading educational institutions within and outside the country, from the University of Georgia in the USA to the Palace Museum in China.

Sahapedia: Would you like to talk about the conference that accompanied the exhibition, ‘The Making of the Indian Subcontinent: Indian Ocean Perspectives’ (January 7-8, 2015), where you took stock of certain questions, such as the role of political elites in trade?

PJC: Yes, the conference tried to place Pattanam in the larger context, in the history of the subcontinent and that of the known world in the Early Historic period. Professor Romila Thapar raised the issue of the importance of vast expanses in nature, whether desert or ocean, in influencing human destiny. She said—maybe in a lighter vein—that whenever humanity has had territorial divisions, there would be fighting. I think that message about territoriality is very important. There cannot be any trespassing! In the Kuttanad region in Kerala, during floods all private boundaries disappear and we become a true community, humanity sans borders.

Likewise, it is very difficult to be territorial when it comes to the oceans or deserts. Of course there could have been conflicts between settlements close to each other, but mostly the distances were too substantial. Think of India’s geographical location abutting the Indian Ocean: India is in a central position. From the east and west, different cultures converged here. Actually, the conference wanted to generate a view of Indian history from the perspective of the oceans.

We know that there have been trade and other cultural interfaces across the Indian Ocean from pre-historic times, and at Pattanam we can see their stamp from at least 2,300 years back.

Sahapedia: In the lecture accompanying the exhibition you have raised certain questions around urbanization in Kerala?

PJC: Pattanam is very significant for understanding Kerala’s history, especially the pre-ninth-century period. Till now we had little tangible evidence for this period. When we draw our history timelines, we think that whatever gaps there are will sooner or later be filled. That is where history writing becomes very problematic. There are often big gaps that expose the limits of our understanding. The period preceding the ninth century was one such gap, which was filled with myths, theories, hypotheses and inferences. All this was problematic because these were not based on tangible evidence. In the absence of such evidence one of the conclusions drawn about the pre-ninth–century period was that society was very primitive. The Pattanam archaeological record challenges this and related assertions and assumptions. Pattanam indicates that the people were urban, in the sense that they knew how to organize life in ways different from a rural set-up. They were not producing things just for consumption, and their technological expertise was definitely at much a higher level than many would like to project. Such things would not happen in isolation.

Sahapedia: Are the Chera coins the first to have been found in Kerala?

PJC: It is the first time we got them from a stratigraphic context. The stratigraphic context is very important, because it is very precise in terms of age, culture and the relation of the coins to other objects. Finding the stratigraphic context for Chera coins can prove to be very revealing about monetization, and which areas of trade were affected by it. We found not one or two but nearly 140 coins. That is substantial. So that may open up more questions and contribute to our understandings of urban processes, especially in that area.

Coins are also very significant because they denote the state. The presence of the state also related to urbanization, though there are other opinions. In her interview Professor Romila Thapar said that long-distance trade and other processes are possible even without powerful states. The state may be seen as an inevitable evil that early social forms sought to contain—there is an anthropological theory that societies skirmished with each other in order to prevent a powerful state from emerging. States can become very oppressive. But the question of the state is a major one in terms of understanding the urban culture of that period.

Sahapedia: Could you talk about the most exciting moments of the discoveries over the past eight years, if in fact there are such high points in archaeology?

PJC: The discovery of the wharf was certainly one of the most important moments: we found a canoe, we found structures. This was in 2007.

There are exciting points in archaeology as in life, but to prioritize them is a complex task. I may consider something very important for my reasons; you may wholly reject it. You may speak of the significance of something else. So how that priority is to be fixed is a difficult question. In fact, that was a big problem for us when we confronted the huge volume of pot sherds. That was why we decided to conserve 4.5 million body pot sherds, when at other sites they are usually thrown away. We thought your grandchildren and their children and so on might find these very important. Who knows? Science might enable them to understand many things, ask more questions than we are capable of today.

Now we are asking artists to engage with those sherds, to create public art, again through a non-destructive artistic process, as we don’t want to destroy anything. When Vivan worked on it, he was very sensitive. It was as though he was handling a child, he was very gentle with the sherds of discarded pottery. So everything is important in archaeology. It depends how you work things out. Sometimes overdoing our efforts multiplies difficulties, but there are certainly many possible solutions if we apply our collective wisdom.

Sahapedia: What were the objects found at the trial excavation in 2004?

PJC: That was actually very significant because that was the first excavation, and the all research questions pursued later were formed in miniature in 2004. Amphorae sherds were found, as also roulette-ware sherds, and one coin. All the markers for a significant site were revealed. They were defining finds for further research.

Even after eight seasons I would say we have seen only the tip of the iceberg. The data-set emerging from Pattanam each year will continue to be re-worked by future researchers asking new and more sophisticated questions.

Sahapedia: One unusual thing about the exhibition is that you start with the objects which tether you to reality, but you also have the artworks: the installation, and the sketchbook by Unny…

PJC: We requested a range of creative people to engage with these objects: painters, writers, sculptors, because, again, creative inputs too are necessary in archaeology. Otherwise archaeology researchers would get quite bored! You have to imagine life and the inputs from creative minds can be crucial to researchers. So we used to invite them to the site. And there were some contemporary artists—contemporary art engaging with pre-history or proto-history—and something beautiful has emerged. Sethu has also written a novel on Muziris inspired by Pattanam, Marupiravi (‘Reincarnation’).

Renowned artist Vivan Sundaram used 80,000 pot sherds to create his installation, ‘Black Gold’. Similarly there is this wooden sculpture by Riyas Komu, the curator of the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and the eminent cartoonist Unny made some wonderful sketches of the site. And two other artists, G. Ajith Kumar and Bara Bhaskaran contributed by re-imagining Muziris. It was very nice: they had seen the objects and visited the excavations and then they conceived what Pattanam would have been like in the time of Muziris.

Sahapedia: The design of the exhibition is very interesting, as you can experience it in so many ways. At the far end from the entrance you have these works from 2000 CE. Then on the long wall you have a map, which is one way of representing relationships between different parts of the world. In the middle are arranged amphorae from different parts of Europe, which embody connections in a different way.

PJC: Thanks to the designing skills of Siddhartha Chatterjee and other members of the Delhi team, these elements of the exhibition turned out well. The Peutinger Table is an interesting document which demands an ‘Indian’ perspective. It is one of the oldest maps in the world and there is a lot of debate about which period it belongs to. But very interestingly, the places marked are those that had participated in the Early Historic trade. Muziris is at the extreme end of this 65-metre long map, it is as if the world ends somewhere near there. The cities of the Roman Empire and many other known cities of that period are all marked along trade routes in this map.

Other than the silk route, trade routes of the Early Historic period were through seas or other waterways. The map is very crucial for studying early oceanic or trans-oceanic routes.

Sahapedia: How did the idea evolve and new ideas emerge over the course of this exhibition?

PJC: I am excited about the exhibition going to Pattanam. A lot of interest has emerged after the exhibition in Delhi, and people in Kerala should get a chance to see the exhibits. And when reinstalling it in Kerala, we will have the chance to address any limitations it has at present. We have invitations from Mumbai, Calcutta and Bengaluru, and if some institutional collaborations could be arranged, we could perhaps take the exhibition to these cities as well. Otherwise the task of transporting the original objects becomes quite a responsibility for a small institute like KCHR. But I wish everyone could come to Pattanam, see the village, and pay tribute to our early ancestors who were evidently genuinely cosmopolitan.

The discovery of a site in the 21st century is very important, because you have many advantages in terms of knowing how archaeological sites elsewhere have been worked on and conserved, and access to new technologies, which can help in envisaging the whole research from an eco-friendly perspective. The nation as a whole should work towards winning Pattanam recognition as a World Heritage site. We hope this exhibition would be a stepping stone to fulfilling the long-term objectives of Pattanam research.

Sahapedia: Could you share your vision for the Green Archaeology initiative at Patttanam?

PJC: KCHR has initiated ‘green archaeology’ which is characterized by a pro-people approach towards conserving the densely populated site. As against the colonial tradition of evicting people from an archaeological site, we want to make the people the sentries who take care of the site. So we are trying to transform the site into a garden of spices and medicinal plants. People who are interested in living without hurting nature, to adopt what we call as alternative ways of living and seeking knowledge, should come and guard Pattanam because it is a heritage spot. It needs to be conserved for posterity in the best way possible for us.

We even dream of Pattanam, where different cultures of the world converged 2000 years back, emerging as the Visvabharati of the 21st century. People should go and safeguard it so that coming generations can work on it further. The practice today is to dig the minimum, so that you conserve sites for the future. That responsibility we have to take up as a nation, maybe even as humanity, because Pattanam belongs to different cultures of those times.

As the amphorae types that reached Pattanam demonstrate, people or their products could have come to Pattanam from at least nine regions in the Mediterranean. So the people of all these cultures (or nations as we look at them now) would be keen to come and see the site. It might have been their ancestors who made the wine to be bottled in the amphorae made at Turkey, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Italy and Jordan.

Sahapedia: So it will become like the International Dunhuang Project which has collaborators around the world, because historically it was a place of cosmopolitan interaction?

PJC: This is where international collaborations are important. Through these collaborations, it becomes known to the descendents of these cultures today that their ancestors were here, or that some objects from their culture happen to be excavated in a small village in India. We must ensure responsible tourism at archaeological sites, because tourism can create its own problems. It is very important that this site be conserved and illuminated in a scientific, eco-sensitive and pro-people manner.

Sahapedia: And from the beginning you had a vision of involving international collaborators, and it must have involved a great investment to approach potential partners, raise funds…

PJC: I think it is important that archaeology projects have a vision and comprehensive research design that transcends the immediate concerns of the research, and the rest will evolve organically. The research design we followed was explained in the exhibition, a broad design that we envisaged as culminating in a university which would pioneer inter-disciplinary courses in material culture studies and heritage conservation that matches world standards.

It should be a major centre of knowledge generation for cultural heritage. That is our hope for the future. It will certainly be possible if these collaborations continue. Incidentally, we are also starting an archaeology course at Pattanam in early March 2015. A post-graduate diploma programme in Material Culture Studies. Even students from outside India have applied.

Sahapedia: Are there things that you learnt during the course of excavation which would be of interest to a student of Archaeology?

PJC: You really learn a lot because it is a very different intellectual experience. It is very hard. We have to guard yourself from turning workaholic and abnormal! In most situations our profession defines us. We have doctors, we have engineers, we have economists, and we have literary people…. If we must come up with a definition for archaeology, I would say it would have to be quite extensive. It is commonly believed that an archaeologist excavates, finds something and puts it in the museum and produces some research articles. But that is not enough. They should direct questions within, as to what is their role as a public intellectual? What is the content of archaeological knowledge in the minds of society? How many of our close acquaintances know of their pre-historic past? For this he or she would have to go further and bring life out of archaeological researches through collective wisdom and commitment. Pattanam for example is the outcome of a great team effort. I might also add that our times are not conducive to such collective initiatives, and should be ready to face difficulties. Unlike in colonial times, archaeology today is a collective profession and each and every person in that collective is crucial.