Arikamedu

I first heard of Arikamedu from the Cambridge historian C R Whittaker some years ago, on (what would be) his last trip to India. Being a relative ignoramus on the peregrinations of the Romans, it was news to me that they had come as far as India, and that too by sea, to a place not far from where I call home...

Arikamedu (or Podouke as the Romans called it) is 15 km from Pondicherry. Archaeological remains discovered there include terracotta lamps, semi precious stones, fragment of amphorae, showing that there was considerable contact between Roman traders and the Tamil people... Although Arikamedu was first mentioned by a French astronomer, Guillaume le Gentil in 1768, it was not until Mortimer Wheeler DG of the Archaeological Survey of India excavated the site in 1945. In hi sreport, he says "Numerous sherds of both of a red-glazed pottery known to have been made in Italy in the first centuries of BC- AD, and of the two handled jars or Amphorae characteristic of the Mediterranean wine-trade of the period, together with Roman lamps and glass ware combine to indicate that Arikamedu was one of the regular “Yavanas” or Western trading stations of which both Greco-Roman and ancient Tamil writers speak. As the first of these stations actually identified by excavations in India, Arikamedu will hold henceforth a distinguished position in the history of the economic relations with the outside world.

A Roman market on the Coromandel coast implies a knowledge of the south western monsoon..."

The (late) archaeologist Vimala Begley and her team did more work on the site in the late '80s and '90s, summarizing their important findings in two massive volumes, The Ancient Port of Arikamedu: New Excavations and Researches 1989-1992, published by the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient. Volume I was brought out in 1996: "Arikamedu, located on the Coromandel coast of India, is the most important site for the study of Indian sea trade with the Mediterranean region during Imperial Roman times. The site has been excavated previously in the 1940s and 1950s, but because of many unresolved problems, during three seasons from 1989 to 1992, new excavations were carried out as a collaborative project of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and Madras University. .... The methods of excavation and recording of data used by the excavation team differ widely from those commonly used in India. Since the site has been extremely disturbed from ancient times to the present, the authors have provided a detailed examination and catalogue of the artifacts recovered from both their own and earlier excavations. Along with the forthcoming second volume, the final excavation report will shed new light on a site that turned out to be far more complicated than any of the earlier excavators had realized.

Extensively illustrated, with site plans, photographs of pottery and numerous drawings, the present volume will be an indispensable reference work for scholars interested in the entire array of sites along the Coromandel coast which provide evidence of an extensive network of trade that existed before, during and after the period of Indo-Roman trade." Volume II appeared in 2004.

This post, however, is occasioned by the book review last week of Arikamedu – Its Place in the Ancient Rome-India Contacts by S Suresh, an archaelologist based in Chennai. With many photographs and a reasonable bibliography, this slim volume has been brought out by the Development Cooperation office of the Embassy of Italy in India. More research on this Roman Trail in South India could, the author and reviewer hope, result in the development of an archaeological park in Arikamedu.

The book, as far as I can tell, is not easy to get, except by contacting either the author, or (as I did) the Italian Embassy. And they were kind enough to send me a copy, but I'm sure more people would be interested in the story and the history if the book were easier to get. I hope that they plan wider dissemination of this, and any other publications that they support...

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