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Archaeometallurgy in India

Review: Archaeometallurgy in India. Tripathi Vibha (Ed.). 1998. New Delhi: Sharada Publishing House. Pp. 387. Price Rs. 1300/-.
by D.P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari

Vibha Tripathi has done a great service by organizing this seminar on metallurgy and bringing out this very informative volume of proceedings covering so many different dimensions of archaeometallurgical studies in India. This is a very valuable volume as a source book on Indian archaeometallurgy – a subject not much popular among archaeologists!

India has a very old iron technology tradition, as indicated by the 6 ton rust-free Delhi Iron Pillar of 4th-5th century A.D., beams of Konark temple (10th century A.D.) and the famous Dhar pillar of 10th -11th centuries A.D. All these are proof that the Indian ancient alchemy and metallurgical science are rich and vast. The detailed description of metallurgical processes and intricate properties of minerals and chemicals in the 10th -11th century alchemy-text, the Rasaratna Samuchchaya is yet another proof of the high level of knowledge of metallurgy. Metals had a very close relationship with human civilization and the levels attributed to different stages of cultural growth are dominated by the metals being used at a particular period, viz. the Copper-Bronze Age or Iron Age etc. Metallurgy in the Indian subcontinent dates back to circa 6000B.C. as indicated by the occurrence of a few copper objects, from the early phases of Mehrgarh (Pakistan). The main theme of this book is the ancient Indian metallurgical traditions and techniques.

This volume is edited Vibha Tripathi, a Professor at the Department of Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. She organized a National Seminar on Indian Archaeometallurgy in 1991 at Banaras Hindu University. The present volume is an valuable outcome of the deliberations of that seminar, even though it took seven years to publish it!

The volume contains 37 articles by well-known scholars in the field of the History of Technology and Archaeology. A total of 68 scholars have contributed to this volume. The volume is divided into four sections: Mining and Metallurgy, Ethno-Archaeological Evidence on Archaeometallurgy, Literary Evidence on Archaeometallurgy, and the last section is devoted to Socio-Economic Implications of Metals.

Section I: – Mining and Metallurgy.

This is a very lengthy section containing 20 articles by various authors.

Arun Kumar Biswas writes the first article of this book that discusses some issues related to Indian archaeomaterials, trace element correlation, etc.

Second article of this book is ” The Metallurgical Tradition of the Harappans” written by D. P. Agrawal and Rajam Seshadri. In this article they explain that the Harappans made prolific use of gold, silver, copper, and lead in addition to the alloys of these base metals but the Pre and Early Harappan contexts are generally poor in copper. They also emphasise that they analysed more then 200 Harappans artifacts of which only 23% were alloyed with tin, 12% with arsenic and 80% with lead.

In the next article, Sudhir, C. Duari and Pranab K. Chattopadhyay describe the transition from Neolithic to Copper Age at Kushadwip, District Bankura, West Bengal with the help of chemical and metallographic analysis.

Senuwar, a site in district Rohtas, Bihar, is an important archaeological site, located south of Sasaram on the right bank of the river Kundra. Pranab Kumar Chattopadhyay and Birendra Pratap Singh discuss the metallographic and chemical analyses of copper artefacts of this site. It also describes the Neolithic Chalcolithic copper objects.

Hari Narayan, Jay Prakash, M. V. Nair and O. P. Agrawal present two different articles in this volume. In the first article they describe the metallographic study of copper antiquities of Manjhi site, district Saran, Bihar. They also discuss the culture context of the different periods in the first paper. In the second article they deal with the metallographic study of iron artefacts of domestic use like tools, weapons, etc from Sringverpura site of Uttar Pradesh. Tradition associates Sringverpura site with Rama who crossed the Ganga here after banishment from Ayodhya.

Ashok Datta deals with the beginning of ancient iron technology in west Bengal region in the Chalcolithic phase. He states that the beginning of iron technology in west Bengal may safely be placed c. 11th /12th Century B.C.

  1. P. Pande and B. Prakash describe the historical development of iron technology in the Morar valley, M.P and metallurgical study of ancient swords, respectively.

A detailed discussion of Indian iron and steel technology in archaeology is presented by Syed Jafar Mahmud. He describes the ancient iron mines, mining technology and smelting processes with the help of archaeological data.

Rajghat site is located within the Varanasi area and Varanasi is one of the most important ancient living cities of the world, which has a continuous history since 1000 B.C. A number of gold, silver and copper coins belonging to 400 B.C. to 900A.D. were found at the excavations of Rajghat site. Somnath Misra and T. N. Tiwari deal with the archaeometallurgical study of Rajghat site in their article entitled, “Studies and Archaeometallurgical Significance of some Gold, Silver and Copper Coins from Rajghat (Varanasi) Excavations – a Brief Review.”

There is confusion about early occurrence of zinc. The regular zinc production in India started approximately around 12th century A.D. and in China it is not earlier then 16th century A.D. Swarna Kamal Bhowmik gives evidence in his article that the metal craftsmen of ancient Gujarat knew the method of extraction of metallic zinc from zinc ore.

  1. T. Craddock, I. C. Freestone, Lynn Willies, H. V. Paliwal, L. K. Gurjar and K.T.M. Hegde, in the next article of this section, deal with ancient lead, silver and zinc industry of Rajasthan area.

The next article by K. N. P. Rao is very interesting as it describes the uses of metals in Indian traditional medicine systems like Ayurveda and Sidha systems. K. Nagesh Rao and P. R. Rangesh discuss the iatro-metallurgical practices of ancient Indians in the next article of this section.

The next three articles are written by R. D. Singh, Sudharashan Seneviratne and V. C. Srivastava who give an historical review of ancient mining, ecology and archaeology of the Seruwila copper-magnetite deposit in North East Sri Lanka and bronze tools and technology in protohistoric Afghanistan, in their articles, respectively. Next article is “Probable Sources of Silver in Ancient India: A Historico-Scientific Approach” by Bhagirathi Prashad and Nisar Ahmad. They discuss the history of silver with the help of some literary evidence.

Amit Tripathi and Vibha Tripathi in the next paper focus on the location and nature of iron ore deposits and associated rocks, to examine whether there is any correlation between ancient archaeological settlement patterns and the probable resource areas exploited by humans.

Section II: – Ethno-Archaeological Evidence on Archaeometallurgy

This section contains 10 articles.

In her interesting article, Vibha Tripathi deals with the ancient iron technology with the help of archaeological and ethnological evidence.

The next paper is written by B. B. Agrawal, K. K. Prasad, G. I. S. Chauhan, P. K. Chaudhuri and S. M. Aeron, “Evaluation of Earlier Iron making Processes and their Relevance in Indian Context”. These writers try to recapitulate the evolution and development of earlier iron making processes throughout the world in general and the special status, which India achieved in this field. The relevance of these earlier iron making techniques to modern India has also been discussed.

  1. R. Srinivasan discusses a very relevant question of how can we revive the traditional rural iron making of Orissa in his paper. He also focuses on the traditional iron smithy of Orissa with the help of ethnological and archaeological evidence.

Leshnik reports that in India tin bronze vessels of 22-30% tin have been found in the Iron Age megalithic burials of Tamil Nadu of the first millennium BC from Adichanallur, Maula Ali, Coimbatore, and also the Nilgiris. Sharada Srivasan discusses modern bronze works, in her paper entitled, “High Tin Bronze Working in India: The Bowl Makers of Kerala”.

  1. Dasgupta and Bhupendra Pal Singh in the next two articles report on the issue of metal working in medieval Assam and appearance of iron in the archaeological context in eastern India with especial reference to ethnological data.

Madhya Pradesh is considerably rich in minerals, and possesses a very high grade of iron ore, which is claimed to be as much as 75% pure. K. D. Bajpai summarises the ancient iron metallurgy of this region in his article.

“Metal Implements of Northern India (c. 1000 to 500 BC)” and “Newly Discovered Anthropomorphic Figures from Nupur, UP” are the next two articles of this section presented by J. P. Upadhyaya and Madhuri Sharma, D. P. Sharma, respectively.

In his next article, D. P. Sharma discusses 37 shouldered axes and 2 lugged shouldered axes from the middle Doab, now placed in the National Museum of India. It is well known that the National Museum of India, New Delhi has 191 Copper Hoard implements from several locations in the lower middle Ganga Yamuna Doab of UP, and from Mehsana in Gujarat.

Section III: – Literary Evidences on Archaeometallurgy

The third section of this edited book contains only seven articles by well-known authors with archeological background.
First article of this section is “A Literary Perspective on Archaeomaterials and Scientific Concepts in Ancient India” by Sulekha Biswas and A.K. Biswas. The writers claim that this paper deals with their own observations on correlation of the literary evidence with archaeological data and other historical facts and scientific concepts and attitudes in ancient India related to archaeomaterials and material science.

In his article P. K. Agrawala deals with the Indian archaeometallurgy with special reference to earlier Indian literature. Next article written by V. S. Pathak and Prem Sagar Chaturvedi is entitled, “Antecedent Stage in the Evolution of Metal Technology”.

Swarna Kamal Bhowmik and Mudrika Jani summarize the evidence of metals, metallic objects of art and metal technology with special reference to literary data from RamayanaMahabharataCharak SamhitaKamanagama,SilpasastraMadhucchista Vidhana, etc.

The next paper is “Iron in Early Buddhist Texts” written by Priya Srivastava and Vibha Tripathii. This paper is based on the material contained in the three original early texts of Buddhist (TripitakaSuttaVinay and Abhidhammapitaka.

Ayas in the Rigveda-a note” is the next article of this book written by D. N. Tripathi. It is well known that the world ayas occurs at a number of places in the Rigveda. Though its definitely a metal, its exact nature is doubtful. But in this article after a comparative study of literature and archaeological evidence, the writer concludes that ayas, was actually copper, and not iron.

In his article B. R. Mani explores metals and minting techniques for coin making in ancient India with the help of some literary evidence from sources like AtharvavedaJatarupa, etc.

Section IV: – “Socio-Economics Implications of Metals”.

This section contains only one article by Vijay Kumar Thakur entitled, “Social Implications of Technology: a Study of Iron in pre-c. 200 BC India”. It is also the last article of this edited book. It is an interesting though lengthy article covering more than 25 pages of this book.

The volume has good quality maps, tables, pictures and diagrams. One always wishes that the quality of articles should be of high grade but in such volumes, its almost impossible to maintain uniformly high quality. While there are excellent papers, there are some, which can be described only as mediocre. At the end, we would like to strongly recommend that the volume is a must for all students of not only archaeology but also of History of Science and Technology in India.