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The Age of Iron in South Asia

Review: The Age of Iron in South Asia – Legacy and Traditions. Tripathi, Vibha. 2001. New Delhi: Aryan Books International. Pp. xvi+280; figs. 47; maps 10; half tone illustrations 62. Price Rs. 1950/- ($45).
by D.P. Agrawal

Vibha Tripathi is one of the few archaeologists who care for archaeometallurgical studies. She has specialised in studies on early iron. It is therefore very heartening to see her studies of several decades on iron put together in an accessible book form.
Vibha Tripathi has divided the book into eight chapters. She emphasizes upon an independent and indigenous discovery of iron in India, though much later than its discovery in Anatolia in the Third Millennium BC. Refuting the diffusionist viewpoint of the appearance of iron in India, she points out the break in the cultural flow between the east and the west at the Irano-Afghan border.

Chapter 1 introduces the subject of Iron Age studies. It also gives a brief survey of Iron Age problems, mainly of north India. Chapter 2 provides a global backdrop to South Asian Iron Age. The author discusses the evidence of iron in Mesopotamia and Anatolia where the beginning of iron technology goes back to 3rd millennium BC and beyond. She gives tables of the iron artefacts along with their dates found in West Asia, Greece and Crete. She also discusses the evidence of Iron from Central Asia including such cites as Yag depe, Madhu depe etc. She gives a very useful summary of iron sites in Iran where iron goes back to 1300 B.C.

Moving eastwards, she discusses the evidence from the Indian borderlands: the important discoveries of the Swat Valley, the Gandhar Grave Culture are discussed in detail. The large number of cairn burials of Baluchistan have also been discussed. The important sites of this region explored by Stein like Moghul Ghundai, Zangian, Gatti, Take dap, Damba koh, Bishezarda etc have also been discussed brief. She gives chronology and co-relation of the sites in a regional framework. She also gives description of early Iron Age sites of Afghanistan.

The 3rd chapter deals with the origin and dispersal of iron in India. She discusses the evidence in the three categories: literary evidence; archaeological evidence; and metallurgical evidence. As the author is well versed in Sanskrit, she gives a good summary of the literary evidence along with original Sanskrit quotations. The most detailed part of the chapter, however, is on archaeological evidence. Towards the end of this chapter she concludes that a detailed evaluation of the literary archaeological and metallurgical data on iron technology in ancient India is suggestive of its independent beginning in the sub-continent.

Chapter 4 deals with the technological transition from copper to iron technology. In this chapter she deals with the following types of issue:

1. What are the types of metallic iron in the ancient world?
2. When was the earlier iron recognized?
3. Why is it that iron objects are so scarce in the early stages?
4. What were the circumstances that led to the higher production of iron?
5. Why was adaptation of iron technology in early society so slow?

In this chapter she also describes ores of iron, slag and other metallurgical processes.

In Chapter 5 she discusses metals and metallurgy of iron in the antiquity. It looks more like a repetition of the Chapter 4. In this chapter she describes Iron Age in three stages: early, middle and late. She again discusses in this chapter literary reference to the metallurgical processes, but in greater detail here. The most important part of this chapter is the discussion of ethnological evidence of iron technology. In our view this is the most important part of the book. Though India had a flourishing iron technology for a long time it was systematically dismantled by the British in the 19th Century. It was the tribal people who kept the traditional iron technology alive. In fact, Gandhian thinkers like Dharampal plead for its revival. This chapter give some tables on typological distribution of artefacts from different sites, as also their chemical composition.

Chapter 6 is basically an inventory of iron ores and their mines and their relationship with archaeological cultures.

Chapter 7 summarizes the evidence of the Iron Age delineating the developments from the early Iron Age through middle stage to the late Iron Age.

Chapter 8 gives the conclusions and a bit of theoretical explanations too.

Defining iron technology, or any other technology for that matter, as a social product she pleads that archeological findings and interpretations should be given a ‘human face’. Therefore, besides the archeological data she has used ethnographic, linguistic, socio-economic and cultural evidence as well. In doing so she has tried to correlate the cultural level of a people of an area with the resources distributed over that area, to find out the use of iron in ancient India. She finds that the socio-economic conditions were favorable and conducive for the discovery of iron not only at one particular center in India, but they were so at many centers. Vibha Tripathi forcefully argues that the beginning of the use of iron in India is regional, with many independent centers of growth.

The author gives an exhaustive bibliography. On the whole it’s a very useful book and perhaps the only book of its kind on early Iron Age in India written by a competent archaeologist who has a sound background of Sanskrit, and who has also worked with metallurgists for a long time to learn the nitty-gritty of iron metallurgy. It would have been desirable to organise the data and the themes in a more rational way to avoid the duplications among different chapters. On the whole, it’s a valuable book not only for archaeologists but also for those interested in history of technology in India.

The book has an elegant get-up with a glazed cover jacket and includes maps, tables, pictures and diagrams to illustrate her themes and arguments. New findings have been incorporated into the book, which put the Age of Iron in South Asia in an global perspective. An informative volume that may be used as a source book, as well as an interesting read on Indian archaeometallurgy.