Archaeology in Kerala: A Critical Appraisal

The scope of archaeology in Kerala has remained limited, owing to persisting antiquarian attitude to archaeological remains, the conflation of archaeology with history, and the perception that Kerala lacks archaeological potential. Rachel Varghese revisits these assumptions, making a case for the possibilities that archaeology could offer the region.

Rachel A. Varghese

Dolmens of Alampetty in Idukki District (Image: Rachel Varghese, Sahapedia)

The section on Economic Development of the Budget Speech on 1 February 2020, by the Union Minister for Finance, Nirmala Sitharaman opened thus:

“The guilds of Saraswati-Sindhu civilization & the Harappan seals are remarkable. They belong to 3300 BCE. Words from the Indus Script hieroglyphs have been deciphered. Commerce and trade-related words show how India for a millennia is continuing as rich in skills, metallurgy, trade etc…”
(Budget Speech 2020, 12)

The reference to a fictitious civilization and the absurd equation between Indus Script and Hieroglyphics and claims to its decipherment notwithstanding, the statement is revealing in terms of the central role that archaeology has come to occupy in the contemporary political scenario of India. With the resurgence of hyper-religious nationalism as the core of political control in the nation, discourses on ‘authentic national imagination’ have strengthened. Hence the many efforts to redefine and tame the national past, in which archaeology has come to occupy a central function. 

Archaeology has remained a largely marginalized field in Kerala.1 In recent years, however, there has been an increase in public and political interest in the past and specifically on archaeology. In Kerala, this has been more in relation to the rise in heritage/tourism discourses than to identity-based assertions as discussed above. However, provided the ways in which the past has become a highly contested and politically potent entity in India today, an appraisal of archaeology as a discipline and practice in the region seems relevant at this point. Given the patchy history of the discipline in Kerala, drawing concrete characterizations will be premature at this stage. In lieu, I will discuss certain tendencies that have characterized the understanding of archaeology and seek to identify the gaps and potential ways to take archaeological enquiries forward. 

The initial archaeological efforts in the region were tied up with colonial antiquarian interests. This and much of the later archaeological studies focused on the identification and in a few cases, excavation, of the Iron Age- Early Historic (IA-EH) burial/ memorial monuments,2 largely referred to as megaliths. Apart from these, there have only been a handful of archaeological excavations in Kerala. Kodungallur in Thrissur District (Achan 1948; IAR 1968-69 (1971),10; IAR 1969-70 (1973), 13-15) received much focus. Other excavations in Kerala include those of the remains of a log boat at Kadakkarapalli in Alappuzha district in 2002 and 2003 by the Centre for Heritage Studies (CHS), Thripunithura and the Department of Archaeology, Kerala, the site of Pattanam near Paravur by the CHS in 2004 and for nine seasons by the Kerala Council for Historical Research (2007-15), the Portuguese-Dutch fort site of Kottapuram by the State Department of Archaeology and the excavations at Vizhinjam, Kollam district by the Department of Archaeology, University of Kerala.

A major factor that has limited the potential of archaeological studies in Kerala is a persisting antiquarian attitude to archaeological remains. Thereby, studies have limited themselves by merely extending lists of finds without attention to detail.3 This has to be seen in relation to a fascination in Indian archaeology for monumentality. What is grand or more visible to the eyes tends to be prioritized. Hence, the attention in Kerala on the IA-EH monuments, and to some extent, the fort, remains. Unlike, for example, Tamil Nadu with its grand temple architectural structures, Kerala region has relatively less representation of monumental remains from certain periods.  I will go back to this question of monumentality. 

A second and more problematic tendency in academia is the perception of the relationship between archaeology and history. Possibly owing to the relative dearth of practitioners of archaeology, it has been historians who mostly dealt with archaeological data in Kerala. The possibility of archaeological interpretation to understand the past of the region remains woefully underexplored. A direct consequence of this has been to assign primacy to textual sources in the interpretation of the past. It is mostly for the prehistoric periods that archaeology gets primacy as source material. However, globally in academia, the scope of archaeology extends to all periods, with even the archaeology of the contemporary being a very well developed area of research. Archaeology/ material culture assumes the status of secondary or corroborative evidence for historical periods. The relative absence of monumental remains from the historical periods might also have contributed to this issue.  Let us take one example- the excavations at Pattanam in Central Kerala. The excavations at the site captured much public attention and were widely debated in public forums and the mass media. The site also finds mention in the recent academic works on Kerala history and in college/university syllabi. In all these discourses one sees a pervasive obsession with the question of whether or not the site of Pattanam is the location of the ancient port of Muziris mentioned in textual sources. From an archaeological point of view, this is a question of only the second order. The archaeological significance of the site of Pattanam is that it threw open a body of material evidence for the early centuries of the Christian Era, the kind of which had been absent from the region. Post-excavation studies of these artefacts give the possibility of thinking about the society of the period in ways that are different from what has been made possible by textual analysis, especially the role of the region in the Indo- Mediterranean networks of trade. There have been a few works in archaeology (Krishnan 2018, Tomber 2008) that make efforts in this direction without limiting the potential of archaeological interpretations, by seeking to fit archaeology within an overarching frame and research questions of history. 

As mentioned at the beginning, there has been increased attention on the past material culture remains in relation to the growth of heritage tourism in the region. Here archaeology is often relied upon to provide materiality and hence authenticity to touristic narratives of the past. I have discussed elsewhere (Varghese 2015), how evidence from the Pattanam excavations are incorporated to provide this authenticity connect to the idea of a ‘proto-cosmopolitan’ past for Kerala, an idea on which one of the major heritage tourism initiatives in Kerala, the Muziris Heritage Project, is centred. Here, I would like to pose a critique of the indiscriminate celebration of the idea of interdisciplinarity per se in academia. The interpretative possibilities of archaeology, on the one hand, remain underexplored. On the other hand, methods and needs of disciplines like history and heritage studies are applied to understand past material culture; the pitfalls of which we have discussed above. Similar short-sightedness is also observed in the direct application of ethnographic observations to understand archaeological remains (eg. association of weaponry in burials with men and ornaments with women drawing upon the contemporary stereotypical notions on gender).  The problem here is treating archaeology as a tool to generate facts without acknowledgement of the possibilities of archaeological interpretation. Strong disciplinary grounding of the interacting disciplines is essential in any interdisciplinary exercise. Hence interdisciplinarity has to be seen within the framework of collaboration among experts and methods than as a resort to data sources from multiple disciplines.

Finally, I would argue against the prevalent notion that Kerala, as a region, lacks archaeological potential. Apart from the institutional limitations, the marginal status of archaeology in Kerala can be seen as a product of factors including continuing antiquarian tendencies, failure to explore interpretative possibilities of archaeology, a preference for the monumental and uncritical application of methodologies of other disciplines dubbed as interdisciplinarity. A recent paper by V Selvakumar (2019) brings in interesting insights on how such hitches may be addressed. Selvakumar effectively employs archaeology in conjunction with other bodies of evidence and present landscape/settlement patterns to build a discussion on the development of settlements, and the construction of cultural landscapes of human geography in the Lower Kāvéri valley. I identify the potential of his work in its ability to deal with both time and space with fluidity. Rather than focusing on individual sites, the discussion is on archaeological landscapes evolving through time. This also allows the author to move beyond conventional periodization of history and into the contemporary. A similar sort of exercise would be very valid for the region represented by present-day Kerala. Intensive surface explorations can bring to light valuable information. The Palghat Gap Survey undertaken by Shinu Abraham (2002, 2004) as part of her PhD thesis is a case in point. She employs the fresh body of archaeological data generated through her survey for distribution analysis taking into account environmental correlates and inter and intrasite variability to rethink the existing notions on the social formation of the region, as understood through textual sources.

The possibilities that archaeology offers for Kerala can be realized by employing it to study all time periods extending to the contemporary. Archaeology is equally relevant to study communities that have produced textual records as it is to study those without such records.  Currently, we are acutely aware of the omissions and privileging within textual records and there are efforts from within history to address such gaps. The study of material culture that moves away from a focus on the monumental can effectively address many of these concerns. The possibilities of archaeological studies, I would argue, is not in offering neat frameworks to understand past processes, but in problematizing such frameworks, by addressing the fragmentary, the absent and the everyday.


  • Abraham, Shinu A. 2002. “ Social Complexity in Early Tamilakam: Sites and Ceramics from the Palghat Gap, Kerala, India”.PhD Thesis, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Abraham, Shinu A. 2004. Applying Anthropological Models of Social Complexity to Early Tamilakam: The Palghat Gap Survey. The Journal of the Centre for Heritage Studies 1: 1-19
  • Achan, Anujan P.1948. Annual Report of the Archaeological Department: Cochin State for the Year 1122 M.E. (1946–1947 A.D.). Ernakulam: Cochin Government Press.
  • “Budget Speech | Union Budget.” 2020. Government of India|Ministry of Finance. Accessed February 6, 2020.
  • Chadha, Ashish. 2007. “ Performing Science, Producing Nation: Archaeology and the State in Postcolonial India.” PhD Thesis, Stanford: Stanford University.
  • Darsana, S. 2006. “Antiquarian Research on the Megaliths of Kerala.” AdhAram: The Journal for Kerala Archaeology and History 1: 37–44.
  • Indian Archaeology 1968-69- A Review. 1971. New Delhi: ASI.
  • Indian Archaeology 1969-70: A Review. 1973. New Delhi: ASI.
  • Krishnan, Dineesh. 2017. “Iron Age and Early Historic Cultures of Central Kerala: An Investigation into the Settlement Patterns.” PhD Thesis, Tanjavur: Tamil University.
  • Selvakumar, V. 2009 Historical Archeology in India: Iron Age-Historical Landscapes in the Lower Kāvéri Valley. Section President’s Address, 80-th Session of the Indian History Congress. Kannur, December
  • Tomber, Roberta. 2008. Indo-Roman Trade: From Pots to Pepper. Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Duckworth.
  • Varghese, Rachel A. 2015. ‘Archaeology and the New Imaginations of the Past: Understanding the Muziris Heritage Project’ in Bose, Satheese Chandra and Varughese, Shiju Sam (eds.) Kerala Modernity: Ideas, Spaces and Practices in Transition. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan.

About the author: Rachel A. Varghese is currently employed as Research Officer at the Kerala Council for Historical Research. Her areas of interest include Public Archaeology, Politics of Archaeology, Critical Heritage Studies and Archaeology and History of maritime trade.

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