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Calcutta digs up a 2000-year history

Calcutta, Jan. 13: Traces of an urban settlement over 2000 years old have been found under the mound on which Robert Clive built his house on the northern outskirts of Calcutta.

At the site in Dum Dum, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has discovered materials that suggest the existence of a settlement of the Sunga Kusana period dating back to 2nd Century BC, where people lived continuously for centuries without any significant break.

The second phase of the excavations by the ASI between December 2001 and April-May 2002 yielded “amazing results”, says Bimal Bandyopadhyay, superintending archaeologist, ASI, Calcutta Circle.

The excavations had started in June 2001. Going deeper, the ASI found Sunga Kusana period materials at least 2,200 years old.

A conclusion can be drawn from these discoveries that thriving urban centres, not just jungles and marshy land, existed on the peripheral zones of the city long before Calcutta came up, says Bandyopadhyay.

The site was occupied in two phases from 2nd Century BC with continuous occupation up to 11th-12th Century AD. After a short gap, it was further occupied during 15th-16th Century AD up to modern times.

There were terracotta plaques displaying figures of Yakshinis and materials of a later period such as divine and semi-divine figurines, numerous punch-marked and cast copper coins datable to the same period.

Human skeletons were found at the lowest level and these were sent to the Anthropological Survey of India for technical study. It is conjectured that they are from the period just before the 2nd-1st Century BC. Perhaps, the inhabitants buried their dead close to their dwellings, says Bandyopadhyay.

Besides, the site has yielded beads fashioned out of various materials such as semi-precious stones, crystal, steatite and terracotta. Terracotta figurines of a later period, that is Gupta (4th -7th Century AD) and post-Gupta, too, have been discovered, of which the most significant is a mother-and-child ensemble. The seals and sealings carry inscriptions.

The most remarkable find is a miniature icon of Mahishasuramardini carved out of stone and datable to 9th-10th Century.

Historian Dilip Biswas said: “This is not surprising. The river was highly navigable and foreign ships sailed down regularly. The Greeks write of a port named Gange. The two sides of the Ganga are archaeologically very rich. A Gupta gold coin was discovered near Kalighat. Unfortunately, systematic excavation of this area has never been done.”

He referred to artefacts discovered on the Bethune College campus, a section of which was dug up to build an auditorium. “A trial trench could have been dug up near the west wall. They said they had hit groundwater level and stopped excavation. But this was done earlier in Aricamadu in south India,” said Biswas. So why not here'

The ASI discovery was serendipitous. The high mound was a playground and brickbats and potsherds were scattered all around. These “habitational deposits” were the only indications of the site’s antiquity, says Bandyopadhyay. When excavation started on a trial basis, “continuous habitational deposits and materials up to 8th Century AD were found.

The floor of ballast and lime indicated that it was a dwelling house. Layers upon layers were revealed. At the initial stage artefacts of the British period were found. Late medieval and medieval objects came next. These were mostly inscribed sealings bearing legends in Nagari script used in eastern India during 8th Century AD.

On one sealing was inscribed “Samapasasya”, which meant it belonged to a person named Samapas, and was probably used in a trade guild.

Human, semi-divine and divine figures in terracotta and beads were found. Tortoise shells and fish scales indicate the inhabitants were not vegetarians.

Spurred by these findings, the ASI dug deeper and discovered the Sunga Kusana period materials. The blackware and greyware pottery in fine fabric, some of them stamped, show a clear affinity with pottery of the pre-Christian era discovered in other sites, says Bandyopadhyay.

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