Some time between 1768-71, a French astronomer named Guillume Le Gentil visited Pondicherry on the south-eastern coast (known as the Coromandel coast) of India. He noticed some huge bricks, ruined walls and remains of old wells at a place called Arikamedu, just 4 km away from Pondicherry. Arikamedu was located on the right bank of the river Ariyankuppam, just as the river enters the Bay of Bengal. Le Gentil was convinced that these were the ruins of a large, ancient village or even a town. He was right, but it was a very long time before archaeologists realized the importance of this site.
Arikamedu was first excavated in the 1940's. in the northern part of the site archaeologists found the remains of what seemed to be a brick warehouse where trade goods were stored. In the southern part, they found two courtyards, along with tanks and drains. They thought that this might have been a place where fine muslin cloth was dyed and prepared for export. Though most of the pottery that was found was Indian, there were certain kinds of foreign pottery that clearly came from the Mediterranean countries f Europe. One was a red pottery with a decorated surface, known as terra sigillata. The other is called amphora. These are jars with a pink body and a yellow slip or coating, and two handles. Archaeologists also found lots of beads made of gold, glass, and semi-precious stones (some with Greek or Roman designs), Roman Lamps, and Roman glass items at the site.
What did the foreign jars that came to Arikamedu have inside them? Who were these things meant for?
These sorts of jars were used to hold wine, sauce or olive oil. These things might have been shipped to Arikamedu for foreign traders who lived here and missed the kind of things they were used to at home. But things like wine could just as well have been bought by well-to-do Indians.
Ancient Tamil poems talk in several places about people they call "yavanas." They talk of yavana merchants bringing in merchandise like fine lamps, gold, and wine and buying cargoes of pepper at the ports of South India. At this time, the word yavana was a general word used for foreigners such as Greeks, Romans, and West Asians. There also some old books in Greek and Latin that tell us about trade between the Roman empire and India between about 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.. They give us the names of ports and lists of goods. Hundreds of Roman gold coins, most of them belonging to the reigns of the Roman emperors Augustus and Tiberius, have been found at many places in India, mostly in the south. All these clues tell us that during this period, there was brisk trade going on between the Roman empire and India.
It all tied in neatly. The Tamil poems, the Latin books and the archaeological evidence seemed to be talking about the same sort of thing. Archaeologists were convinced that Arikamedu must have been one of the one of the places where the yavanas of the Tamil poems lived and traded. This must also have been one of many trading centers where the Romans and Indians carried out business with each other between the 1st century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D.. Some archaeologists identified Arikamedu with a place called Poduke, mentioned in old Latin books.
What were the items of trade between the Roman empire and India? The imports from the Mediterranean lands that came to ports like Arikamedu included wine, bowls and lamps made of clay, glass beads and bowls, and maybe gems. Indian goods such as pepper were in demand in the west. Going by the evidence from Arikamedu, other thing exported from this port probably included beads of semi-precious stones and glass, and maybe shell bangles. There was also a brisk transit trade going on in items such as silk from China and species from south-east Asia. These first came to the Indian ports and then were shipped on to the west. Traders seem to have been familiar with the sea route from the Indian ports to the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea.
Arikamedu was excavated again recently between 1989 and 1992. These excavations led to new discoveries and made it necessary to change some of the earlier conclusions. The earlier archaeologists had thought that the settlement at Arikamedu had come up when the trade with the Roman empire started in the first century B.C.. The new excavations suggested that a fairly well-established settlement already existed here for some time before this trade started. But once the trade started, the settlement grew bigger and more prosperous.
The earlier archaeologists had thought that the northern part of Arikamedu was the port area and the southern part the industrial part, i.e. the area where the bead-making and textile work went on. The recent excavations suggest that the activities at the site were not so neatly divided. Also, some people, probably merchants and sailors, actually lived in both these areas. More foreign pottery was found in the northernmost part of Arikamedu, so this may have been where some foreigners lived. The tank-like structures found in the southern area were earlier understood as places where muslin cloth was dyed. Now it was suggested that they had nothing to do with dying cloth and may have been enclosures for storing food or some other kinds of goods.
Archaeologists are no longer sure about whether traders from the Roman empire actually lived at Arikamedu in large numbers or not. Do the foreign items found at Arikamedu point to foreigners living here, or do they simply point to items imported from foreign lands for local inhabitants? It is however clear that apart from Roman and Indians, there were many other people such as Arabs and Greeks from Egypt who were involved in the Indo-Roman trade.
Archaeologists used to think that the Indian trade with the Roman empire came to an end in the 2nd century A.D., and that the settlement of Arikamedu was abandoned when this happened. But the recent excavations show that there was some trade between India and the Mediterranean lands between the 3rd and 7th centuries A.D., although it was much less than before.
Coins of the Chola kings, and clay lamps made in the medieval period, and remains of even later periods show that people lived at Arikamedu, off an on, till modern times. Pieces of Chinese and east Asian pottery that were found at the site suggest that Arikamedu continued to be an important trading center, and that after the ninth century, the people were trading with other lands. Apart from the foreign trade, Arikamedu must also have been involved in the trade that was carried on up and down the Indian coasts as well.
As you can see, when a site is excavated again, the new evidence can give us a different picture of its history. There are still many unanswered questions about Arikamedu. For example, while we now know quite a bit about the importance of this site in the trade between India and the Roman empire, we need to find more about the connections between Arikamedu and other ports and towns of South India. Maybe further excavations at Arikamedu will soon give us answers to these and other questions.