The remains point to an urban culture and maritime trade that flourished in early historic period.
Two artefacts unearthed in recent excavations in Pattanam, an 111-acre archaeological site north of Ernakulam, appear to affirm interactions and exchanges in the early historic period between the Indian subcontinent and the Greco-Roman world.
A seal ring made of banded agate, a semi-precious stone, and engraved with a “sphinx,” a winged mythical creature that is part-woman and part-lion in Greek legends, was found from one of the five trenches dug this season. A miniature statuette of a male head with hair resembling the Roman coiffure was also found.
“A comparative study will be necessary to establish the nuances of the artistic representation of the sphinx,” said P. J. Cherian, who directed the excavations in Pattanam and Mathilakam.
In the nine seasons of excavation conducted by the Kerala Council for Historical Research, between 2006 and 2015, a trove of material, including sherds of local pottery, relics of brick structures and a wharf, were retrieved from the trenches at Pattanam. After a five-year hiatus, digs resumed in March this year, carried out by the PAMA Institute for the Advancement of Transdisciplinary Archaeological Sciences, a non-profit educational trust.
The statuette is the first human form found from the site, Mr. Cherian said. With the power that the sphinx embodies, the first Roman emperor Augustus Caesar had chosen the symbol as his seal ring.
According to Guilia Rocco, specialist on ancient Roman art at the University of Rome, the sphinx found in Pattanam is similar to the one worn by Augustus Caesar, as Octavius, says a press note from the PAMA Institute. Precise dating of the artefacts can only be made on the basis of further studies.
A lion’s share of the artefacts exhumed from the 66 trenches dug so far, including the ring and statuette, are from the early historic period or the Sangam age layer at the site — between 300 BCE and 500 CE. Some archaeological material from the area dates further back to the Iron Age, between 300 BCE and 1000 BCE.
The sphinx was found in close proximity to two other intaglios found during earlier excavations, which could point to the existence of a lapidary workshop in the area, Mr. Cherian said.
Besides the Indian pottery types of black and red ware and rouletted ware, remnants of Amphora and Terra sigillata pottery from the Mediterranean region, turquoise glazed pottery from the Arabian region and blue-on-white porcelain from the south China region were found. This connects Pattanam to an area spanning three continents, from Gibraltar to south China, Mr. Cherian said.
“Research would be necessary to see if the sphinx could be an Indian version of those made in the major lapidary workshops in Alexandria and Rome. The staggering amount of local pottery, non-Indian pottery, architectural remains and the metallurgical excellence point to an urban culture and maritime trade that flourished here,” the press note says.
The digs were conducted between March and June in collaboration with the Directorate of Science and Innovation, Amity University, and Christ College, Irinjalakuda of Calicut University. The multi-disciplinary team comprised students and researchers drawn from different Indian universities.