Saturday, October 24, 2015

August 14, 2015: Talk on "Ceramics and Celts - Stone Age settlements in Chennai" by Dr. S. Suresh at the Roja Muthiah Research Library

Attended lecture on "Ceramics and Celts - Stone Age settlements in Chennai" by Dr. S. Suresh of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Dr. Suresh started with the recent history of Chennai and journeyed back in time to the Stone ages. Dr. Suresh praised Chennai in the broadest terms as a metropolis of great antiquity and continuous habitation which had settlements of nearly every age.  The first breakthough, Dr. Suresh, explained was made on 23 May 1863 when the antiquarian Robert Bruce Foote discovered a handheld stone axe near Pallavaram. Suresh surprised us by revealing that the axe was found very close to the railway track.  The discovery was highly publicized and the artifacts made their way to the Government Museum at Egmore. This was the discovery which made Madras one of the oldest inhabited sites in India with its earliest habitations going back to about 500,000 BC even before the time of Neanderthals. Next important discovery came during the early 1920s when the ICS officer L. A. Cammiade (I wrote an article on him for Wikipedia a few days back. While Collector of Tirunelveli, he was also the discoverer of the Tamil Brahmi inscription at Marungaltalai in 1906, only the second of its kind to be discovered) along with a colleague Mr. King discovered artifacts in Chetpet along the Poonamallee High Road and a trial dig revealed ring wells confirming human habitation in ancient times. A detailed excavation revealed the presence of a Stone Age habitation along Poonamallee High Road. However, the artifacts discovered have been lost to posterity as most of them have probably been shipped to the United Kingdom where they were lost. (According to one theory, the artifacts were kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London but this is yet to be verified).  Another major event was the discovery of pottery and sarcophagus in the garden of an European resident Prudhomme in Halls Road, Kilpauk in 1932. This was followed by extensive excavations by T. G. Aravamudhan of the Madras Museum which lasted months. In the end, they found plenty of artifacts, among them being a sarcophagus and a idol of a figure rudely resembling the Hindu god Shiva. The settlement was dated to about 4000 BC. Since then, Dr. Suresh said, no excavations have been carried out in Madras city limits.  But sporadic discoveries have been made, often by accident, and the occasional treasure trove unearthed. Among them could be grouped the discovery of Roman coins at Mambalam and a Pallava coin in Thiruvanmiyur. But Dr. Suresh did not mention a word about the 1950s when there was a craze for palaeohistory brought by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and some of his proteges like V. D. Krishnaswami and K. V. Soundararajan unearthed a number of Stone Age sites in Tamil Nadu, manu of them being in the then Chingleput district (the present-day Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts).  

Once Dr. Suresh completed his lecture, there was a short speech by Mr. Sait, a businessman who spoke about his lineage and his grandfather Cassim Sait's extensive collection of invitations. An then, the exhibition "History through Invitations" was inaugurated by Prof. Francis Nye of the University of Chicago. Most of the invitations dated to the 1940s and were imporant personages of the period such as Lord Hope, Governor of Madras, Archibald Edward Nye, the last British governor of Madras, M. A. Jinnah, from Governors and Chief Ministers of Madras, one from Governor-General Rajaji and some for religious gatherings and parties. The name Sait does ring a bell (Ebrahim Sait!!!) And then there was one Abbas Khaleeli (were they of Iranian descent). I wrote a word of appreciation on the guestbook before leaving for home. Was quite useful and memorable.

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