Roman terracotta lamp illumines forgotten 'desi' hero

Roman terracotta lamp illumines forgotten 'desi' hero

Festivals are about lights and positive energies. A lamp lit not only dispels darkness but also reveals the object of its source.

This self-revelatory quality of “Jyothi” – the flame and the lamp that hoists it-- thousands of years ago before anyone even possibly thought of electricity as an energiser, thus gave it a hallowed place in all ancient cultures.

More special are the lamps made of “fired clay (terracotta).” These finely hand-made elegant receptacles of wicks and the oil that fuel them to brighten up the world, have archaeologically survived over centuries as amazing pieces of shaped clay, to be vital, materially evidential links in understanding man’s past.

One such artifact – a rare Roman terracotta lamp-- which the Madras Museum recently brought out of its treasure chest for public display, also unwittingly brought to light the tale of a forgotten hero, Dr A Aiyappan, an outstanding “anthropologist among archaeologists”, whose pioneering work in early 1940s’ was ignored and almost relegated to a footnote by  erstwhile British masters.

If this diligent archaeologist helped unravel a slice of ancient South Indian history by his earnest excavations at Arikka­medu, a coastal fishing hamlet four km South of Pondicherry (now Puducherry), which uncovered an ancient hub of flourishing Indo-Roman trade, an object retr­ieved and preserved from that dug-site now, 72 years later, speaks of the man who helped fix its identity!

Roman pottery, as J W Hayes explains in “Grove Dictionary of Art”, not only speaks of “several parallel stylistic traditions” which flourished in the ancient Roman empire, but also denotes the “products of the Roman imperial period” and their late versions that persisted until about AD 700.

“The technology already current in Greek lands-- the fast wheel, moulds, sintered (heat-treated) slips-- was scarcely improved on, but penetrated to many more regions,” says Hayes, adding there were also “potters’ stamps”, naming both the proprietors and the workmen usually behind the pottery. While a large number of clay lamps from the Roman period fueled with olive oil and other vegetable oils have survived, many small clay lamps had a “single nozzle” for just placing one “wick” and which hence supported “one flame”, say archaeologists.

However, what is remarkably unique about this “Roman terracotta lamp”, is that this priceless find from Arikkamedu has 12 nozzles with provision for 12 wicks, explained Numismatics Section curator N Sundararajan and Anthropology Section curator Thulasi Brinda. Usually, terracotta lamps with three, four and six nozzles were found in excavations, they told Deccan Herald.

Some of its nozzles bear black soot marks, signs of its usage, and some of the nozzles’ edges worn out over time. But its architecture is miraculously in tact, unde­corated and without a handle. “No graffiti is found on it either,” the curators said, adding this terracotta lamp has been dated to the 1st century  CE (Christian era).

“It (the terracotta lamp) belongs to a very early period of ancient Rome,” said Sundararajan. Interestingly, the lamp at its centre has a small mound-like elevation for keeping the long wicks, the two curators further explained. Motifs did start appearing in the Roman oil lamps during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, like a “Roman gladiator” was a popular theme on clay lamps. So, probably this find at Arikkamedu must have been one of the earliest Roman clay lamps, they inferred.

And the Roman trade and cultural exchanges with ancient Tamils in this part of the Southern peninsula is also established by the Sangam-period classical Tamil poetry “Aganaanuru” speaking about “Roman lamps” and the Romans referred to as “Yavanargal”, says Sunda­rarajan. In the contemporary context, the clay oil lamps are used more for the “particular ambience they produce, or in rituals and religious ceremonies” than for lighting purposes, the curators said.

The Roman terracotta lamp with the Madras Museum excavated from Arikk­amedu, “for the first time provided datable evidences to confirm the trade links with Rome that arched back to the 1st century CE and helped construct a proper chronology of South Indian history,” emphasised the curators. And it is in this context that the late Dr Aiyappan’s path-breaking initiative shines forth, they said, adverting to a crucial role the Madras Museum had played in that discovery.

This “special connection and role” is not something even scholars are familiar with, avers Dr T S Sridhar, former State Commissioner of Museums, who along with Sundararajan, has researched and brought to light the historical role that Dr Aiyappan played as the then Superintendent of Government Museum in Madras in 1940-41.

In the run-up to one of the most exciting archaeological finds in the South in 1940-41, according to Dr Sridhar, Jouveau-Dubreuil, a French researcher in the field of archaeology and one of the earliest experts to see the significance of Arikkamedu site, which happened to be “India’s largest and most significant Roman trade centre”, sent to the museum a collection of glass, semi-precious stone beads, potsherds and terracotta
figurines discovered at Arikkamedu. “He also requested Dr Aiyappan, the then
Superintendent of Madras Museum, to do something for the site, for its betterment,” Dr Sridhar says in his work.

It was then in early 1941, Dr Aiyappan, upon examining the artifacts in detail, was convinced of their historical and archaeological significance, pushed for a systematic examination and mapping of Arikkamedu. With monetary support of the then “French India Government” at Pondicherry, the Madras Museum for the first time undertook trial excavations there at Dubreuil’s invitation.

“The foundations of a number of buildings, amphora jars, multi-faceted terracotta lamps and beads made out of glass and semi-precious stones were brought to light through the excavation,” says Dr Sridhar. That excavation by the Madras Museum “proved” that Arikkamedu was one of the most important Indo-Roman trade centres in South India and Dr Aiyappan then published an article in a newspaper.

That article opened the doors for other Indian and foreign scholars to visit Arikkamedu for more systematic and perhaps far more rewarding studies. But this  pioneering endeavour by the Madras Museum authorities even before the legendary British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler had studied that site, largely went unnoticed. Nonetheless, the Madras Museum has preserved  “Roman Terracota Lamp” to retell Aiyappan’s saga!

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