The Dig

The Keeladi excavations may alter the world’s ideas about the earliest Indians. But progress hasn’t been smooth for one of the country’s most sensational archaeological projects.

The Dig - Sowmiya Ashok; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah on FiftyTwo.in

It was a coconut thief who helped discover southern India’s most controversial ancient settlement. 

In the spring of 2014, a lorry driver named Maharaja was whiling away his time at a tea shop near the sleepy village of Keeladi when he overheard a team of archaeologists enquiring about old artefacts in the area. 

One of them was K. Amarnath Ramakrishna, the superintending archaeologist at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)’s Bengaluru excavation branch. He was urging the retired headmaster of a government high school in the village to think back to 1979. In that year, the headmaster, who’d once taught history, had taken some artefacts one of his students had found to a Tamil epigraphist. These comprised a “coin of Chola King Rajaraja I, few beads and terracotta figurines of 12-13th century AD,” Ramakrishna recorded in a 2018 journal article.

Maharaja intervened. He offered the archaeologists directions to a grove where he’d seen broken pieces of terracotta pots: in archaeological terms, potsherds. He confessed he stole coconuts regularly from the grove. In fact, he had nicked one just that morning. 

The Black and Red Ware potsherds had been raked up by a rogue JCB machine that dug up earth to service the brick industries around the area. Astonishingly, the machine had partially uncovered an elaborate 2000-year-old brick structure facing north-east.

That is how Maharaja inadvertently led the archaeologists to a 110-acre mound, under which lay evidence of an urban settlement dating back to between 2300 to 2600 years ago.

Seven years later, it still amused Ramakrishna to think of the “interesting way” in which Keeladi was discovered. The dates of the settlement broadly coincided with what was known as the Sangam period, [1] a glorious phase of Tamil art and literature that centred around ancient Madurai. The Sangam Era texts [2] suggested a rich vein of indigenous literature that thrived in southern India even as Sanskrit was evolving elsewhere. The material evidence from this era is less impressive than the world-famous poetry, but recent archaeological work in Tamil Nadu is focused on finding more such evidence.

“Keeladi was proof of a lavish life that people led during the Sangam Era,” S. Annamalai told me. Annamalai previously covered the excavation as a reporter for The Hindu. “The ornaments they used, the lifestyle they led, the architecture they adopted, the food they ate and the customs they followed. There has been no tangible proof of this rich life so far.”

“We got lucky!” Ramakrishna said. Madurai is believed to have been continuously inhabited since at least the third century BCE. “We came upon a mound right next to Madurai city, where archaeologists have never been able to dig.”

The Challenge

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rban settlements are typically considered to be markers of how advanced a society is. The dominant view is that diverse technological innovations were necessary for the existence of settled communities. Until Keeladi was discovered, archaeologists by and large believed that the Gangetic plains in the north urbanised significantly earlier than Tamil Nadu.

Historians have often claimed that large-scale town life in India first developed in the Greater Magadha region of the Gangetic basin. This was during the ‘second urbanisation’ phase, believed to have begun around the mid-first millennium BCE. [3] (The ‘first urbanisation phase’ refers to the rise of the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilisation, lasting from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE.)

Tamil Nadu was thought to have urbanised at this scale only by the third century BCE. The findings at Keeladi push that date back significantly. Now, it is arguable that this part of the subcontinent urbanised around the same time as the Gangetic plains.

An even larger question loomed. Based on linguistics [4] and continuity in cultural legacies, connections between the Indus Valley Civilisation, or IVC, and old Tamil traditions have long been suggested, but concrete archaeological evidence remained absent.

Evidence indicated similarities between graffiti found in Keeladi and symbols associated with the IVC. It bolstered the arguments of dissidents from the dominant North Indian imagination, who have argued for years that their ancestors existed contemporaneously with the IVC.

Over six seasons, nothing that could be characterised as an object of worship emerged from the Keeladi excavations. This seemed to be further evidence that Keeladi could not be linked to the Vedic civilisation of the riverine plains of North India, considered the wellspring of Hinduism.

“The fight going on here is ‘You are not the one to teach me to write, I have learnt it myself.’”

Mathan Karuppiah

All the archaeologists I spoke to said it was too soon to make definitive links between the Keeladi site and the IVC. There is no doubt, however, that the discovery at Keeladi has changed the paradigm. In recent years, the results of any new research on early India have invited keen political interest, because proponents of Hindu nationalism support the notion of Vedic culture––including the Sanskrit language, a pastoral economy dependent on cattle, and the origins of a caste hierarchy––as fundamental to the origins of Indian civilisation.

But the IVC is a pre-Vedic culture. A long, contentious debate on whether Vedic culture originated in what is now Indian territory or was the result of complex patterns of migration and settlements has, so far, thrown up little evidence of the former. The Keeladi excavations further challenge the idea of a single fountainhead of Indian life. They indicate the possibility that the earliest identity that can recognisably be considered ‘Indian’ might not have originated in North India.

That wasn’t all. In subsequent seasons of the Keeladi dig, archaeologists discovered that Tamili, a variant of the Brahmi script used for writing inscriptions in the early iterations of the Tamil language, could be dated back to the sixth century BCE, likely a hundred years before previously thought.

So not only had urban life thrived in the Tamil lands, but people who lived there had developed their own script. “The evolution of writing is attributed to Ashoka’s edicts, but 2600 years ago writing was prevalent in Keeladi,” Mathan Karuppiah, a proud Madurai local, told me. “A farmer could write his own name on a pot he owned. The fight going on here is ‘You are not the one to teach me to write, I have learnt it myself.’”

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hen the ASI team began to dig around the central part of the mound at Keeladi, they found the site was once an Iron Age settlement that evolved and continued into the historic period. The first three metres from the top revealed brick structures from the early historic phase, [6] and 1.5 metres below that was evidence from the Iron Age, [7] where a large number of axes, daggers, spades, knives and forceps were found.

Large brick structures were a “rare phenomenon” in the early historic phase of Tamil Nadu, Ramakrishna and his co-authors wrote in the 2018 article. It wasn’t that brick structures from this era hadn’t been found in Tamil Nadu before. Digs in Arikamedu, Kaveripoompattinam, Uraiyur and Korkai had unearthed some, but the scale of the ones found in Keeladi was striking. “Arumaiyāṉa site,” Ramakrishna called it when we spoke in late 2020––a fantastic site.

Between 2014 and 2016, Ramakrishna and his colleagues found over 5000 artefacts. “The architectural remains at Keeladi display exemplary engineering skills of that period,” they wrote. “It seems that the layout of the structures were conceived methodologically, well planned and executed over a period of time.”

It quickly caught the Tamil public’s imagination. Before long, cars and buses were bringing a steady stream of visitors to Keeladi. Maharaja came too, this time for curiosity rather than coconuts.

The Search

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t the turn of the millennium, K. Amarnath Ramakrishna was training to dig in North India, first, at the Harappan site in Rakhigarhi and then at the Buddhist site of Sravasti in Uttar Pradesh. 

He arrived at the Bengaluru branch over a decade later in 2013 with the impression that the ASI reserved large-scale excavations only for the north. He felt that South India, and specifically his native state of Tamil Nadu, needed to catch up.

In a 2019 interview with the Tamil channel Sun TV, Ramakrishna said, “In 2013-14, when we started thinking about this, we realised that in 70 years, large-scale excavations had not happened in Tamil Nadu. The Arikamedu excavation took place in 1947, Kaveripoompattinam in 1965 and Adichanallur in 2005 but beyond that the ASI had not carried out large scale excavations here.” [8]

He had a theory about why there were so many official explorations across river valleys in the northern part of the country. “In the north, when the Harappa and Mohenjodaro sites fell within Pakistan’s borders, a void was felt in India about losing a precious heritage. This was the reason for a spurt in in-depth archaeological research linked to river valleys such as Sindhu and Ghaghara and of the civilisation that thrived along the banks of Yamuna, the Ganga and Narmada plains.”

The project to excavate Indian civilisation’s origins remained geographically restricted. The Mysore excavation branch, where Ramakrishna was posted, was set up only in 2001 and later moved to Bengaluru. It took nearly a decade to start the first large dig at the Kurukodu site in Bellary between 2010 to 2012. Keeladi—begun in March 2015—would become the second.

“Nooru-la onnu thaan Keeladi,” declared Ramakrishna. Keeladi is one in a 100.

During Ramakrishna’s time in Bengaluru, the ASI decided to conduct a river-focused archaeological survey in Tamil Nadu. The Vaigai river was chosen because of its crucial role in the development of the state’s early kingdoms. [9] Before Maharaja led them to the coconut grove and Keeladi became a part of the public consciousness, the ASI spent the better part of a year conducting a “human scanning exercise.”

A seven-member team of archaeologists, an epigraphist and graduate students conducted explorations across 293 sites along the Vaigai river valley in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts. They pored over materials from Sangam literature and oral traditions. They compared it with satellite images and spoke to the elderly in one village after another, asking them whether they had seen any “pazhaya porutkal”—old artefacts—around.

As part of the exercise, they visited a small village near Vembur. “There appeared to have been some habitation sites, but we couldn’t find anything,” Ramakrishna said when we spoke in November 2020. As the team continued its search, an elderly man who had been watching them for a while approached them. “We told him we were looking for old artefacts. He went home and returned with a Black and Red Ware jar.”

Ramakrishna’s eyes widened as he saw the object. He asked the old man how he’d come upon a 2000-year-old artefact. “When I dug up the foundation to build my house, I found a lot of broken pots,” he said. “Generally, anyone who digs around this area finds some, but they throw it away. I kept this because it was so beautiful.”

Over the course of that year, the team identified and documented a collection of urn burials, menhirs, [10] inscriptions, sculptures, hero-stones [11] and antiquities. Then, Maharaja led them to the coconut grove. Of a shortlist of 100 habitation sites, three were identified for a dig, all within 50km of Madurai. Keeladi emerged as the winner. “Nooru-la onnu thaan Keeladi,” declared Ramakrishna. Keeladi is one in a 100.

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eeladi is just 12km southeast of Madurai and 2.5km from the Vaigai river. This made it both convenient, and relatively free of encumbrances. The dig officially began in March 2015. It quickly gained attention for the sheer quantity of articles emerging, many of which pointed to the site’s industrial use.

“Keeladi brings out the cultural wealth of Tamils living at least 2600 years ago in its entirety,” T. Udhayachandran, the IAS officer in charge of the Tamil Nadu state department of archaeology, told me. “The quantum of cultural wealth excavated is mind boggling,” he said. “It gives you a complete picture of a vibrant society that thrived in the area.”

A senior epigraphist who wished to remain anonymous had a different view. Keeladi’s fame, he thought, was the creation of media hype. “The artefacts, antiquities found in Keeladi were similar to other earlier excavations in Tamil Nadu like Alagankulam, Kodumanal, Arikamedu, Kancheepuram,” he said. “But it was made out to seem like only this site reflected our first efforts to understand Tamil history and civilisation.”

Unlike in the past, where the ASI released a report only after a dig was completed, the public learnt about Keeladi in real-time. Tourists wielding phone cameras swarmed the site, curious to see the erstwhile nagaram—the township—being unearthed under the archaeologist’s brush. Over the last six years, more than 1.5 lakh visitors went to the site. Occasionally, there were news reports about the theft of broken clay items. Soon, two traffic barriers came up at the start of the road leading to the coconut grove, located off National Highway 87.

“This is public work, not some controversial secret work,” Ramakrishna said, unperturbed. “If school and college students came to visit the site, we should tell them about it. That’s our prime duty. They should know what their history is.”

But when the ASI sought permission and funding for a third season of excavations at the end of 2016, the Indian government stalled its approval. Archaeological practice in India is conducted by various bodies, but the central government is at the apex of the hierarchy. Any application for an excavation licence— whether it is to be conducted by the ASI, a state archaeology department or a university—has to be submitted to the Indian government for evaluation by a standing committee of the Central Advisory Board of Archaeology. [12]

In early 2017, in what would have been the start of the third season, Ramakrishna was packed off to ASI’s Guwahati circle.

The Handover

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he months leading up to Ramakrishna’s transfer were tumultuous. Keeladi updates had become a regular feature in the Tamil press. When it was reported that the ASI had plans to move thousands of artefacts to Karnataka, there was a groundswell of public opinion led by politicians and writers, demanding a site museum.

Madurai-based advocate Kanimozhi Mathi filed a public interest litigation in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, pleading that the ASI not be allowed to take the artefacts to Karnataka.

In the wake of Ramakrishna’s transfer orders, [13] word spread that the Union government was planning to stop excavations. The transfer forced him to leave his work incomplete. Getting more funding for the excavation, Ramakrishna said, had proved to be a challenge. 

“They took me and put me someplace, the antiquities are in Chennai and my team has been disbanded. How am I to write a report?” he said. Presently, he is posted in the maintenance wing of the Goa circle, waiting for the ASI to comply with a High Court order [14] to transfer him back to Chennai.

The concerns over site closure were serious enough to warrant a visit from two cabinet ministers in April 2017. Dust swirled in Keeladi as people and cars crowded the coconut grove on the day that Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma arrived to speak to the media. With them were the state unit president of the BJP, S. Tamilisai, and the ASI’s director-general Rakesh Tiwari. [15] A group of Tamil men in crisp white shirts and veshtis had gathered to protest but they were kept at bay by a police force using cane barricades.

“People have a very romantic notion of what archaeologists do, but we all sweat like crazy down in those pits.”

K. Saktivel

“I am pleased to say that Tamil Nadu is close to the heart of the Government of India, and our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Equally, the Tamil language is close to us,” Sharma said. He explained that he had flown to Madurai to dispel “confusion” in some “corners of the press” about the excavation process and Ramakrishna’s transfer.

Sharma assured the press that the excavations would continue for five years: it was “a matter of pride,” he said. He then introduced “another Tamil speaking archaeologist,” P. S. Sriraman, as Ramakrishna’s replacement. He assured the gathering that the Keeladi finds would remain in Keeladi. Tiwari interjected. “We might have artefacts displayed in the nearby––Yeh district kaunsa hain?” What district is this?

After Sharma and his colleagues reiterated that “Keeladi was part of Indian culture,” he looked over at Sitharaman and Tamilisai. “Ab aap log Tamil mein bol dijiye,” he said. Now you explain in Tamil.

Seven months after the press conference, Sriraman filed a report which stated that there were no “significant findings” in the third season of the dig. There were no connections whatsoever, the report said, between Keeladi and the Indus Valley Civilisation.

The Site

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his past winter, Madurai native Mathan Karuppiah drove me to the site in his silver SUV. “There have been excavations done all over Madurai,” he joked as we drove over a large pothole near the Meenakshi Amman Temple.  

People like Mathan are part of a growing group of Keeladi enthusiasts and volunteers who have taken it upon themselves to track the developments on the site. “It is not like I am interested in archaeology, but it is because of the affinity I feel for Madurai that I got so interested,” Mathan told me. “Somehow, this movement is taking its own course.”

Before the dig, Mathan didn’t know what an excavation entailed. Accompanied by the journalist Annamalai, Mathan first visited the site in 2014, a few days after the ASI began exploratory excavations. He has visited Keeladi every month since. It was, he says, destined to be unearthed.

As a way of expressing gratitude towards locals for their cooperation with the digs, he said, well-wishers have helped one village get a paved road, another a borewell, yet another an electricity connection.

We were not in digging season. As we took the turn off the highway towards Keeladi, Mathan said that I shouldn’t expect to see open trenches. “When they close the trenches, the next time we visit, we ourselves won’t be able to make out where it was. The surface will look even.”

We parked in a clearing some distance from a high-tension cable tower. Around us, coconut trees, lush from the recent rains, reached into the blue sky. The ground around us was overgrown with weeds. “They found the maximum number of artefacts beneath this tower,” Mathan said.

He found a gap in the barbed wire fence and led the way into an enclosure. Pitched into the ground was a large rectangular panel showcasing photographs from the excavations. “At first I thought I’d be able to stand in one spot and see ten acres of the whole nagaram!” he said. “That’s obviously not the case.”

The grove where we stood had witnessed six seasons of excavations. In 2018, after three seasons of the ASI dig, the Tamil Nadu state department of archaeology [16] took over the excavations after the Madras High Court had given the state government the option to continue where the ASI left off.

In Tamil Nadu, the excavation season runs from January to September. The remaining three months, coinciding with the retreating monsoons, are reserved for documentation work.

The best time to dig is peak summer, when the ground is extremely dry, and artefacts can be retrieved easily. The trenches are stiflingly hot. “People have a very romantic notion of what archaeologists do,” K. Saktivel, an archaeologist in charge of the neighbouring Agaram site laughed. “But we all sweat like crazy down in those pits.”

The archaeology department needs to take over large swathes of land for the dig. Since they almost never get full possession, they must negotiate terms for each season. “Currently, there is no system in place for the government to provide money in exchange for the land. The agreement between the landowner and the government stretches for a period of nine months,” explained Mathan. At the end of the season, the trenches are closed, and the land is returned to the owners.

During the first exploratory dig in 2014, Ramakrishna and his team assured locals they would be employed on the site. They also agreed to compensate owners for any damage to coconut trees. For six seasons now, residents have chipped in to move earth, cook food and transport archaeologists from site to site. Some pop up from time to time, standing tall in their lungis, in reference photographs in archaeology reports: they are asked to pose to provide perspective on the depth of the trenches.

The dig is conducted according to the Wheeler method, named after Mortimer Wheeler, the last British director-general of the ASI. The workers dig a trench within a series of squares that vary in size inside a larger grid. These vertical slices provide a cross-section for archaeologists to compare adjacent layers of earth. [17]

When the Tamil Nadu state archaeologists started working on Keeladi in 2018, the Centre had declared the site as insignificant. “We set ourselves a challenge to find structural remains,” said B. Asaithambi, who was excavations-in-charge at Keeladi till earlier this year. [18]

The first few months of the fourth season were rather challenging. Work had to be paused after relations with landowners soured. Although the team documented 7600 artefacts at the end of the season, no large structures were found or identified.

There was one breakthrough. Six carbon samples from Keeladi were flown to Florida. An advanced dating process suggested that the samples were from between the sixth and third century BCE—yet another reinforcement of the thesis that Tamil Nadu had experienced a second urbanisation like the Gangetic Plains.

In Annamalai’s view, it was season five that proved to be a gamechanger. In 2019, the state archaeology department “plunged into guided excavation using the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Survey, the Magnetometer Survey and the Ground Penetrating Radar Survey,” he wrote in The Hindu. “We wanted to blend technology with traditional wisdom in Keeladi,” Udhayachandran, chief of the state archaeology department, had been quoted as saying. “The lessons learnt are significant and the results are good.”

The little machines that fanned out over Keeladi guided subsequent dig operations. They revealed evidence of several hitherto unknown structures and expanded the geographical area that formed the Keeladi cluster to the villages of Agaram, Manalur, Pasiapuram and the burial site of Konthagai. A clearer picture was emerging.

The Museum

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n November 2019, the Tamil Nadu government inaugurated a temporary museum at the World Tamil Sangam building in Madurai. The building is meant to house the artefacts until a permanent museum comes up at Keeladi, a project for which the state government has sanctioned ₹12 crore. A team of state department archaeologists put together the bulk of the exhibit in a fortnight. The three galleries showcase 6800 exhibits.

Across the main gallery on the first floor, Saktivel, in charge of excavations at Agaram, leaned over a display of beads and jewels. In 2019, he had spent a day stringing them into necklaces, using thin wire he’d bought at a premium from local vendors on Madurai’s streets. “I know this looks a lot like a jewellery store display,” he laughed. “I am sure this was not how it was 2000 years ago. But it is just to give the visitor a visual on how beautiful the beads are.”

I met Asaithambi, the archaeologist in charge of Keeladi excavations, in the parking lot outside the building. He spent over two hours walking me through the various exhibits, quoting Sangam poetry to stress the connection between the material and the literary.

Back at the main gallery, a map near the entrance traced all the ‘Archaeological Sites in Vaigai River Valley.’ Distributed across the hall were displays of terracotta pottery and spindle whorls found at the site. Laminated boards carried information on ancient engineering technique, agricultural practices and script development.

A model depicted a trench dug under the high-tension cable tower that Mathan had pointed out to me during our Keeladi visit. It showed just how expansive the township below the coconut grove was. The fifth season had revealed brick-work structures of water channels—these had been found at two places some 300m apart.

There is consensus that Keeladi was both an industrial and habitation site. Recoveries from the site include ten spindle whorls, 20 tools made of bones with sharp pin-like points used to create designs, stones to hang yarn, terracotta spheres, copper needles and earthen vessels. But the archaeologists have different theories about the function of the brick structures. One theory is that they may have been part of an industrial unit, perhaps dyeing vats for colouring textiles.

All around the museum, there are artefacts that suggest what life in Keeladi must have been like. One of the more striking items is an orange-hued carnelian intaglio that points to trade links between Gujarat, Rome and Keeladi. [19] Archaeologists surmise that the semi-precious stone—typically found in Gujarat—had travelled to Rome, was processed into a ‘signature bead’ with a carving of a wild boar and later used in Keeladi.

The People

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he sixth season of the dig at Keeladi, in 2020, took on questions of origin. Who were the people who lived here? Where did they come from?

In June, the skeletal remains of a child were excavated at Konthagai, the burial site near Keeladi. Fifteen days later, the remains of another child were retrieved, barely half a metre away. News reports noted that while the first skeleton had a crushed skull, the second child’s skull, teeth and face were intact.

In Konthagai, in early December, I noticed a clear outline of the area where the children’s remains were found. I also saw two broken urns embedded in the soil there. A source from the archaeology department told The Hindu that “this proves that different types of burials had taken place in Keeladi. There was an institutional lifestyle and a specific place for the dead to be buried. Some were buried in urns, others just under the surface.”

The findings are likely to be reduced to the question of whether the Keeladi people were more like Aryans, the protagonists of Vedic civilisation, or Dravidians, the forebears of Tamil culture.

Following a contentious state election, any fresh research findings this summer have the potential to be politically controversial. In popular media, the findings are likely to be reduced to the question of whether the Keeladi people were more like Aryans, the protagonists of Vedic civilisation, or Dravidians, the forebears of Tamil culture.

The Madurai Kamaraj University (MKU), a collaborator in the project, would have been the natural place to conduct DNA tests on these human samples. [20] But the university is still in the process of setting up a lab with the capacity to test ancient DNA. Scientists have taken some samples to the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow. The researchers are also collaborating with the University of Chicago and a team of scientists from the UK, but the pandemic has hindered this work.

“Normally, DNA retrieved from skeletal samples is very degraded. These are already 2000 years old and have likely undergone chemical modifications,” Professor G. Kumaresan at MKU’s Biological Sciences department explained. “For now, ten samples appear promising.”

Among them is a human petrous bone, retrieved from skeletal remains at the Keeladi cluster. The petrous is a crudely shaped bone that protects the inner ear. It’s densely packed with DNA. In recent times, the petrous has been preferred by genetic scientists working to extract ancient DNA—it was the source for a 4500-year-old DNA sample from the Rakhigarhi site in Haryana, another politically controversial site. [21]

Kumaresan’s team is keen on painting a more vivid picture of the life and times of the Keeladi people, so researchers have also been testing animal bones and grain samples. They are even looking at microbiome sequences to determine the kinds of infections prevalent at the time.

“We shall be able to create a climate from 2000 years ago,” Kumaresan told me.

T

he decade after Independence saw a “dramatic closing of the gap between protohistoric and early historic India,” wrote Nayanjot Lahiri in her 2017 book Monuments Matter. The idea of the IVC as an isolated proto-historic civilisation began to be challenged. Archaeologists began making connections between the IVC and later early historic settlements.

In essence, the research suggested that the Harappan civilisation was not some mysterious forgotten society. It was part of a larger cultural milieu that survived its demise. “There were Harappan sites in the north and west,” Lahiri wrote, “and a plethora of other cultures—some contemporary with the Harappan and others following its demise—in areas across western and central India as also in the Deccan.”

The Vaigai explorations have unearthed many similarities with the Indus Valley: graffiti symbols on potsherds, urban planning features, brick dimensions, terracotta objects, bangles made of conch-shells, carnelian beads, agate. Dice found in Keeladi match those found in the Harappan site of Lothal in Gujarat. They also match the description of dice found in Sangam texts.

“Place names migrate as a package along with the migrating population,” R. Balakrishnan told me in an email. The retired civil servant has an abiding interest in place names—he has published several research papers on the links between the Indus and Vaigai, and investigated phonetic similarities between the two regions. “Fortunately, the Sangam literature gives enormous clues about those migrations,” he said. “In that sense, where the Indus Valley Civilisation came to an end, the Sangam texts brilliantly take off.”

1500km and 1300 years separate the IVC and Keeladi. The gap may not lead to “too many direct and immediately recognisable similarities,” Tony Joseph, author of Early Indians, wrote in an email. “But the fact that we have found graffiti that looks very similar to Harappan script in the Keeladi excavations is extremely important, especially since this is not the first time that graffiti similar to Harappan scripts have been found in South India and even Sri Lanka.”

On the ground at Keeladi, these comparisons appear less essential. “We are still at the infant stages of research,” Asaithambi told me. [22] “I am speaking with only three years of experience of digging at Keeladi. We have researched Indus for decades.” We were seated inside the state archaeology department office inside the seventeenth century Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal in Madurai. “Perhaps Keeladi will trigger a curiosity about South India [23] where we will learn more about ourselves,” he said.

On a notepad, Asaithambi had drawn several diagrams to explain the Wheeler method of digging trenches. “But tell me this. When you ask any child from any culture across the world to draw the sun, they will draw it the same way,” he said as he doodled a sun. “Why then this obsession to fight over who came first? Aren’t we all the same?”

Sowmiya Ashok is an independent journalist and writer based in Chennai. She tweets @sowmiyashok