In January 2019, a team of archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology will restart excavations in Sanauli, around 60 km from New Delhi, a site that made headlines due to some astonishing finds here – ‘royal’ burials and chariots – in May this year.
The find prompted archaeologists to debate whether these chariots were horse-driven, a question whose answer could rewrite what we know of the era so far. While there is much that still needs to be investigated about the Sanauli find, Disha Ahluwalia, one of the archaeologists working on the site, takes us through what has been uncovered so far and what the team will be looking for during their next dig.
Earlier this year, in May, an archaeological team working in Sanauli, in Baghpat district of Western Uttar Pradesh, not far from New Delhi, unearthed a burial site unlike anything that had been seen before.
Coinciding with the Late Harappan period, around 4,000 years ago, the Sanauli dig yielded evidence of a ‘royal’ burial site, and chariots that may have been pulled by horses. The reason this find was sensational is because it went against all that is known of this time period – that there was neither evidence of a royal or martial class in the Harappan excavations, nor chariots or clear evidence of horses.
Who were these mysterious settlers in Sanauli? While some were quick to claim that this was just another find that negated the theory of the ‘Aryan’ invasion or that it was they who brought horses to the Indian subcontinent we need a lot more evidence to ascertain that. Meanwhile for archaeologists like us who have worked in Sanauli for a long time, there is a lot more to this site than meets the eye. It opens a whole chapter in the story of this era.
Saddiqpur Sanauli, or Sanauli, as it is popularly known, first shot to prominence in 2005, as archaeologists carried out excavations here for 13 months. What they found was amazing – 116 burials with a wide range of antiquities, which seemed to belong to the typical Late Harappan phase. The site was soon identified as a necropolis or a large, well-planned cemetery. It was a city of the dead.
At first glance, the antiquities at the site indicated that this culture was affiliated to the Late Harappan phase in the eastern-most limit of what is known as the Harappan Civilisation or Indus Valley Civilisation. However, this theory was quickly questioned as remnants of the Ochre Coloured Pottery and Copper Hoards, extensively found outside the realm of the main settlements in the later Harappan period, indicated that the Sanaulians were probably one of the many chalcolithic cultures that coexisted outside the Harappan world during the period. This raised the first questions about the identity of the Sanaulians.
Archaeologists then agreed that the Sanaulians were probably people who were contemporaries of the Late Harappans and the two had close interactions. Over the years, the finds at Sanauli raised even more questions, and in March 2018, a small part of the site was taken up for more detailed excavations.
Between March and May 2018, archaeologists excavated eight burials, to begin with. Each iterated what had been found earlier. The burials fell into the following categories: extended burials – intact skeleton in lying position; symbolic burials – in the absence of the body, the personal belongings of the dead are buried; and secondary burials – in which only a few bones of the dead were found, indicating that they probably died in a battle or an accident.
Then came some stunning finds. Archaeologists discovered unique, legged coffins – one, in particular, had a decorated lid with eight anthropomorphic (human-like) figures. In another, the burial was accompanied by other bones placed in the coffin. What was really spectacular was that both these burials were placed alongside copper-sheathed and decorated chariots.
A plethora of ceramic pots was also arranged in the burial pits with ample care, suggesting that rituals were performed here before the pots were placed in the pits. There were also what seemed like personal belongings of the deceased, such as copper daggers, antenna swords, shields, etc.
The nature of these burials, especially the one with eight anthropomorphic figures on the coffin cover, suggested that the deceased may have been important and probably even ‘royal’. However, this assumption is strictly based on the outer appearance of the coffin and chariots since they were heavily decorated with copper inlays.
Besides these, the skeletal remains of a female were also found placed on a wooden coffin. What is fascinating here is the presence of a miniature copper dagger at the base of the coffin, suggesting that a prominent warrior class perhaps inclusive of women existed at Sanauli.
By the end of May, it was clear to the excavators, archaeologists Sanjay Manjul and Arvin Manjul (A husband-wife duo, Sanjay Manjul is Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Archaeological Survey of India, while Arvin Manjul is Superintending Archaeologist with the ASI), that there was little to connect Sanauli to the Late Harappan phase of Harappan Civilisation. This was a lone example of a necropolis of probable OCP/Copper Hoard Culture.
Excavators pointed out that Sanauli’s ceramic assemblage and antiquities are different in nature and technique and very few elements resemble Harappan affiliation. Although they don’t deny that since the OCP/Copper Hoard culture was in close proximity to many Late Harappan sites, some contact must have been established between the two. However, they stress that the cultural material and burial practices of Sanauli make them a unique community.
Moreover, it was clear that the Sanaulians lived in a complex society with an advanced ‘warrior class’ as suggested by the weaponry excavated in the burial pits. The excavators have tentatively dated the site to 2000 BCE, which coincides with the Late Harappan period, but, according to Sanjay Manjul, it has no Harappan elements. According to him, the site is unique in many ways and questions many norms set by archaeologists decades ago. He even calls it a turning point in Indian archaeology.
The Sanauli site is indeed unique, with no parallel. No other site in the Indian subcontinent, even in the broad Chalcolithic context, has a necropolis of this nature and certainly nowhere else have we found life-size chariots like the three found here.
This period of 2000 BCE in the history of the Indian subcontinent is interesting as it coincides with the disintegration of Harappan culture into post-urban, localised culture on one hand, and many regional, rural Chalcolithic cultures on the other. The Sanaulians in this broad milieu of various cultures were complex and technologically advanced people. What makes them stand out is the presence of a warrior community, suggesting that their society was divided into distinct classes.
What were these social divisions? What were the other salient features of their culture? And if this is indeed an isolated necropolis, where did they live? Our excavations in Sanauli will resume in January 2019 and we can’t wait to find out what new secrets will be revealed about these people and the times in which they lived 4,000 years ago.