In 2005, Sabdar Ali was digging on his property to build the foundation of his new house in a village in rural Haryana, when a couple of intriguing objects tumbled out of the ground. Clearly very old and made of copper, one of them was an antenna sword but the other, heavily encrusted, left him utterly baffled.
Sensing that they were very valuable, Sabdar Ali, a resident of Kheri Gujjar village in Ganaur Tehsil of Sonipat District, handed them over to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which chemically cleaned both objects. The sword was a typical artifact of the Copper Hoard/OCP (Ochre Coloured Pottery) Culture seen in many places in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab in Northern India, and dating to the 2nd millennium BCE.
But it was the second object that was truly spectacular. It was a copper theriomorphic (animal shaped) image, or an anthropomorphic (human-shaped) image with what appeared to be the head of a boar. Anthropomorphic objects have often been found in association with Copper Hoards, which are literally hoards of copper objects, usually implements and weapons, found scattered across Northern India, especially in the Doab region.
The Copper Hoards of Northern India consist mainly of copper axes but they also contain copper swords with a pair of antennae jutting from the end of the hilt (antenna swords); long, rectangular axes (bar celts); harpoons; spearheads; and a unique category of an object known as copper anthropomorphs.
The copper objects in these hoards are usually found in very large numbers, far in excess of those found during full-fledged archaeological excavations at Bronze Age (3000 – 1000 BCE) sites. These are artifacts of a society that used copper extensively, which implies that they were very adept at mining and smelting the metal, not to mention casting it.
What Are Copper Hoards?
The anthropomorph in the image above is a humaniform object made of copper. It has a semi-circular bump representing a head, two curled arms, a short torso and two extended and splayed legs. Most of the anthropomorphs found in North India are flat, usually .05-0.75 cm thick. They vary in length from 25 cm to 40 cm and in breadth from 30 am to 45 cm. They weigh an average 2 kg.
There is much speculation about these anthropomorphs, the hoards and their affiliations.
While most known anthropomorphs have both arms pointed downwards, only one site has thus far revealed two anthropomorphs, each with one raised arm and one lowered arm. This is the site of Madarpur (Bilhaur Tehsil, Kanpur Dagar District, Uttar Pradesh), which seems to have been a manufacturing centre for anthropomorphs. As many as 31 anthropomorphs have been recovered in a Copper Hoard from here.
Another other curious object found in Copper Hoards is the ‘antenna sword’. The first one of its kind found in an excavated cultural context was discovered at the site of Saipai (in Etawah Tehsil, Etawah District, Uttar Pradesh) excavated in 1971 by B B Lal and M L Wahal of the ASI. It was found in excavations in the ‘OCP Horizons’, securely within layers belonging to the OCP and can be used to associate the hoards of copper objects with a specific group of people. The OCP Horizons are a Bronze Age cultural level seen at the basal layers of most of the important sites in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab. It is also seen in parts of Northern Rajasthan at sites like Noh and Jodhpura.
The OCP culture is a Bronze Age culture belonging to the Ganga-Yamuna Doab and is dated to between 2000 and 1500 BCE by archaeologists.
Copper Hoards have been unearthed in a wide swathe of land and can be categorised into 4 groups: Group 1 - Haryana and Northern Rajasthan account for 380+ objects; Group 2 - the Ganga-Yamuna Doab accounts for 235 objects; Group 3 - Chhota-Nagpur (rich in copper ore) has yielded 235 objects, mainly large, blunt and unwieldy bar celts; Group 3 - Madhya Pradesh has 120 objects but some of them are found in the specific contexts of sites belonging to other cultures. They have very different contexts and shapes and are lumped together only because they were found in numbers and not singly.
The general consensus is that many of the objects in Copper Hoards were never meant to be used. Paul Yule, South Asian Chair at the University of Kiel, has done a considerable amount of work on these objects. He is quite certain that the lack of any signs of use on the swords, celts, spearheads, harpoons or anthropomorphs suggest that these objects were made for ritualistic purposes or for display.
The bar celts and anthropomorphs seem to support this hypothesis. For instance, some of the swords are extremely thin and others are extremely long, making them weak and unwieldy although shorter swords, that are thicker and stouter, have been found in a number of burials at Sanauli (Barot Tehsil, Baghpat District, Uttar Pradesh).
The OCP necropolis of Sanauli (re-excavated recently by S K Manjul of the ASI) has yielded many copper objects, including antenna swords, chariot yokes and decorative/inlay objects of copper. The ceramics appear to be a variation of known post-Harappan ceramics like the Cemetery H pottery and include OCP. The swords buried with the ‘warriors’ seem to point to them being used. This adds another dimension to the artifacts.
The oldest copper object from this category was actually a harpoon found at Bithur near Kanpur in 1822. But it was an isolated though enigmatic find.
The single-largest known hoard is also perhaps the first one on record – the Ghangaria Hoard, found in 1870 by cattle herders. Ghangaria is a small village 6 km from the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. A total of 424 objects were recovered, including copper and silver artifacts. Sadly, the entire hoard was not preserved. Apparently, it originally had over 500 objects and weighed more than 300 kg. Subsequently, says Yule, over 129 different hoards have been found between the Ganga and the Yamuna Rivers, and there are now a total of over 1,500 artifacts found from Copper Hoards.
The finds came in hard and fast after Ghangaria, especially in the first five decades of the 20th century. Indologist and historian Vincent A Smith made the first contribution in 1905 but the finds really piled up after him. B B Lal, former Director-General of the ASI, was the first perhaps to take comprehensive notice of them after examining the Bisauli Hoard (in Badaun District, Uttar Pradesh), which inspired him to write a seminal paper on it in 1955. Most scholarship is actually subsequent to this article and Lal’s contribution must be given its due.
There has been much study and speculation for the last 65 years since Lal visited the Bisauli site, which yielded two different kinds of anthropomorphs. The site of Bisauli was excavated in 1950 by BB Lal but the link between the OCP layers and the anthropomorphs recovered previously from the site was unclear. The earliest hoards were found in the 19th century CE and one of the first serious publications was by Smith in 1905. The next major article was by Lal, who documented 35 hoards in the late 1950s.
The first systematic chemical analysis was done by well-known Indian archaeo-chemist and archaeo-mettalurgist D P Agarwal in 1969. He was amazed at the variability, from almost pure copper to as much as 30 per cent alloying of other metals. The most consistent hoard metallurgically was the Ghangaria Hoard.
What Are These Anthropomorphs?
There has also been much speculation about the copper anthropomorphs. Some experts believe they are ritual objects or representations of a deity. Krishna Kumar, a researcher writing on this topic, believes they are early representations of the Vedic deity Indra or even representations of his weapon the vajra or thunderbolt.
Some speculate that they represent the Hindu deity Vishnu as he is typically shown with arms akimbo (arms bent at the elbow and fists resting on hips) in Maharashtra. Upinder Singh, historian and author, is of the view that the anthropomorphs recovered from Copper Hoards are ritual objects reminiscent of Shani cult images worshipped in Northern India.
There was also speculation that they were weapons meant to be sharpened along the upper edges, held by the leg and hurled at enemies. This view was soon abandoned as each one weighs far too much to have been an effective projectile weapon of any kind. Weighing in at 2 kg, this would have been a very unwieldy weapon, not to mention not retrievable and therefore too much of an investment.
The most spectacular find, though, was the one made in 2005 in Kheri Gujjar. This object [published in 2007 by S K Manjul and A Manjul in Pragdhara (Journal of the UP State Department of Archaeology) Vol 17] had a clearly defined head, and an animal head, at that. In addition, one side of the torso bore an image very reminiscent of the Harappan Unicorn and above it are a series of upraised letters that look like a cross between Harappan symbols and the alphabet of the Brahmi script.
Manjul and Manjul visited the findspot and discovered a huge archaeological mound on which the modern village was situated. The mound was over 14 m high and spread over a kilometre. Ceramics of the Late Harappan, Late Historical (Vardhana, 7th c CE) and Early Medieval (Pratihara) periods were recovered during explorations. Manjul and Manjul attribute the theriomorph to the Late Harappan horizon at the site.
This discovery has spawned a whole host of articles attributing the object to the Vaishnavite pantheon and the cult of Varaha (the boar-headed avatar of Vishnu, the 3rd of the 10 Dasaavatars). Though this is purely speculation, it has gained much currency.
Prior to this discovery from Kheri Gujjar, an anthropomorph from Sheorajpur in Kanpur District of Uttar Pradesh was found bearing an incised fish motif (first reported by B B Lal in 1951), again reminiscent of the Harappan fish-shaped symbol/character seen on many seals.
The therio-anthropomorph of Kheri Gujjar has since raised an enormous amount of speculation on the origins of the Brahmi script, the decipherment of the Harappan script, the relationship between the Harappans and the Ganga-Yamuna Doab and much more. Many of the symbols seen here look like Brahmi letters and yet some of them are clearly Harappan signs seen on Mature Harappan seals, sealings and other artifacts. There have been tentative attempts at reading what this says, though most are inconclusive and others too far-fetched to reproduce here.
There are more questions than ever before and fewer answers. Suffice to say that this is one of the most intriguing objects found in an archaeological context in Northern India and has featured on the cover of a number of books. It has been the subject of scores of articles and is even seen in the logo of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). The eye-catching visual appeal of this category of enigmatic objects is undeniable.