Muziris, lost Roman port town in India?

Jul 2014
  • Muziris: lost Indo-Roman Port town, excavated near Pattanam, Kerala.
  • Murizirs finds mention in ancient Roman and Tamil texts.
  • Setup during Iron age, Roman trade during 1 to 4th BC
  • Traded with Alexandria (N.Africa)
  • Later Portuguese built St.Thomas fort here. Tipu Sultan destroyed it (1790)
  • Items found: Chera coins, pottery, Frankincense (Aromatic gum), gold filament and semi-precious stones.
  • DNA samples are being checked to find who lived here? Dravids, European or Africans.
  • LIDAR: light detection and ranging. The Oxford Archaeologists are using this technique to map the surface of Muziris/Pattanram port.
Jul 2014
“Muziris was a thriving port in the Indo-Roman trade in the 1st century BCE And one day [in 1314 CE], it just vanished. Recent excavations have thrown up the possibility that Pattanam, a small village on the Kerala coast, could be the lost port.” – A. Srivathsan

Pattanam, a small village 25 km north of Kochi is lush and quiet like many other villages in Kerala. It is unhurried and looks deceptively unimportant. In one of the narrow mud paved lanes lives Athira, a 10-year-old enthusiastic girl, fragile looking with bright big eyes. Her house is small and sparsely furnished. One of her prized possessions is a necklace made of many assorted beads.
The shapes of the beads are inconsistent and the colours are uneven. The necklace looks ordinary till P.J. Cherian, an archaeologist accompanying me, informs me that the beads could be 2,000 years old. Alongside the necklace, Athira has carefully placed a cameo blank, a semi-precious stone used to make craved jewellery for the Romans.

Athira is no treasure hunter; she picked some of these ancient beads from her backyard, some from the streets and a few others from the neighbourhood. “After every rain, when the water rises from beneath, the beads surface with them. You have to just pick,” confirms Dr. Krishnakumar who lives in a larger house near Athira’s. He too has a collection including a fragmented bright metal piece.
Pattanam is no ordinary village. Beneath the red earth is the ancient port town extensively described as Muciri by the Tamil Sangam poets and frequented by the Romans and recorded by them as Muziris.
“The flourishing town of Muciri where the large beautiful ships of the yavanas which bring gold and take pepper come disturbing the white foam of the little fair Periyar of the Cheras.” — Ahananaru (149),Tamil Sangam Poem datable to 2nd century CE.
This thriving trade centre was completely lost without trace (at least on ground). What puzzled the archaeologists even more was their informed guesses about its location turned wrong many times till they hit the first reliable trail three years ago. How they reached Pattanam to reach Muziris is a story to be told.
Trade between India and western emporia dates back to 6th century BCE. Goods and people moved across land and sea, including the famous Silk Route that connected Central Asia and China. It was probably when the Romans started to dominate the trade from the 1st century BCE that the Kerala coast got busier.
While the journey from Muziris was easier with the north-eastern winds, the journey from Rome that used the rough south-west winds was tough. The whole journey was relatively quick but risky. Lionell Casson, a well-known archaeologist working on Roman trade, thinks that the Romans had the right kind of ships that were “designed for safety than speed'” The vessels usually arrived in Muziris in September and were anchored till December or early January.
Gold coins, topaz, coral, copper, glass, wine and wheat were imported from Rome, while pearl, diamonds, sapphire, ivory, silk, pepper and precious stones were exported from the west coast. Casson estimates that a 500-ton ship could have carried goods equivalent to the price of 2,400 acres of fertile farmlands in Egypt. While another archaeologist, Federico Romanis, estimates that one ship carried nothing less than 68,000 gold coins worth of goods.
The trade, it appears, was seductively profitable and worth the risk. As the Vienna Papyrus, a rare document discovered about two decades back reveals, the trade between Muziris and Alexandria was well worked out and traders from both sides went to great lengths to secure it.
Muziris should have been a busy and large settlement to host this kind of trade. But it suddenly vanished. Before the question as to why it disappeared could be answered, archaeologists had to first find where it existed.
For long, many thought Kodungallur, a town seven km north of Pattanam, was Muziris. Probably, William Logan’s Malabar Manual, written in 1887, influenced the thinking and search. Logan thought Kodungallur, with many medieval monuments and located on the north bank of river Periyar was Muziris. However, this conclusion needed material evidence.
In 1945, for the first time, excavations were taken up in Kodungallur. It did not produce any evidence related to ancient commercial links. Another excavation was carried out in 1969 by the Archaeological Survey of India in Cheraman Parambu, two km north of Kodungallur. Only antiquities of the 13th and 16th century were recovered. Muziris remained elusive.

Help came from an unconnected development.
In the 1990s, ecologists and archaeologists were studying the evolution of Kerala’s coast line. Shajan Paul, a research scholar then, was surveying the Central Kerala region between 1993 and 1997 as a part of his doctoral research. It appeared to him that the River Periyar could have shifted its course. He had reasons to think so. The coast line near Kodungallur, studies show, could have moved inward, flooding the coastal areas and later receded to expose land and creating new water channels sometime during 5,000 to 3,000 BP (Before Present — radiocarbon years before 1950).
This understanding turned out to be crucial.
Earlier searches were looking for Muzris on the north banks of River Periyar and near to its mouth since the texts mention so. If the River Periyar had shifted its course, then a whole set of new locations emerge.
It was at this time, in 1998, that Shajan heard from his friend Vinod, a local resident of Pattanam and an engineer, about the appearance of a seemingly ancient brick wall in his compound while digging for coconut planting.
Though he and his friend V. Selvakumar, along with Prof. Vimala Begley, the renowned expert on Indo-Roman trade had surveyed Kodungallur region before, they had never looked at Pattanam. However, this time, given its proximity to Kodungallur and the fact that the place name Pattanam means a port town, Shajan thought it was worth the try. He also conjectured that if the River Periyar had shifted north-west, its earlier course would have been closer to Pattanam.

When he arrived at Pattanam to look at the brick wall, to his surprise, he found lots of pottery shreds, evenly burnt and of superior quality in comparison to the megalithic pottery of South India. It was clear to him that they were not locally made. Pattanam, it appeared, could be connected to Muziris.
Shajan and Selvakumar had to wait for another six more years to do a trial excavation. “During this period we had formed a good core team which included P.J. Cherian and Roberta Tomber, an authority on Roman pottery. We were actively looking for more surface evidence and wanted our future search to be systematic, institutionally backed and sustained,” Shajan explained.
“We walked around the village and experienced the topography and landscape. The north-eastern part was a raised mound indicating a potential spot. After negotiations with the plot owner we dug two pits to a depth of three meters each. Much to our excitement, we found artefacts that one would find in a Roman site such as Arikamedu. We were convinced that we were closer to Muziris,” recalls Selvakumar, now an archaeologist from the Tamil University, Thanjavur.
The research team subsequently grew and a larger team was formed under the aegis of Kerala Council for Historical Research. The year 2007 turned out to be important.
“A wharf complex with a dugout canoe made from a single log of wood and several wooden posts/bollards were found during excavations in 2007. Carbon dating fixed the date of the canoe to 1st century BCE. A large quantity of botanical remains such as pepper, rice, cardamom, frankincense and grape seeds belonging to the same period were also discovered. It clearly emerged that Pattanam was once a thriving link in the Indian Ocean trade. Evidences pointed out that it was a site of continuous habitation pre-dating the Roman phase. The earliest strata so far unearthed dates back to the Iron Age — 10th to 5th century BCE.
Prof. P. J. Cherian, Director, Pattanam excavations, is however cautious. “We would still like to retain some humility on the identity of Pattanam as Muziris. Evidences indicate that the site is closely associated with Muziris, but we are not sure which part of the ‘first emporium of the orient’ is Pattanam. Where could be its satellite sites? Nelkynda, Bycare and Tyndis, the other ports mentioned in the texts (yet to be identified) are of equal importance and we need to know about them as well,” he adds.
Work continues at Pattanam with more institutions such as ASI and Pondicherry University joining the team. Excavating amidst habitation has not been easy. “Pattanam is a living village and we have to work with the people,” says Cherian. He is busy convincing the villagers that they will not be displaced because of excavations and there is nothing to fear. “The challenge is to find an alternative, a people-friendly approach to heritage management,” he explains. – The Hindu, 2 May 2010
Jul 2014
A Note on Muziris
1.Muziris, as the ancient Greeks called it, was an important port on the Malabar Coast in Southern India . It was frequented by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans. Eudoxus of Cyzicus sailed into Muziris during his two voyages undertaken between 118 and 116 BC. Muziris, is mentioned in the Periplous of the Erythraean Sea and in Ptolemy's Geography and is prominent on the Peutinger Table. Pliny referred to it several times in his Naturalis Historia.[FONT=&quot] [/FONT]Pliny called this port primum emporium Indiae.
There is no doubt Muziris was a major port in its time and was an Emporium, as Pliny called it.

Image taken from De Tabula Peutingeriana de kaart, Museumstukken II (edited by A.M. Gerhartl-Witteveen and P. Stuart) 1993 Museum Kam, Nijmegan, the Netherlands
2. In what is called a third century map(perhaps a copy of an ealier map)Muziris is shown prominently by drawing a circle round it. (Taprobane , indicated at the bottom of the map refers to Sri Lanka). Pliny in his Natural History(6.26) mentioned that if one followed the wind Hippalus , one would reach Muziris in about forty days ( he was referring to the South West monsoon) . He also mentioned that the roadstead for shipping was at a considerable distance from the shore and that the cargoes are to be conveyed in boats, for either loading or discharging. He was indicating that Muziris was not along the coast but situated inland , reachable by a creek or a river. This was confirmed by the later Roman sources according to which “Muziris is located on a river, distant from Tindis - by river and sea, 500 stadia; and by river from the shore, 20 stadia”. Incidentally , Pliny did not recommended alighting at Muziris, as it was infested by pirates .
3. Since the days of Eudoxus , the Greeks and Egyptians established a flourishing trade with Southern India by taking advantage of what they called the Hippalus wind , meaning the South West monsoon winds. (Please see my post” Other Ancient Greeks in India” for further details).The commodities the Greeks/Egyptians and Romans imported from India were precious gems, aromatics , spices - specially the pepper , besides cotton.
4. As regards the Gemstones , Muzris acted as the collecting and clearing point . The garnets and quartz came from Arikamedu region ( on the East coast of south India), the pearls were from Gulf of Mannar, while lapis lazuli beads were from Kodumanal in the neighboring region. The other stones included diamonds , agate, beryl’s , citrines etc. Please check the following links that carry abundant details on the Gem trade:

5. An indication of the importance of Muziris as a place for finalizing business deals by Roman traders was brought to light by L . Casson , a scholar, in his paper” New light on marine loans” .He mentioned about a papyrus (called P. Vindob. G 40822 -for identification purposes ), discovered during the year 1985 in Vienna , which sets out the details of a maritime loan agreement between a ship owner - possibly of the Hermapollon mentioned on the verso of the papyrus - and a merchant using the ship as security. The document suggests that the loan arrangement was agreed to while the parties were in Muziris (though possibly signed on arrival at the Red Sea), indicating a rather active Roman merchant colony on the Kerala coast (
6.The heightened trade between Greece/Egypt and India came as a culmination of the trade relations that existed between India and the West even centuries earlier to Christian era.
7. Historians say Muziris, might be of significance in another way too. They say Christianity may have been introduced to the sub-continent through Muziris.
8. The successful run of the Greek/Egyptian trade with India suffered a temporary setback due to the rise of a new Parthian Empire that formed a sort of barrier between the Greeks and the Indians. However ,when Rome started to absorb the remnants of the Empire of Alexander , Egypt came under the control of Romans. Egypt became a Roman province in 30 B.C. Thereafter, Augustus settled down and took charge of Egypt , as his personal property.
Interestingly , According to Pliny , writing in about 51AD , the use of monsoon winds to shorten the passage to /from India was made known to the Romans only in the days of Claudius .( Pliny, N. H., 8, 101, 86). This development , therefore , must have come around 51 AD. There was , therefore , a long period of lull in the Egypt-India trade after 34BC.
9. The Roman trade with India , through Egypt, began in earnestness in the first century AD. Muziris then became an important Romans' trading centre. The Rome/Egypt/India trade lasted famously until about sixth century.
10. Then suddenly and mysteriously, Muziris went off the radar. It was not mentioned again for a very long time. Dr Roberta Tomber of BritishMuseum said.
"What is interesting is that in the 6th Century, a Greek writer, writing about the
Indian Ocean, wrote that the Malabar coast was still a thriving centre for the export of pepper - but he doesn't mention Muziris”.
No one has a clue how Muziris disappeared so completely.

1.BBC News in its edition of 11 June 2006 , reported an archeological investigation by two archaeologists - KP Shajan and V Selvakumar - has placed the ancient port as having existed where the small town of Pattanam now stands, on India's south-west Malabar coast. The team believes Pattanam as the place where Muziris once stood. Until recently, the best guesses for the location of Muziris centered on the mouth of the PeriyarRiver, at a place called Kodungallor - but now the evidence suggests that Pattanam is the real location of Muziris.
BBC NEWS | South Asia | Search for India's ancient city


2. Pattanam is a small town some 12 km south of the Periyar river mouth (present day Kodungallur) , in Kerala state. The artifacts recovered from the excavation site include amphora (holding vessels) of Roman make and Yemenese, Mesopotamian, and West Asian ones too, indicating that Pattanam had trade not only with
Rome but also with places in the Persian Gulf. The other artifacts recovered include pottery shards, beads, Roman copper coins and ancient wine bottles.
The Hindu : Hunting for Muziris
3.There is no doubt that Pattanam was a major port and was important to the Indo-Roman trade But more collaborative evidence is needed to support the view that Pattanam was indeed Muziris. Tracing an ancient trading route - KERALA - The Hindu
4. The remote sensing data revealed that a river close to Pattanam had changed its course .The port may have been buried due to earthquakes or floods. This may perhaps explain the disappearance of the Muziris port. However, there are no definite answers yet.
BBC NEWS | South Asia | Search for India's ancient city
5. Interestingly, while the excavations at Muziris are on, another set of archeologists from UCLA and
University of Delaware have excavated Berenike, a long-abandoned Egyptian port on the Red Sea near the border with Sudan. Theteam has uncovered the largest array of ancient Indian goods ever found along the Red Sea, including the largest single cache of black pepper from antiquity - 16 pounds - ever excavated in the former Roman Empire.
Dr. Willeke Wendrich, an archaeologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the research showed that the maritime trade route between India and Egypt in antiquity appeared to be even more productive and lasted longer than scholars had thought.
In addition
, it was not an overwhelmingly Roman enterprise, as had been generally assumed. The researchers said artifacts at the site indicated that the ships might have been built in India and were probably crewed by Indians.
These again confirm the trade relations that existed between ancient Rome/Egypt and India
Jul 2014
"From those land routes at least in the time of Augustus several Indian embassies reached Rome. At least four such embassies are mentioned in the Latin literature, namely 1) the embassy from Puru country (the territory between the Jhelum and Beas) took with it to Rome serpents, monals, tigers and a letter written in Greek language, 2) the embassy from Broach was accompanied by a Buddhist monk named Germanos, 3) an embassy from the Chera country. It was reported in Rome that at Muziris (near Cranganore) was built a temple in honour of Augustus and 4) and embassy from the Paṇḍya country (Pandya Kingdom) brought with it precious stones, pearls and an elephant. We know that in the time of Augustus commercial relations between India and Rome grew but in this the balance of trade was in favour of India from the very beginning and as a result of this Roman gold poured into the country."
Jul 2014
The best archeological record of Roman presence can be found in southern India, specifically at Arikamedu.
Arikamedu was a Tamil fishing village which was formerly a major Chola port dedicated to bead making and trading with Roman traders. It flourished for centuries until the Romans left in the 5th century CE.
Various Roman artifacts, such as a large number of amphorae bearing the mark of Roman potter schools VIBII, CAMURI and ITTA, have been found at the site, supporting the view on a huge ancient trade between Rome and the ancient Tamil country of present day south India.


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