The Information Centre of Arikamedu – An ancient port on the eastern sea coast of South India

Satellite image showing the location of Arikamedu, ©Google Earth

Arikamedu is a famous archaeological site: it was an ancient port involved in the so-called Indo-Roman trade from the 3rd c. BCE until the 3rd c. CE, with a continuity up to the medieval period. Even if the evidence of trade with Southeast Asia is scarce for the ancient period, it increases considerably during the later period, attesting that Arikamedu was also part of the Asian network.

Located on the Indian east coast, 5 kms south of Pondicherry, Arikamedu lays on the right bank of the Ariyankuppam river (Fig.1).

Fig. 1_ Map showing the archaeological site of Arikamedu location

Fig.1: Map showing the location of the archaeological site of Arikamedu © Map background from Mapswire.com

Arikamedu was re-discovered in 1937 by Gabriel Jouveau-Dubreuil who collected surface-finds antiquities, such as an oval intaglio with the bust of the Roman emperor Augustus, amphorae sherds, glass objects, beads, etc. In 1941, he convinced the Father L. Faucheux of the Missions Étrangères de Pondichéry, Mr. R. Surleau (then Director of Public Works Department of Pondicherry), and Dr. Ayappan of Madras to have the first excavations at the site conducted. Jouveau-Dubreuil was convinced that Arikamedu was one of the major trading centres of the Roman Empire. He was also among the first scholars to suggest the identification of Puducherry with Poduke, the trading port mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea and in Geographia. After these early archaeological forays, the site attracted the attention of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) from 1944 to 1948. He excavated Arimakedu in 1945 (Fig.2) and published in 1946, in the Journal of Ancient India Vol. 2, a momentous article,  which remains a reference: “Arikamedu: An Indo-Roman Trading-Station on the East Coast of India”.

Fig.2 : Excavations conducted by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1945 © After Ancient India 1946, n°2, Bulletin of the Archaeological Survey of India

Jean-Marie Casal succeeded Sir Mortimer Wheeler shortly after and undertook no less significant excavations in 1947 and 1948, focusing on a habitation quarter. His researches have been published in 1949 in a book untitled “Fouilles De Virampatnam-Arikamedu”. But the last program of excavation is definitely the most documented one. It started after a gap of nearly 40 years and spanned from 1989 to 1992. Vimala Begley and K.V. Raman were the directors of the mission and through them, several institutions were involved: the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Madras, and the École Française d’Extrême-Orient. The main objectives were to better understand the nature of maritime trade between South India and the Mediterranean basin, to study how Arikamedu functioned and what sustained its economy. The overall results and findings of these excavations were published in two volumes: “The Ancient Port of Arikamedu – New Excavations and Researches 1989-1992 Volume One” and “Volume Two”.

If all those archaeological excavations have unearthed architectural remains and a important quantity of objects, all the trenches have been refilled. Indeed, in South Asia, the archaeologists are compelled to backfill their excavations when the fieldwork is over due to the devastating effects of the monsoon and other climatic conditions, such as the extreme heat. This allows to protect the ruins. In some cases, programs of conservation and restoration can be funded over the long term in order to keep the remains visible for the general public. But these projects are very costly and can be done only for a few sites. So, if you visit Arikamedu now, you will admire only the ruins of the Seminary also known as the Mission House, built in 1771-7373 for the Jesuit missionaries by the colonial French Government of Puducherry (Fig.3).

Fig.3 : Ruins of the Mission House built for the Jesuit missionaries at Arikamedu © C. Lefrancq

Aware of this situation, the Department of Tourism, Government of Puducherry (India) set up an ambitious project: the creation of a Centre of Information, with the aim to inform the local and international public about the history of the archaeological exploration of the site of Arikamedu. The Department of Tourism and its director, M. Mansoor, are collaborating with HUDCO (Housing and Urban Development Corporation Ltd) to build the Centre of Information, close to the already existing Arts and Crafts village located in Ariyankuppam. The Department of Tourism has also invited the EFEO to coordinate and produce the scientific content of the Centre by writing all the panels, selecting illustrations and designing some pedagogical activities. Of course, the EFEO has accepted this stimulating challenge, delighted to work on a project for popularizing the fundamental research. Dominic Goodall, responsible of the EFEO Centre in Pondicherry, and Coline Lefrancq, post-doctoral researcher in the ERC project DHARMA and affiliated at the CEIAS, are the scientific coordinators for this project. For several reasons, none of the original artefacts — stored at the Puducherry Museum, depending on the Government of Puducherry, Department of Art & Culture — will be exhibited, but replicas will be made (like amphorae, ancient boats, etc., see Fig.4).

Coline Lefrancq was on a scientific mission in Pondicherry from 26th January to 28th February 2020 to work on the project. She could benefit of the help of an entire team composed of Guruprashad Aravin, Léa Maronet and Alice Baudequin (the last two having an internship at the EFEO Centre of Puducherry).  During this research stay, the team worked on the writing of some panels, on the elaboration of historical and archaeological timelines, on the study of topics like the way history is taught at school and the impact of archaeology in popular culture (with a focus on Indian culture). Sociological aspects were also integrated by interviewing different persons about their knowledge of the site (Figs.5,6), as well as ethno-archaeological aspects by documenting and recording the work of modern and local potters (Figs.7,8).

Fig.5 : The team during the interviews along the Promenade, Puducherry © C. Lefrancq

Fig.6 : Alice Baudequin interviewing inhabitants of Puducherry © C. Lefrancq

Fig.7 : The team while documenting the modern potters at the Arts and Crafts village, Ariyankuppam © C. Lefrancq

Fig.8 : Firing operations by potters, at the Arts and Crafts village, Ariyankuppam © C. Lefrancq


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