Travel back in time with the Sphinx of Muziris

Intaglio, along with other excavated material, proves Pattanam had a strong Greek connection, expert says

Intaglio, along with other excavated material, proves Pattanam had a strong Greek connection, expert says

“How did you come to Pattanam?” Researcher Deepak Padmanabhan is talking about the intaglio or Sphinx seal ring that was found in 2020 during excavations at Pattanam (the ancient port city known as Muziris), approximately 30 km from Kochi. “We have to understand its context,” he says.

The ring was discovered as the world was battling the new coronavirus. So the little oval ring seal was locked away in a closet without much fanfare. Made of banded agate – a gemstone native to the Indian subcontinent – this finger ring was used as a seal to leave an impression on a document or sealing wax.

After two years of cross-examination of excavated materials, timelines, old maps and discussions with international historians and academics, PJ Cherian, former director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR) with the PAMA Institute for the Advancement of Archaeological Sciences Transdisciplinary, presented a paper entitled The Sphinx of She Who Flew Over the Red Sea: Artifact, Author, Agency, and Audiencewhich he co-authored with Padmanabhan of Queens University and Siddhartha Saha of Visva Bharathi University at the recent Red Sea Project X Conference in Crete (July 2022).

Professor Steven Sidebotham, Director, Berenike Site, with PAMA delegate PJ Cherian at Red Sea Conference X, 2022 in Crete | Photo Credit: PAMA

Fresh data

“During the second urbanization that started from 1000 BC with the discovery of iron in the Indian subcontinent, Pattanam became a world center connecting several port countries during the time period starting from 100 BC to 400 AD. In the last 20 years, there has been an exponential increase in data that has yielded new evidence,” says Cherian, adding that the gemstone, along with other excavated material, proves that Pattanam had a strong Greek connection. . Muziris is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman sources as well as in Sangam literature.

The ring seal was found in the backyard of a local artist named Sukumaran, by a student intern Pravitha PA, while she was sifting soil in Trench no. 65 at a depth of 115 cm.

“There is evidence of people here working with many precious stones such as agate, amethyst, beryl, carnelian, garnet, onyx, quartz and topaz. Substantial lapidary remains such as raw materials, rough scratches, small flakes, semi-finished or cast gemstone artefacts have been found in most of the 66 trenches excavated so far in Pattanam,” says Cherian.

The trench, which produced the Sphinx intaglio, also had traces of bound agate and other precious stones.

Almost 4.5 million pieces of Indian pottery and 1,41,348 pieces of non-Indian pottery have been found so far.

Sphinx signet ring

Sphinx Signet Ring | Photo Credit: PAMA

A trip to Thebes

Cherian returned to Thebes, where the Sphinx was begun, after its introduction to Crete. Described as a winged female creature with her home on Mount Cithaeron, she was sent to Thebes to devour the Thebans for failing to atone for an ancient crime,” he says, adding that the best-known tale associated with her it is that of Oedipus. The style of the pearl and the engraving technique of the ring suggest that it was created between the first and second centuries CE

Cherian points out that the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar used a signet ring with a sphinx to sign documents early in his political career. He also believes that some signet rings may have traveled with their owners or as cargo.

Evidence shows that materials such as teak wood, precious stones, glass beads, spices and bamboo mats were taken to the Mediterranean from Muziris, Cherian says, adding that he saw “tons and tons of coconut shells and bamboo mats” in Greece.

The most popular port for travelers to Muziris appears to have been Berenike, on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Cherian quotes Dr. Steven Sidebotham, director of excavations at Berenike, to suggest that South Asians inhabited Berenike.

In Pattanam, artisans used materials from India to create artifacts with images from foreign cultures. “There was a high degree of cultural mixing, it’s clear that we were very much there and they were here,” says Cherian, delighted that “the Sphinx was reborn after 2,000 years” and he made that journey back to its roots in Thebes. . .

An artist's impression of the Sphinx

An artist’s impression of the Sphinx | Photo Credit: PAMA

Three gems

The Sphinx Gem is the third scratch found so far at Pattanam, with the other two scratches – signet rings – being carved images of a running lion (2010) and Tyche or Fortuna, (2014) the Greco-Roman goddess of luck. All three gems were retrieved from the northern sector of Pattanam’s 70-hectare archaeological mound, of which only less than 1% has been excavated so far.

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