Pavithra P A, one of the volunteers at the excavation site in Pattanam village in Ernakulam district, discovered a small oval button in an archaeological trench in her uncle K S Sukumaran’s backyard on the 25th of April 2020. But this was no ordinary button. Close examination by the director of PAMA Institute, P J Cherian, revealed that it was a seal with the she-Sphinx engraved on it.
The she-Sphinx or the female winged Sphinx symbol is particularly interesting because it was the signet symbol on the finger ring of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, who reigned from 27 BC until his death in AD 14. Over the next 3 months, a series of exchanges with experts across the globe, including Dr Giulia Rocca, who teaches archaeology and history of Greek and Roman art at the Tor Vergata University of Rome, confirmed Cherian’s hunch; this 1.2 cm banded agate was part of a seal ring.
The Sphinx is considered to be the biggest find in the latest round of excavations; there have been 10 excavations since 2007. What makes this find so special? For quite some time now, archaeologists have been trying to pinpoint the location of Muziris – the legendary port city said to have been the largest of the ports on the Western coast of India. This find is further evidence that Pattanam could be the Muziris.
Such seal rings were used by the Emperor, and the people who he authorised, as a stamp instead of a signature. There were thousands of such seals and this one could’ve been brought to Pattanam by merchants and traders. But there is also the possibility that the Sphinx was made at Pattanam too; the archaeologists discovered wastage of banded agate (the precious stone out of which the Sphinx was carved) and cameo blanks that hint at the presence of a lapidary workshop.
Chris Gosden, Oxford professor of European Archaeology, told the Indian Express, “These early forms of globalisation involved trade, but also the exchange of aesthetic forms, ideas and sensibilities… which may indicate that Asia and Europe have much more entangled histories than we have realised to date.”
However, the Sphinx is just another piece in the Muziris puzzle. 66 trenches have been excavated so far at Pattanam. But this makes up less than 1% of the 111 acres of the Pattanam archaeological mound. With more excavations underway, we’ll hopefully gain more insight into Muziris – the ‘Emporia of the East’.
Feature image courtesy: The Indian Express