origins of Iron-working in India:
New evidence from the
Central Ganga Plain and the Eastern Vindhyas
By Rakesh Tewari
U.P. State Archaeological Department, Roshan-ud-daula
Kaisarbagh, Lucknow 226 001 (U.P.) India (Email:
Recent excavations in Uttar Pradesh have turned up iron artefacts,
furnaces, tuyeres and slag in layers radiocarbon dated between
c. BCE 1800 and 1000. This raises again the question of whether
iron working was brought in to India during supposed immigrations
of the second millennium BCE, or developed independently.
date and origin of the introduction of iron artefacts and iron
working into India has remained a much debated research problem,
not unconnected with the equally debatable question of its association
with the supposed arrival, in the second millennium BCE, of immigrants
from the west, as often suggested on the basis of the Rigveda.
Around the middle of the last century, iron-working origins in
India were dated to c. 700-600 BCE (Gordon 1950; Wheeler 1959).
Subsequently, a combination of an association with Painted Grey
Ware (PGW) and the advent of radiocarbon dating began to push
this date back towards the second millennium BCE, a period which
had in fact favoured by some scholars earlier in the early twentieth
century (Chakrabarti 1992: 10-12).
the radiocarbon dates for the iron bearing deposits at Ataranjikhera
in Uttar Pradesh (Table 1) and Hallur in Karnataka, and stratigraphic
position of iron in the lower levels mainly at Kausambi near Allahabad,
Jakhera in district Etah in the Ganga Valley, and Nagda and Eran
in central India, dates around 1000 BCE were suggested (Subramanyam
1964; Banarjee 1965; Chakrabarti 1974; Nagarajarao 1974). At the
same time Chakrabarti (1974: 354) challenged the view of a western
origin, stating “there is no logical basis to connect the
beginning of iron in India with any diffusion from the west, from
Iran and beyond”, and further (1976: 122) “that India
was a separate and possibly independent centre of manufacture
of early iron.”
then there has been fresh evidence for even earlier iron-working
in India. Technical studies on materials dated c. 1000 BCE at Komaranhalli
(Karnataka) showed that the smiths of this site could deal with
large artefacts, implying that they had already been experimenting
for centuries (Agrawal et al. 1985: 228-29). Sahi (1979: 366)
drew attention to the presence of iron in Chalcolithic deposits
at Ahar, and suggested that “the date of the beginning of
iron smelting in India may well be placed as early as the sixteenth
century BCE” and “by about the early decade of thirteenth
century BCE iron
smelting was definitely known in India on a bigger scale”.
On the basis of four radiocarbon measurements, ranging between
3790 + 110 BP and 3570 + 100 BP, available for the Megalithic
period (without iron) Sharma (1992: 64, 67) has proposed a range
of 1550-1300 BCE (uncalibrated) for the subsequent iron bearing
period at Gufkral (Jammu & Kashmir).
the basis of this evidence a date of around 1300/1200 BCE has been
suggested for the beginning of iron in India and c. 800 BCE for
the mid Ganga Valley (Allchin & Allchin 1982: 345; Prakash
& Tripathi 1986: 568; Gaur 1997: 240). Chakrabarti (1992:
68, 164; 1999: 333) has observed that at Ahar it would be the
first quarter of the second millennium BCE and in Malwa soon after
the middle of the second millennium BCE. However, the early dates
for iron at Ahar are refuted on the grounds of uncertain stratigraphy
(Gaur 1997: 244). As far as Komaranhalli is concerned, it is stated
that the TL dates have large errors and hence uncertain (Agrawala
2000: 197, 200).
1. Dates* for early iron-use from Indian sites
* These dates are calibrated by Dr B. Sekar, BSIP, Lucknow. References
for datasets used: Stuiver, et al. 1998a. 537
recently, early contexts containing iron at Jhusi, located on
the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna in district Allahabad,
have been dated to 1107-844 cal BCE (Tewari et al. 2000: 93). Komaranhalli
(Karnataka) has given TL dates in the twelfth – fifteenth
while the radiocarbon dates for early Iron Age sites of Veerapuram
and Ramapuram (Andhra Pradesh) are sixteenth – eleventh
century cal BCE (Table 1) (Deo 1991: 193; Moorti 1994: 122-23)
while in Vidarbha region (Maharastra), contexts containing iron
have given radiocarbon dates between the fourteenth and tenth
centuries cal BCE (Table 1).
Findings in Uttar Pradesh
paper briefly reports the results of some recent excavations conducted
by the Uttar Pradesh State Archaeological Department under the
leadership of the present author and their implications for understanding
the beginning of iron-working in the Central Ganga Plain and the
adjacent part of the Vindhyas.
showing locations of the Early Iron Age sites in the Central Ganga
Plain, the Eastern Vindhyas, and different regions of India.
black-and-red ware shards, from early iron bearing deposits
of Period II, Raja Nala-ka-tila, Dist. Sonbhadra.
further implications in defining the beginning of iron in the
as a whole. The excavated sites are Raja Nala-ka-tila (199698),
Malhar (1998-99), Dadupur (1999-2001) and Lahuradewa or Lohradewa
(2001-2002) (Figure 1) Raja Nala-ka-tila (Lat. 24°41’
55” N.; Log. 83°19’ E.) is located in the upper
reaches of the Karamnasa within its loop like meander in district
Sonbhadra. The excavations revealed a sequence which has been
divided into four periods (Tewari & Research Srivastava 1997;
artefacts, from the lower and middle levels of Period II,
Raja Nala-ka-tila, Dist. Sonbhadra.
I, no metal was fund and is stratigraphically continuous into
Period II. Period III is characterised by the presence of Northern
Black Polished Ware (NBPW). Period IV is defined as a Gupta/ post
Gupta phase. Iron was found in pre-NBPW deposits (1.5 to 2.00m
thick) of Period II in association of the pottery
hitherto supposed to be the characteristics of the Chalcolithic
period, placed between early to late second millennium BCE, in
the area concerned.
The main associated
ceramic industries were plain and painted black-and-red black
slipped and red wares, in forms which included footed bowl, legged
bowl with perforated base, pedestal bowl and button-based goblet.
Some sherds also showed cord impressions. Evidence for iron-working
included slag and iron artefacts such as a nail, arrowhead, knife
and a chisel Radiocarbon dates for the iron bearing deposits range
between 1400 and 800 cal BCE.
Table 2. New 14C dates for early iron-use from the Ganga Plain
and the Eastern Vindhyas
* These dates are calibrated by Dr B. Sekar, BSIP, Lucknow. References
for datasets used: Stuiver, et al. 1998a.
the date for the introduction of iron in the middle and lower
Ganga Valley was being considered as c. 800 BCE (above), its appearance
in c. 1400/1300 cal BCE at Raja Nala-ka-tila posed new questions.
Realising that this should not be the only site with such early
evidence and that there should be examples of experimental iron-smelting
which were earlier still, we started a new search. These efforts
were rewarded in locating a potential site near a village called
artefacts, from the lower and middle levels of Period II,
Malhar, Dist. Chandauli.
(district Chandauli; Lat. 24°59’ 16” N.; Long.
83°15’ 46” E.) is on the bank of the Karamnasa
which at this point flows through a rocky, haematite-rich terrain
before joining the Ganga near Banaras. The excavations carried
out at this site also revealed a sequence of four periods: defined
as Period I: Pre Iron; Period II: Early Iron; Period III: NBPW;
Period IV: BCE 200 to 300 AD (Tewari et al. 2000: 69-98). There
is no stratigraphic interval between the layers of Period I and
Period II. Iron is present in all the layers of Period II,and
identified finds include a nail, clamp, spear-head, arrow-head,
awl, knife, bangle, sickle and plough share. As well as iron slag,
there were tuyeres and several elongated clay structures, with
a burnt internal surface. The ceramic industries of this period
are represented by mainly red, black-and-red, black slipped, and
grey wares. Red ware and black-and-red ware sherds bearing cord
impressions on their exterior were found in greater number in
the lower levels. The presence of the coarse variety of corded
potsherds implies that the iron appeared earlier here than in
Period II at Raja Nala-ka-tila. This assumption was endorsed by
two radiocarbon dates ranging around 1800 cal. BCE (Table 2).
cultural components of the early iron Naugarh kot suggest
that large-scale iron bearing deposits, showing corded ware
sherds, iron artefact, slag, smelting activities continued
at these sites tuyere, stone and bone artefacts, painted
and incised potsherds, for a long time. stone and terracotta
beads. Period II, Malhar, Dist. Chandauli.
area around Malhar may have been something of a centre of iron
production. A small mound, of a kind known locally as lohsan or
lohsanwa, about 500m south to the main site of Malhar, which looks
like a heap of iron slag, on excavation revealed two damaged clay
furnaces, one of them is illustrated here as Figure 6, filled
with iron slag along with a few sherds of the red, grey, and black
slipped wares, an axe, and tuyeres. Survey revealed several lohsanwa
sites near Musakhand village, the site known as Phakkada Baba
located within the Musakhand dam, to the north-west of Malhar,
on Baba Wali Pahari (Tewari et al. 2000) and near Naugarh kot
(Singh et al. 2000: 143). Plans of damaged clay furnaces within
heaps of iron slag along with tuyeres stuck with smelted iron,
and potsherds of the grey, black slipped, NBP and red wares were
found at these sites. The pottery assemblage at Phakkada Baba
also included examples of dish or bowl-on-stand and other forms,
comparable to those from Malhar Period II, in red ware, and black-and-red
ware. This extraordinary concentration of iron-slag heaps on Baba
Wali Pahari and Naugarh kot suggests
that large-scale iron smelting continued at these sites for a
circular clay furnace, comprising iron slag and tuyeres and
other waste materials stuck with its body, exposed at lohsanwa
mound, Period II, Malhar, Dist. Chandauli.
discussed elsewhere (Tewari et al. 2000) the sites at Malhar,
the Baba Wali Pahari, and the Valley are archaeologically linked
to the area of Geruwatwa Pahar which appears to have been a major
source of iron ore. The Geruwatwa Pahar situated to the southeast
of the Baba Wali Pahari, is full of hematite. Villagers reported
(as a tradition passed down from several generations), that the
agarias (a particular tribe known for their iron smelting skills)
from Robertsganj side, used to come in this area to procure iron
by smelting the hematite. Probably hematite was being primarily
smelted at the Baba Wali Pahari and carried over to the valley
sites (situated at a distance of about 6-8 km) for secondary smelting.
The presence of tuyeres, slags, finished iron artefacts, above-mentioned
clay structures with burnt internal surfaces and arms, revealed
at Malhar, suggest a large scale activity related to manufacture
of iron tools. It appears that smelted iron was being carried
to this site to manufacture the artefacts and the clay structures
were used as the furnaces for forging purposes. Thus this part
of the Karamnasa Valley would have been a regional centre for
iron production and the Malhar a workshop-site for the manufacturing
of the iron artefacts.
corroded iron arrowhead, Period I, Dadupur, Dist. Lucknow.
(26°42’ N: 80°49’ E) is in the valley of the
Sai, a minor Gangatributary near Lucknow. It is the earliest dated
site (Tewari et al. 2002:111) between the Gomati and the Sai rivers.
The excavations at this site have revealed a sequence divided
into three periods. The cultural material of Period-I consists
of iron artefacts such as the arrowheadm shown in Figure 7. Red
ware dominates the pottery assemblage of this period, while the
black-and-red ware is nominally represented. Three radiocarbon
dates lie between the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries BCE (Table
2). Period II and III are characterised respectively by the presence
of Painted Grey Ware (PGW) and NBP ware.
(district Sant Kabir Nagar; 26°46’ N; 82°-57’E)
is in the trans-Sarayu plain, the Sarayu being a major tributary
of the Ganga. The excavations have revealed new information regarding
the early farming cultures of the Sarayupar region, including
evidence for the domestication of rice (Oryza sativa) in Period
I, radiocarbon dated to c. sixth and fifth millennium BCE. Associated
ceramics include mostly plain and corded, hand made red, and black-and-red,
besides, some grey, and black ware sherds. Period II is marked
by the appearance of copper. Pottery of the preceding period continued
and a new type of pottery, i.e. black slipped ware is added, and
the forms include pedestal bowl, and dish or bowl-on-stand. Iron
artefacts appear in Period III in the form of corroded nails and
other objects. Other components of the assemblage, however, are
the same as in Period II. A radiocarbon date obtained for this
level was thirteenth – twelfth century BCE (Tewari et al.
2002a: 57) (Table 2).
per K.S. Saraswat’s observations (pers.comm.), the carbonised
material dated from the sites mentioned above included the branches
of some trees, such as Acacia sp., Madhuca indica, Dalbergia sissoo,
Treura nudiflora, Boswellia serrata, Aegle marmelos, Syzygium
sp., Tectona grandis, Butea monosperma, Logerstroemia sp., Bambusaa
sp., etc., and the shrubs like Zixiphus sp., Capparis saparia,
Carissa opaca. The above species are in mixed content, with the
carbonised remains of leaves, stems and seeds of a number of seasonal
herbs and grasses. These tropical vegetations referred to above
have generally 60-70 yrs of average life span in case of trees
and the shrubs and herbs survive hardly from two to three months
to the maximum period of a year or two.
are other observations on the assemblages from these four sites
which might be significant. Copper has been found in a lesser
proportion in comparison to iron; presence of burnt clay chunks
bearing reed and straw marks and postholes are indicative of wattle
and daub houses and thatched huts; associated finds include mainly
bone arrowheads, terracotta, stone and steatite (?) beads; some
storage bins are dug into the surface and bases of the large earthen
storage vessels are represented at Lahuradeawa and Raja Nala-ka-tila;
a large quantity of faunal and carbonised archaeo-botanical remains
have been recovered at all the sites. As a whole the assemblage
is suggestive of well equipped and permanent settlements.
results indicate that iron using and iron working was prevalent
in the Central Ganga Plain and the Eastern Vindhyas from the early
second millennium BCE. The dates obtained so far group into three:
three dates between c. 1200-900 cal BCE, three between c. 1400-1200
cal BCE, and five between c. 1800-1500 cal BCE. The types and shapes
of the associated pottery are comparable to those to be generally
considered as the characteristics of the Chalcolithic Period and
placed in early to late second millennium BCE. Taking all this
evidence together it may be concluded that knowledge of iron smelting
and manufacturing of iron artefacts was well known in the Eastern
Vindhyas and iron had been in use in the Central Ganga Plain,
at least from the early second millennium BCE. The quantity and
types of iron artefacts, and the level of technical advancement
indicate that the introduction of iron working took place even
earlier. The beginning of the use of iron has been traditionally
associated with the eastward migration of the later Vedic people,
who are also considered as an agency which revolutionised material
culture particularly in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (Sharma
1983: 117-131). The new finds and their dates suggest that a fresh
review is needed. Further, the evidence corroborates the early
use of iron in other areas of the country, and attests that India
was indeed an independent centre for the development of the working
am thankful to Dr Rajagopalan and Dr B.Sekar, Birbal Sahni Institute
for Palaeobotany, Lucknow for the determination of 14C dates,
to Dr Sekar for the calibration of most of the 14C dates, to Dr
KS. Saraswat – a renowned archaeobotanist of the same institution
– for the observations regarding the material radiocarbon
dated, to Dr P.C. Pant and the Editor, Antiquity for the input
to improve the manuscript and to Shri Ram Gopal Mishra and Shri
Manmohan Dimri for the figures which illustrate this paper.
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of Iron Ore top