Published by EH.NET (May 2005)

S. Suresh, Symbols of Trade: Roman and Pseudo-Roman Objects Found in India. New Delhi: Manohar, 2004. 206 pp. Rupees 525 (hardback), ISBN: 81-7304-552-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Himanshu Prabha Ray, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

This book presents a survey of Roman and “pseudo-Roman” antiquities found in India, such as coins, ceramics, jewels, glassware, etc. with the objective of re-evaluating Indo-Roman contacts. The author, S. Suresh, is a post-doctoral fellow at the Sudharsanam Centre for Arts, Pudukkottai, Tamilnadu and the volume under review draws from his doctoral thesis on which he worked from 1987 to 1991. The three main chapters focus on what the author implicitly accepts, though does not clearly define, as symbols of trade, i.e. Coins, Ceramics and Other Objects and these chapters are preceded and followed by a Prologue and Epilogue. In addition, three appendices list Roman coin finds in India, Rouletted Ware finds in India and Amphorae finds in India. Thus the book is visualized primarily as a catalogue of Roman coins and supposed Roman ceramics, but even within these selective indicators of trade, the scope of the book is further restricted to India and precludes Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia or sites such as Berenike on the Red Sea coast from its ambit. Nor does the author explain the reasons for his choice of material artifacts as ‘Symbols of Trade,’ with the result that the meager database fails to address issues relating to maritime trade or Indo-Roman trade as the author defines it.

Roman coins found in India date from second/first centuries BC to the fifth century AD and there are nearly 170 recorded finds spread over 130 sites, with a concentration in the Krishna valley in Andhra and the Coimbatore region in Tamilnadu. Counter-marking with local symbols and the slashing or defacement of coins characterize Roman coins found in peninsular India and marks them apart from those found elsewhere in the world. The distribution pattern of these coins is significant, as few have been found in archaeological excavations. In contrast, Roman coins occur as hoards in peninsular India, but differently in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, where they are found in ritual Buddhist stupa deposits.

Starting with a paper by Robert Sewell in 1904, these coins have been used as indicators of Roman trade with India and the work under review is no exception. It re-states the position that Roman coins could only have reached India as a result of Roman trade and that recent finds of Republican coins indicate that this trade commenced in the late second century BC. In the first century AD the volume of trade was large and in precious goods, while from the end of first century AD it was confined to non-luxury items — hence finds of late Roman copper coins in India. There is no explanation for the concentration of Roman coins in Andhra, a region which finds only superficial mention in the first century AD Greek text, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, or the reasons for the unique distribution pattern in India. How is the presence of Roman coins in the ritual context of the Buddhist stupas to be explained?

In Chapter III the author refers to the two imported ceramics, viz. terra sigillata and amphorae, but accepts that the Rouletted and the Red Polished Wares were of local manufacture, though in the 1950s these had also been regarded as imports. Rouletted Ware shards have been found at more than one hundred sites in India and forty-six of these sites are in Andhra. This distribution pattern of the Rouletted Ware needs explanation especially since it coincides with the concentration of Roman coin finds at sites in the Krishna valley in Andhra. But no explanation is forthcoming in the book nor is the distribution pattern analyzed. Instead the discussion continues to treat Rouletted Ware as an import indicating “Romans apparently traveled in India, from the coast to the interior, crossing the rivers in canoes” (p. 93).

The interpretation of material artifacts, such as coins or ceramics, as indicators of the ethnicity of trading groups, with little discussion of either their context or changes in their use over time is problematic. Several objects found in Gujarat have been cited as evidence for Roman trade – such as amphorae fragments from several sites, Roman coins, a bronze handle from Akota now in the Baroda Museum dating to 50 -100 AD and ceramics such as the Red Polished Ware. It is significant that of the fifty-five sites where fragments of Dressel 2-4 amphorae have been found, twenty-five are in Gujarat and thirteen of these are clustered around Junagarh.

The area around Junagarh provides a fertile stretch and formed a core region for economic activity in the early period, but was also the location for royal inscriptions and religious shrines. Other find-spots of amphorae shards include coastal centers such as Dwarka, Somnathapattana, Nagara and Valabhi, among others. Sites such as Valabhi developed into political centers by the middle of the first millennium AD. In contrast, others like Somnathpattana and Dwarka were sacred pilgrim centers of great sanctity. At Somnathpattana archaeological evidence of historical settlement dates to the fourth century BC, but religious structures, such as the Hindu temple, emerge in the fifth or sixth centuries AD. Thus, clearly, ‘imports’ need to be contextualized within the parameters of patterns of distribution and consumption.

Writing in 1954, Mortimer Wheeler made a distinction between terminal trade and transit trade between India and the West based on data from Arikamedu in Tamilnadu and Begram in Afghanistan (R.E.M. Wheeler, Rome beyond the Imperial Frontiers, London: G. Bell & Sons). In the case of Arikamedu, the conclusions were based on his excavations at the site, while the information from Begram was derived from valuable articles, such as Chinese lacquer boxes, Graeco-Roman statuettes in bronze, collection of fine Roman glass, Graeco-Roman vessels of porphyry and alabaster and an extraordinary collection of plaster casts taken from metalwork discovered in two storerooms at the site. Found together with these was a hoard of superb Indian ivories, now distributed between the museums of Kabul (?) and the Guimet in Paris and extensively studied by several scholars. Thus it is intriguing that without any discussion on the nature of trade, Suresh concludes “The origin of trade coincided with the emergence, for the first time ever in south India, of a series of ‘states’ or ‘kingdoms’ each with its own distinct administrative and judicial systems” (p. 155).

In view of the discriminatory use of secondary sources, the author’s repeated statement that he is the first to catalogue coins, ceramics or other objects and that no such work has been done earlier (pages 19, 123) can at best be termed inexplicable. Contrary to assertions made in the Prologue, the objective of the book seems less to present an alternative hypothesis based on analysis of available material, but more to somehow fit the data into the current model of Indo-Roman trade as ushering in social change in south India propounded by Mortimer Wheeler in 1946 and accepted by historians. Another curious aspect is the choice of the theme itself and the author’s attempt at re-examining archaeological data with little or no training in archaeology, as a result, even the basic principle of archaeology, such as using a scale while photographing antiquities is not followed. In conclusion, when doctoral dissertations are turned into books especially after more than a decade, as is the case with the volume under review, care should be taken not only to revise the data, but also to bring it up to date with current writings.

Himanshu Prabha Ray has degrees in Archaeology, Sanskrit and Ancient Indian History and teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her books include The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994; Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean (edited with J.-F. Salles), New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1996; The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; and Archaeology as History in Early South Asia, (edited with Carla Sinopoli) New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2004.