Review: The Age of Iron in South Asia - Legacy and Traditions. Tripathi,
Vibha. 2001. New Delhi: Aryan Books International. Pp. xvi+280; figs. 47; maps
10; half tone illustrations 62. Price Rs. 1950/- ($45).
by D.P. Agrawal
Vibha Tripathi is one of the few archaeologists who care for archaeometallurgical
studies. She has specialised in studies on early iron. It is therefore very
heartening to see her studies of several decades on iron put together in an
accessible book form.
Vibha Tripathi has divided the book into eight chapters. She emphasizes upon
an independent and indigenous discovery of iron in India, though much later
than its discovery in Anatolia in the Third Millennium BC. Refuting the diffusionist
viewpoint of the appearance of iron in India, she points out the break in the
cultural flow between the east and the west at the Irano-Afghan border.
Chapter 1 introduces the subject of Iron Age studies. It also gives a brief
survey of Iron Age problems, mainly of north India. Chapter 2 provides a global
backdrop to South Asian Iron Age. The author discusses the evidence of iron
in Mesopotamia and Anatolia where the beginning of iron technology goes back
to 3rd millennium BC and beyond. She gives tables of the iron artefacts along
with their dates found in West Asia, Greece and Crete. She also discusses the
evidence of Iron from Central Asia including such cites as Yag depe, Madhu depe
etc. She gives a very useful summary of iron sites in Iran where iron goes back
to 1300 B.C.
Moving eastwards, she discusses the evidence from the Indian borderlands: the
important discoveries of the Swat Valley, the Gandhar Grave Culture are discussed
in detail. The large number of cairn burials of Baluchistan have also been discussed.
The important sites of this region explored by Stein like Moghul Ghundai, Zangian,
Gatti, Take dap, Damba koh, Bishezarda etc have also been discussed brief. She
gives chronology and co-relation of the sites in a regional framework. She also
gives description of early Iron Age sites of Afghanistan.
The 3rd chapter deals with the origin and dispersal of iron in India. She discusses
the evidence in the three categories: literary evidence; archaeological evidence;
and metallurgical evidence. As the author is well versed in Sanskrit, she gives
a good summary of the literary evidence along with original Sanskrit quotations.
The most detailed part of the chapter, however, is on archaeological evidence.
Towards the end of this chapter she concludes that a detailed evaluation of
the literary archaeological and metallurgical data on iron technology in ancient
India is suggestive of its independent beginning in the sub-continent.
Chapter 4 deals with the technological transition from copper to iron technology.
In this chapter she deals with the following types of issue:
1. What are the types of metallic iron in the ancient world?
2. When was the earlier iron recognized?
3. Why is it that iron objects are so scarce in the early stages?
4. What were the circumstances that led to the higher production of iron?
5. Why was adaptation of iron technology in early society so slow?
In this chapter she also describes ores of iron, slag and other metallurgical
In Chapter 5 she discusses metals and metallurgy of iron in the antiquity.
It looks more like a repetition of the Chapter 4. In this chapter she describes
Iron Age in three stages: early, middle and late. She again discusses in this
chapter literary reference to the metallurgical processes, but in greater
detail here. The most important part of this chapter is the discussion of
ethnological evidence of iron technology. In our view this is the most important
part of the book. Though India had a flourishing iron technology for a long
time it was systematically dismantled by the British in the 19th Century.
It was the tribal people who kept the traditional iron technology alive. In
fact, Gandhian thinkers like Dharampal plead for its revival. This chapter
give some tables on typological distribution of artefacts from different sites,
as also their chemical composition.
Chapter 6 is basically an inventory of iron ores and their mines and their
relationship with archaeological cultures.
Chapter 7 summarizes the evidence of the Iron Age delineating the developments
from the early Iron Age through middle stage to the late Iron Age.
Chapter 8 gives the conclusions and a bit of theoretical explanations too.
Defining iron technology, or any other technology for that matter, as a social
product she pleads that archeological findings and interpretations should be
given a 'human face'. Therefore, besides the archeological data she has used
ethnographic, linguistic, socio-economic and cultural evidence as well. In doing
so she has tried to correlate the cultural level of a people of an area with
the resources distributed over that area, to find out the use of iron in ancient
India. She finds that the socio-economic conditions were favorable and conducive
for the discovery of iron not only at one particular center in India, but they
were so at many centers. Vibha Tripathi forcefully argues that the beginning
of the use of iron in India is regional, with many independent centers of growth.
The author gives an exhaustive bibliography. On the whole it's a very useful
book and perhaps the only book of its kind on early Iron Age in India written
by a competent archaeologist who has a sound background of Sanskrit, and who
has also worked with metallurgists for a long time to learn the nitty-gritty
of iron metallurgy. It would have been desirable to organise the data and the
themes in a more rational way to avoid the duplications among different chapters.
On the whole, it's a valuable book not only for archaeologists but also for
those interested in history of technology in India.
The book has an elegant get-up with a glazed cover jacket and includes maps,
tables, pictures and diagrams to illustrate her themes and arguments. New findings
have been incorporated into the book, which put the Age of Iron in South Asia
in an global perspective. An informative volume that may be used as a source
book, as well as an interesting read on Indian archaeometallurgy.