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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. Rs.1950. ($43/-)
by D.P. Agrawal & Manikant Shah

Iron took over stone and bronze, mainly because of its merits:

  • The first quality of iron is it’s sheer abundance. By an ‘iron catastrophe’ it probably melted and sank to the core of the Earth early in the history of this planet, becoming the planet’s dominant element.
  • On heating iron has the capacity to change crystalline form (from a body-centred cubic to a face-centred cubic lattice), which allows it to be quenched into a hard steel, endowing it with special structural and aesthetic qualities.
  • The last important quality of iron is that it accepts carbon and other materials into an interstitial solution.

Vibha Tripathi has brought out a valuable book on early iron technology of India. It stands out as a work of serious scholarship, and a much needed treatise on the early Iron Age in India.

Like the proverbial enigma of which came first – chicken or the egg, in archaeology also there is the perpetual polemics about whether early technologies spread through diffusion or there were several foci of independent origins. In India also it was assumed that many of the early technologies/innovations of copper, iron, urbanization diffused from West Asia. But Vibha Tripathi is totally against diffusion: she thinks that even in India there have been several foci of independent origins of iron technology.

The problem in India is that most of the archaeologists have been using a stamp collector’s approach and quoting the isolated instances of the occurrence of iron not only from the Chalcolithic levels but also from the Harappan sites! To get scientific answers to the problems of early iron technology we however need to study and provide answers to the following types of question.

  • If iron technology is indigenous to India what and where are the technological stages.
  • Where are the early examples of the production of the accidental iron during copper smelting.
  • Did we use meteoritic iron in India.
  • Why cast iron making was so late in India. What are the stages of steel making? Was there an ornamental stage of iron use in India too when it was valued as a precious metal.
  • What are the developmental stages of making Wootz iron and how extensive was its use.
  • In what way iron contributed to the socio-economic processes associated with the second urbanisation.
  • When does iron effectively replace bronze and stone.
  • What role Central Himalayas played in providing iron and its technology to the Ganga Valley.
  • Did early iron technology come with some Indo-Aryan groups.
  • How are the multiple foci of early Iron technology related to each other, if at all.
  • What is the absolute chronological framework of early Iron Age based on calibrated radiocarbon and TL dates. Now that AMS dating is going to be available at the Institute of Physics at Bhuvaneshwar, we should be able to date the actual iron artefacts and slags so that there is no ambiguity about relating the age of an iron artifact and the date based on charcoal.

Unfortunately, Vibha Tripathi also does not have answers to most of these crucial questions.

It was believed that whatever technological advancement was achieved was due mainly to the process of diffusion through the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. However, this is a hotly debated issue as it undermines the ingenuity of Indians, which is projected through the archeological records of their cultural advancement in the past. In view of the tendency to rely too strongly on the diffusionist approach in the Indian context, Prof. Vibha Tripathi has felt the need of a new paradigm with a multidisciplinary approach.

Prof. Vibha Tripathi, of the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archeology at Banaras Hindu University, is currently working on iron mining and metallurgy in ancient India to explore the Indian contributions to the field of science and technology. In this book, divided into eight chapters, she presents data on early iron metallurgy as practiced in India. In the first chapter of the book Introduction, Vibha Tripathi discusses the contributions of various archaeo-metallurgists who have tried to answer the question of the appearance of iron in the world. She says that the technological possibility of accidental production of iron in the existing copper or lead furnaces has opened a new line of approach to the study of occurrence of the earliest iron. Considering the extensive regional diversity in India in different cultural and traditional areas, she says that there exists a strong possibility of the origins of iron technology in India at more than one center simultaneously. She has also refuted the possibility of diffusion of metallurgy into India from West Asia by examining the borderland regions of Sialk, the Central Asian regions, Afghanistan and Swat Baluchistan.

This viewpoint of an independent and multi-centered origin of iron technology in India, based upon the evaluation of techno-cultural background, is the new paradigm introduced by Vibha Tripathi against the diffusionist viewpoint. She elaborates and substantiates her viewpoint in the rest of her book.

In the second chapter entitled, The Background- Emergence of Iron in Ancient World, Vibha Tripathi takes us on a survey in and around Mesopotamia, Central Asia, Iran and the Indian borderlands in search of the emergence of iron there. The chapter examines whether there exists the possibility of a diffusion of iron technology into India. It is suggested that iron makes its earliest appearance in West Asia around 3000 BC. when it was treated as precious as gold or silver. But iron is conspicuously absent from the Indus Valley sites. Vibha Tripathi however concedes that the word Ayas of the Rgveda has an important bearing on the issue of introduction of iron in India.

In the third chapter of her book – Origin and Dispersal of Iron in India – she constructs three broad categories in which to classify all the evidence: literary, archeological and metallurgical. She quotes Vedic literary evidence to establish the knowledge of Aryans about iron. This is shown by the frequent use of the word ayas that may or may not stand to mean iron. Vibha Tripathi has been able to demonstrate the occurrence of iron, since the end of the second millennium BC over a wide area in India, which gives strength to her argument of independent and simultaneous discovery of iron at different places in India. She also discusses the metallurgical evidence, which could have eventually led to the discovery of iron in India.

Chapters four and five which constitute the main bulk of the book are entitled, From Copper to Iron – Growth of Metallurgy and, Metals and Metallurgy of Iron in Antiquity, show the process of the discovery of Iron from other metallurgical practices used to make/extract copper, bronze or lead. The fourth chapter includes a review of the processes in different parts of the world and discusses the reasons for the adoption of iron in India. In the fifth chapter a detailed discussion of iron with various archeological finds from different regions of India has been taken up. The growth of iron technology in India has been classified under three heads. The first being, the Early Iron Age from the beginning of its appearance to the 7th- 6th BC. The second, the Middle Iron Age upto the 2nd – 1st BC. And the Late Iron Age up to the historical period. Since, iron working in India was regionally developed and as there are large variations in the furnace design from region to region, the argument has further been strengthened that discovery of iron in India was indeed independent and was achieved at different regions simultaneously.

If iron began to be produced in India as the book suggests then surely there must be enough raw material available in the vicinity of the growth centers. Vibha Tripathi in the next chapter of the book – Iron Ores in India, Their Mining and Cultural Correlation takes up the distribution of iron ores in India. Here with the aid of maps, archeological remains and literary evidence she shows the distribution of ores in the vast stretch of India, the mining practices and their relation to the cultural background. She concludes the chapter by emphasizing upon the importance of ecological factors in the human settlement patterns, thereby showing a correlation between a technology and its resource social development. The chapter – Towards the Age of Iron – discusses the readiness of the socio-economic and the political environment to adopt or adapt to the use of iron.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Vibha Tripathi reemphasizes the points she has made in the foregoing chapters of the book. Calling iron technology, or any other technology, a social product she says archeological findings and interpretations should be given a 'human face'. Therefore, besides the archeological data she has used ethnographic, linguistic, socio-economic and cultural data 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 India. She finds that the socio-economic conditions were favorable and conducive for the discovery of iron not at one particular center alone but they were so at different centers of growth in India. Vibha Tripathi thus concludes, advancing a new paradigm that the beginning of the use of Iron in India is regional with many centers of growth.

The book has been very well produced, with good quality maps, tables, pictures and diagrams. New findings have been incorporated into the book, which put the Age of Iron in South Asia in an international perspective. A very informative book, very cogently argued, with multi-disciplinary evidence marshalled in support of her inferences. A must for all interested in archaeology and history of technology in India.