Excavations in the village of Pattanam, Kerala, have raised questions about whether the site is ‘urban’ enough to be Muziris.

Dr PJ Cherian, director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research, confirms there are few references to Muziris after the fifth century AD. It had been generally assumed that Muziris referred to the port of Kodungallur, which had been put out of commission by devastating floods in 1341 – but excavations there did not turn up anything older than the 13th century.

Travel 11 kilometres by road from Kodungallur, however, and you reach the village of Pattanam. For years, children there had been collecting beads that would rise to the surface during the monsoon season. After an initial dig in 2004, systematic excavations by Cherian and his colleagues began in 2007. Soon, he says, it was clear they had discovered a major archaeological site.

Over nine seasons of excavations, they have found Roman amphorae (for the first time on the Keralan coast), a wharf-like structure, a dug-out canoe that is approximately 2,000 years old – plus foundations, bricks and tiles, tools and artefacts made of iron, lead and copper, glass beads, gold ornaments and semi-precious stones clearly meant for export.

So, is Pattanam the site of fabled Muziris? There isn’t clinching evidence yet, but Cherian thinks it’s likely. He is also tired of questions about the Roman connection, asking: “When they excavate a Roman site in Europe, do they obsess similarly about whether it traded with India?” To him, an integral part of the excavation is what it reveals about the people who actually lived there.

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Some historians – such as Rajan Gurukkal, author of Rethinking Classical Indo-Roman Trade – have argued that Pattanam (which he believes is the location of Muziris) was likely nothing more elaborate than a colony of Mediterranean merchants, plus the inland traders and artisans who dealt with them. Gurukkal’s theory is based on the apparent absence of permanent structures, and the seeming disconnect of the materials and skills found at Pattanam with those of the wider region. He suggests the colony might even have been seasonal, inhabited only when ships arrived for trade.

Such a debate comes down to what is meant by a city or urban settlement. According to Cherian, “Urban is a complicated word – to me, it means ‘organised’, ‘thought out’, ‘planned’.” And he sees evidence of this in Pattanam: “It was certainly a city, but of its time.”