Chera, Chola, Pandya: Using Archaeological Evidence to Identify the Tamil Kingdoms of Early Historic South India

For the southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the most important documentary source for information on early South Indian culture is a body of prose poetry known as the Sangam anthology. These indigenous texts date to the first few centuries A.D. and comprise the earliest extant examples of Tamil literature. Not surprisingly, this is also the period to which can be traced the first indications of the concept of a "Tamil" identity in South India. Archaeologically, the Tamil Sangam era corresponds roughly to the late Iron Age--Early Historic period (c. 300 B.C. to A.D. 300), which represents a key stage in the development of South Indian material culture. Prevailing analyses of early Tamil society have relied heavily on the historical texts, often at the expense of critically examining the material culture from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This study examines the relationship between South Indian archaeology and history and argues that any framework for interpreting early Tamil identity must acknowledge the important qualitative differences in the ways that texts and artifacts construct and reflect ethnic identity, and that archaeologists and historians must analyze their respective data sets within the larger social, political, and economic practices of early Tamilakam.