Tamil Chola Bronzes and Swamimalai Legacy: Metal Sources and Archaeotechnology

Abstract

This review explores the great copper alloy image casting traditions of southern India from archaeometallurgical and ethnometallurgical perspectives. The usefulness of lead isotope ratio and compositional analysis in the finger-printing and art historical study of more than 130 early historic, Pallava, Chola, later Chola, and Vijayanagara sculptures (fifth–eighteenth centuries) is highlighted, including Nataraja, Buddha, Parvati, and Rama images made of copper, leaded bronze, brass, and gilt copper. Image casting traditions at Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu are compared with artistic treatises and with the technical examination of medieval bronzes, throwing light on continuities and changes in foundry practices. Western Indian sources could be pinpointed for a couple of medieval images from lead isotope analysis. Slag and archaeometallurgical investigations suggest the exploitation of some copper and lead-silver sources in the Andhra and Karnataka regions in the early historic Satavahana period and point to probable copper sources for the medieval images in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. The general lower iron content in southern Indian bronzes perhaps renders the proximal copper–magnetite reserves of Seruvila in Sri Lanka as a less likely source. Given the lack of lead deposits in Sri Lanka, however, the match of the lead isotope signatures of a well-known Ceylonese Buddhist Tara in British Museum with a Buddha image from Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu may underscore ties between the island nation and the southern Indian Tamil regions.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks are due to S. Desikan and S. Balasubramanian of the Government Museum, Chennai; J. Guy and N. Barnard of the Victoria and Albert Museum; R. Knox, R. Blurton, and P. Craddock of the British Museum; S. Gorakshekar, S. Mukherjee, and A. Sah of the CSVMS Museum; and R. Sthapati, N. Raghavan, R. Krishnamurthy, R. Nagaswamy, J. Marr, A. Bennett, J. Merkel, N. Seeley, I. Glover, S. Settar, G. Michel, J. Fritz, V. Dehejia, S. Ranganathan, B. Raj, N. Krishna, R. Sengupta, P. Selvakumar, K. Mudali, and B.V. Sreekantan.

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Correspondence to Sharada Srinivasan.

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Srinivasan, S. Tamil Chola Bronzes and Swamimalai Legacy: Metal Sources and Archaeotechnology. JOM 68, 2207–2221 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11837-016-1959-1

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Keywords

  • Lead Isotope
  • Copper Slag
  • Lead Isotope Ratio
  • Bronze Vessel
  • Solid Casting