Archaeological Sources of Ancient History of India

Archaeological Sources of Ancient History of India

Archaeology is the discipline that deals with the methodical excavation of ancient structures in consecutive levels in order to develop an idea of the material life of the people. Material remains found during dig and investigation are submitted to a variety of exams.

Archaeological Sources of Ancient History of India

The Archaeological sources comprised of Inscriptions, Coins, Ancient Monuments, Sculptures & Paintings and Archaeological Remains.


Inscriptions supply valuable historical facts.

The study of inscriptions is called epigraphy. The study of the writings on ancient inscriptions and records is called palaeography.

Inscriptions are seen on rocks, pillars, stones, slabs, walls of buildings, and body of temples. They are also found on seals and copper plates.

We have various types of inscriptions. Some convey monarchical orders regarding administrative, religious and major decisions to the public in general. These were also used for issuing land-grants to the grantee.

Court-poets carved eulogies in such substance to make them eternal. These are usually referred to as markings and are inscribed on either granite or structure. These are known as epigraphs or edicts.

The earliest epigraphs in India are those of Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire. He released 14 edicts to spread his dhamma and policies. These were carved on boulders, such as Junagadh. (Gujarat).
Also, he put up pillars  in public locations or areas where people can easily assemble. To help people to read these commands, he, categorically, inscribed them into the language and script of common people, i.e. Brahmi (script) and Parkrit (language).

These Ashokan epigraphs (rock-edicts and pillar-edicts) tell us about Ashoka's early days, his conversion to Buddhism, his dhamma, his gruesome war with Kalinga and his remorse,  his compassionate attitude towards other religions and the same expectations from his subjects, his methods of propagation, emphasis on morality-ethics-civic sense and universal values, and so on.

The eulogistic inscriptions (Prasastis) have great political importance because they typically include the ruler's name, early career, his administrative, military, and political accomplishments, patronage etc. However, this form of writing is likely to be highly prejudiced and may exaggerate the ruler's accomplishments.

Naganika's inscription at Nangeghat which gives information of various sacrifices, performed by Satavahana King Satakarni I and his deeds

Gautami Balashri's and Yajnya Satkarani's inscription at Nasik caves which give information on the adventures of Gautamiputra Satkarni, the great Satavahana king. Kharvela's inscription at Hathigumpa tells his deeds.

Harisena's inscription (eulogy) on the pillar of Allahabad (called as 'Prayagprashasti), informing us about adventures and campaigns of Samudragupta, great Gupta emperor.

Ravikirti's eulogy at Aihole informs us about adventures of Pulkeshi II, the Chalukya king of Badami.

Several dedicative writings deal with the installation of images and the construction of temples. The Piprahwa Vase engraving recalls the dedication of the relic casket of Lord Buddha. The numerous donative markings allude to the gifts of territories and towns to educational institutions, temples, and Brahamanas.

The significant events are mentioned in commemorative inscriptions . The Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, and Yadvas, among others, have a significant number of commemorative inscriptions.

Some inscriptions have their literary value. They include both poetic and theatrical pieces. The finding of Ashoka's writings has largely established the length of his kingdom. His writings found from the Hindukush to Mysore are significant proof of his authority.

For 'land-grants,' copper-plates were typically carved and given to the person who received them. These copper-plates provide details about the socioeconomic conditions of the time. The 'Sauhagaura-copper plate,' for example, tells us about severed draughts and the steps taken by officials to address the issue of food scarcity.


The study of coins is known as numismatics.

We have knowledge about coinage in India since the sixth century BC. The earliest were crude and puch-marked silver coinage. After the stability of foreigners in India, such as Greek, Kushanas, Parthian, round, cast-coins with images of kings-Deities, their titles, and so on were appeared. Indian kingdoms produced a variety of coinage as a result of their impact. However, it was the Guptas who invented completely evolved coinage.

Coins help us to reconstruct our Ancient History through many ways such as:

  • Coins inform us about such dynasties and kings which missed place in literary sources.
  • The metal used in them informs us about ancient metallurgy.
  • Years are also inscribed on some coinage which aid in the dating of the issuers
  • These are also helpful in relative dating. In historical digs, for example, if we discover coins in one specific stratum then that stratum is relatively dated to the period of that coin. 
  • Coins reveal the economic relationships among people. The finding of northern punch-marked coinage in Deccan, for example suggested connections between north and south India. The same holds true for Roman coinage discovered in Deccan during the Satavahana era and Satavahana coins discovered in the Mediterranean world.
  • The percentage of pure metal in 'claimed metal' coinage tells us about the financial state of the granting kingdom. For example, Kushana and Gupta gold tokens are faithful to their 'claim' and have a greater percentage of gold in them, whereas later Gupta monarchs have a minimum or missing proportion of gold. This shows the growth of Indian economy since Kushanas to Gupta period and dwindling during later Gupta period.
  • Religious symbols or deity figures on coins reveal the religious views of issuing dynasties. For example, the symbols linked to Vishnu on Gupta coinage, such as Garuda-dhvaja, show their Vaishnavism belief. The titles also reveal their religious beliefs; for example, Gupta titles such as Param-vaishnava and Param-bhagavat suggest their inclination for Vaishnavism.
  • Coins also represent the king's behavior, hobbies, and so on. For example, Chandragupta II's lionslayer image represents his bravery, while Samudragupta's harp-in-hand image represents his passion of art.

Ancient Monuments

Earlier, during the Stone Age, humans took shelter in caves. However, the advent of cultivation forced them to live on the plains. Thus, homes date back to the Neolithic era. Originally, those were constructed from perishable materials such as wood and grass, so we discover nothing of that except for post-holes. The situation altered when burnt-bricks were used to build homes, public buildings, and so-called Ancient Monuments. This can be seen as early as the Chalcolithic era. Since then, India has seen changes in material as well as building kinds, both public/civic and private. These are generally categorised as Secular and Religious building.

Secular monuments

India experienced its first urbanisation during the Harappan civilisation. As a result, these towns were brimming with important public/civic buildings.

Long-wide roadways, huge bathing places, tanks, sacred sites, granaries/warehouses, threshing platforms, dock-yards, man-made harbors, sanitation arrangements such as toilets and drains, stadiums, pavilions, castles, fortifications, bastions, and so on.

During the Chalcolithic era, the location of Inamgaon also developed a huge dam and canal.

Large fortifications (Pataliputra), castles (Pataliputra), stadiums (Nagarjunkonda), flights of stairs to rivers  (Nagarjunkonda), and other structures can be found in the Maurayan and post-Mauryan periods.

The remnants of buildings also provide information on the quality of living and living conditions at the time. It also sheds light on social awareness of people. Such sources provide information on the socioeconomic situation, the role of polity, defensive strategies, water management, social awareness, and the lifestyle of the people during the relevant era.

Religious Monuments

Religious monuments first appeared during the Mauryan era. It all began with the Ajivakas caves (in the Barabar and Nagarujuni hills of Bihar), then, we find large number of Buddhist monuments in India.

The Stupas were built on the physical remnants or relics of Buddha or notable Buddhist priests. Stupas in Sanchi, Barhut (Madhya Pradesh), Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh), Pauni, Kolhapur (Maharashtra), and Sannati (Karnataka) were encircled by gorgeously decorated gate-ways (torana).

The Chaityas are Buddhist chapels/temples where Buddha was honoured in the symbolic shape of the Stupa at the conclusion of the Chaityas. Except for one at Bairat, the Chaityas were constructed in caves, such as Bhaje (the oldest), Bedasa, and Karle.

The Viharas are Buddhist monks' residences, with a big area encircled by chambers on all three sides. These, like Chaityas, were hewn in rock, for example, Viharas in Kanheri, Nasik, and Junnar. After a few centuries, and under the influence of the Mahayana religion, the stupa in Chaitya was substituted by a Buddha statue, and Chaityas were merged with Viharas. This development can be seen in Ajanta.

These Buddhist shrines provide a wealth of information on a variety of topics, including the evolution of religious thought and ideology, its spread across various regions, influences from other religions, influences on other cults, the monastery (Sangha), relationships between the monastery and traders, stylistic evolution and growth of art, and so on.

Since Gupta period, we find the beginning, growth and classicality in Hindu monuments in India.

Initially, drawing influence form Buddhist cave art, these were started in caves. The first attempt in separate-temple construction can be seen in Sanchi's modest temple No. 7. It only has two sections: garbhagriha (sanctum) and mukhamandapa. (frontal space).

Then, in Madhya Pradesh, a full temple with a 'garbhagriha-enclosed path of pradakshina-mukhmandapa at three sides and pier' appeared, packed with beautiful sculptures. The Shikhara was treated to keep it elevated hence, it got narrower to the top. As a result, when a spectator gazes at the temple, his attention moves directly up from the bottom to the top. This is known as "Nagara style."

The progress was different in the Deccan and South India. Initially, the Chalukyas worked with sTemple architecture, ranging from rock-cut temples(Badami) to separate temples (Pattadakal and Aihole).

Around the same period, the Pallavas built rock-cut shrines (the 'Ratha shrines of Mahabalipuram). The Cholas then built massive temples.

The Rashtrakutas attempted to build a magnificent templein a rock-cut style. One example of this is Kailasa temple of Ellora.

Stone blocks are commonly used in the Shikharas of temples in the Deccan and South India. As a result, the Shikhara appears step-like and short. This architectural style is known as the "Dravida style."

After the sixth and seventh centuries AD, the rise of regionalism cleared the way for the development of regional forms in temple architecture. Thus, in a brief period of time, India became a abode of temples with gorgeous sculptures on their walls and complex layouts and designs. They help us to understand the growth of religion as well as ideology of religions.

Sculptures & Paintings

Sculptures & Paintings

Sculptures have been discovered in India since the Harappan era. These were created out of variety of materials, including stone, steatite, clay, clay, lime, copper, ivory, and wood. Some of them were placed in shrines and eventually became idols or icons. Some of them were unique sculptures created for a variety of reasons, such as toys and entertainments. The bronze statues of dancer (Harappan civilization) and toys (Diamabad) during Chalcolithic period show artistic merit, as well as expertise in metallurgy of India.

The Mauryan sculptures, such as the Yakshi of Didarganj, reflect people's modern wealth and artistic sensibility.

Kanishka's statue represents the king's foreign origins and foreign-style clothing, such as high heels and overcoats.

Gupta sculptures demonstrate India's great creative achievement at the time. Sculpture science had reached precision and classicality at this point. As a result, after the Gupta era, the statues were created on the same patterns that were established during the Gupta period.

The earliest paintings can be discovered in the rock caves of Bhimbetaka (Madhya Pradesh). Mesolithic cave inhabitants created these by using colours and tools found in nature.

Then there are the beautiful paintings, particularly from Ajanta and Bagh. The world-famous Ajanta paintings teach us about religious doctrine, mental calm, decorations, outfits, foreign visitors etc.

Yhe paintings of Chola king on the walls of temples at Tamil Nadu, display the concept of 'divine kingship' of Chola polity.

Archaeological Remains

Archaeological Remains

People settle, they live, they build institutions and tphysical structure, and they eventually leave the place in some unfavourable condition. Unintentionally, the place becomes abandoned with material remnants that people have left behind. Then, due to natural factors such as wind, soil, and rain, a heap of soil gets accumulated on that place.

These mounds were discovered during a dig by a group of researchers known as archaeologists. Archaeologists discovered the hidden history of that particular community through excavation.


Pottery was the basic tools of the ordinary people from Protohistory to the Early Medieval era. The pottery consisted of different objects such as bowls, plates, pots, etc. It should be mentioned that pottery differs depending on the society that produced it.

The distinction is found in shapes, surface treatment (fabric, color, motifs, painting), pottery-making method, and so on. As a result, specific pottery types are attributed to specific cultures/periods. Using logic, archaeologists can age the location roughly based on these variations.

Faunal and Bones Remains

Excavations have revealed a significant number of bones or faunal remnants. These raised information on the past environment or habitat of that specific location.

Occupational Material

Agricultural tools (hoe, plough), fishing equipment (hook, net), and trade equipment (weights & measures, seals and sealing, coins) formed the occupation material. These were also created from different materials such as stone, clay, clay, metal, etc.

The Charcoal

Excavation reveals any type of burnt-organic substance. These are referred to as "charcoal." Such charcoal, in precise amounts and through scientific sampling, could be used for carbon-14 dating.