Archaeological Sources of Ancient Indian History

Beginning from the first phase of human life, evidence out of Archaeological sources has been gathered through excavation and exploration. This evidence constituted a very important source of understanding life in India during the ancient age.

The archaeological excavation commenced around with 19th century. The archaeologists such as Alexander Cunningham were at the forefront. Their efforts brought to light many hidden dimensions of life in India of ancient age.


  1. List the important archaeological sources
  2. Importance of inscriptions as Archaeological sources
  3. Significance of Coin as a source of Ancient Indian history
  4. Comparative significance
  5. Limitations of Archaeological sources
  6. Questions related to Archaeological sources

List the important archaeological sources

  1. Inscriptions 
  2. Coins
  3. Pottery
  4. Monuments
  5. Tools and implements
  6. Toys
  7. Ornaments
  8. Foodgrains
  9. Skeletons remain, etc.

Importance of inscriptions as Archaeological sources

  1. Epigraphy is the branch of knowledge that studies inscription. Beginning from age of the Harappan Civilization, a number of inscriptions discovered belonging to different periods of ancient age. These ancient inscriptions throw light on the social, cultural, economic, and religious life of people.
  2. The object used for writing inscription help in understanding the material culture of the age.
    • The Harappans use Steatite as writing material.
    • During the Mauryan age and later periods, stone and copper plates are used for writing inscription.
  3. The place of discovery of inscription helps in asserting the political boundary of the kingdom or Empire.
    • The discovery of Ashokan edicts at Kandahar indicates that Afghanistan was within Maurya Empire.
    • Similarly, the edicts found from Nepals’ terrain region indicate that Mauryan Empire extended up to the foothills of the Himalayas in the North.
  4. The inscription helps in understanding the language and script of the age.
    • Ashokan inscription informs that “Prakrit” was the most common language and “Brahmi” was the most common script during the Mauryan age.
  5. The inscription contains the name, titles, and other details of rulers. These details help in the reconstruction of early Indian history in a chronological manner.
    • The Mauryan history would have remained incomplete without the Ashokan inscription.
    • The true greatness of Samudragupta (330-380 AD) would have remained unknown without the Allahabad pillar inscription.
  6. The inscription also throws light on political and administrative Institutions and practices.
    • The Ashokan inscription contains the designations and responsibilities of various officials.
  7. Inscriptions are an important source for understanding the socio-cultural life of the ancient age.
    • The Eran inscription (510 AD) provides the first recorded reference of “Sati”.
    • Many inscriptions contain details of donations issued to temples and monasteries.
  8. The inscription also throws light on the religious life of the ancient age.
    • Ashokan inscription help in understanding the religious life of the Mauryan period.
    • The Mora (village near Mathura) inscription throws light on Bhagwatism.
  9. The inscriptions are a valuable source for understanding the economic life of the ancient age.
    • According to Lumbini’s (birthplace of Buddha) pillar edits, Emperor Ashoka reduced the rate of land revenue for this village from 1/4th to 1/8th. This village was declared free from Bhaga (ceremonial gift given by village to state).
  10. The inscription contains details of welfare measures undertaken by the State.
    • Ashokan Rock edict inform that trees were planted along roads, wells were dug and rest houses were built for benefit of travelers.
    • According to the Junagarh Rock inscription of Rudradaman (local Shaka ruler), Sudarshan Lake was built by Chandragupta Maurya and was later repaired during the reign of Ashoka.
  11. The inscription also throws light on wars and battles.
    • According to 13th major Rock edicts of Ashoka, Kalinga was conquered by him in his 9th regional year.
    • Allahabad’s inscription of Samudragupta provides a detailed description of its military achievement.

Significance of Coin as a source of Ancient Indian history

  1. The history of coinage in the Indian subcontinent commenced during the 6th century BC when the punch-marked coins begin to be issued. These early coins were irregular pieces of silver having various symbols on them.
    • The system of proper coinage comment in 2nd century BC. The Indo-greeks were the first to issue coins having the name and effigy of king picture, date, and title etc.
    • The punched marked coins were having little historical significance, but the coins gain immense historical significance after the 2nd century BC
    • Numismatic is the branch of the study of coinage. Historians like Parmeshwari Lal Gupta relied on information provided by coins in the reconstruction of early Indian history.
  2. The metals used for making coins throw light on the material culture of the ancient age.
  3. The coins were issued in gold, copper, silver, and lead, etc. by ancient rulers.
  4. The name of Kings and dates found on coin help in and chronological reconstruction of early Indian history. The chronology of Gupta rulers is almost entirely dependent on the information provided by coins.
  5. Coins also throw light on the military achievements of various rulers.
    • The Ashvamedha types of coins issued by Samudragupta inform that he was a great military conqueror.
    • The Tiger Slayer type of coins issued by Samudragupta informed us that he conquer Eastern India (Bengal). Because tigers were found only in the forest of the east.
  6. Coins also help in understanding religious ideas and beliefs.
    • Kushans coin contains various names of Indian, Iranian ladies.
    • Goddess Durga, Garuda, and peacock symbol found on Gupta coins help in understanding the religious life of the period.
  7. The location of the discovery of coins helps in understanding the territorial extent of kingdoms and Empires.
  8. The purity of coins reveals the levels of prosperity during the particular time period.
  9. The extent of coinage (number of coins discovered) throw light on the level of trade and Commerce.
    • If more coins discovered during a particular time period it becomes clear that Trade and commerce were in a developed state.
    • The paucity of coins reveals declined state of trade and Commerce.
  10. Coins also help in the understanding of language and script of the particular time period.

Comparative significance of Archaeological sources over literary sources in the reconstruction of ancient Indian history

  1. Archaeological sources are free from the challenges like extrapolation and interpolation because any attempt to change the content of an inscription or coin can be easily identified. Because of this, archaeological sources are more reliable.
  2. Literature is completely silent for more than 99% of the phase of human history in the Indian subcontinent because a number of literary sources (e.g. Puranas, Rajatarangini, etc) of any kind are not available for the pre-Vedic age (before 1500 BC).
  3. Archaeological sources provide far more accurate chronological detail when compared with literary sources because the time period of Archaeological sources can be asserted through the radiocarbon dating method which is not possible with literary sources.
  4. Archaeological sources provide in-situ (on the same spot) information. These sources reveal life as it existed in past. Because of this, the history constructed through archaeological sources is far more accurate and complete.
  5. Archaeological sources are free from personal bias found in literary work. Because sources like monuments, coins, and other artifacts provide exactly the same information as was there when these monuments were built or coins were circulated. Contents of inscriptions are also free from the personal bias of the writer because most of the instructions were issued by State.
  6. The true knowledge of progress in Science and Technology, art and architecture, etc. can be collected only through examination of Archaeological sources.
  7. Archaeological sources are free from class prejudice. These sources don’t differentiate between elite and commoner. They reveal pictures of the particular periods without distortion.
  8. The material culture of the particular period can be better comprehended through archaeological sources. These sources enable a better understanding of ground realities.
  9. Archaeological sources provide a multi-dimensional picture because the social, religious, political, economic life and etc. can be comprehended simultaneously through examinations of Archaeological sources. This is especially true when towns and cities excavated.
  10. The stratigraphic analysis is possible only in archaeological sources. This helps in understanding the comparative chronology of different phases of human life.

Limitations of Archaeological sources

  1. On many occasions, archaeological sources have to be interpreted by archaeologists/historians. Because of this, there is the possibility of misinterpretation of Archaeological evidence.
  2. Archaeological excavations produce an immense amount of data. Handling this data and preservation is a complex challenge.
  3. Archaeological excavation and Exploration are time-consuming processes. It takes long time in developing a true picture of a particular phase on basis of Archaeological evidence.

Questions related to Archaeological sources

  1. Critically examine the comparative significance of various sources of early Indian history.
  2. Archaeology speaks where literature is silent. Discuss.
  3. To what extent its correct to say that Archaeological sources and literary sources are complementary and supplementary to each other.
  4. Reconstruction of early Indian history is hardly possible without coins and inscriptions. Comment.
  5. Discuss the significance of coins and inscriptions in the reconstruction of early Indian history.

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