<< Back to Project Gallery

Antiquity Vol 82 Issue 317 September 2008

The production of settlement landscapes and social difference in Iron Age South India: surface collection and documentation at Bukkasagara and Rampuram

Peter G. Johansen

Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of the study region. Click to enlarge.


The character of settlement and residential dynamics during the South Indian Iron Age (1200-300 BC) has been a perplexing and somewhat elusive issue in South Asian archaeological research for several decades. Current understandings of the nature of Iron Age societies and their social, political and economic character is shaped largely by analyses of the mortuary record (megalithic memorial/mortuary features and complexes), almost to the complete exclusion of the archaeology of residential sites (but see A. Bauer et al. 2007; R. Bauer 2007; Sinopoli in press). This paper briefly reports on my analysis of systematic surface collections and documentation conducted at Bukkasagara and Rampuram, two Iron Age settlement sites in the Bellary and Koppal districts in the South Indian state of Karnataka (Figure 1). Here I suggest that emergent Iron Age social differences were constructed and maintained through a variety of socio-material practices inextricably bound to the production of settlement landscapes.

Site structure and settlement organisation

I employ spatial variation in the configuration of architecture and artefact attribute patterning observed in the archaeological landscapes of each settlement to suggest how social differences were manifested through the instrumental ordering of architectural spaces, ceramic consumption practices and iron production within an Iron Age settlement landscape. The results of this research demonstrate spatially extensive patterning in artefact and architecture attributes from which I have inferred a number of broad patterns in site structure, site maintenance and settlement organisation.

Iron Age settlement place production: social relations, practices and difference

Iron Age occupation at Bukkasagara (Figure 2) and Rampuram (Figure 3) was structured around one or more adjacent terraces along the lower slopes of heavily eroded granite inselberg hills. Residential places within each settlement were constructed and maintained in areas circumscribed by combinations of constructed terraces or enclosures and topographical features together with large open extramural zones flanked by trash middens. At both settlements architectural terracing physically and symbolically demarcated residential places from one another as well as from adjacent extramural zones. At least two adjacent residential zones were constructed at each site with stepped terrace tiers elevating the domestic places of some members of the community above those of others.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Map of Bukkasagara. Click to enlarge.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Map of Rampuram. Click to enlarge.

In spatially demarcated zones adjacent to residential places, other important settlement activities were performed by members of each residential community including stock maintenance, iron smithing, brick production, mortuary preparations, water capture and agriculture. The remains of a large stock enclosure with extensive deposits of ashy and vitrified dung and higher than average proportions of large, wide-mouthed jars (likely used to milk cattle) dominate the central extra-mural zone at Bukkasagara. Iron production at Bukkasagara appears to have been restricted to a small constructed terrace at the apex of a series of tiered residential terraces (Figure 4). Access to this area was possible only by ascending no less than three raised and revetted residential terrace enclosures suggesting its management by residents of the adjacent elevated terraces.

At Rampuram, the eastern architectural terrace with its bricked platforms, rock pool feature, stone circle megalith and unusually large proportion of jars suggests the production of a spatially segregated ritual place for mortuary preparations situated deep within the settlement’s central occupational zone. The E7 enclosure within the western architectural terrace at Rampuram appears to have been a specialised area for pyrotechnology which included iron smithing.

On the spatial margins of the most intensively occupied portions of each settlement, further sets of places were produced such as barrier walls designed to restrict access into the settlement, while large stone alignments elaborated formal entry routes into the occupational core of each settlement creating powerful places with important symbolical and practical consequences (Figure 5). The spatial margins of each settlement were also comprised of places produced through the building and maintaining of commemorative/memorial architectural features - places that may have held great importance in the forging and maintaining of alliances within and perhaps between social groups in each settlement community (Figure 6). Higher proportions of bowls, and specifically small and medium sized serving vessels, in high density concentrations with or without associated megaliths suggest that feasting or other non-residential commensal activities were important elements of place-making on the spatial margins of each settlement’s occupational core.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Iron working terrace at Bukkasagara.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 5
Figure 5. Southern stone enclosure wall at Rampuram.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 6
Figure 6. Dolmen structure at Bukkasagara.
Click to enlarge.


Archaeological evidence at both settlements suggests several axes of socio-material practice through which Iron Age social differences may have developed. Structural divisions in residential space and the construction of stepped and elevated boulder terraces suggest symbolic and spatial distinctions in residential places congruent with emergent community social differences. The construction of a limited number of structurally deep, elevated residential terraces and the positioning of certain ritual and technological places also points to the emergence of asymmetrical power relations with their origin in the production of the settlement landscape.

Animal husbandry and iron production at Bukkasagara, and the production of mortuary ritual and place, and the smithing and forging of iron at Rampuram were important regional and settlement scale mechanisms for the construction and maintenance of social relations and differences based on occupational specialisation and symbolic prerogatives. Evidence for feasting or reception and the memorialisation of individuals and events on the spatial margins of each site are further evidence to suggest that social relations of difference and affiliation were regularly constructed and negotiated through the production of the settlement landscape.


I would like to thank Kathleen Morrison, Carla Sinopoli and the Karnataka State Department of Archaeology, the co-directors of the EHLTC Research Project for both the opportunity to conduct this research and their continuous support and encouragement. Thanks are also due to Andrew Bauer who provided invaluable assistance in the mapping of Rampuram. Thanks to Matt Gallon, Kuenga Wangmo, Sabrina Vasta, Radhika Bauer and Andrew Bauer for their help with surface collection at Bukkasagara. I am grateful for the financial and logistical assistance of the American Institute of Indian Studies through the granting of an AIIS junior fellowship to the author in 2004-05. I would also like to thank the Archaeological Survey of India for permission to conduct this research and R. Gopal and T.S. Gangadhar, the KDAM director and deputy director, for assistance with the project.


  • BAUER, A.M., P.G. JOHANSEN & R.L. BAUER. 2007. Towards a political ecology in early South India: preliminary considerations of the socio-politics of land and animal use in the Southern Deccan, Neolithic through Early Historic periods. Asian Perspectives 46(1): 3-35.
  • BAUER, R.L. 2007. Animals in Social Life: animal use in Iron Age Southern India. Saarbruken: VDM Verlag.
  • SINOPOLI, C. In press. Late Prehistoric landscapes of the Tungabhadra corridor: recent excavations at Kadebakele (Koppal District, Karnataka), in K. Paddayya (ed.) H.D. Sankalia Centenary Volume.


  • Peter G. Johansen Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, 6303 N.W. Marine Drive, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 1Z1 (Email: pjohanse@interchange.ubc.ca)

Published as part of a group presentation

Back to Top