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Museum pays tribute to the pioneer of Indian prehistory

A new museum in Ballari, Karnataka, chronicles the legacy of Robert Bruce Foote, considered a pioneer of both south Indian geology and Indian prehistory

A replica of the Nittur Asokan rock edict at the Robert Bruce Foote Museum. Photo: courtesy Ravi Korisettar

1863 proved to be a landmark year for Indian archaeology when Robert Bruce Foote discovered the first Palaeolithic stone tool—a hand axe—in Pallavaram, near Chennai. Not just that, in 1884, the geologist went on to discover the Belum caves in Andhra Pradesh, the second largest cave system in the Indian subcontinent. During his tenure, Foote built up a comprehensive collection of artefacts from his 40 years of geological and prehistoric excavations in western and southern India. And now a museum dedicated to his many discoveries has come up at Ballari, Karnataka.

The Robert Bruce Foote Sanganakallu Archaeological Museum is not just a tribute to the geologist’s many achievements, but also looks at the significance of Ballari as a historical site as well. For instance, in the 1970s, the faculties of department of history and archaeology, Karnatak University, Dharwad became the first to identify a rock edict of Asoka Maurya at Nittur in the Siruguppa Taluk of Ballari District, highlighting that it mentioned Devanampiya and Asoka together.

The museum project, led by archaeologist Ravi Korisettar, an ICHR Senior Academic Fellow, has also resulted in the halting of destructive quarrying work in the area. This was leading to indiscriminate destruction of the prehistoric sites, especially the unique ash mounds dating back to the Neolithic period at Budikanuma pass, near the Ballari Thermal Power Station. “Though the museum was opened in February 2020, the covid-19 induced lockdown put a halt to all outreach and events. So, this year, we are opening it once again. The website and the catalogue is being designed, and an archaeological landscape is being created,” says Korisettar.

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Foote’s career was marked by a series of firsts. He was successful in identifying a range of prehistoric sites in southwest Andhra Pradesh and mid-eastern Karnataka, including the districts of Ballari, Vijayanagara, Anantapur, Kurnool, Kadapa and Chitturu. His reports, records, articles and monographs were published by the Madras Government Museum in two volumes. Foote is an interesting figure for both geologists and archaeologists. He is considered as a pioneer of both south Indian geology and Indian prehistory, as he helped define the scope of both these disciplines.

Today the two-storied museum has in its storage and display a variety of cultural objects from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Iron Age periods. Photo: courtesy Ravi Korisettar
Today the two-storied museum has in its storage and display a variety of cultural objects from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Iron Age periods. Photo: courtesy Ravi Korisettar

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According to Korisettar, Foote was founder-director of the Geological Department in the former princely state of Gaekwad in Gujarat and also of the Mysore Geological Department, under the patronage of the two Maharajas. During this time, he discovered the Palaeolithic axe at Pallavaram, and also became the first to adopt the ‘Three Age system’ to organise his prehistoric finds into a culture- historic sequence. “He was the first to study the Sanganakallu Neolithic Iron Age site; he was the first to discover the Early Stone Age sites in and around Ballari-Chitradurga region; he was the first to tie up ash mounds with the Neolithic culture and assert that these were heaps of burned cow dung,” writes Korisettar in his paper about the museum. 

Not just that, he understood the archaeological potential of the coastal red sand dunes in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, paving the way for later archaeologists to understand these further. Foote also excavated the Billasurgam limestone cave in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh and documented the Pleistocene animal fauna. “His investigations in south India represent a watershed moment from where many branches of the twin-fields of prehistory and geology emanated,” writes Korisettar. 

He discovered more than 450 prehistoric sites between 1863 and 1896. In the Rayalaseema region, Foote documented more than 160 sites ranging in time from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age. “After retirement, he prepared detailed catalogues of his collections, which are now stored in the Madras Government Museum, Chennai. Till date, they are important sources of information on prehistoric sites, their nature and variety. Successive generations of archaeologists have successfully retraced his footsteps. Therefore, we thought that naming the museum at Ballari after Foote is a befitting and a monumental tribute to this great servant of India,” he adds.

Also read: How digging up the past helps us understand the present

Today the two-storied museum has in its storage and display a variety of cultural objects from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Iron Age periods. The idea is to educate children about the significant findings, and also inspire the next generation of archaeologists by providing access to the objects collected during excavations in the region. The ground floor of the museum has three sections dedicated to the African roots of humankind, the Indian subcontinent’s prehistory, the prehistory of Kalyana Karnataka, and geological resources exploited by the Neolithic communities in the Rayalaseema region. Around a sunken area, one can see replicas of human ancestors dating back to 35 lakh years, which are gifts to the museum by scholars from Cambridge University, England and the Texas A&M University, United States.

One can also see a sarcophagus burial pot in the first-floor gallery, which is one of the prized collections, attesting the emergence of the ruling class in the Early Iron Age of south India. This multi-legged, boat-shaped burial urn with a lid was excavated from near the Kudatini ash mound on Bellary-Hospet road. “Such examples are rare and are known from early Iron Age contexts in south India,” says Korisettar. This region was believed to be the largest Neolithic stone axe manufacturing site, hence a similar environment has been created in the open area besides the museum to give the visitors a sense of that period. “After a visit to the museum, a common man is expected to carry with him the story of human biological and cultural evolution,” he adds. 

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