Ancient food storage system found in Swat

Published May 26, 2024
Archaeologists excavate the Butkara-I Buddhist site in Swat. — Dawn
Archaeologists excavate the Butkara-I Buddhist site in Swat. — Dawn

SWAT: Archaeologists have discovered an ancient food storage system that used gravel and sand for thermal regulation, like modern refrigeration.

Excavations at the ancient Butkara-I site on Saturday revealed that ancient people used advanced food preservation techniques of the time, including a stone-lined pit with a pot and iron ladle.

The discovery was made by a team of Pakistani and foreign archaeologists led by Dr. Elisa Iori, the deputy director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan and a teacher at the University of Erfurt, Germany.

Other team members included Dr Nasir Mehmood from the Swat Museum, Directorate of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM), and field collaborators Prof Omar Coloru from the University of Bari Italy, Moizza Elahi, a PhD candidate from the University of Toronto, Dr Mubariz Ahmed Rabbani, a PhD scholar from the University of Reading, Prof Subhani Gul from the Government Jahanzeb College Saidu Sharif, Lubna Sirajuddin, an MPhil scholar in archaeology from Hazara University, and Abid Ali, MA in archaeology from the University of Peshawar.

Pakistani, foreign archaeologists made discovery at Butkara-I site

The archaeologists said that in April 2024, more than 60 years after the excavation conducted by Domenico Faccenna, the ISMEO Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan, together with the DOAM, reopened the investigation at Butkara I, the main urban sanctuary of the ancient capital of Swat, Massaga, or Mengjieli.

While the ancient city has disappeared beneath the buildings of Mingora, its main Buddhist sanctuary continues to represent a popular destination for hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims and Pakistani and foreign tourists.

Dr. Iori said the Butkara sanctuary had paramount importance in South Asian history.

“Together with the Dharmarajika complex of Taxila and the so-called Apsidal Temple of Barikot, it is the oldest evidence of the spread of Buddhism in Pakistan, dating back to the Mauryan period (mid-late 3rd century BCE). Late antique Chinese and medieval Tibetan sources describe it as the main Buddhist pilgrimage site of ancient Uddiyana and a place of regular Buddhist festivals attracting people from all over the Buddhist countries,” she told Dawn.

She said the current excavations at Butkara focused on the surrounding sanctuary to unearth evidence of the complex urban and ritual activities carried out near the Buddhist site by the ancient residents, pilgrims, and monks over more than a millennium.

“This pilot excavation uncovered what appears to be the main access route from the ancient city to the sanctuary, lined with rooms used for the production and storage of food, drink, and other production activities,” she said.

The team leader said the fantastic feature of the food storage was its cooling and heating system, as at that time, they used proper fridges to keep the food items cool.

“Ingenious heating and cooling systems for preserving food and liquids using gravel and sand have been documented in these rooms. In one stone-lined pit, used for thermal storage, a pot with its lid and an iron ladle were found in situ,” she said.

Dr. Iori said her team also found a small hoard containing coins of Indo-Greek, Indo-Parthian, and Indo-Scythian kings in the same room.

She said in an earlier phase, one of the rooms featured a ritual context, as evidenced by the recovery of animal and female terracotta figurines, coins, censers, and precious beads in front of a niche.

“The excavation and study of materials are still the beginning. There is much work to be done before getting a clearer picture of the area’s chronology and actual functions,” she said.

Dr. Iori said the team was perhaps faced with a situation not very different from what it would find near the entrance of any modern pilgrimage site, with shops selling food, drinks, souvenirs, and offerings to deities.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2024

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