Calcutta, Centuries Before Job Charnock: What Newly Excavated Finds Tell Us

Recent archaeological excavations in Dum Dum, some dating back to the first century CE, have provided further evidence of human habitation in Kolkata from centuries before the time when British administrator Job Charnock is believed to have founded the city. The excavations were carried out by the Kolkata Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) on a mound outside Clive House in March–April.

Documented history

Charnock, who worked for the East India Company, has historically been credited with founding the city in 1690 when the Company was consolidating its commercial activities in Bengal. Calcutta included the villages of Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti, which the British purchased from local owners. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, the region was under the rule of the Bengal Sultanate of the Mughals.

The view that Charnock was the founder has been challenged, and in 2003 the Calcutta High Court ruled that Charnock should not be considered the founder. He ordered the government to purge his name from all official textbooks and documents containing the history of the city’s founding.

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Based on a report by an academic committee, the court concluded that a “highly civilized society” and “an important center of commerce” had existed at the site long before Charnock established his colony. The committee discovered that a place called Kalikatah was an important religious center adjacent to the village of Kalighat with its Kali temple. The site is mentioned in Manasa Mangala (1495) by Bipradas Pipilai and Ain-I-Akbari (1596) by Abul Fazl. In 1608, Emperor Jehangir granted the jagirdari of Kalikatah to a zamindar family, known as the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family.

What was excavated

New discoveries include 12 cultural layers of habitations on virgin soil, various types of pottery belonging to various periods (Gupta, post-Gupta, Kushan, Islamic, early medieval, medieval); coins, some of which are stamped and others of copper; broken parts of terracotta figurines; copper antiques such as hairpins and iron nails; hooks, stone beads, etc. Soil samples, charcoal and pottery have been sent for scientific dating, and a report will arrive in 6-8 months.

“There is definitely a history of this place that predates the colonial era,” said Subha Majumdar, chief archaeologist, ASI Kolkata Circle, who is leading the excavations. “Even before the zamindari of Sabarna Roy Choudhury and others, the place had settlements. After a preliminary review of the finds, we can say that there was human settlement in this area dating back to the first and second centuries AD. Once we receive the report, we will be able to say clearly when the first settlement took place,” Majumdar said.

New discoveries include 12 cultural layers of dwellings on virgin soil, various types of pottery, coins, broken parts of terracotta figurines, and more.

Why Clive House

Majumdar said Clive House and the mound outside were selected for excavation because of the site’s historical significance.

In 2001, an ASI excavation at Clive House had found evidence indicating that the town may have had a history prior to the colonial era. These finds, however, were not scientifically dated. “In 2019, new excavations began. However, work has been suspended due to the pandemic. In March-April, work resumed,” Majumdar said.

Soil, charcoal and pottery samples have been sent for scientific dating, and a report will arrive in six to eight months.

Clive House, which itself stands on a mound, is one of the oldest buildings in Kolkata. Parts of it have been encroached upon. It is named after Robert Clive, the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency, who used it as a country house. Details are vague as to who built it and when: Some records mention a treaty between Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah and Robert Clive in this building on February 6 or 9, 1757.

It is close to a site called Chandraketugarh, where excavations in the 1950s and 1960s revealed an almost continuous sequence of habitations from six periods ranging from the pre-Mauryan period to the Pala period. “The house was built at a strategic location given that it was on the road to Chandraketugarh, which once thrived on settlements. And the house was on a mound, which provided a strategic view of the area. After moving in, Clive modified the building,” Majumdar said.

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