Special report: How zinc mining near Udaipur sparked a revolution

Special report: How zinc mining near Udaipur sparked a revolution

Dr Paul Craddock, Emeritus Researcher of the British Museum tells Raju Mansukhani how industrial-scale zinc mining near the Indian city of Udaipur sparked the industrial revolution in the region of Mewar, 500 years before it began in the West.

Archaeometallurgy is a very big word.

Dr Paul Craddock, one of its most renowned scholars, is a very humble man. In Udaipur recently to receive the Colonel James Tod Award from the Maharana Mewar Foundation at the picturesque City Palace, Dr Craddock shared his wisdom, his insights and explained the significance of the Zawar zinc mines in world history today:

“It would suffice to say that in India by the 12th CE, the production of zinc at Zawar was beginning on an industrial scale,” said the soft-spoken bearded researcher, adding “It would seem that the mines at Zawar were always worked predominantly for zinc, with lead recovered as a byproduct. There is no evidence that silver was ever produced, thus confirming Zawar as the earliest known zinc mine in the world.”

Dr Craddock should know best. He has spent an entire lifetime at the iconic British Museum in London devoted to conservation and scientific research. After graduating in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in 1966 he joined the Research Laboratory of the British Museum, initially as an analytical chemist. In order to increase his knowledge, he studied archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, London, and metallurgy at John Cass College, also in London.

“I would like to refer here to our report titled ‘The production of lead, silver and zinc in ancient India’ (with IC Freestone, LK Gurjar, A Middleton, L Willies). This was one of the important reports to highlight that the remains of early mining and metallurgy we have studied in India are at least as sophisticated as anything further west, and there are no parallels or analogies anywhere for the zinc smelting processes that we have uncovered in the Zawar mines near Udaipur. This was the sharp edge of technical innovation, taking place on a major scale well away from Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. We can safely say it was the start of the industrial revolution in the region of Mewar, 500 years before it begins in the West,” said Dr Craddock. With these emphatic words Dr Craddock and his colleagues have been trying to set straight the archaeometallurgical records.

Dr Craddock honoured with Colonel James Tod Award at Maharana Mewar Foundation Awards ceremony on March 10, 2019.
Dr Craddock honoured with Colonel James Tod Award at Maharana Mewar Foundation Awards ceremony on March 10, 2019.

The project: He explained, “Our project began in the 1980s between Hindustan Zinc Ltd, the British Museum, the M. S. University of Baroda, and the Peak District Mining Museum, Derbyshire to investigate the remains of early zinc production at Zawar, which lies 45 kms south of Udaipur in the Aravalli hills of Rajasthan.”

“Hindustan Zinc had previously recognised that their two other lead/zinc mines in Rajasthan, Rajpura-Dariba near Chittor and Aampura-Agucha about 40 kms south of Ajmer were also potentially of great interest, and had obtained radiocarbon dates which showed that Dariba was exploited well over 2500 years ago. After the first season’s work it was realised that these other mines were not worked for zinc, and that even at Zawar lead and possibly silver were also exploited. The lead, silver and zinc ores occur together and their exploitation is an integrated story which could not be understood in isolation.”

In the report, Dr Craddock and team stated, “The copper industry in the area has long been recognised as being of considerable antiquity, probably dating back to Harrapan times and evidence of copper smelting was, found at the settlement of Ahar near Udaipur dating to the early second millennium BCE. At Zawar, due to the different mineralisation and distinct formation, zinc smelting was developed here exclusively.”

“Already in the late 14th CE production was on a considerable scale, and perhaps it is not surprising that the first direct historic reference to Zawar dates from the 1380s CE when Rana Laksh Singh of Mewar was credited with founding the mines. Production continued on a major scale for about four centuries before ending during the wars and famine which plagued Rajasthan in the early 19th CE, and in the face of western competition. Ironically, the western technology was almost certainly derived from Zawar.”

The Maharana Mewar Foundation Annual Awards Distribution Ceremony is held each year at The City Palace, Udaipur.
The Maharana Mewar Foundation Annual Awards Distribution Ceremony is held each year at The City Palace, Udaipur.

Disseminating results: The results of the excavations at Zawar were rapidly disseminated in a conference, ‘2000 years of Zinc and Brass’, held at Bristol in Britain, which generated keen interest among participants. The proceedings edited by Paul Craddock, were published by the British Museum in 1998.

The discovery of Zinc smelting furnaces at Zawar caught the attention of Royal Society of London and Dr. Craddock and his team were invited to present its discoveries at the annual conversazione for the most significant advances in science held by the Royal Society London on 20th June 1985.

Royal Society expresses its views on the importance of Zawar: “Excavations by the British Museum, Baroda University and Hindustan Zinc Limited at Zawar, Rajasthan, have uncovered banks of intact furnaces still holding their original charge of 36 retorts per furnace. The technical sophistication and application of scientific principles are unparalleled elsewhere in the medieval period, and the elements of standardization and mass production foreshadow the Industrial Revolution. This, the earliest example of high temperature distillation operation, is almost certainly ancestral to all such operations of in use today.”

Much more scientific work, both in Britain and Mewar, was necessary before the publication in 2017 of the major monograph, ‘Early Indian Metallurgy’ reporting on the excavations and the description of the processes for producing silver and zinc that flourished in the Aravalli Hills of Mewar.

Over the years, Dr Craddock has given many lectures at meetings across Europe, America and Asia on the discoveries and published over 400 papers including several hundred on aspects of early metallurgy. He also has taught courses at higher education establishments across the world including the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur.

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