CISA3 Archaeologist to Carry On Research Into Rare Bronze-Casting Method

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

San Diego, CA, July 7, 2008 -- As the fifth largest contributor to India's gross national product and one of the most urbanized states on the subcontinent, Tamil Nadu is at the forefront of India's meteoric rise in the worldwide engineering, manufacturing and electronics markets. Chennai, its capital, is known as the "Detroit of Asia" and also serves as a manufacturing hub for Cisco, Dell, Motorola, Nokia and Samsung, to name a few.

An artisan in Tamil Nadu, India, creates a bronze deity.
An artisan in Tamil Nadu, India, creates a bronze deity using the "lost wax" method.

But beyond the factories and manufacturing plants of Tamil Nadu's big cities lies the small, riverside village of Swamimalai, where a very different sort of technology has served as the basis for a flourishing economy for nearly one thousand years. Adolpho Muniz, an anthropological archaeologist for the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archeology (CISA3) at the UC San Diego branch of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) will spend the next 10 weeks in Swamimalai collecting ethnographic data about a collective of hereditary bronze-casters who continue to carry a centuries-old tradition into the 21st century.

Muniz's research is part of a larger CISA3 Archaeology effort known as the Traditional Indian Technologies project, established in 2004 by UCSD Professor and CISA3 Associate Director Tom Levy. The project is aimed at using digital technologies to create a new way of researching, recording, analyzing and partnering with traditional craftspeople in India to conserve their traditions and help artisans market their works in India and to the global community. Levy's previous ethno-archaeological work in Swamimalai -- as well as his research into Copper Age cultures in Jordan and Israel -- was the subject of Journey to the Copper Age, an exhibition that Levy guest-curated in 2007 for the San Diego Museum of Man. (Calit2 produced a video documentary, "From Holy Land to Holy Land: In Search of the Lost Wax Method", that was part of the exhibition.) Levy's research in India is also the subject of his forthcoming book, Masters of Fire, which is expected to be published this summer, and the research will also be the subject of a Calit2-sponsored exhibition at UCSD's Geisel Library from October 2008 through January 2009.

As part of CISA3's effort to document this rare form of metalworking, Muniz will spend the first week of his research trip in Chennai, where he will work with the National Folklore Support Centre to further prepare for his field work in Swamimalai. Once in the village, Muniz will conduct extensive interviews of the more than 150 members of the Icon Manufactures Co-operative Cottage Industrial Society. His 12-page questionnaire will cover everything from the history of the bronze-casting tradition to the craftsmen's family histories, some of which trace back hundreds of years.

The artisans (known in Tamil Nadu as staphathis) employ a rare bronze-casting technique called the "lost wax" method. The craft involves carving a model from beeswax, building a mold around it with clay, and then heating the mold until the wax dissolves and drains out of the mold, at which point molten bronze is poured in. Although archaeologists believe the technique originated in ancient Greece, it became popular in India from the 10th to 13th century during the age of the powerful Chola empire, which heralded a temple building boom and a growing demand for artisans who could create images of Hindu gods. Even today, many of the bronze works created by the staphathis are deities commissioned for Tamil Nadu's many temples.

Adolpho Muniz will be collecting ethnographic data in the village of Swamimalai as part of CISA3's Traditional Indian Technologies Project.
UCSD researcher Adolpho Muniz will be collecting ethnographic data in the village of Swamimalai as part of CISA3's Traditional Indian Technologies project.

Muniz says his goal in gathering kinship data is to reveal how the local collectives are organized and how the bronze-casting process works. With the help of an interpreter, Muniz will query the artisans about their role in the artistic process, their wages, and even their family life. Traditionally, Muniz says, the prestigious craft is performed by men, but he will also be asking the male artisans about their wives as part of his effort to collect a wide swath of socioeconomic data.

Perhaps most importantly, Muniz will also be gathering information to determine how this refined artistic tradition might be carried on despite Tamil Nadu's explosive rate of industrialization.

"One of the things we're looking at is how this craft is learned," he said. "Will it be passed on, or are the children actually leaving the village to work elsewhere? Is there a possibility this might be a dying art? Maybe one day it will be gone, but at least we'll have some sort of record that says how it was done."

Compiling a complete record about the "lost wax" process is also of interest to CISA3 in terms of its work in the Middle East. In places like Jordan's Cave of the Treasures, archaeologists have found relics believed to have been created using a lost-wax method -- some of the relics remarkably intact -- but Muniz says the step-by-step process of how ancient Middle Eastern bronze-workers might have created artifacts remains largely unknown.

"The lost wax method is one that we studied in the past but we never knew how anyone had done it," Muniz said. "One of the questions we've had in the past is what happens to the remains, the residues, the pieces of idols, the metals? One of the things we can learn in India is what happens during the process. In India, we see that the technology can be found locally and the materials can be found locally. It takes a craftsman to do this, but it can be done."

Once Muniz has gathered his data, CISA3 plans to build a computer kiosk, where the artisans can use a web-based questionnaire to continue to track data. The program will allow them to input data about their genealogies, workshop organization and production methods, and the database will also include videos of their workshops and digital images of metal icon products to facilitate marketing their works. While the questionnaire data will be off-line, the marketing information would be available to the public through WikiMapia, a new application and data layer that works in Google Earth.

In the meantime, Muniz, who left for Tamil Nadu June 29, says he's thrilled to be back in the field and looks forward to eating his two favorite Indian specialties: naan bread and curried potatoes.

"I'm excited about all of it, from getting to know the culture to studying the crafts," Muniz said. "That's what separates me from being a tourist: What's important to me is the chance to get up close and personal with the people."

Getting up close and personal with people and their cultural artifacts has been in Muniz's blood from early on. A Mescalero Apache, his interest in anthropology and archaeology was sparked during childhood when he would go hunting for arrowheads on his family's property in Texas and New Mexico.  He also developed a fascination with the Anasazi Indians, and especially the ruins of Mesa Verde in Colorado.

"It's an amazing place," he said. "That's what got me interested in anthropology, just walking around the ruins. I had to decide: Do I want this to be a hobby, or is it something I really want to study?

"There's a funny saying about archaeology: You don't pick it, it picks you."

Media Contacts
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

Related Links
National Folklore Support Centre
From Holy Land to Holy Land: In Search of the Lost Wax Method