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Unearthing Sri Lanka's Past
Prehistoric and early historic burial sites of Lanka
 
 
Sri Lanka"s North-Central and North-Western Regions are dotted with numerous burial sites that are believed to be well over 2000 years old'. These prehistoric and early historic sites have revealed two distinct burial customs, namely urn burials (where the dead were placed in huge urns and interred) and cist burials (where the ashes of the deceased were interred in large tombs hidden under the ground).
 
@ 1998 Explore Sri Lanka
 


Sri Lanka"s North-Central and North-Western Regions are dotted with numerous burial sites that are believed to be well over 2000 years old.

These sites which were discovered early this century have shed new light on the island's prehistory and early history and given rise to a number of speculations as to its origins, its peopling and so forth.

Were these ancient sites which reveal a highly developed culture peopled by a pre-Aryan population which survived the onslaught of invading Indo-Aryans from North India or were they the creation of the Aryans themselves?

Due to the limited data pertaining to the sites nothing much can be said although we can arrive at some tenable theories based on the available archaeological, anthropological, literary and epigraphic evidence.

These prehistoric and early historic sites have revealed two distinct burial customs, namely urn burials (where the dead were placed in huge urns and interred) and cist burials (where the ashes of the deceased were interred in large tombs hidden under the ground).

An extensive urn burial site has been excavated at Pomparippu about 6 km east of the North-Western coast of the island and about 32 km north of Puttalam.

Other major urn burial sites have been located at Tekkam and Karamban Kulam, both within the Vilpattu wildlife sanctuary.

The urn burials are primarily concentrated in North-Western Sri Lanka, though a solitary burial has been found as far south as Kataragama.

Cist burials however are primarily concentrated in the North-Central Province, though they have also been found in other parts of the country such as Asmadula and Yapahuva.

A major cist burial site, that at Ibbankatuva (at Talakiriyagama, about three kilometres south-west of Dambulla) has been thoroughly investigated in recent times.

Other major cist burial sites have been identified at Mamaduva, Tammenna goldella, Gurugal hinna, Divul Veva, Machchagama and Kadiraveli.

Excavations at Pomparippu

The Pomparippu burial site has aroused considerable interest ever since its discovery by A.M. Hocart during the course of his survey of the Puttalam - Mannar coast in 1923 - 24.

A number of urn burials were excavated by Raja De Silva in 1956 in the course of a detailed archaeological survey undertaken by the Department of Archaeology.

However, it were the excavations carried out in July and August 1970 by Vimala Begley, Bennet Bronson and Mohamed Mauroof as part of a project to study the pre-and proto-history of Sri Lanka undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania that revealed much of this lost culture.

According to Vimala Begley (Ancient Ceylon. 1981) indications are that the burial ground covered about 3-4 acres of land.

She estimates that the site may contain about 8000 or so burials containing the remains of 10,000 - 12,000 people.

She opines that the burial site represents a large and settled population whose habitational remains must be within a short distance of the burials, perhaps to the east towards the Galge Vihara complex, although so far no serious attempts have been made to locate the burial-related habitation area.

The excavations unearthed a total of 14 burials containing the skeletal remains of about 23 persons.

The urns (which are between 40 - 90 cm in diameter) had been placed in pits and sealed with limestone boulders.

The bones had been disarticulated before burial and it appears that the bodies were exposed to the elements for some time before interment.

Unlike the bones which were placed in pots or at the bottom of the urn, the skulls were often placed in dishes of Black-and-Red Ware.

The grave goods buried with the skeletal remains reveal a highly developed material culture.

Artefacts discovered include metal jewellery such as copper bracelets, paste beads, chert tools and in one instance, a leaf-shaped iron blade.

Some archaeologists have attempted to relate the urn burials with its characteristic Black-and-Red Ware such as those found at Pomparippu to the iron age burial complexes of South India and postulate a Dravidian origin for the culture.

However, according to Begley (1981) there exists a number of differences between the ware found at Pomparippu and the burial sites of South India, such as the absence of burnishing in the case of the local ware.

Besides, the technique of manufacturing Black-and-Red Ware has been known in various parts of the world and in different ages.

The local technique may have been the result of independent development or an adaptation from a foreign culture, perhaps neighbouring South India.

This would have taken place as a result of culture diffusion and not necessarily as a result of a common inheritance.

Unfortunately we have no means of carbon-dating the burials as no charcoal samples have turned up. The fragile condition of the bones also make them unsuitable for dating purposes.

Raja De Silva (Smithsonian Seminar on pre-and proto history of Ceylon. 1970) assigns the urn burials to C.200 B.C.- 200 A.C.

Begley (1981) suggests a late date for Pomparippu considering the choronological sequences of the South Indian graves. It is believed that the culture arrived in the coastal areas of peninsular India at a relatively late date, perhaps a few centuries before the Christian era.

Considering the fact that the culture could not have influenced Sri Lanka before it reached the coastal areas of South India from such regions as Karnataka, Begley"s suggestion in favour of a late date still holds ground.

When we take the history of the iron-using Black-and-Red Ware culture in peninsular India we find that it was a relatively recent one.

According to Agrawal and Kusumgar (1968) the culture was an intrusive one and succeeded the neolithic at Hallur (Karnataka) around 945 B.C.

This culture evidently spread from the Deccan into the fertile plains of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and survived until the early Christian era.

However, Black-and-Red ware has also been found as far north as Chirand (Bihar) and a number of Harappan sites such as Lothal and Rangpur.

Sudarshan Seneviratne (Ancient Ceylon. 1984) holds that the burial culture of North-West Sri Lanka has been influenced by the urn burial complex of the Vaigai-Tambapanni plains, the traditional land of the Pandyans.

According to the Mahavansa, an ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty compiled around the 5th century A.C. the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, the Aryan Prince Vijaya (c.6th century B.C.) espoused a Pandyan princess from Madura while his 700 followers also took wives from that country. It is possible that the urn burial practices crept into the island with this large scale immigration of people from the Pandyan Country.

A.Parpola (Studia Orientalia. 1984) has shown that the Pandyans were an Aryan dynasty that had established themselves in South India. However, the iron-using, Black-and-Red Ware culture appears to have been Dravidian. As such we may have to suppose that this culture was adopted by the Aryan Pandyans and later transferred to Sri Lanka with the commencement of trade and marital relations between the two countries.

Besides, there are valid grounds for supposing that the Pre- Aryan indigenous inhabitants of the island belonged to an Austro-Asiatic people, today represented by the Veddhas.

According to the Mahavansa, the island was inhabited by a folk known as Yakkhas (spirits) prior to the Aryan invasion of the country led by Prince Vijaya of Bengal and his 700 followers. These Yakkhas are generally identified as the ancestors of the Veddhas.

Lukacs and Kennedy (1981) hold that there is some genetic affinity between the late stone age people of Bellan-bandi palassa (who are related to the present day Veddhas) and the iron age folk of Pomparippu.

Seneviratne (1984) also draws attention to the fact that Veddha pottery-making methods closely resemble the techniques employed for manufacturing the Pomparippu ware. It is thus possible that the Pomparippu and other urnfield folk belonged to an amalgam of human races comprising such peoples as the Sinhalese, Dravidians and Ved dhas.

The proximity of the sites to the sea coast would have facilitated trade with neighbouring India thus attracting a variety of peoples and cultures from the mainland.

However, for this hypothesis to be tenable, we will still have to presume that the aboriginal Veddha folk comprised a significant, if not the major component of the iron age population, given the present state of anthropological knowledge.

These various peoples may have been later assimilated into the Sinhalese fold through the adoption of the dominant Sinhala language introduced by an Indo-Aryan, Prakrit-speaking folk from Bengal around the 6th century B.C. or perhaps even earlier.

Excavations at Ibbankatuva

Of the cist burial sites, the most thoroughly investigated so far has been at Ibbankatuva, first identified by the Archaeological Department in 1970.

As a result of a number of excavations carried out in late 1983 and early 1984 and again between 1988 - 1990, the Ibbankatuva complex may today be considered the best investigated proto-historic burial complex in the country to date. The site has been carbon-dated to a period ranging from 700 - 400 B.C.

According to Raj Somadeva, Senior Lecturer, Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology. (PGIAR) University of Kelaniya, the Ibbankatuva complex covers an area of about 1 square km and contains 42 clusters of cist tombs. He estimates that each cluster contains about 10 tombs.

Most of the excavations have been confined to one of the central clusters, namely cluster 21 which contains a total of 19 cists.

A number of tombs were found intact, with the capstones in place.

Large terra-cotta urns containing cremated remains and grave goods have been found in many of the tombs. Cremated remains have also been found within the cists as well as in the area between the cists.

Somadeva, who has been intimately connected with the excavations notes that the grave goods found included a variety of pottery, iron, copper and gold artefacts.

Bead material made of onyx, agate, carnelian, quartz glass and terra-cotta have also been found.

As Somadeva notes, the first three minerals do not occur naturally in Sri Lanka and appear to have been imported from India, indicating that the Ibbankatuva folk had established trade relations with the mainland.

Iron was evidently produced locally as iron slag has been discovered at the site.

Somadeva believes that the Ibbankatuva folk had reached a state where some sections were distinguished on a Socio-economic basis.

He points out that the largest cist burial excavated at Ibbankatuva has yielded gold and imported beads, besides a symbol inscribed on the capstone while smaller burials (moderate-sized cists) have revealed less pots than those of the larger burial as well as terra-cotta beads (probably made locally) and iron and copper.

Yet another burial has revealed none of these items, containing merely the ashes of the deceased.

Somadeva also believes that the Ibbankatuva dwellers may have engaged in agricultural activities including wet rice cultivation.

As evidence he points to the discovery of a small artificial reservoir to the east of the cemetery.

The reservoir, less than 46 metres away from the cemetery is of a crude style and evidently obtained water from rain and from the rainwater gushing down from a nearby mountain slope.

Somadeva also points out that considering the fact that there existed some level of social stratification implying a prosperous community that had surplus food production it is not unlikely that they practiced agriculture.

Further, he notes that a few husks of edible rice (oryza sativa) have been found at the site.

Somadeva connects the distinct symbols or letters incised on the capstones to the graffiti marks occuring in the Black and Red Ware pottery of the early burial complexes such as Pomparippu.

He also believes that a symbol found in one of the capstones is connected to a Brahmi letter having the phonetic value "60" found in an inscription at Kandalama, Dambulla.

He also postulates a connection between the cemetery and the rock shelter complex at Dambulla situated 3 km north-east of Ibbankatuva.

The complex which is amongst the largest of the Buddhist monastic settlements of the early historic period contains numerous lithic inscriptions in Prakrit (middle Indo-Aryan, the ancestor of the modern-day Sinhala speech) which are dateable to c. 3rd century B.C. - 1st century A.C.

It is possible that the cist burial folk were an early Aryan-speaking people, perhaps the ancestors of the present-day Sinhalese, as is suggested by the epigraphic evidence. Besides cremation was an ancient Indo-Aryan custom.

It is not known what the connection between the urnfield folk and those practicing cist burials was although the two belong to different environments " the former based largely in the coastal area and the latter primarily concentrated in the Red Earths Zone of the North Central plains " there may have existed some socio-cultural relations between the two.

The excavations so far conducted represent only a fraction of the burials found in the island. Many more need to be excavated. Others perhaps may be lying silently beneath the sands, long forgotten by man.

Progress in excavation has been slow and it may take many more years to uncover the country"s past in greater detail.

Then perhaps we would be able to get a better idea of the ethnic composition and social life as it existed in ancient Lanka

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