A trip back to the proto history of Lanka

by Dr Kavan Ratnatunga

Fourteen thousand years ago with the last ice age just ending, most of the Northern hemisphere was still covered in ice, and the sea level was 120 meters below current level. Lanka was part of the continuous land mass of the Indian peninsular. Study of fossilized pollen by Dr T. R. Premathilake (PGIAr) have shown that Oats and Barley was being cultivated in the Horton plains during that era. Over next seven thousand years the earth warmed and the sea level rose to the current level and Lanka became an Island.

Recent excavations in many parts of Lanka appear to show that more than a 4000 years ago the inhabitants of the Island had a developed social structure. Over the last month I got the opportunity visit some of these sites from long before Vijaya's arrival in Lanka. .

The ancient megalithic burial site at Ibbankatuwa 3 km south of Dambulla was identified in 1970 and was excavated in the 1980's is the most accessible site. It is walking distance from the main road around 86 km on A6. The graves are made with large flat stone slabs. The site has been Carbon dated back to about 2600 years ago.

Very interesting artifacts including a beautiful bead necklace which were found in these graves are on display at the small archeology museum of the Kalaniya University. A grave made with clay used for cremation and for interment of ashes was also found at Ibbankatuwa and has now been filled in for protection.

At Rancha Madama School premises few km off A18 south of Embilipitya, a few clay graves were found and excavated by Prof Raj Somadewa (PGIAr) in 2007. It has been Carbon dated to 3300 years ago. A foundation of an ancient house was also located in the premises of the Sri Jayabodharama Vihara on the hill behind. This was reported in the news in 2009 September and has now been also dated to the same period. Stone tools, grinding stones, red and black ware and metal tools were unearthed. It is the oldest site in Lanka with metal tools and is from the transition of the Stone Age to the Agricultural Age.

When I visited the site about 3 weeks ago the excavation at the school had been refilled, with just the top of the clay graves walls exposed. A large temporary shed had been built over the site for protection. A new school building had been constructed at a distance, to be able to demolish the old building and extend the excavation. A watcher we met at the site was motivated to give site the protection it needed.

Asking directions we than travelled to the Vihara in Udaranchamadama. The foundation of the ancient house was sadly exposed and threatened by rain water washing over it from the hills behind. The temporary shed had been removed. The young monk in the Vihara was not very interested in the archeological site and probably saw it as a threat to the sanctity of the vihara he was trying to develop. The Department of Archeology, even after one year, has still not moved to Gazette and protect the foundation of this ancient house.

We next went to see the complete skeletal remains which was found in coastal village of Minie-Ethiliya in the Magampura district, laid to rest in a fetal position with his head to the North, and covered with a large quantity of shells, Excavations were done by Dr.Nimal Perera of the Archeology Department. Named Menik Hamy the skeleton was Carbon dated to 4000 years ago, he is now on displayed just as was found except for orientation, at the new Museum constructed in the Star Fort in Matara. A nice little museum which is well worth a visit the next time you pass through Matara.

Ten days later I got the opportunity to visit the current excavations being done by Prof Raj Somadewa at Haldulmulla This site is just off A4 at about 179 km on the side road towards the Haldulmulla Tamil School. It was the media publicity about Rancha Madama that prompted locals of the region who had known about this grave yard for many decades to bring this site to the attention of the PGIAr. Some of the graves had got overed by the tared road to the school which need to be removed. The site has yielded a number of clay graves of various sizes.

The skeletons of the dead were brought and laid in these clay graves after all the flesh dissolved and firewood was piled over them covered with clay and set on fire. The size of the rectangular grave was based on the number of pots with ashes of the dead that were interned in it. From just 2 in a small, to up to 30 in a large grave. From the similarity to clay graves at Rancha Madama they are expected to be from the same era.
The most spectacular find from this excavation has to be the beautiful Microlith with a triangular shape that was discovered in a small grave close to the school wall.

Even the classic site at Ibbankatuwa, which should clearly be added to the standard itinerary of a ruined cities tour, has not been sign posted, well to guide visitors to the site. It also lacks even a basic on site panel to explain it's significance, and artifacts discovered.

Similar graves have also been discovered in many other sites around Lanka. Pomparippu in Wilpattu, Gurugalhinna in Gampola, Gedige in Anuradhapura etc. The ancient proto history of lanka, the tribes of queen Kuveni, who were in the island when Vijaya landed, were clearly a mature civilization, about which we have so far studied so little, as part of our ancient culture.

A good friend of mine told me that over 40 years ago, one his friends alleged, that when he applied to the Archaeology Department for a permit to do an excavation on land owned by him in Pomparippu, he was refused with the excuse that it was not in the best interest of the nation to investigate an civilization that maybe older than Vijaya. Maybe Lankans had a psychological barrier to be proud of this older civilization. I am glad that this is no longer seen as a problem and the protohistory of Lanka is being revealed in a burst of discoveries.

Writer is currently doing a postgraduate diploma in Museology at the Post Graduate Institute of Archeology (PGIAr) of University of Kelaniya.

An edited version of this article A trip back to our proto historyBy Kavan Ratnatunga appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2010 September 19th.

See also An Excavation of a Shell-midden at Pallemalla in Southern Littoral area of Sri Lanka: Some Evidence of Prehistoric Chenier Occupation in c. 4th millennium