Digging our own Grave

By Dr Kavan Ratnatunga

The highlands of Lanka has clear evidence of an ancient protohistorical Social order. The Horton Plains has evidence of Agriculture dating back to 17,000 years BP (Before Present). Further down the slopes clay canoe burial sites holds the cremated remains of individuals. which have been excavated and carbon dated back to over 1500 BC, by Prof Raj Somadeva of the Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAr).

In 2010 I had visited excavation sites at Ranchamadama near Embilipitiya and Haldummulla. When the non profit organization archaeology.lk facilitated an active participation in an actual dig, from 2011 September 2nd to 5th, it was clearly an opportunity I should not miss. Commander N. G. A. Fernando (Sri Lanka Navy retired) agreed to join this short course to learn how to do a Scientific archaeological excavation.

Being the end of the school holidays there were no available reservations on the night train and we decided to travel overnight by the Colombo-Badulla Luxury Bus. The seats in this private coach could only be reserved and paid for via a Dialog mobile, which may have been the reason seats were still available.

Leaving from the Pettah Bus Stand at 11 PM we reached Haldummulla at 3:30 AM after a smooth journey. We had booked in a small hotel called "Green Curry" and had informed them of our early arrival. When we were shown our rooms we were also informed of the lack of water after a 2 month drought. This resulted in a late start in the morning, till they managed to get some water into the tank from a reserve. We luckily had sufficient water for the rest of our stay although there was always the worry of water cutting out at the middle of a shower. We kept a 5 liter bottle of water for emergency use.

Most of the tea land in this area had been abandoned after being distributed to villages in small lots. The full excavation team of about a dozen was invited to a nearby residence for a nice lunch. They would not accept any contribution and considered it an honour that we came to their home. This great Lankan hospitality was given to us each day by different families. Chatting with them we found that each of these families were an mix of ethnic and religious affiliations, that was also reflected by the images in their residences. Clearly a true Lankan identity.

On the first day after instruction on the excavation and data recording process, we watched work being started on the primary burial site. All that was visible at first was the faint reddish outline of the top of the clay conoe on the gravel estate road. The first days careful digging did not expose any artifacts.

That evening we walked over to see a settlement on a top of a nearby hill. The site was being used as a modern cemetery. The ground had much evidence of ancient artifacts. We picked up a few pieces of broken pottery (potsherds). Prof Raj Somadeva identified a small piece of quartz as a Microlith, a tool made of clear quartz used in the protohistorical period. Microliths have been found as items placed in burials, some of which date back 30,000 years.

The next day we continued our instruction, as we watched the burial being dug deeper. That evening we visited a second burial site nearby, the scientific usefulness of which had been sadly lost. It had been previously dug by local villages expecting to find treasure, after reading reports of last years excavations. I requested Raj Somadeva permission to excavate a part of that grave to find out what had been done to it.

So on the third day we put our instruction to to practical use by starting to dig our own grave. We soon found lots of potsherds and burnt charcoal which were probably the human remains in that burial. It had clearly been just dugout and refilled when they found nothing of commercial value. At the primary site they exposed the top layer of crushed pots in which the remains had been cremated. It appears that the Skeletal remains from a grave had been brought to these burials to be cremated in these pots.

That afternoon we walked past last years excavation site. Dated to over 1500 BC, it is the oldest Canoe burial in Lanka. After that excavation Prof Raj Somadeva, had refilled the site and the PGIAr had provided funds to the local authorities to protect the site, and maybe make it a tourist attraction. However nothing of the expected work had been done. That invaluable site was rapidly getting destroyed beyond any hope of recovery, rather than being showcased for both local and foreign tourists.

We next visited two ancient settlement homes which had been uncovered by Prof Raj Somadeva during the previous two weeks of excavation. It was down hill from the burial sites and had been identified by the multitude of potsherds that had been found on the surface. Lot more had been found during the excavation and had been collected to be reburied at the site when it is closed.

On the 4th day we continued digging our burial, to try reach down to the depth to which it had been previously dug by villages. We did not reach that depth. In the primary excavation the pottery was carefully recorded and removed. The cremated remains was collected for carbon dating. A slow and delicate operation.

That afternoon we visited an ancient tank, which had a more primitive construction and probably older than tanks found in the ruined cities of Lanka like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. This was the last day of our Eye opener on Archaeology excavation.

We decided to do some sight seeing and visited the Bambarakanda Falls which was almost without water because of the long drought. The flow was seen to even stop for few seconds, although not long enough to see the falls disappear. It was too late to walk to the base of the falls.

The next day we visited a site of early iron smelting, which had recently been located by Prof Raj Somadeva a few kilometer south of Haldummulla. We first visited the Soragune Devalya which had been originally built in the 1st century BC during the era of King Valagamba. It was currently being restored by the Archaeological Dept. The devalya had sold some of it's land, the forests of which were being cleared for rubber plantation. Evidence of iron smelting had been found on one of the lands, which was at 300 meters above sea level, down from 1000 meters of Haldummulla. There were lots of slugh left over from the smelting process, and potsherds. The most interesting were clay pipes with residual iron hardened within them. Probably indication of wind blown furnaces like those found some years ago at Samanalawewa, which is only about 12 km west of this site.

Returning back to check out of our Hotel, we were in for a different kind of surprise. The hotel did not accept credit cards. There are no major retail stores which accepted them either. The Bank of Ceylon and Peoples Bank Branches could not even give a Cash advance. There is no ATM. The nearest ATM is 15 km away in Haputale. Back in 1870 the Oriental Bank Corporation Branch at Haldummulla issued currency notes. The only other cities to do so were Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Jaffna, NuwaraEliya and Badulla. However with many of the tea plantations no-longer active, Haldummulla is now financially unconnected to the modern world. Don't get stuck without cash to pay your Hotel Bill. Plastic is of no use.

It had been a fabulous trip to Haldummulla where we were able to reconnect with our past, and if you don't take your laptop with Internet dongle you can also disconnect from the modern world as well.

Faint outline of ancient clay canoe burial site on estate road.

Prof Raj Somadeva explains the excavation, while neighbourhood kids watch.

Prof Raj Somadeva at excavated clay canoe with layer of cremation pots.

Digging our own grave.

The excavated foundation of an ancient settlement.

Part of Clay pipe with residual iron hardened within it.

An edited version of this article Digging our own graveBy Kavan Ratnatunga appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2011 September 18th.