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Ranchamadama in Sabaragamuva Province


Advanced Hunter Gatherers or Conservative Farmers a note on the excavation of earthenware burial canoes at the village Ranchamadama in Sabaragamuva Province, Sri Lanka


An ancient burial-ground which consists of funerary canoes made of clay was excavated by the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology during the months of June and July 2007. This site lies in a village called Ranchamadama situated just about 10 km northwest of Embilipitiya town in the northwestern border of the South and Southeastern dry zone of  the country. The burial-ground was located in a valley bordered by two low-height mountain ridges of Mirisvalpota and Bandarahinna which are the foothills of RakvanaBulutota Massifs (map 1). The area is watered by two perennial streams of Andolu Oya and Halmilla Ara, tributaries of the River Walave that flows about 6km northeast to the present site. Beside, the water channels which appear during and immediately after the monsoon rains are also an important source of water for the people in the area not only for agriculture but also to meet their domestic requirements. Annual rainfall of 1000-1500mm in the area (Silva 1988) suggests an intermediate
climatic regime contrasting with the dry-arid environment (750-1000mm) in its southern hinterland and the moist condition (1500-2000mm) in the northern uplands and the northwestern lowlands. The upper basin of the river Walave is a fertile tract, which had
been dominated by the rice cultivation since the early centuries of the second half of the first millennium BCE (e.g. Bopearachchi xxxx). The probable archaeological indicator of this practice is the dense scattering of Black and Red ware (BRW) sites within the area (Somadeva et al 2007). In spite of that, the outer floodplain and the lower areas of the mountains seems to have been cultivated throughout the centuries and it was dominated by the slash and burn cultivation practice. Several BRW sites identified in the surrounding mountain tops of the present site, during the survey conducted in July 2007

suggests that the people inhabited such difficult terrains at least since the first millennium BCE. One of the probable reasons of selecting such a location by the early settlers of the area was the easily accessible mountain slopes which are favorable for dry cereal cultivation. A few undressed grind-stones (granite) discovered from a summit of one of  the mountains might propose a slightly earlier date for the earliest practice of agriculture in the area than the first millennium BCE as it is currently placed. But this is not a conclusive statement until it is confirmed through a systematic archaeological investigation in the future.

2. Archaeological setting

The archaeological sites in the surrounding macro landscape provide a justifiable spatiotemporal matrix to the cultural development in the area that the sites like the present burial-ground had played an important role. The well known mesolithic site of Bellanbandipalassa situated about 15km east and several other mesolithic occupations that could be expected from the cave sites such as Bambaragala, Diyavinna vihara and the Sankhapala vihara resemble the earliest human settlements in this part of the intermediate zone. Some caves at Diyavinna vihara had already been excavated and prehistoric food debris including a rich assemblage of faunal remains was reported (Deraniyagala 1940:361). Most of the caves mentioned above were re-used by the
Buddhist monks after circa 250 BCE as suggested by the drip-ledges and the short Brahmi inscriptions visible on their roofs.
The surface survey conducted at an urban settlement called Galpaya, discovered about 8km northeast to the present burial-ground (Somadeva et al 2006) has provided an explicit picture of the settlement continuity of the area. A chronological sequence
formulated on the basis of the comparative analysis of earthenware types observed on the surface assemblage shows a great possibility of an existence of a continuous human occupation at the site for nearly two millennia (Fig.1). The human occupation had continued there up to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE and gradually abandoned thereafter which is a common phenomenon of the settlement history of the wider area of the south and southeastern Sri Lanka (Somadeva 2006)

3. The Site

The present burial-ground is situated within the Ranchamadama Government School premises (N xxxxx Exxxxx). Burial canoes are scattered in the school courtyard, which is a mound surface elevated about 2.18 meters above the surrounding ground level. Eight
individual burials including six clay canoes and two pit-graves were excavated in the courtyard but several other burials could be inferred underneath the foundations of the school buildings constructed on the mound. A full scale non-destructive electric resistivity survey is scheduled to be conducted at the site with the help of the Physics Department of the Colombo University in June 2008.

4. Burials

The burial canoes are the structures that had been constructed using burnt clay lumps of irregular sizes. These clay lumps are cubical in their shape and bonded together utilizing a row clay paste. All these structures were planted on the limestone bedrock that is about one meter below the surface. What the architects of these burial canoes had done was firstly demarcate the ground plan of the canoe including size and the shape on the ground and then excavate the demarcated area into the bedrock down to about 40 to 50 centimeters. Then the walls had been constructed from the bottom level of the pit along its edges. This method provides a stable surface for the walls that is necessary to hold a considerable weight of the burnt clay lumps.

Each structure has an oblong shape while the width of one end is always greater than its other end. It shows similar characteristics of its shape with that of the modern day funerary casket. I infer that this setting was an intentional act that symbolized a particular
idea relating to the ritual performed in association with the cremation of the corporeal remains of deceased, which is still (a) terra incognita. A thick layer of wood charcoal found at the bottom of the canoes suggests a burning event. Perhaps it was not a violent fire but was discrete and controlled. This assumption is based on the lack of signs that shows a proliferation of heat into a greater distance.

A hole (7cm in diameter) created in one of the walls of two canoes (number 2 and 8) and a small piece of a terracotta pipe found inside canoe 2 would have been used as an air-inlet to the interior. The diameter of the air-inlet proposes a limited volume of oxygen intake is not sufficient to support a mass firing. I assumed that that was the reason that the interior surface of the canoe walls was not demonstrably affected by the fire. Another possible inference is that this air inlet might have been used as a channel to insert some aromatic substance in to the canoe during the cremation.

The climax of the ritual performance was the deposition of ash of the deceased methodically as recommended by their ideological norms. What was archaeologically observable is a dense accumulation of potsherds at the bottom with finely made microlithic blades (quartz) (fig.xxx). Those were placed inside the earthenware vessels deposited in the canoes. The number of earthenware vessels deposited varies and it seems that the variance had depended on several factors. Perhaps the availability of the interior
space of the canoe could have been the practical influence and if not the social status of  the deceased would have been decisive factor affecting the choice of the number of pots deposited.

After paying the last respects to the deceased, the canoe would have been filled. The excavation has shown the fill was a mixture of soil with a large proportion of burnt clay lumps. It provides a clue to another activity in the canoe construction. It is assumed that those burnt clay lumps are the residue of a clay roof placed on the funerary canoe at least during the time of the cremation. The upper edges of the side walls of the canoes are slightly bent inwards and it might have been the remnant characteristic of their roof. Roof was dismantled at the termination of the ritual to carryout the subsequent activities of the ritual performance followed by the cremation.

A particular direction of orientation of the canoes is not explicit. The distribution of the excavated canoes suggests that there was no intension of the builders to follow any particular direction while they were planning to build these funerary structures. This
characteristic could be an important religio-ideological dimension of the users of the

cemetery. Perhaps the directional significance imposed upon the funerary rituals in early Sri Lanka – the earliest recorded example of the west-east oriented funerary canoe was reported from Ibbankatuva megalithic cist burial in the central province dated to the 450 BCE (Bandaranayake xxxxx)- would have been a result of the influx of organized religious idea related to the major South Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, into the country principally via long-distance trade of the Indian Ocean, at least since the early part of the first millennium BCE (Paranavitana 1970).

Table 1. The orientation of six burial canoes (from north).  Degrees calculated relative to the axial line of the greater length of each structure.
Table 1. The orientation of six burial canoes (from north).
Degrees calculated relative to the axial line of the greater length of each structure.

5. Was there a hierarchy?

Burials are a rich source of information for archaeologists. Various characteristics of such, for instance, the diversity and the selection of grave goods, posture of the corpus was deposited and its orientation provided some important clues to understand the way that the ancient people had conceptualized their after life and their customs of treating different social status including power, age and gender. The salient factors reflecting diversity among the individual burial canoes in Ranchamadama are their sizes and the number of earthenware pots deposited inside each canoe. Three burial canoes that were disturbed by the treasure hunters were excluded from the analysis. The relationship between two variables of the burial canoes i.e. volume of the interior space and the number of pots deposited in each canoe show that the association between these two variables was not a random occurrence (fig.1).

The existence of the two urn burials deposited in shallow pits provide an explicit indicator of a ‘difference’ contrasting with the burial canoes. This difference would have occurred either due to difficulties to access resources and/or technology and the difference of perspective towards the dead. Two urn burials excavated show simplicity of appearance and material content, which is perhaps a passive reflection of a social difference of the community who use the burials. To carry forward this hypothesis needs
a series of absolute dates. Couple of wood charcoal samples collected from the bottom levels of the burial canoes is now being analyzing in the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleabotany in Lucknow. More data, which pertain to the hypothesis of social hierarchy,
are expected from the next excavation session scheduled to be carried out on June 2008 at the location situated about 100 meters northwest of the burial ground which has been identified as the ancient settlement of the people who used these burials.


The data retrieved during the first field season is not adequate to arrive at any conclusion about the people and the society who used these burial canoes. But the undeniable factor that the artifact association (stone implements and pottery) of the burial canoes exemplify is a new phenomenon to Sri Lankan proto historic studies. Perhaps this is the first time such an explicit material reflection emerged to signify a hitherto unknown cultural trajectory which had prevailed at least on a regional basis. It could be hypothesized that the burial canoes at Ranchamadama signify a phase of acculturation between the huntergatherers and the agricultural population in the region. Similar artifact association has been observed at the Galpaya settlement mound situated about 3 km northeast of the present site (Somadeva et al 2007). More supportive data of this hypothesis is expected from Galpaya during the excavation scheduled to be carried out there in June 2008.

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