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Walking Ladder


Walking Ladder A Brief Survey Of The Development Of Cultural


The role played by the two concepts time and space in archaeological interpretation is a decisive one. Time is one of the essentials that help to order the cultures into a chronological sequence (Fagan 1991 :90). The passage of time is a reflection of the evolutionary dynamism of culture, which carries its Longue Dure’e processes and changes. Even the early stages of the development of world archaeology in the nineteenth century more or less coincided with the invention of world chronologies that were predominantly based on relative methods (vide Thomsen 1836). Time brackets generated through absolute methodologies that were introduced in the 1940s and thereafter appear as anchors which enable our nostalgic uncertainties to be placed in firm locations within the idea of cultural progress. This article attempts to survey the evolution of the concept of the ‘cultural past’ in Sri Lanka with special reference to the development of its cultural chronology.

Early phase

The development of chronology in the archaeology of Sri Lanka is a matter of multilinear progression. At the outset, colonial administrators played a pivotal role in this process. In the late nineteenth century which marks the early days of archaeology in the country, most of the archaeological activities carried out by colonial officers were exceptional. In contrast, their contribution to explaining the continuity of the cultural past of the country did not see much progress due to the absence of an explicit chronological frame of reference. The colonial theory in general, considered the subjugated local cultures as either ‘a-historical’ or otherwise as ‘deep-historical’. The former was considered to be a state of ignorance and the latter was a sassed through a perspective of having the remotest existence. Having either of these states justified a privilege of the colonists to act on modernizing colonies while legitimizing their colonial enterprise.

The colonial consciousness of Sri Lankan history was pessimistic to an extraordinary degree in its early days. This is clearly indicated by the statements made by some of the nineteenth century colonial figures which have been frequently quoted in later writings. For example, John Davy states:

The Singhalese (sic.) like the nations of Europe in the middle ages, and like the people in general of almost the whole of Asia and Africa at this instant, possess no accurate records of events, are ignorant of genuine history, and are not stifficientfy advanced to relish it. Instead of the one, they have legendary tales; and instead of (sic.) other, historical romances, which are the more complete the more remote the period is (sic.) to which they belong . (1821:293):

Besides, Robert Percival, an Irish Captain who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1796 wrote:

 … the traditions of the natives threw no light whatever on the ancient state of the island. In the traditionary (sic.) accounts which are current among the Ceylonese, we have nothing more than a mere catalogue of some of their princes, accompanied ~ a long list of high sounding titles, and some uninteresting details of their petty wars and commotions (sic.). (1803:5).

This misleading perspective was, perhaps due to their unfamiliarity with the literature of Buddhist monks who were aware of the contents maintained the tradition of the Mahavamsa ~ a chronicle of the fifth century CE which was written in the Pali language – throughout a period of more than millennia. Literate Buddhist clergy were aware of the historical past of the country at least through this source since pre- modern times. Besides, stories carried in the Mahavamsa had already been rooted in local folklore through the religio[1]cultural interaction between the Buddhist clergy and the people. Irrespective of the legendary and narrative form of the presentation of this historical literary work, it was able to provide the people with a comprehensive historical composition that contained historic individuals and events within a historical time capsule. There is a lack of direct evidence to elaborate on how pre-modern society had contracted their elements of history, but some of the scanty proof remains. For example, some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings of the Kandyan Kingdom, one from Rangiri Dambulu Viharaya in the Matale district and another from Hanguranketa Raja Maha Viharaya in the Kandy district depict the arrival of Prince Vijaya to Sri Lanka, which is one of the major historic events described in the Mahavamsa. Selection of such historic events as a theme for wider public access may suggest that there was a discourse about the identity of the nation through historic knowledge of the country at least within the literate fabric of contemporary society.

The translation of the Mahavamsa into English by William Tumour in 1836 made a tremendous impact upon the pessimistic syndrome of the colonial administrators about the history of their colony. Soon they were convinced of the significance of the Mahavamsa as a historic document which could positively contribute to reconstruct the history of the people they ruled. This is manifested by the writings of some of the nineteenth century pioneers in the studies oriental languages and culture such as Wilhelm Geiger, Rhys Davids and H. Oldenberg. Discussions based on historical chronology appeared for the first time as an offshoot of the study of the Mahavamsa. Geiger (1912) states:

 …… We have to do with a monkish tradition. The starting point of its chronological statement is the year of the Buddha’s Death Here fictions were made, building up and completing the tradition from which subsequently, with those fixed points as (sic.) framework, the chronological system was developed that (sic.) we find in the Dipavamsa and (sic.) Mahavamsa (1912: xxiii).

Studies of the historical chronicles, particularly the Mahavamsa and the Dipavamsa were fundamental to make up the ‘history’ of the country in the latter part of the twentieth century. Nonetheless the diachronic program of historicity outlined in the chronicles has made a tremendous impact upon the archaeological interpretations until the mid twentieth century.

An attempt is made here to make a fuzzy categorization of the ontology for the scholarly attempts at the formulation of the cultural chronology of the country.

Rubric of historical chronicles

Most if not all of the ancient chronicles of Sri Lanka have made attempts to disseminate an uninterrupted existence of dynastic history and the history of Buddhist monastic (Law 1947; Bechert 1979). Such sources embrace the events and individuals relevant to its objectives.

The study of ancient literary chronicles entered the field of chronology by the formulation of dynastic history (e.g.Wickramasinghe 1912; Codrington 1926; Mendis 1967). The lines of succession of individual rulers have already been described in the texts and the absolute point of calculating the relevant periods was centred on the event of the Great demise of Gautama Buddha. Geiger says:

 ……. Taking as a basis the date 483 BC, we can provisionallY draw up a list of the kings according to (sic.) Dipavamsa and (sic.) Mahavamsa (Geiger 1912, xxxvi).

A continuous flow of textual narrations provides an insight into the progression of time. Historical event embedded therein appear as time punctuations. They do not carry adequate chronological resolution, which is required to explain the long-term processes of cultural development and change. Especially the calendar dates which mark the oscillations of technology and behaviour of the past are implicit in the punctuated time episodes.

Paleographic analogy

Dating based on the palaeographic comparison of letters of the ancient inscriptions was common in the archaeology of the late nineteenth century. It was feasible for two reasons i.e. (a) abundance of ancient stone inscriptions in and around the majority of the ruined sites ( Muller 1883) and ‘(b) availability of an absolute time marker assigned (c 250 BCE) to the Brahmi script after it was deciphered by James Prinsep (vide Dani 1963). Graphical forms of individual letters appearing in such inscriptions have been compared with an evolutionary perspective. Identification of the names of kings found in the text of those records was taken as the first criterion to provide a date to the script. Paranavitana’s notion of Brahmi and later Brahmi (paranavitana 1970; 1983) marks a scheme of rather broad ‘periods’, but within such, identification of ‘phases’ poses a difficulty due to the inconsistency of individual letter forms. The same difficulty is common for the other periodizations formulated on the basis of palaeographic comparison. The major theoretical drawback of this approach is the negligence of the local traditions of palaeography. The evolutionary scheme of the Sri Lanka script compiled by Fernando (1946) and Paranavitana (1970) is exceptional in the sense of a general evolutionary scheme of palaeography, although its chronological resolution is inadequate to reflect the hazy boundaries of the techno-cultural transitions from a chronological point of view.

Stylistic parallelism

In the case of the absence of a literary reference including the inscriptions, the only possible direction to turn to in order to propose dates was stylistic comparison. Early pioneering works of comparative studies on architectural styles were carried out by E.R. Ayrton (1912-13) and A.M. Hocart during the 1920s and 30s. Several broad chronological divisions have been proposed to describe the development of art and architectural traditions of the country. By the end of 1980s, the formulation of a phasing scheme for architectural development was confirmed. This scheme describes at least three phases i.e. (1). Period I (543 BCE-800 CE) (2). Period II (800- 1200 CE) and (3).1200-1500 CE). This scheme outlines a rigorous scheme that covers 90% of the entire historic period (Wijesekara 1990). For a periodization of historic paintings, see Bandaranayake 1986. The tradition of stylistic comparison was not isolated. The contribution of several pioneering authorities on art history and philology in the early twentieth century was immense to bolster them. Two notable examples are Coomaraswamy’s synthesizing studies of ancient art and architecture of Sri Lanka in 1920s and Paranavitana’s (vide 19 37;1938;1941;1944;1945;1946;1947;1953) philological interpretations related to historical art and architecture.

Tripartite scheme

The emergence of a classification of the country’s past into three broad cultural phases as: (a) Pre history; (b) Proto history; and (c) History, could be considered an intellectual leap. It took nearly a half century to gain ground firmly as a tripartite scheme. It is a broad descriptive classification of the historical process, but the longue dure’e and conjunctures it manifests are far better than the reflexive scheme proposed by the literary chronicles and the floating time brackets derived from comparative studies of styles. The emergence of the fundamental theoretical purview of the tripartite scheme was parallel to the beginning of the field surveys conducted in favour of physical anthropology in Sri Lanka.

The late nineteenth century surveys on the prehistoric existence of human beings in the country were pioneered by the scholarship of the west. The beginnings of which were marked by the field surveys carried out by E.E. Green (e.g. Sarasin 1926:81) and Pole (1913) around the year 1885. Prehistoric stone implements were collected from the wet lowland areas. True identification of the prehistoric existence in this country resulted from the fieldwork of Sarasin and Sarasins (1908). The theoretical approach of their work was coupled with the still existing Vadda population in the intermediate dry uplands. They assumed that the Vadda population constituted the biological and cultural descendants of prehistoric man. Stone artefacts recovered from cave excavation were taken as the relics of the progenitors of the existing aboriginal community and therefore were termed as ‘Vadda facies’. Those artefacts were compared with the late Paleolithic Magdalenian of Europe (Deraniyagala 1992:4). This could be seen as a synchronization of a pragmatic intellectual formulation with the mythopoeic story of the origin of the Vadda population which has been narrated in the Mahavamsa. Parker’s (1909) attempt to identify the predecessors of the Vaddas with Yakshas described in the Dipavamasa and the Mahavamsa shows how the ideology of literary chronicles affects even the empirical findings of the history of the country. However this synchronization has uncovered out the upper limits of the cultural boundary of the country to an endless arena of archaeological research while firmly establishing the Stone Age existence in Sri Lanka.

Prehistoric existence of human beings in Sri Lanka was further affirmed after the recovery of human skeletons of nine individuals with stone implements from Bellanbadipallassa in 1956 by P.E.P. Deraniyagala (Deraniyagala 1958:223). Three radio metric assays (ibid; 1960:97) obtained on the remains show the oldest survival of such a prehistoric community at the site which occurred around 10009 BP.

Proto historic period, the second phase of the tripartite scheme describes the stage that was in between prehistoric and the historic periods. This was the period that promulgated sedentism, based on agro-pastoral dynamism

and the use of iron. It carries three different characteristics namely, (i) its sole appearance as a separate techno-cultural sphere (ii)’ its vibrant manifestation as a transitory mechanism from prehistoric to the historic period, and (iii) its being the twilight zone as it were between itself and the historic period.

Prevalence of an iron using proto historic culture in Sri Lanka was first inferred by the Sarasins brothers (1907). They assumed that the prehistoric communities would have been transformed into the technologically advanced stage after their familiarization with the use of iron. They stated:

 ….. the Veddas having made the step directfy from the Older Stone Age into the modern Iron Age which was brought to them by (sic.) Sinhalese or perhaps another people of the Indian sub-continent (1907:190).

Until the end of the 1970s, the idea of proto history was floated within a vast time span which delineated its lower limit around the third century BCE that is the period when the first intelligibly decipherable inscriptions emerged. In the meantime, the excavation at the Gedi Ge area in Anuradhapura by S. Deraniyagala in 1969 (1972:48) has made a far reaching contribution to formalize the chronological aspect of this period. Radiometric assays assigned to certain contexts of the stratigraphy of that excavation go back to the period between 800 and 500 BCE. Associated material assemblage has been identified as a true manifestation of the proto historic cultural characteristics. This included a series of individual dates that correspond to the early half of the first millennium BCE (e.g. Anuradhapura Gedi Ge, context 17 [768-404 BCE], context 26 [770 BCE], Anuradhapura Dingiri Bandage Watte, context 91 [774 BCE], context 99 [760 BCE], Anuradhapura Mahapali, context 67 [910-790 BCE], context 75 [807-763 BCE], context 85 [932-843 BCE] (Deraniyagala 1992:715-723].

Meanwhile, Bandaranayake (1979) has formulated a broad descriptive periodization for the entire spectrum of cultural development in the country. It resembles inherited techno[1]cultural characteristics of six major ‘perio development within too vague time brackets.

It was at the end of the 1990s, that the idea of proto history of the country was almost well grounded in the general cultural development scheme in Sri Lanka and subsequently merged with the pre vijayan period. In the 1950s, the emerging evidence of megalithic culture through the findings of several burial grounds became one of the major focuses of proto history. None of such burial grounds was dated archaeologically until the late 1990s. A hypothetical date that ranges from 300 BCE to 200 CE has been proposed for those burials by several authorities (paranavitana 1956; Indrapala 1969; Silva 1970; and Begley 1981); Senevirathne has suggested a period of 700- 600 for the megalithic tradition in Sri Lanka (Senevirathne 1984:237; 287).

The most profitable achievement in terms of fixing the chronology of the proto historic period was the identification of the phase of its transition with the historic period. This was designated as Basal Early historic and dated to 600-500 BCE (Deraniyagala 1992: 711) which was preceded by the period which carries true historical characteristics i.e. earthenware shreds bearing Brahmi letters, shreds of Northern Black Polished ware and the occurrence of pottery of Hellenistic derivation.

Further resolution of chronology

What was still unforeseen is the evidence of the transition from Pre history to the Proto history. Deraniyagala states:

 ..… The supersession of stone tool technology with that of iron appears to have been a rapid process, thereby leaving few discernible vestiges of this transition in the archaeological record (1992:709)

 Deraniyagala’s term ‘few discernible vestiges’ stands to describe several important discoveries which remained neglected for decades. For instance, in mid 1950s P.E.P. Deraniyagala introduced a new phenomenon which he termed as the ‘Udupiyan culture phase’. The characteristics of this culture were “ t h e first appearance of pitted pebble hammer stones in association with pottery that had been originally hand made and sun baked, later wheel made, fired and painted” JRASCB (NS) 1956 V:13). This assemblage of Udupiyan culture was unearthed from a natural cave known as Udupiyan Galge situated near Tanjan-tenne in the Kaltota escarpment. S. Deraniyagala has reported a few prehistoric artefacts from this cave (Deraniyagala 1992:308) which suggests that it was a habitation of a group of people who bore the techno-cultural characteristics of both hunters and gatherers (stone implements and pitted hammers) and incipient foragers (grind stones and sun baked pottery). The evidence pertaining to the Udupiyan Galge is scanty for build up of a hypothesis upon the pre and proto historic transition of that area but they are seemingly representational of a mid way in a possible technological transition.

Some of the archaeological evidence unearthed after 2006 is rather promising in finding a solution to this problem. Notable examples are the results derived from the Galpaya survey. A large earthen mound called Valamkatuyaya of Galpaya is situated on the right bank of Kuda Oya, one of the feeding channels of river Walave. A preliminary surface survey carried out on the mound has yielded a set of artefacts (Somadeva et. al 2007) that could be considered as an extension of what P.E.P Deraniyagala has found from the Udupiyan Galge. Both sites are situated about 10-15 kms apart. The artefact assemblage recovered from the former comprised finely touched quartz and cherty implements together with grind stones, and pestles and pottery (Black and Red ware & crude plain Red Ware). Occurrence of artefacts in Valamkatuyaya is open to doubt murky and therefore problematical for two reasons. First, the assemblage is a surface collection. The second is, the site had been destructively robbed intermittently for nearly ten years. Both these have caused irreversible de-contextualization of the artefacts at the site.

Excavations carried out in the year 2007 in an ancient cemetery identified at the Government school premises in the village of Ranchamadama, situated about 10km southwest of the Valamkatuyaya mound have revealed another set of evidence which strengthened the idea of pre and proto historic transition. Six weeks of excavations resulted in an unearthing of six clay canoe burials and two pit burials together with a rich assemblage of artefacts including more than 100 individual specimens of microlithic implements (quartz and cherty), earthenware pots (in fragments) interned with human corporeal remains. Ranchamadama artefacts are reminiscent of artefacts recovered in two previous occasions from Udupiyan Gal Ge and the Valamkatuyaya mound. Three radiometric assays have been obtained for the burial canoes of Ranchamadama and among them the earliest dates back to the 1350 BCE (lab number S-3652, BS-282, sample number, RB/2007/1). This is the first time that we were able to assign such a remote date to a culture based on an organized burial custom which was acquainted with pottery technology and the practice of cremating the dead that has come to our ken.

The excavation of 2009 carried out at a site called Uda Ranchamadama situated 3 kms south west of Ranchamadama cemetery has yielded a rubble foundation of a ruined house with a set of diverse artefacts some of which carry characteristics similar to the artefacts recovered from the cemetery. Especially the association between stone implements, pottery and iron objects is clearly discernible at da Ranchamadama. Three wood charcoal samples obtained from the excavation have been sent for dating and the results are expected in March 2010.

The presence of grind stones and prehistoric stone implements together with nine human skeletons was also reported from a site called Bellanbandipallassa (Deraniyagala 1956) situated about nine kms north east of Valamkatuyaya and c.19 kms from Ranchamadama. A date obtained on the site goes back to 6500± 700 BP (a ‘thermo luminescence date, Wintle and Oakley 1972; 6828-3895 cal BCE with 99% probability according to Reimer et al 2004)). This date together with the associated artefacts is also suggestive of an occurrence of a possible cultural leap from the period of hunter gatherers towards a plant based foraging life style circa mid second millennium BCE (For discussion see, Somadeva et al 2008:7-14). This idea is still a hypothesis and awaits substantial evidence for affirmation in the future.


Major evolutionary dynamism of the development of the cultural chronology in Sri Lanka could perhaps fall into three broad categories. The first category is exemplified by the arrangement of events into a diachronic scheme as they are narrated in the historical texts. Another attempt which could be considered as an extension of the former presents a conceptual partitioning of the cultural past into several historical periods, based on geo[1]political transformations. The chronological formulations come under the second category on an analogical reasoning. Comparison of the stylistic characteristics had made a tremendous impact on it. The third shows a pragmatic and empirical archaeological discourse while physical anthropology had played a crucial role. Emergence of the tripartite scheme was one of the results of this intellectual discourse. The tripartite system still remains as the only model of understanding the cultural past of the country. Some of the innovative archaeological discoveries have enabled the alteration of this scheme (e.g. Deraniyagala 1992:707; Deraniyagala & Abeyratne 1997; Deraniyagala & Abeyratne 2000; Somadeva 2008) while forming a theoretical walking ladder in the field of calibrating the past in Sri Lanka.

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