Open air site habitations unearthed | Sunday Observer

Open air site habitations unearthed

Were Sri Lanka’s caves the haven for prehistoric man at the end of the last ice age? Did Balangoda Man spread his influence throughout the country?

Prehistoric secrets are being revealed systematically as archaeologists excavate numerous sites. Nearly 200 sites within the country have exposed a wealth of information about prehistoric life. Another such site was recently discovered at Kongrayankulam, a village under the District Secretariat (Pradeshiya Sabha) Division in Vavuniya.

The site revealed fossilized human remains presumed to be about 12,000 years old. “We believe it was first inhabited during the middle stone age and several times thereafter,” said Ven. Radawane Siri Sumangala, Lecturer of Archaeology at the Bhikku University of Anuradhapura who was in-charge of the excavation. The large rock shelter (cave) with rock art depicting humans, the sun, tortoises and other animal figurines revealed “Much about life from the prehistoric period to mid Anuradhapura era,” he said.

The excavation had been carried out from August 1 to 31 this year, by 2nd and 3rd year Archaeology students of the Sri Lanka Bhikku University, Anuradhapura in order to develop research and excavation skills. The project was guided by Ven. Galwawe Vimalakitthi, Senior Lecturer of Archaeology of the Bhikku University. Prof. Ariya Lagamuwa, Head, Department of Archaeology & Heritage Management, Rajarata University was the Project Director, while Dr. Nimal Perera, Retired Director, Department of Archaeology, Excavation Division was the consultant.

The 2x2 metre excavation at the cave site revealed, “A fossilized human finger, a toe and coprolite (fossilized feces), believed to be of the prehistoric man. We unearthed over four kilograms of animal bones which are still being analyzed. A large part of it belongs to tortoises and monkeys. There is evidence that they had been pounded into small pieces of about 2 inches, and toasted on fire,” explained Ven. Siri Sumangala.

Stone tools made out of red and yellow chert (a hard rock composed of microcrystalline or cryptocrystalline silica which can be broken to form very sharp edges) and tools made out of animal bones are the other findings from the site relating to the prehistoric man.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nimal Perera dates the findings to a time between 10,000 to 5,000 BP (Before Present). “The site revealed pre-historic occupational deposits in a well sealed context. It revealed stone artifacts called flake tools made predominantly of chert and a few from quarts. This could possibly date back from the early to mid Holocene period for typological reasons. As the previously excavated sites such as, Sigiriya, Pothana and Aligala in the dry zone, only gave single occupation dates as the deposits were shallow, I expect a similar result in this,” he said.

Six samples of occupational deposits, including charcoal are being sent to Beta Laboratories, USA for proper analysis and carbon dating.

Flat beads, shards of redware as well as red and blackware pottery are among significant finds from the upper soil strata. Ven. Siri Sumangala opined that “The polished pottery indicates a developed community’s use of the cave later, probably during the historic period.

There is also evidence that the cave was a “Seasonal dwelling place. The cave is large, with two openings in the North and South. It is airy, and provides enough light during the rainy season. The different soil strata revealed that it was inhabited seasonally. Moreover, there is ample proof in the surrounding area to infer that during the dry season they dwelt in open-air communities called Vembu Sites. We found chert tools from about 5 sites nearby,” he said.

The cave located in the low land dry zone is “A very rare type of rock shelter in the dry zone,” opines Dr. Nimal Perera. “It is the largest rock shelter in the District. The cave wall is covered in rock art similar to Thanthirimale prehistoric rock art. There is also proof of open-air site habitations located in the reddish-brown earth area. I believe, after this shelter was abandoned by the prehistoric man it was converted into a Buddhist monastery in about 250 BC.” The rock shelter also had drip ledges (kataram) and inscriptions identified as Brahmi letters, stating that it was donated to the Buddhist monks.

“It could have been during the early to mid Anuradhapura era,” said Ven. Siri Sumangala pointing out that it was done in the same style as the inscriptions in Mihintale and Vessagiriya rock inscriptions.

Kongrayankulam plays a significant role in bridging the information gap on prehistoric life between Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones. Most of the well researched excavation sites are situated in the wet zone. “This (Kongrayankulam) is the first site excavated in the dry zone since the 1990s. It enriches the cultural heritage in the area. It is also significant as an anatomically modern human site (a site occupied by the anatomically modern man) in South Asia,” said Dr. Perera.

According to Ven. Siri Sumangala, the survey and research in the surrounding area had enlightened how the Malvathu Oya valley had played a major part in the lives of the communities from prehistoric to the Anuradhapura era. The team had discovered undisturbed megalithic burial sites with ritualistic urns and personal items. Early inscriptions including rock and stone inscriptions, Stupas, Buddha statues, and a complex of cave dwellings with drip ledge (kataram) believed to be used by Bhikkus belonging to the Anuradhapura era had been uncovered.

“During the Anuradhapura era, Bhikku residences were established in the mountain ranges. The main building (temple) was at the top while the rest were spread in the foothills using the natural caves. We believe, the caves found in the Kongrayankulam and Uththuwelliya mountain ranges are Bhikku dwellings from the Anuradhapura era,” said Ven. Siri Sumangala.

Moreover, the remnants of a bridge in the vicinity had raised the possibility of a ‘highway’ from Anuradhapura to Matota. “There is evidence that this was a stone bridge with a minimum width of 19 feet. It is not a small feat during those times. There must have been a lot of traffic across the water.” There is also evidence of a tile and brick factory close to Malvatu Oya, a rock inscription found during the research denoted, depicting a well organized and developed civilization during that time.

“It is a site giving a wealth of information. We plan to continue our research in the future,” said Ven. Siri Sumangala. The team from the Bhikku University, use state-of-the-art tools to carry out the project, thanks to Ven. Prof. Kanaththegoda Siddhartha, Vice Chancellor, who had approved the financing including the purchase of necessary equipment.

According to Dr. Perera, it is a fertile ground for training, for Archaeology students and a pioneer project by the Bikkhu University. “Previously, the research and excavation was under the Department of Archaeology, this is the first time for a University to undertake such a task.”

The University was granted permission for the project by the Dept. of Archaeology. The comprehensive research report is scheduled to be released in December 2017. 

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