Background

Polonnaruva was the capital of Sri Lanka from AD1017 to 1293, and was a highly planned urban centre surrounded by a ring of religious monuments including Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples. However, we know very little of how the wider landscape was organized, and whether the highly formalised city was reflected by a formalized hinterland; and whether Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions also flourished outside the cosmopolitan urban core.

Research at the preceding capital, Anuradhapura, identified a very different archaeological settlement pattern than had previously been thought. In particular the notable absence of towns led the project team to suggest that monasteries played a dual role of religious and secular administrators within Anuradhapura’s hinterland - unique in South Asia. Anuradhapura was abandoned in the eleventh century AD and a new capital was established at Polonnaruva 104km away.

Collaboration Institutions 

Central Cultural Fund, Department of Archaeology (Sri Lanka), Postgraduate Institute of Archaeological , Durham University, University of Kelaniya, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Lumbini Development Trust, Department of Archaeology (Government of Nepal).

Aims

Research at the earlier capital of Anuradhapura demonstrated a landscape in which towns were absent, and where Buddhist monasteries played a dual role of religious centres and secular administrators. However, this lack of royal control over the landscape contributed to the eventual collapse of the city. Did the newly established capital at Polonnaruva avoid this problem by retaining control over its hinterland, or was medieval Sri Lanka plagued by this tension between royal control and religious freedom?

The project aims to undertake archaeological survey and excavation at non-urban sites surrounding Polonnaruva in order to understand the relationship between the city and its wider landscape.

Hinterland Survey

The first season of work completed the equivalent of eight 20km transects and ten kilometres of survey along both banks of the Kalinga Ela canal, during which we identified a total of 90 archaeological sites, 30 hydraulic features, and 50 anthropological sites. The 90 archaeological sites can be further subdivided into 23 ceramic scatters, 28 ceramic scatters with slag, 25 monastic sites, 9 undiagnostic sites, and one each of a colonial period bridge, lithic scatter, metalworking residue scatter not associated with ceramics, a megalithic burial and a large moated area potentially identified as the ancient town of Vijayitapura.

In the 2016 season, we completed the equivalent of six 20km transects, 12km along both baks of the Kalinga Ela canal and 10km of survey along the bank of the Ambang Oya (river). In total the 142 sites were recorded, broken down into 93 archaeological sites, 11 hydraulic features and 38 anthropological sites. The archaeological sites can be further subdivided into 28 ceramic scatters, 23 ceramic scatters with slag, five scatters of slag, 14 monastic sites, eleven undiagnostic sites, five possible Megalithic Burials, two lithic scatters, three examples of ancient quarrying and one conical hole site.

The initial results show that there was a stark contrast in the size and morphology of sites when compared to those around Anuradhapura. At Polonnaruva, the ceramic scatters identified were much larger in size – on average 5,000 square metres (0.5 hectares) in size, and containing brick, tile, pottery and metalworking residues. A sample of auger-cores taken within three of the sites indicates they have occupation depths of over one metre, in comparison to about 20 centimetres at Anuradhapura. Immediately this suggests a very different landscape, with a shift from the mobile, peripatetic villages of Anuradhapura to a more permanent, and perhaps urbanised, landscape. The monastic sites surrounding Polonnaruva ranged from large complexes to small isolated (and often looted) stupas. The complexes were more formalised with defined boundary walls and brick and tile structures, as opposed to the organic monasteries at Anuradhapura. Again, this points towards a very different settlement system within the landscape, and one which was far more rigorously planned and administered from the centre. In the 2016 season we also recovered yoni stones from two sites (one of which was not in situ), representing the first firm identification of Hindu religious activity in the hinterland.

Excavations

In 2015, excavations were conducted at the Siva Devale No. 2 temple in the northeast corner of the ancient city. The excavations aimed at establishing a scientifically derived chronology for the site, and crucially the artefacts recovered from within it. However, the monument is also suffering from annual inundation during monsoon, and the excavation preceded plans to create a drainage solution for the site. The excavation is shedding new light on this area of Polonnaruva. In the earliest period, a wall in trench C, that runs parallel to the CCF conserved citadel wall, may have been an Anuradhapura period delineation of this area of Polonnaruva, potentially representing the earliest defined urban space at this city. Auger transects revealed that the wall followed a parallel east -west alignment and it is recommended that next season geophysical survey and further small sondage excavations are conducted to reveal the walls full extent and nature. The early precinct wall is thought to be associated with the stone temple construction due to the characteristic ‘Polonnaruva’ period construction method of stone blocks below brick, as seen at the nearby conserved ‘Polonnaruva’ period citadel wall. This precinct wall defined a sacred area around the stone Siva Devale No. 2, forming a courtyard in which occupation deposits did not accumulate and earlier structures, such as the truncated stone pillar in trench D and the drain feature in trench A, were demolished or re-incorporated. Later occupation respected this sacred space, with post-stone temple construction activities being confined to the north of the brick precinct wall. Indeed, a later reused stone block wall respected the original precinct wall boundaries. The later phase of this occupation were associated with craft activity, specifically metal working and potentially glass working.

Further excavations in 2016 aimed to identify further evidence of craft production and industrial activity at the site, as well as to define the temple precinct wall uncovered in the previous field season. The precinct wall was identified in the northeast and southeast corners, but in these locations they were heavily degraded, by either bioturbation, or by robbing of this feature for later constructions. To the south the precinct had almost completely been lost and was represented by a few rubble patches. Inside the precinct wall excavations identified several indicators of previous occupation, including stone and brick footings of structures directly north of the stone temple, as well as a truncated stone pillar. The excavations also uncovered the character of the foundations of Siva Devale No.2. The large well-dressed stone blocks at the base of the temple sat on a thin layer of soil, before resting on stone blocks, including a worked stone resting on the bedrock, and the temple was built on a natural raised area. The use of stone blocks suggests that the Temple construction utilised material from previous phases of occupation and activity.

Excavations at Siva Devale No.2 have confirmed that there was substantial industrial activity immediately outside the precinct wall, suggesting that polluting activities were undertaken outside this designated sacred space. It is also possible that such craft activity may have been related to a temple economy, where products for pilgrims, and possibly the surrounding area were producing goods as part of a redistributive network, perhaps similar to that encountered in the Anuradhapura hinterland in a role undertaken by Buddhist monasteries.

We also excavated a trench either side of the northern wall of the citadel complex within Polonnaruva in order to understand and date its construction. The excavations showed that there were multiple phases of wall construction, and there is evidence of earlier occupation below the extant remains. At present we are still awaiting dates.

Published Results

  • Journal Article

Lucero, L.J., Fletcher, R. & Coningham, R.A.E. (2015). From ‘collapse’ to urban diaspora: the transformation of low-density, dispersed agrarian urbanism. Antiquity 89(347): 1139-1154.

  • Chapter in book

Coningham, R.A.E., Manuel, M.J., Davis, C.E. & Gunawardhana, P. (2017). Archaeology and Cosmopolitanism in Early Historic and Medieval Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History. Biedermann, Z. & Strathern, A. London: UCL Press. 19-43.