This project collaborated with   the Central  Cultural  Fund,   the University  of  Jaffna,  Department  of Archaeology , Postgraduate Institute  of Archaeology - University of Kelaniya, and the UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, Durham University. Funded  by  the  British  Academy  and  the  Institute  of  Medieval  and  Early  Modern  Studies  (Durham  University),  with institutional  support  from  the  Central  Cultural  Fund,  Department  of  Archaeology  and  Durham  University.

Emerging from a 26 year conflict in 2009, the island of Sri Lanka is now addressing associated humanitarian and cultural impacts as well as establishing a roadmap to national reconciliation. Whilst post-conflict efforts have begun to address humanitarian challenges, damaged cultural heritage has only recently been appreciated for its potential contribution to post-conflict renewal, peace-building and economic development through national and international tourism (Pushparatnam 2014).

One monument badly damaged during the conflict was Jaffna Fort, which had sections of its ramparts damaged and most of the structures within its 22 hectare interior destroyed. Established by the Portuguese in 1618 CE as a quadrangular fort, it was later expanded and remodelled as a five-sided fort by the Dutch, who captured it in 1658. Prior to the conflict, Jaffna Fort was one of the largest and best preserved colonial forts in Asia (Nelson 1984). Despite detailed knowledge of its later history, little is known of its early sequences below the colonial period structures on the surface.

Despite the pioneering textual and field surveys of Indrapala (1965), Pathmanathan (1969) and Ragupathy (1987), the early archaeological sequence of Jaffna, and Northern Sri Lanka more generally, is less well understood than other parts of the island, partly due to access during the conflict but also due to a focus on the monumental heritage of the island’s early capitals. Although there are exceptions, there is a general lacuna of published scientifically-dated stratigraphic sequences relating to pre-colonial heritage in Northern Sri Lanka, forcing a bias towards the use of textual sources for reconstructing the region’s past.

Recent conservation-related work within Jaffna Fort included the excavation of a four metre deep exploratory engineering sondage, from which Early Historic Rouletted Ware was recovered as well as medieval Islamic and Chinese ceramics. With affinities elsewhere within the island (Carswell, Deraniyagala and Graham 2013), these artefacts hint at the antiquity and depth of cultural occupation within Jaffna Fort as well as its pre-colonial role within South Asia and Indian Ocean trade networks. Furthermore, the use of Ground Penetrating Radar will allow for potential identification of earlier structural layouts within the entirety of the interior of the fort, to link to the excavated sequences.


Partnered with archaeologists from the Central Cultural Fund (Government of Sri Lanka) led by Professor Gunawardhana and the University of Jaffna led by Professor Pushparatnam, a team from Durham’s UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage focus on Jaffna Fort to develop a case-study for developing methodologies for post-conflict archaeology. Funded by the British Academy, with further financial support from IMEMS, the joint archaeological investigations will also facilitate the high-resolution scientifically dated artefactual and architectural sequences for the currently neglected pre-colonial heritage of Jaffna. The programme of work will also assist the development of cultural tourism within Northern Sri Lanka, in the words of Professor Pushparatnam “To promote cultural tourism in Northern Sri Lanka, we have to make a positive approach to popularize the cultural heritage symbols and monuments of this region, such as its ancient history and relevant historical sites and monuments. It will not only preserve the heritage symbols and promote cultural tourism, but also earn a lot of valuable foreign-exchange” (2014: 10).

Pilot excavations will be conducted to provide scientifically dated sequences for the site, which can then be linked to artefactual typologies from published site reports in Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean region. Ground Penetrating Radar Survey will also identify previous structural layouts of the fort, which will not only provide evidence for the earlier patterns of settlement, but also identify areas of subsurface heritage. This will be added to an Archaeological Risk Map for the site to guide the location of future infrastructure, such as water and power lines. Whilst developing an understanding of the development of Jaffna Fort and its links to international and local trade and exchange networks, the project will also provide the opportunity to develop archaeological recording methodologies for post-conflict damaged monuments, as well as those affected by natural disasters, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Developing synergies with projects assessing post-disaster heritage, such as earthquake-affected Nepal, we anticipate that such an approach will provide archaeological methods for heritage and non-heritage specialists alike to rescue and recover material culture from archaeological sites that can be utilised in the restoration, reconstruction and rehabilitation of monuments damaged through conflict or natural disasters.


A season of archaeological investigations was undertaken within Jaffna’s Dutch Fort between June and July 2017 in collaboration with the University of Jaffna and the Government of Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Fund. During this pilot field season, we excavated trenches to expose the fort’s stratigraphic sequences as well as undertaking UAV and Ground Penetrating Radar surveys to map its surviving architecture and identify potential traces subsurface heritage across the site. In addition, we trailed the application of post-disaster archaeological recording methodologies on the ruins of the fort’s early eighteenth century church.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Ground Penetrating Radar Survey

Our UAV survey mapped the standing monuments within the fort’s interior of the fort as well as its ramparts, moat, outer circuit of ramparts and immediate environs. The survey confirmed the presence of three earlier semi-circular bastions on its north-west believed to relate to the earlier Portuguese fortification and the results linked to the Ground Penetrating Radar. The GPR survey allowed us to identify the depth and extent of subsurface archaeology under the current ground surface of the fort. Undertaken in open areas, we were able to identify a series of earlier structural alignments, which possibly relate to the earlier Portuguese fort. Further processing of the GPR data will allow enhanced identification, characterisation and mapping of these earlier structural phases within the Fort. This will strengthen our understanding of the development of the site over time and help identify subsurface heritage which needs to be protected during future development and reconstruction of standing remains at the site as well as locate potential areas for future archaeological investigation.


Our trenches were located to better understand the developmental sequence of this site and its history of human occupation. The first trench was located next to the interior face of the Dutch fort’s western rampart. This was excavated to identify the depth of the Dutch period rampart and to investigate the possibility of earlier phases of fortification. The removal of the recent debris on the surface revealed sandy deposits below, which appeared to be banked up against a lower phase of walling, stepping out from underneath the rampart wall. Constructed from coral and limestone blocks set within a lime mortar, it is likely that its massive nature was necessitated by the Dutch decision to expand the eastern footprint of the fort far beyond the old Portuguese wall.

We excavated a second trench within the ruins of one of the barrack blocks in the west of the site, later reused as a prison. The upper surfaces contained several phases of European era structures with associated Dutch ceramics and pipes sealing earlier levels below. Recovery of Dusun Jars, early Islamic glazed wares, Rouletted Ware and Black and Red Ware confirm the pre-colonial Indian Ocean significance of the site.

Finally, we also excavated a trench inside the ruins of Queen’s House, the old residence of Jaffna’s Lieutenant Governor. Its upper surfaces were associated with wall alignments and contained a mixture of nineteenth and early twentieth century ceramics as well as modern material. A slot within the trench revealed an earlier wall alignment, constructed from coral blocks, and several cultural phases, which contained European contact ceramics. These deposits were then removed onto coral reef. The lack of earlier materials in this location, and the uncovering of reef, suggest that occupation in the area of Queen’s House was associated with the later expansion of the fort, possibly relating to the Dutch remodelling of the eastern side of the site.

Confirming Professor Pushparatnam’s earlier reports, our first collaborative season within Jaffna Fort has revealed an abundance of pre-colonial contact material, including ceramics which firmly link Jaffna to the wider Indian Ocean, such as Black and Red ware (c.1000BCE–100CE), Grey Ware (c. 500BCE–200CE) Rouletted Ware (200BCE–200CE) and Red Polished Ware (c. 100BCE–800CE) onto contact with the west Asian world through Sasanian-Islamic Wares (c. 200BC–800CE) as well as evidence of trade with East Asia including discoveries of Yue Green Wares (c. 800–900CE), Dusun Stone ware (c. 700–1100CE) and Ming Porcelain (c. 1300–1600CE). European contact ceramics were also identified, including Delft ware and British period ceramics complete with identifiable makers marks and pattern designs. Although we await the measurement of our radiocarbon samples, the preliminary analysis of the material points towards Jaffna’s long history of cosmopolitanism and centrality in international trade and communication networks before and beyond European contact. Further analysis will allow for a quantification of different wares and the ability to map Jaffna’s role in the pre-colonial Indian Ocean more clearly.

Post - disaster excavations

Many of the standing remains within Jaffna fort have suffered substantial damage during the recent conflict and, as conservation and reconstruction programmes are developed for the site, there is a clear need to co-produce methods for recording cultural debris as it is removed during the exposure of the walls and foundations below. Building on our earlier post-earthquake research in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, we piloted a methodology for post-disaster excavations in the ruins of the Kruys Kerk in the north-east corner of the fort.

Built by the Dutch in 1706, the kirk was mined and destroyed during the conflict and its surviving walls lay hidden below large blocks of masonry and rubble spreads. Therefore, we started by gridding the north-east corner of the monument and removed the cultural rubble from each square and placed it within the corresponding square within a replicated grid outside the structure. This allowed as to rapidly removal the material while ensuring spatial control. Construction materials from each square were then counted, weighed and stacked for reuse. This was particularly pertinent for monuments within Jaffna Fort as many of the original materials are non-renewable as coral blocks are illegal to procure under national and international legislation and eighteenth century Dutch bricks are no longer available in bulk.

During the removal of rubble, we recovered and catalogued a number of fragments of sculpture and portable antiquities, which helped provide information about the history of the Kerk. This included fragments of memorial slabs from the church wall, which are now being reconstructed to provide information on individuals who were interred or commemorated within the Kerk.

Our removal of the debris allowed for the associated investigation and evaluation of the Kerk’s foundations, which is of critical importance to understand the residual strength of load-bearing walls in advance of conservation or reconstruction. Our exposure of the full depth of the foundations revealed the presence of the cracks throughout the coral and limestone block foundations. As we exposed Dutch period bracing and buttressing of the Kerk’s exterior wall, we may conclude that a number of the cracks were not conflict-related. This provisional finding will assist the development of plans for the future conservation and restoration of the monument as well as providing a methodology for the future clearing of the rest of the Kerk and other damaged monuments across the site.

Published Results

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.