Rising from the past

By Susanne Loos-Jayawickrema

Colourful plastic buckets filled with clay shards, old coins and beads are scattered all around. People are busy climbing in and out of deep, two-metre wide trenches, bringing out more of their finds. In the background, the hum of a vacuum cleaner can be heard, drawing out the dust of centuries past from ancient ovens. 

Once a year, the ancient capital of Mahagama, today's Tissamaharama, is reawakened as a dedicated team of German and Sri Lankan archaeologists try to uncover its buried past. For the past six weeks, this group has been busy excavating in the premises of the Sarvodaya school close to the shores of the Tissa Wewa. Under the guidance of Dr. Hans-Joachim Weisshaar, a team comprising eight German and eight Sri Lankan archaeology students and pottery expert Dr. Heidrun Schenk-Weisshaar are  carefully scraping away centuries-old soil to discover the secrets and treasures of the past. Some 50 local workers from Tissamaharama help them at the site. 

"At the moment we are working in three different centuries," explains Dr. Weisshaar. "The small monastery we have found was built in the 7th century; the ovens were made between the 3rd and 4th century and the settlement close to the Tissa Wewa was founded between the 1st and 2nd century AD." 

The archaeologists are convinced that there is much more to be discovered. "Digging deeper we will find evidence upto the 4th to 5th century BC," Dr. Weisshaar says.

The excavation work being carried out every year since 1992 is done in cooperation with the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka and the Commission for General and Comparative Archaeology (KAVA) of the German Institute of Archaeology, which comes under the purview of the German Foreign Ministry.

During the past nine years, the archaeologists have unearthed countless tons of clay shards out of which the weight of about four elephants - 10 to 12 tons - have been examined. Approximately 10,000 beads have been found and more than 100 coins, apart from other evidence of the past like an elephant skeleton. "It is always exciting when you feel that there are human beings linked with a discovery," Dr. Weisshaar says. 

Indeed, the historic time-travel at the Sarvodaya site turns out to be full of surprises. "We have found much more than expected," the archaeologist reveals with pride. A big walauwa with a brick foundation baffled the excavators. "Normally you find foundations made of timber posts." However, from the beautifully crafted shards, artisan-made beads and special kind of coins discovered, they deduced that this old dwelling had been occupied by a wealthy family. The entire walauwa had been built with bricks. After the historic mansion decayed it had been constructed again on the same spot. "It was built for the last time around 450 AD," the archaeologists say.

"The south is one of the most important roots in Sri Lanka's history," Dr. Weisshaar points out. Unfortunately, there is no place yet where the public can admire all the findings, which are evidence of ancient Ruhuna's past glory.

Tirelessly the students, three from the Ruhuna University in Matara and five from Kelaniya, pore over the artefacts, marking and drawing every single piece, to determine its type and origin. Every square metre of the excavation site is thoroughly surveyed. This time the team is working under 'dangerous' conditions. Their dig is situated in a small coconut plantation where the trees have to be checked every morning to prevent the hazard of falling nuts. 

King Mahanaga founded the busy capital of Mahagama in the 3rd century BC. Most of the coins unearthed, they believe, would have been brought here by merchants dealing with the Roman Empire. One coin they have discovered is from former Aksum, today's Ethiopia, and was used between the 4th and 5th century AD. 

The former excavation site of Akurogoda also turned up well-preserved battery furnaces operated by metalsmiths. 

The crew has also made a breathtaking find- the oldest known stone paved street to date in the country. Proof enough to say that the royal premises were an important nerve centre for industry and commerce as well as for import and export. 

About 45 AD, Buddhist monks from Lanka visited Emperor Claudius in Rome and trade with the West noticeably improved thereafter. In the 4th century, trade links with China began. 

In those days, the much neglected deep south had been a flourishing money-spinner with probably Kirinda and Godawaya being ancient ports of call on the famous maritime silk-route.

Sadly, like today, the ancient Kingdom of Ruhuna was hit by severe drought during the 5th century AD. Many people left the area to settle in Matara, Weligama and Galle. The dwellings remained, but became quite unimportant after the prosperous times of the 3rd and 4th century AD. However, there was economic upliftment at the end of the 19th century when Henry Parker was in charge of irrigation projects and agriculture experienced a fruitful revival in the Tissa Wewa area around 1894/95.

For many years Parker's archaeological book about the south first published in 1884 by the Royal Asiatic Society was the only reading material available to people interested in those times. Fortunately now, 117 years later, there comes another- an informative and interesting 500-page book titled 'Ancient Ruhuna'- Sri Lanka-German Archaeological Project in the Southern Province, Volume 1. The book is a compilation of the study reports of prominent members of the excavation team, written in an 'easy to read and understand' form which makes it accessible even to laymen. 

Volume 2 is already in preparation.