Excavation

Excavating Alugalge: archaeology.lk visits the excavations of the prehistoric site

By Chryshane Mendis

Chryshane Mendis

Excavation of the prehistoric cave of Alugalge is conducted by the Field Archaeology Unit of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR) led by Professor Raj Somadeva and a team of Researchers from the PGIAR and University students. The excavation which is funded by the PGIAR and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is part of the field work of the ‘Hunters in Transition’ project which aims at identifying the pre and proto historic transition which would have occurred in the mid or late Holocene Epoch. This project is the extension of the research programme of ‘Archaeology of the UdaWalave Basin’ begun in 2006 the area of which had been identified as an environmentally optimal area to study this transition. This 15 year project is currently running in its 9th season with the present excavation. The Archaeology.lk team visited the excavations in mid-March to gain an insight on this current excavation and as to what goes on during an archaeological dig.

Alugalge is located in the village of Illukumbura in Balangoda of the Rathnapura District. To reach here one must travel to Balangoda and upon reaching Kirimatithenna junction which is 3.5km passing Balangoda town on the Kaltota road, turn right on the Weligepola road and proceed about 10km to Kongasthenna junction. From here take the Illukkumbura road to the right and proceed about 5km passing the scenic Panana village to a sharp 90 degree turn to the left, from where one must take the small road to the right and travel about 2km through the hilly tea estates and home gardens to the Illukkumbura school and from here it is a 1km downhill hike from the road onto the left. The team of Archaeologists and Prof. Somadeva are based in a rented house in the beautiful peaceful village of Illukkumbura which is about 3km from the site.

Alugalge Cave on Google Map

Summary of the excavations 

Speaking to the Professor and the team, they explained that this is the second phase of the excavation of the Alugalge cave which commenced on the 20th February 2017 and is planned for a period of 6 weeks but that the duration could be extended or shortened based on the excavations.  This cave was for the first time surveyed and excavated in August 2016 which yielded evidence of prehistoric habitation and put the occupation of the site in about 3,450 B.C. with the most interesting find being that of a Shark tooth pendant.

Inquiring into the identification of this site, they explained that after every excavation an exhibition and awareness programme is conducted in the villages from which the residents share their knowledge of possible locations which are afterwards surveyed. The cave of Alugalge was one of the many such locations identified by the people and after conducting several surveys of other nearby caves, this particular cave was selected. Such programmes with the village folk have proved very valuable and their interest in identifying and reporting on possible locations is quite noteworthy and the help and support given to the excavation by people is remarkable as the writer witnessed.

Explaining on how they conducted the excavations; about a week was spent on surveying the site and only after a thorough survey is it decided to excavate. The cave, which was excavated on the previous occasion, was excavated to a further depth this season. Once the surveying was completed they laid the gird plan and conducted the profile drawing of the levels which is of most importance and only then was it begun to excavate.

Excavation within the cave. (Photograph by Dinesh Devage)

 

Prof. Somadeva examining some finds (Photograph by Dinesh Devage)

The excavated soil layers go through two processes in order to obtain artefacts, first by dry sieving and second by wet sieving. The section of the excavated soil is marked by the grid number and layer number for a systematic identification and only then taken through the above two processes which are conducted at the site. This dry and wet sieving is a careful process and is done through experienced hands due to the delicate nature of the artefacts. Artefacts are selected during these two stages as well and further after the wet sieving; the soil is carefully dried and brought in marked bags back to the house for a more careful piece by piece identification and selection.

Photograph by Dinesh Devage

The recovered soils which are carefully marked are brought back to the house and some entire days are spent on selecting the artefacts from them. When the writer visited the excavations, both days spent there were on this separation of artefacts from the soil layers; which as the writer witnessed is equally exciting and fun as digging in the cave because for to the archaeologically eyed participant, every step of an excavation be it in the field or indoors is sensational as something new to knowledge is brought to light every moment.

Drying of the soil after wet sieving

 

Sorting out the artefacts at the house

Once dried, the soil is spread on a white polythene sheet on a table and using a variety of twisers one by one the tiny particles are separated into different containers.

It is amazing as to the amount of artifacts that turn up from just one bag of soil; for when spread out on the sheet, what seems like a heap of soil and dirt, when separated piece by piece reveals an array of artefacts. The artefacts found are Quartz stone tools and flakes, remains of animal bones and bone tools including teeth, shells, pieces of burnt clay, pieces of charcoal, and sometimes tiny pieces of graphite. The more remarkable findings are measured and cataloged separately for further analysis.

Before separation

Bone fragments

Burnt clay

Identified stone tools

Stone tools are usually made from Quartz and Chert, but from this site only Quartz tools were found and make up the largest percentage of artefacts found and these are classified as microliths due to many being less than a centimeter in size.

The artefacts sealed in separate bags.

Some of the shells discovered belong to the species Acavus haemastoma and seeds found here are identified as Dik Kekuna (Canerium zelanicum) which are still found in this area. These artifacts are then sealed in small transparent bags and labeled according to the grid and layer number from where they were excavated. These will be taken for further analysis.  The bags of soil recovered from the site amount to over a hundred and from morning till night are being painstakingly sorted out by the team. The patience that one requires to perform this is immense and it requires a trained eye to spot the artefacts from the soil and rocks.

When at the site the team would spend about 8 hours from 8 am in the morning till about 4 pm in the evening and when at the house as when the writer witnessed, from around 7 am they would sit on the benches sorting out the artefacts till 10 pm in the night only resting for meals and tea and the interesting stories of the Professor.

Traveling to the source of these wonderful finds, the Alugalge cave is located 3km from the house, the first two kilometers is motorable and turning off from the Illukkumbura school to the left we parked the motor cycle in a house nearby and began the 1km downhill hike to the cave. The first 500m is through the backyards of few houses and then takes a rather steep decent through patches of forests and small tea estates. The path is very narrow and there are many other footpaths joining the main path which makes it tricky but is now quite familiar to the team now used to trekking this path daily for almost a month. Traveling through the beautiful woods to a very low elevation the path turned north along a small ridge and came up beside a massive rock several dozen feet high, here lay the shelter of the prehistoric man, the Alugalge cave. The area has been arranged well for the dig, with a hose and tap brought from a nearby estate and much equipment such as spades and shovels including a generator used to light up the inside of the cave. The mouth of the cave opens up to the west and is surrounded by thick evergreen forests. When excavating, the team hikes down here daily, leaving the house at 7 am in the morning and arriving near the Illukkumbura School in a hired truck and making the downwards decent to the site carrying all the equipment and meals and work at the site till about 4 pm in the evening. The villagers are very supportive and have great respect to the Professor and team as the writer witnessed and many children from the village come to observe the excavations. For the lover of nature and history, this is the ultimate satisfaction.

On the way to the site

Some of the scenic houses on the way to the cave.

Entering the cave from the path.

Lighting the inside of the cave.

The team with Prof. Somadeva (Photograph by Dinesh Devage)

The excavations are scheduled to conclude end of March and only a scientific analysis of the findings back at the PGIAR would reveal the full worth of this season’s discoveries. The fascinating field of archaeology never fails to amuse the mind of even the most uninterested person with its wonderful stories of the past, spectacular findings, most of the time touched last by human hands over thousands of years ago and also the stories of the present, of the places visited, people encountered and the diversity of cultures witnessed. Although separated from family and friends for several weeks, the lover of archaeology is ever happy at heart for he who uncovers history finds happiness in diversity and wherever he or she may be, will always feel at home.

References

  • Somadeva, R. (2011), Archaeology of the Uda Walave Basin. Occasional Paper no. 2, Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo: Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology.
  • Somadeva, R. (2014), Archaeology of Mountain, Occasional Paper no. 3, Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology, Colombo: Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology.

 

Study of Holocene hunter-gatherers in Sri Lanka : towards a regional model

The archaeological project titled ‘Hunters in Transition’ initiated in the year 2009 focuses the Holocene adaptations of the prehistoric hunter-gatherers occupied in the deep mountainous hinterland in Sri Lanka. Three separate climatic regions i.e.  wet, intermediate and dry zone which are geographically adjacent to each other have been archaeologically investigated through a series of reconnaissance surveys and excavations.

A view of the Vavullena cave which is a large prehistoric occupation in Illukkumbura of Balangoda

Floral and faunal distribution in the sampled area were mapped against the dispersal of prehistoric sites. Six Spatio-temporal caves situated in the region; the elevation ranging between 900 and 300m msl. fall into the period between 9000 -3500 cal. BCE were probed to establish a spatio-temporal framework to the Holocene cultural development. All of the caves investigated are situated not very far from each other; the maximum distance does not exceed 20km.

Approaching the Vavullena cave in Paragahamaditta

Identification of a natural formation of a quartz deposit which had been extensively exploited for lithic manufacture (as suggested by the artifacts excavated)  suggests as one of the key attractors of the colonization of its surrounding landscape. 25 varieties of wild grass seeds, nuts together with an extensive index of small animals hunted suggest that the Holocene hunters-gatherers had shown a marked resilience to the new climatic regime. Some of the symbolic artifacts excavated evidenced the fresh approach of them seeing themselves and their external world.

A symbolic object (probably a female genital)

Alugalge Cave in Balangoda Revisited

The second phase of the archaeological investigations in the prehistoric cave of Alugalge in Balangoda has been initiated in the late February 2017.

 

The Alugala Cave

 

This cave was first excavated in July 2015 and has yielded an assemblage of artifacts suggesting the prehistoric occupation at the location during the mid/late Holocene. One of the notable characteristics of the stone implements (quartz) recovered is the presence of hyper-microliths; length of some of the lunates of that kind are not exceeding 4mm.  Other artifacts excavated include bone points, pieces of graphite with the marks of heavy aberration, small grind-stones, etc. Plant materials reported are residues of charred nuts (Canerium Zelanicum), seeds (probably Oriza sp.) and some of the specimens in the assemblage are waiting to be identified. The abundance of terrestrial shells (Acavus sp., Oligospeira sp.) among the food residues indicates that the cave was inhabited by the prehistoric communities in a period of relatively wet climatic condition was prevailed.

Prof Raj Somadeva at site

Some of the non-utilitarian artifacts found (a grid drawn on an undressed stone surface) have strongly suggest a conceptual inclination towards symbolism which has been considered as one of the explicit manifestation of the hunters in transition. Prehistoric deposit of the Alugalage cave has been dated to the 3505 cal. BCE. This project is funded by the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology and the National Science Foundation (research grant number IK/2014/01).

Non-utilitarian artifacts

 

Excavating the Royal Palace of Seethawaka

By Chryshane Mendis

The rise and fall of the Seethawaka Kingdom in the 16th century is one of those remarkable episodes of history where a kingdom with a short lifespan could have an effect for generations to come such as that of the short lived empire of Alexander the Great; such was the feat of the warlike Seethawaka Kingdom. Seethawaka as a Kingdom came into existence in 1521 after the Vijayaba Kollaya where the kingdom of Kotte was divided amoung the three brothers, with Kotte to Buvenekabahu, Raigama to Raigam Bandara and Seethawaka to Mayadunne (the city of Seethawaka being the modern day Avissawella).

Growth of the Seethawaka Kingdom https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Sitawaka

Seethawaka emerged as a warlike kingdom under its two rulers, Mayadunne and Rajasinhe I and led the national struggle in ousting the Portuguese who had by then made a foothold in the island through the King of Kotte. The war effort of Rajasinghe and Mayadunne had forced the Portuguese to abandon Kotte in 1565 and moved to Colombo thus Seethawaka became the largest kingdom in the South West. With the annexation of Kanda Uda Rata in 1582 and the confining of the Portuguese to the fort of Colombo, the war machine of Rajasinghe brought the entire country except the northern Jaffna kingdom under the domain of Seethawaka. With the death of King Rajasinghe I in 1593 the once mighty kingdom fell due to internal strife and enabled the Portuguese to march onto Seethawaka who sacked the city. No invading army ever marched onto the city from the 1540s till its fall and thus would have grown into a splendid city with many buildings and a grand Palace as stated by many sources.

Sadly no trace is found of this city today with Seethawaka being confined to just a name. The old city is believed to be in the area of the present Avissawella town. Although the area is strewn with legends of its once mighty past, only two prominent archaeological sites exist; one is that of the beautiful Barendi Kovil and the second is the site of the Royal Palace with the ruins of a Dutch fort.

This archaeological site located on the Southern bank of the Seethawaka Ganga and could be reached by travelling on the Maaniyangama road with the turn off to it near the Avissawella Courts from the Avissawella-Hatton road. Travelling about half a kilometre one could find on the right the sign board by the Department of Archaeology along with the Regional Archaeological Office.

The Royal Palace of Seethawaka was said to have been destroyed by the Portuguese who built their own fortress in the vicinity. Later the Dutch built their fort in 1675 on a hillock said to be the site of the Palace; but this fort was abandoned after ten years. In 2013 it was reported that a section of the Palace was found when conducting excavations here. To find out more about this the writer visited the ruins and the Regional Office in February 2017. Below is a summary of the excavations conducted at the site by the Department of Archaeology.

Plan of the Dutch Fort of Seethawaka from Fortifications Along The Kelani River by D.P.Chandrasekara

Summary of the excavations of 2012-2013

Speaking to Ms. Janaki Biyanwila the Regional Officer Excavations, she explained that no archaeological excavations were conducted here prior to 2012 and stated that their main two objectives in excavating this site were to first scientifically investigate as to whether this is the real location of the Palace and secondly to excavate and conserve the visible ruins of the Dutch Fort. The site is located on a hillock just east of the Regional Archaeological Office of Sabaragamuwa with the visible ruins of a Dutch fort with the rampart being around 100 feet long and 8 feet high on each side with four large bastions and in the center a square ruined structure. All of this is constructed by large kabook stone and neatly cut stones. The existence of these ruins are also mentioned in The Interior of Ceylon And Its Inhabitants (1821) by Dr. John Davy where its stated that he visited them in August 1819.

The ruins before excavation, from Fortifications Along The Kelani River by D.P.Chandrasekara

The excavations commenced with funding from the Department of Archaeology in 2012 under the guidance of Dr. Nimal Perera the then Director of Excavations and Supervised by M. A. S. T. K. Madurapperuma Assistant Director Sabaragamuwa. The technique used for the excavation was the Grid-box method with 3m x 3m squares (which involves dividing a section on a grid and digging squares leaving a space between each square called a Baulk showing the terrain elevation before excavations). The site was divided into four sections, and the North and East sections were excavated in 2012 with 12 3×3 squares in the North section and 23 squares in the East section. In 2013 a total of 106 squares were dug. During the first year, evidence of the Dutch fort was uncovered with evidence of two gun placements on each bastion. In 2013 they uncovered evidence of the existence of a grandeur building predating the Fort.

Out of the many artifacts uncovered from the site were large iron nails used for roofing, large potter

y with decorations, Dutch coins etc. The most definite evidence of the existence of the Palace was the discovery of large clear cut stones in the center structure along with kabook stones. As it is reported that the Palace was destroyed, therefore no evidence could be found of the original structure of the Palace but it is evident that the foundation stones of the Palace were used in later construction. Through the excavations, it was revealed that the ruins belonged to two periods with the remains of the Dutch fort being the newer construction and foundations of an older structure in the center predating the Dutch fort was clearly identified. Further compelling evidence of the Palace was the discovery of a layer of burnt earth along with roof tiles broken into small fragments throwing weight onto the fact that the Palace was attacked and burnt to the ground.

 

Foundations of the inner structure. The square cut formations are the remains of the Grid-box excavations.

 

   

 

Ms. Biyanwila further explained that originally the Palace complex would have spread across 4-5 acres, but the present site is only within half an acre, she stated that proposals are underway for the conservation of these ruins which would be funded by the Central Cultural Fund.

These clear-cut stone steps are said to be part of the Palace

We may never know how exactly the Palace was, but it is still a thrilling find to the history lover to glimpse upon the materials that would have once made up the adobe of the mighty Lion King of Seethawaka whose power confined a powerful European nation to just a Fort. Walking through the ruins of the Fort one enters from an opening in the ramparts on the western side and is immediately met with a flight of stairs leading up to the center structure. The ramparts and the bastions too could be clearly identified and would have given a commanding position as this fort is situated on a natural hill. Remarkable as the fort is, one could not help imagining as to how the Royal Palace would have been with its many interconnected halls and apartments spread throughout the entire area which is now home to Rubber and Coconut plantations. It is captivating to think that the hill, offering an elevated view of the surroundings, could have been the location of an important section of the Palace, possibly even the very room of Rajasinghe.

References:

  • Chandrasekara D. P., Architectural Heritage Of Sri Lanka: Fortifications Along The Kelani River,
  • Punchihewa G. S. G., A Lost Medieval Kingdom of “The Lion King”,
  • Gunawardena Philip, The Heritage of Seethawaka,
  • Excavation division Sabaragamuwa Department of Archaeology, Seethawaka Maliga Boomiya Kaneema 2012-2013.

Udupiyangala excavations, the conclusion

The Udupiyangala cave in Kalthota, Balangoda is a prehistoric habitat which was excavated by Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala in 1936. Through that excavation it was recorded that quartz tools and a clay pot with seeds was found. Based on that evidence Dr. Deraniyagala believed it reflected a new path in the Stone Age culture of Prehistoric Sri Lanka. To identify this culture he proposed the termed Ferolithic culture. But at that time Dr. Deraniyagala was unable to determine as to how old that culture was.

In February 2016 under the Hunters in Transition project, excavations of Udupiyangala was recommenced mainly to determine its age. As a result of the excavations, tools made from transparent quartz, snail shells, burned seeds and many more important findings were made.

Amoung the finds, the most interesting find is of a pendant made from Chert stone cut into the shape of a heart. The soil level in which this pendant was found was dated to 7745 BC.

Fieldwork of the Hunters in Transition Project -2016 (Second field season)

The second season of the hunters in Transition project was initiated between 22nd July and 4th September 2016. Two excavations have been carried out in Illukkumbura of Balangoda. The objective of the fieldwork was to investigate the adaptation of the prehistoric communities in the area to the climatic changes of the early and the middle Holocene.

 

Prof Raj Somadva during the excavation

Prof Raj Somadva during the excavation

The first cave excavated was Paragahamaditta galge alias Bandukanda galge in Panana has revealed a rich assemblage of prehistoric stone implements. Lack of prehistoric food residues suggests that the cave had been utilised by the prehistoric communities of the area as a transit location during their mobility of transhumance.

Paragahamaditta galge alias Bandukanda galge in Panana

Paragahamaditta galge alias Bandukanda galge in Panana

The second cave excavated was Alu galge in Maddekanda of Illukkumbura has produced an important assemblage of artifacts suggesting more complex stage of transition of the prehistoric communities lived in the hilly flanks of the area. Except a wealthy collection of prehistoric implements (stone and bone) ad food residues, BRW pottery and a few beads were reported from the parallel levels of the cave floor. Findings of  3 shark tooth and a piece of a coral suggests that the group inhabited the cave had travelled about 30km to the sea and had triggered off a new sphere of economic interaction with the settlements in the valley of the maritime littoral areas. Radiometric datings of the excavations are expected by the end of September 2016.

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Alu galge in Maddekanda of Illukkumbura

Alu galge in Maddekanda of Illukkumbura

Hunugalagala Limestone Cave Excavation 2013

Hunugalagala is a limestone cave situated on the southern slope of the central highlands in Sri Lanka. It is a mighty rock formation that has been formed through million years ago. The surrounding area of this cave had been used by the foraging communities at least 4000 years ago. Grind-stones utilized for cereal processing and elegantly manufactured microlithic stone implements (quartz) are visible on the ground at several locations not far from the cave. Excavation in the Hunugalagala cave was initiated on 27th July 2013 and the archaeological findings are stunning. The artifacts so far unearthed include stone grind stones, painted potsherds (black lines on red background) and human/animal ? bones which are highly calcified. Hunugalagala is the only cave that has been selected for deep archaeological investigations in the history of the archaeology in Sri Lanka. The excavation team headed by Raj Somadeva (PhD), Professor in Archaeology of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology in the University of Kelaniya. A Physical Anthropologist and a Geologist with several amateur archaeologists are accompanying the excavation.

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Hunugalagala Limestone Cave Excavation 2013

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Hunugalagala Limestone Cave Excavation 2013

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Hunugalagala Limestone Cave Excavation 2013

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Hunugalagala Limestone Cave Excavation 2013

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