Keynote address by Prof. Raj Somadewa at The Annual Research Session 2013 of University of Sabaragamuwa, Sri Lanka

This is the transcript of the keynote address delivered by Prof. Raj Somadewa at The Annual Research Session 2013 of University of Sabaragamuwa, Sri Lanka held on  December 19, 2013.


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Prof. Raj Somadewa delivering the keynote address

Prof. Raj Somadewa delivering the keynote address

Honorable sirs, distinguish guests, colleagues and Dear friends,

It is a great honor for me to be invited to deliver the keynote address on  this special occasion today. I consider that you have privileged me to express my own views and perspectives to the wider academic community in your university.  I thought it is more appropriate to begin my lecture referring to the first occasion I came to know about this meeting. A couple of weeks ago Dr. Ms. Paranavitana of your faculty, called me to ask my consent to accept the invitation to deliver the keynote address of the annual research session of her university. I accepted it with great pleasure. Since then I was so eager to find a suitable theme for the talk. In the meantime Dr. Paranavitana called me for the second time and inquired about my preparation and she asked if I could   talk on my own research which is spatially focused on archaeology of the Haldummulla area. On behalf of the Vice chancellor and the organizing committee of this conference, thank you very much Dr. Ms. Paranavitana, for your concern and the kindness conveyed. However I thought it is apt to share some ideas on a theme related to our thinking on history and tradition which perhaps, I am professionally qualified to talk on.
Dear friends, whatever field we are qualified to work in our professional lives, the inspiration made by the historical thinking on our working culture cannot be neglected. We all are historically derived and our mental templates are historically molded. As T.S. Eliot once wrote in one of his poems;
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future?
And time future contained in time past.
Time past contained in time future that is why we need history to survive as social beings.
Let me now explain what circumstances caused us to formulate our current historical thought. The beginning of archaeology in Sri Lanka is a manifestation of the curiosity of British colonial administrative officers some of whom were fascinated by ‘the ancient civilizations of the orient’. The first English translation of the fifth-century chronicle Mahāvamsa provided a literary guide to search for lost cities of the country, just like Homer’s Illiad inspired Schliemann to search for the ancient city of Troy.
Efforts made by British colonial officers to record and document ancient ruins during the latter part of the 19th century provided a remarkable contrast. Uncovered ruins of ancient buildings and sculptures were assessed as the achievements of a local past and were assimilated into a global cultural order. The artistic quality of the historical paintings and the Buddhist architecture as well as the technology of the ancient irrigation works of the country were contrasted with that of the classical ‘western’ civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Near East. This comparative approach to the early archaeology in Sri Lanka excluded the possibility of having a more specific scientific research frame to view the cultural development of the country.  The colonial enthusiasm for the Sri Lankan past remained within the limits defined by the differences between the colonizers and the colonized. The influence of the British colonial ideology was sustained even in the early post-independence archaeology of the country.
Post-independence scholarship in Sri Lankan history and archaeology sought the legitimacy provided by an uninterrupted existence of the indigenous people of the country and their cultural history was characterised by the historical texts and the archaeological remains.
The main streams of thinking that affected the archaeology of the island after the 1950’s might benefit from examination through a post-colonial theoretical perspective. After gaining political independence in 1948, attempts were made to investigate the culture and identity of the society. The resistance created against the colonist’s view of the ‘voiceless, sensual, female, despotic, irrational and backward’ character of the cultures in the colonies is apparent in post-independence archaeology in Sri Lanka. The search for the existence of indigenous cultures the growth of full-scale literacy , deeper consideration of the historical tradition of paintings and sculptures and socio political aspect of monumental architecture  characterize the culture historical trend in post-independence scholarship.
Post-independence Sri Lanka also has some historians and archaeologists strongly influenced by the growing nationalistic nation-state ideology. A historical theme of ‘aryanization’ from the historical chronicles was used to glorify the past. Aryanization is described in the chronicles as a substantial population migration from the northern part of India to Sri Lanka during the mid-first millennium BCE. It also recounts a story linking Sinhala identity with ‘a white skinned race’, which is believed to have led to an inheritance of racial purity.
The consolidation of the nationalistic ideology of Sri Lanka, which was fragmented during nearly 350 years of colonial domination was an important social dynamic during the first half of the 20th century and is reflected in literature and religious discourse. Among some Sri Lankan intellectuals, the archaeological heritage, regardless of the spatial and temporal dimensions of particular ruins, became an important tool to push the boundaries of the long-term existence of the nation far back in time, long before colonization. Archaeology also provided an anchor for the social psyche to rely on the idea of a more glorious past.
Archaeological activities in the 1970’s on the island were mostly empirically oriented. The research results were incorporated into nationalistic perspectives of the past.  In particular, the deep stratified excavations launched at the ancient city of Anuradhapura provided a sequence of cultural continuity from the early first millennium BCE to the early second millennium CE. Heavy emphasis was placed upon the emergence of writing to bolster past cultural achievements. Finds of north Indian cultural materials associated with the first irrigated agriculture have renewed discussion of the aryanization theme. The theoretical inspiration of the archaeological work carried out in Sri Lanka in the 1970’s came from foreign meta-narratives such as the Childean concept of the ‘urban revolution’.
During the 1980’s, the initiation of the Cultural Triangle project under the Central Cultural Fund of the UNESCO/Sri Lanka joint venture, induced a sudden change in the methods and practice of Sri Lankan archaeology. Five major historical sites (Abhayagiriya monastery and Jethavana monastery in Anuradhapura, the 5th century city/royal complex at Sigiriya, the Alahana parivena monastery complex at Polonnaruva in the north central province and the 17th and 18th century city of Kandy in central province) were selected under this program for research and conservation. A uniform set of methods in excavation and recording was prescribed for the project and an extensive program of excavation and conservation undertaken. The interest shown by socio-political and intellectual institutions of the country towards the selection of the sites for the Cultural Triangle project reflects the attraction of the great monuments for the nation. In epistemological terms, it was an attempt to harmonize post-independence ideology with a more scientifically rigorous methodology. The role of the project in developing research infrastructure and in archaeological capacity building has been remarkable. The Cultural Triangle project stands out as a significant turning point in the history of archaeological research in Sri Lanka.
Cultural continuity from prehistoric cultures using lithic technology to the emergence of iron technology became a major research interest in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The cemeteries of the iron-using culture excavated during that period produced an important artefact assemblage from a previously unexplained period of the island’s cultural history. The iron-using culture of Sri Lanka has been viewed through a ‘South Indian inspiration’ paradigm and this is still subjected to a wider discussion.
During the latter part of the 1980’s, an interest in the ‘common people of the past’ emerged among the archaeologist in the country. It was an attempt at a new point of departure and a reaction against the previously prevailing focus on the ‘temples, palaces, and tombs’ in the social history of the island. This reorientation mirrored a global trend towards a new social archaeology. One of the pioneering advocates of this emerging movement in 1989, Senake Bandaranayake launched the settlement archaeology project.  Unfortunately the project as well as this general trend within Sri Lankan archaeology was soon discontinued. Academic interest in the ‘common people of the past’ was apparently insufficiently grounded in the contemporary social context of Sri Lanka, but more detailed analysis is needed.
During the mid-1990’s, a research interest in the ‘Neolithic’ origins of the island emerged. The term Neolithic signifies a new technological era when both stone and metal had been used in parallel to each other. Archaeological materials associated with the Stone Age-Iron Age transition at a number of sites were re-examined from a ‘Neolithic’ perspective. No adequate explanation has been offered of the clear-cut break from the prehistoric Stone Age to supposed ‘Neolithic Age’ in the archaeological sequence. The search for a ‘Neolithic’ can be described as an ‘intellectual artifice’ inspired by the cultural development in Europe.
Some changes in the archaeological data acquisition occurred during the 1980’s and the 1990’s. The emphasis shifted from site-specific survey to regional scale survey. However, the theoretical developments of that period did not match the methodological improvements.
Knowledge is a product of its time. After the 1960’s, several major research works on the Sri Lankan past were inspired by influential socio philosophical thinking. For instance, the ‘privileged relics’ of the past were subjected to a deep scholarly concern. Buddhist architecture was theoretically explained for the first time through the view of the then dominant theoretical paradigms. At that time, most of the other research in archaeology of Sri Lanka carried forward the Indianization paradigm as the main theoretical frame of reference. Expansion of the Indian culture outside the Indian mainland has been termed as ‘Indianization’. During the 1960’s, the  idea of ‘Indianization’  became prominent as an explanatory tool for understanding the development of the South and Southeast Asian cultures. The cultural imperialistic notion of the Indianization idea has discredited it as a single explanatory theory.
The emergence of another line of research in the Sri Lankan archaeology is discernible from the late 1980’s and onwards. This represents the expansion of the research scope to a number of new fields. Notable examples are the maritime archaeology of the Galle harbour project, metallurgical studies in Alakolavava in Sigiriya and Samanalavava in your area, ecology and resource exploitation, animal Osteology related to archaeology settlements and environmental interaction and settlements and spatial interaction, numismatic studies in the wider Indian Ocean region and paleoclimatic studies in the Horton plains.
In the last decades of the last century and the early decades of the 21st century we are passing an ambitious path towards explaining our historical development with more clarity and confidence. Formulation of intelligible research programs on historically relevant themes on the basis of a viable research frame of reference are emerging. The belief of external influences like that of indianization paradigm did not survive and the focus on internal dynamics became the solid foundation of recent works. Explanation of historical continuities and changes has been considered as the objective of archaeology vs.  providing mere descriptions on popular themes to accomplish social nostalgia.
Under the aegis of these new developments now we know this island was colonized by the archaic Homo sapiens at least 125 000 yrs ago. Since that they had proliferated to the hinterland and made an adaptive response to the diverse environments in this country. Kuruvita, Kitulgala and Balangoda in your province became the key focal areas of this research program.  The leading and eminent figures of the prehistoric research in this country, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala and Dr. Siran Deraniyagala are from your area.  Once we thought that history of our civilization was supplanted by the so called Aryans who migrated from the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. New evidence are appearing to argue that it is not a correct historical assumption. As our historical chronicles describe, the Aryan migrants arrived here in 600 BCE. But now we know at least 1800 years before that we were in a position to cremate our deceased relatives and construct burial chambers to deposit their corporeal remains. We made polychrome clay pots using the wheel. The most striking feature of this age was the use of iron. We have clear evidence to prove that we invented the iron smelting technology to the world 4400 years ago. Rest of the world had acquired that knowledge 800 years later. Once again the Sabaragamuva area is becoming a key geographic focus to unveil such enigmatic information, which helps to reconstruct an important cultural trajectory of our country. According to the data surveyed and excavated in Haldummulla and its suburbs a new transformation of the Balangoda man could be proposed. During the mid Holocene the hunter-gatherers who occupied the upper montane region had faced the hardships of climatic change. The pollen concentration in the Horton plains shows a marked decrease of vegetation. It was due to the decline of the southwestern monsoon pattern. This climatic event is also evidenced in lake deposits in mainland India as well. Soon after this climatic deterioration, there was a wet phase resulting in an increase of the biomass. A period between 3000 and 2000 BCE, the Balangoda man took a new initiative to exploit floral resources as to a response to this fresh climatic makeover. We have evidence to show that for the first time he has made crude pottery in the cave situated in Walmeetalava in Haldummulla. They had experimented with sedentary life there. Our next field season will hopefully provides us micro fossils of the cereals they exploited and animals hunted for their food quest.
Dear friends, Let me conclude my keynote address mentioning one important thing. At least 5000 years ago our inventive ancestors had marched along the mountain slopes surrounded by the premises of your university. The wind that passes through your sophisticated laboratories carries their spirit. This landscape is induces creative thinking inherited from our native scientific knowledge.  I have no doubt that the Sabaragamuva University will be the intellectual hub of that tradition in the future. I wish you all a great success.  Thank you very much. .


Public Lecturer – POWER OF CURATING: Making Museums Come Alive

POWER OF CURATING: Making Museums Come Alive
Making Museums Come Alive
Speaker: Karen Lee
Smithsonian Curator
Wednesday 2013 July 24 3:00 pm
National Museum
Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha Colombo 07

Karen Lee is a curator from the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex based in Washington, D.C.

She teaches in Asia and Europe and is a highly-valued facilitator devoted to helping museum staff find creative solutions to daunting challenges. A believer in educational outreach and collaboration. Lee couriered a rare American coin on a seven country European tour in 2012. This special project attracted more than 10 million viewers online, in person and through other media.

Karen M. Lee has a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies undergraduate degree in Biology.

Please confirm your participation on or before July 24, 2013
Tel: 011-2498106, or 011-242463 Email: amcentersl@state.gov

The American Center Colombo

See Also

Ms Karen Lee
Numismatic Curator
National Museum of American History

January 1995– Present (18 years 7 months)Washington, D.C.

Curator specializing in American and Russian coinage and numismatic art. Expertise includes exhibition planning, international collaborations, collections research and digitization. Intnernationally recognized in visitor evaluation and learning in museums. Author of “The Private Sketchbook of George T. Morgan”. Adjunct faculty, National Council of Science Museums, Kolkata India. Member of the International Community of  Museums (ICOM) and international speaker.

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