Ranchamadama Canoe Burial Excavation

An ancient cemetery was reported from the village of Ranchamadama in the Kolonna Divisional Secretary’s division of the Ratnapura District. The site is in the Ranchamadama Government school premises of the Embilipitiya Regional Education Director’s division.

The team of archaeologists of the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology on their first visit to the site by in mid June 2007, observed marks of 4 buried individual clay structures remaining on the surface at the location.

They consisted of oblong clay structures with a thin wall of burnt clay. At the time of the first observations, the site was in an endangered situation. On the one hand it was subject to continuous soil erosion and on the other hand, the site has been a prime attraction of treasure seekers of the area.

It was decided that a limited excavation should be carried out at the site aimed at rapid data retrieval and an assessment made of the measures required to safeguard the site. The present report outlines the preliminary results of the excavation.

The Site

This site is located in a valley bordered on its western side by several foothills of the Rakvana mountain range. Mirisvalpota,  Bandarahinna and Samarasingukanda are among them. The human settlements have been on the upper elevation of these foothills, perhaps since the proto historic period. The main indicator of such is the presence of Black and Red ware potsherds at some places on the top of the hills. This mountain habitation still survives in the area. The notable villages of this kind persisting to this day are Uda Ranchamadama and Hingura situated north of the present site. The main water courses in the area are Andolu Oya and Halmilla ara, which are branches of Timbolketiara ara, one of the major tributaries of the Walave ganga

The area, in which the individual burials are scattered, extends over 30×40 meters in the school premises. Signs of 6 burials were exposed at the initial stage of the excavation. Later, two more have been identified in the southeastern part of the excavated trench. An estimation of the total number of burials at the site is difficult due to the presence of the permanent buildings of the school. It could however be assumed that at least 5 to 8 individual burials are submerged beneath the school buildings.

The terrain where the burials lie scattered is an elevated ground, about 23 meters above the surrounding plain. A soil layer about 1 meter thick had been removed during the construction of the school buildings, which suggests that the upper levels of the burials were 1 meter below the present surface of the terrain.


An area of 15x 5 meter was demarcated for the excavation. The Open Layer Striping (OLS) method was employed to uncover the burial structures. The entire area selected for the excavation was divided into 1×1 meter girds forming 75 sub-squares. Apart from the sub-squares that covered the burial chambers, 14 numbers of other sub-squares were selected randomly for excavation. The purpose was to observe whether there was any structural association between the individual burials. Six burial structures and two pit burials were exposed. The maximum depth of the excavation was 1 meter from the surface. 6 burial canoes and 2 pit burials were excavated.


There were three layer horizons in the stratigraphy. The boundary between the two layers (layer 1 & 2) was sharp but that between layers 2 and 3 diffused.

Layer 1 had coarse grained sediment. Compaction was indurate with a medium sand composition of which the average thickness was 38 cm. Color 7.5R ¾ (dark red).

Layer 2 was a fine grained layer that had a brittle compaction. Composition is fine sand. Color 10 R 4/4 reddish brown. It seemed that this layer was formed as a result of the decomposition of the leaf-fall. The average thickness was 16 cm.

Layer 3– This is the sandstone bedrock. Compaction was fine-grained and stiff. Composition is medium grained sand. Color 10 YR 5/5 yellowish brown)


This cemetery consisted of two types of burials i.e burial canoes and pit-burials. Burial canoes are structures made of clay and oblong in shape. The dimensions of the individual canoes excavated varied (Table 1).

Pit-burials contained only the funerary urn that contained human corporeal ash with a few rubble stones (granite) utilized to keep the funerary urn balanced and covered. The edges of the pits were also clearly discernible at such locations.

Burial Height (mean) Max. width Max. length Interior space Diameter
1 0.55m 0.70m 2.00m 1.4m
2 0.70m 0.84m 2.36m 1.98 m
3 0.70m 0.65m 3.00m 1.95 m
4 0.55m 0.84m 2.52m 2.1 m
5 one  side of this burial canoe remains submerged under a school building
6 1.60m
7 0.70m 0.95m 2.75m 1.82 m
8 1.17m

Table 1. The dimensions of the burials.

Construction technology

The walls of the burial canoes had been constructed using fired mud-stones of seemingly cubical shape. Most of them have an oblong shape but with irregular dimensions between each other. The average dimensions of a stone are 24(L) x 10 (W) x 12 (H) cm. All the burial canoes were planted on the sandstone bedrock that is approximately 1 meter below the surface. The sandstone had been cut down to about 50 cm according to the canoe layout before the walls were constructed.  Some of the canoes that were low in height had been constructed on the sandstone bedrock instead of penetrating into it. A raw clay paste had been utilized as masonry to put all mud-stones of the walls together.

Use of Burial canoes

Two activities were clear from the artifacts and the other discernible remnants such as the thick layer of charcoal that remained at the bottom of the canoes, the burnt clay lumps filled interior of the burial canoe and the remnants of the clay vessels contained human corporeal ash and microlithic stone implements. Those are (1) cremation (most probably the skeletons) and (2) deposition of corporeal ash. The burnt lumps of clay that remained suggests the existence of a clay roof at the time of cremation which was subsequently removed to collect the ash and  the final stage of the ritual the burial canoe was filled with what remained of the clay roof. Further clarification of the way of utilization of these burial canoes needs a careful investigation and therefore it is too early to arrive at any definite conclusion.


The medium of artifacts that remained at the site was confined to 2 categories apart from the human corporeal remains and the burial structures. These were the clay objects and the stone objects. The only clay artifacts reported are the earthenware vessels other than a single piece of a clay pipe.  The stone artifact types have little variations including microlithic implements (quartz & chert), a few red ochre stones and the rubble stones used as auxiliary apparatus at the burials.

Clay vessels– Most of the fragments of clay vessels have been reported from the interior of the burial canoes. Clearly those were deposited with human corporeal ash. No vessels have been remained intact. A single burial canoe contains more than one vessel. Tentative calculations show that some burial canoes contained 30 individual earthenware vessels. This was estimated on the basis of the different rim types present. Further analysis of the earthenware shreds is still underway. The characteristic ware type present is the Black and Red ware (BRW).

Clay pipe– A fragment of a burnt clay pipe was reported from the interior of burial canoe 2 at a position of 9cm below the surface (9.6cm (L) x 9cm (D)). This pipe has a hole (Diameter 3.4 cm) in its center. This probably had been used as an air inlet to burial canoe number 2.

Stone implements – A collection of finely made microlithic implements has been reported from the excavation. They were found both in the interior space of the burial canoes as well as outside the burials. Most of the stone implements found in the interior had been deposited in the earthenware vessels. The collection comprises finely retouched blades and bladelets, cutters and scrapers. A full description of the artifacts found will be presented in the final report.


The 14C dates obtained to the RMB goes back 1359 ± 163yrs BCE (S-3652, BS-282, sample number, RB/2007/1) as the oldest date to the bottom level of the burial canoe number 2.

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