24th March 2002

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Where farmers till for coins

By Kavan Ratnatunga

The ancient kingdom of Ruhuna in south-east Sri Lanka, was as important a historical site as the more famous ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva. However, this region has not yet been archaeologically excavated or preserved to the same extent.

The historic area is just outside the Yala wildlife sanctuary and had been protected by the jungle until the early 1980s when the then Prime Minister R. Premadasa, opened it up for village cultivation. Archaeological land fell into the possession of villagers who then started finding ancient artefacts including coins in the course of digging the land.

The villagers saw value mainly in the gems they found. Any gold or silver coins were sold to the local jewellery trade and most often melted, unless spotted by someone who recognized its numismatic value. Rare copper and lead coins and pottery of various sizes and shapes were discarded as valueless.

A local collector, A. Ratnayake who moved into the area in the late 1980s started looking for the discarded items. After a chance meeting in Galle Mr. Ratnayake had with Rajah Wickremesinghe from Colombo, these items got directly into the hands of a knowledgeable collector. Mr. Ratnayake then expanded his search and encouraged the villagers to dig and look for such items. It also stopped the copper and lead coins as well as the pottery, beads and other miscellaneous items of archaeological interest being discarded.

I met Rajah Wickremesinghe in 1999 and 2000 in Colombo and was able to obtain from him a number of coins from Ruhuna, some of which had been described by him in his detailed monograph on the subject Ruhuna; An Ancient Civilization Re-visited, which he authored with Prof. Osmund Bopearachchi.

I also met Brig. Munesinghe, current President of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society (SLNS), who had also obtained a significant collection of punch- mark and Lakshmi plaque coins from Mr. Ratnayake in Kataragama.

Although much had been written about the coin finds from Akurugoda, I was able to find out very little about the place itself. On my last visit to Lanka in late 2001, I decided to visit Ruhuna to see and photograph the excavations where all these ancient coins were found.

Akurugoda near Tissamaharama, is close to Kataragama, about 165 miles south-east of Colombo. It takes six to seven hours of travel by road to get there. After debating whether to hire a car and driver for the trip, I decided to catch an air-conditioned bus from the main Pettah bus stand early in the morning of December 17. Unable to find a direct bus leaving at 6 a.m., I took a bus to Matara, and then to Hambantota, and finally a local bus to Kataragama reaching the "Gam Udawa" junction at about 12:45 p.m.

The junction is marked by the Clock Tower built by Premadasa in 1987 for one of his annual "Gam Udawa" celebrations. The clock still chimed the hour on time but the clock face was a few hours in error because of frequent power-cuts. Mr. Ratnayake has a large tourist shop selling wood carvings and arborics.

Soon, he was showing me lots of interesting items from his collection. There were large stocks of pottery items of different shapes like seals, discs, ellipsoids, balls, beads, each in a wide range of sizes; and also metal items - rings, pendants, antimony rods etc The full range of items has been catalogued in Rajah Wickremesinghe's book.

After sharing a simple meal, we left later in the afternoon to visit some of the local farmers near Tissamaharama who supplied him with their archaeological finds. He needed to make this trip regularly or else lose interesting finds to others.

The villagers dig the ground in their plots of land when they are not occupied in agriculture. It keeps them occupied during times of drought and they hope to find something of value to earn a few extra rupees to feed their hungry families. They dig only to a depth of about four feet since experience has shown them that below that depth hardly any items of interest are found.

Their main interest is in gems. Everything else that remains in the basket after the mud has been washed away is a bonus. They don't keep proper records of the depth at which the items are found and when asked they tell you what they think you would like to hear.

The coins ranged from silver punch-marks and Lakshmi plaques used in the Ruhuna Kingdom 2,000 years ago (from the lowest layers) to more modern 17-18th century Dutch period coins and even a few Victorian coins from the mid-19th century (from layers close to the surface). The farmers collect all their finds in a bag and if they feel there are items of particular value, they even bury the bag rather than just hide it under their beds.

Dealers and collectors who visit them pick out what they find interesting and the rest remains and grows with any new find.

It is unfortunate that the farmers do an uneducated check to see whether the coins are of silver or gold. It is amazing that even a few survive the abuse. Some of the crude methods of cleaning are:

* Frying coins over an open flame till the flame changes to green, and then dropping them into a bowl of water to cool and for the dirt to drop off.

* Boiling the coins in coconut oil

* Hand cleaning the dirt on the coin by using a steel chisel.

Some ancient coins that have gone through such crude measures, particularly those that have been fried, look like fakes now. Those cleaned with a chisel have scrape marks. Both the farmers and local traders need to be educated that they should preserve the coins without making any attempt to clean them.

They should at most wash with water and dry them . They need to understand that the numismatic value of the coins would depreciate significantly and in many cases be lost by the crude methods they employ to clean the coins.

There were some very interesting items such as a disc made of black polished ware with an elephant and Srivasta symbols on either side, a nice ring- mould, and a Lankan curiosity - a small metal spoon to clean ear wax (age unknown) at the first farmer's house we visited. The items were of significant value.

We visited a number of other farmers. Some had interesting items, some had nothing significant to offer. For the farmer, this trade was a source of supplementary income.

If they didn't have any item of archaeological interest, the collector would at least buy some produce from their land. He might pay more than the value of the goods purchased on one visit, and buy items at a bargain on another. It was almost a payment for digging. When the collector was interested in excavating a particular region, he would finance their fuel cost to work the water pumps to wash the soil. It was a truly co-operative arrangement which seemed to benefit all.

The next day, we visited a few farmers and when looking through their bags of ancient goodies, we were shown a small coin pot which had been discovered without any coins.

All the villagers who had been given state land in the area seem to be finding small quantities of ancient items including coins in any place they excavate.

We visited one such site which had been marked out after the base of a large Buddha statute had been detected a few feet underground.

The region clearly needs to be declared a protected area like any other important archaeological site. Major archaeological discoveries are still made accidentally in home gardens of villagers and probably only a few are properly reported and excavated by the Archaeological Department.

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