Did pre-historic man live here?

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Exciting finds are being unearthed painstakingly by a group of enthusiastic archaeology students at a site in Vessagiriya

High noon. A motley group of young women and men including a monk are on their haunches atop a massive rock, lovingly tracing with their fingers an ancient inscription, oblivious to the rivulets of sweat pouring down their cheeks in the scorching sun of Anuradhapura.

This is not the only group out at midday in this ancient city, when most people are seeking the shelter of cool buildings. Across the road, amidst thorny scrub, two more groups are carrying out digs, dubbed explorations and excavations – all to find out what this area would have “harboured” centuries ago.

A view of Vessagiriya Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

Welcome to Vessagiriya -- very close to Isurumuniya famous for its lovers -- that has been given scant attention.

And the labour of love of these youth from the Peradeniya University’s Archaeology Department has paid rich dividends. For they think they have struck “gold”. They have found in their initial excavations, to a layman what looks like pieces of stone, but to their trained eye tiny chips of quartz or thiruvana, which they believe are tools of the latter part of the Stone Age, the Mesolithic period. Although it is known that Anuradhapura was a living and breathing city since the 3rd century BC, these tools may prove that pre-historic man too had settlements here before that.

Striking gold: A tiny quartz tool that was found

W. Ishankha Malsiri, 22, and Nivandama Vijithagnana Thera, 26, remember the day they found the chips clearly. “It was June 6,” says Ishankha explaining that grid W7 S1 B1 was where their breakthrough came though explorations were carried out on 10 grids. “For every grid, we take a soil sample and found these tools about three feet down in a gravel layer,” says Ishankha hardly able to contain his excitement. Three tools or part of tools and also chips, probably discarded when making the tools have also been unearthed.

Among the finds are ceramic, pieces of pottery, the rim of pots, shards and more recently Black and Red Ware. All these finds are recorded in detail in grids, labelled, placed in polythene sachets and sent to the laboratory for testing.

These artefacts have been found at a site, across the road from the Vessagiriya rock outcrops, set amidst paddy fields, with the bund of the Tissa Wewa in view.

Students hard at work in the scorching sun taking estampages

“At this site we found gravel soil similar to that found in the area where the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura was located,” says D. Thusitha Mendis, 35, Senior Research Officer from the Central Cultural Fund who is the efficient site manager of the student group from Peradeniya, now camped at Vessagiriya.

Explaining how they picked the spot for the exploration and excavation, Thusitha says: “We made a grid covering an area from a centre-point in Vessagiriya, going one km towards the Malwatu Oya and also in the other direction towards the Tissa Wewa. We also drew a detailed cross section.” Later they identified a 300-metre area for exploration and zeroed in on two points.

Early that morning, a tractor had driven up to a few tents and an open shed put up unobtrusively by the rocks of Vessagiriya, blending in with the stark but beautiful landscape typical of the North Central Province and disgorged youth, ranging in age from 19-23 who then joined those already poring over maps and grids.

“Some of them are boarded in houses nearby while others live in the camp,” says Thusitha taking in the neatly pitched tents and the white stones marking the walkways, with the sweep of his hand. The youth, all Honours degree undergraduate students of the archaeology course, have been in Anuradhapura since early June and will reluctantly wind up their field work in about two weeks.

“This is a scientific investigation. Everything is numbered, be it a coin, a bone or a piece of pottery, then computerized and the cumulative data will give us an in-depth look at the eras gone by,” says Uditha Jinadasa, a post-graduate student who has come to Vessagiriya to impart her knowledge on how to use the latest technology to make archaeological work easier.

As The Sunday Times joins her group of eight undergraduates punching numbers on a small piece of equipment that is no bigger than a mobile phone, Uditha is teaching them how to get the correct location of any item under the Global Positioning System. “Where earlier we needed a lot of equipment, now it is tiny. We just have to get a signal from the satellites and then mark it. Then we download all points to the site computer, map the area and get the location spot on. This will help all future work,” she says.

The group at the top of the rock, guided by Senior Lecturer Dr. Piyatissa Senanayake, had first got an insight on how the cave-dwellers, believed to be monks who lived a spartan life and depended on pindapatha (or alms) for their survival, kept the rains out from their sleeping quarters, the sandy floor of the rock. Peering at a rock cave, Dr. Senanayake points out the chiselled ledge at the top, the simple measure taken to make the water drip straight down without blowing in.

Next it is time to read the ancient Brahmi script from Northern India carved below the ledge and focus the students’ attention on the fact that there is a South Indian letter too in them. The inscriptions are permanent markers on most of the donations of the caves by lineage or clan chieftains known as ‘Parumaka’. This particular cave was donated by ‘Parumaka Palikada’ to monks coming from ‘all four directions, not only on that day but forever’.

Thereafter, it is time to climb the rock and in the blazing sun, take an imprint of the inscriptions, the process of which is dubbed estampages with wet paper spread and held down over the script and then inked over. “This helps us to read even the lettering that the naked eye cannot see,” says Dr. Senanayake.
The thoughts of all the undergraduates are echoed by Sandya Niroshini, 23, when she says the field work is the real university of life where they have to see to each task and take responsibility for routine stuff like making the tea (some of whom along with the lecturers, drink in well-cleaned coconut shells) and keeping the camp clean.

“In university, our lessons are limited to books, but here we learn not only archaeology but also about life,” she smiles, while Ishankha adds, “Loku jayagrahanayak.” (It’s a major triumph.)

Not only facing stray dogs and cattle, but also cobras, polongas and deadly thorny scrub, they learn life-skills and leadership away from the lecture halls of Peradeniya. No armchair archaeology here.

Significance in history

Five hundred young men of Vaishya origin or the elitists were ordained here states the Mahavamsa, says Project Director Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne giving the historical significance of Vessagiriya. However, according to him this site cannot be taken in isolation. Horizontally it’s part of the Ranmasu Uyana and Isurumuniya complex. Vertically, its history runs to the Pre Historic through the Early Iron Age prior to the inscribing of the early inscriptions in the 3rd Century BC

It is believed that forest-dwelling aranya monks who would have gone on pindapatha (seeking alms) because they were forbidden by the Vinaya to hoard food, would have lived here. They would have lived not too far away or not too close to a human settlement. Therefore, the settlement would have been about 2 km as the crow flies, the A’pura citadel or other smaller habitats along the Malwatu oya flowing half km to the east of the sites. The monks would have been living where a thoroughfare would be close and it fits because the ancient route from the Malaya hills, Kandy, went past Vessagiriya, The Sunday Times learns.

Of course, water was near, says Prof. Seneviratne, referring to the Tissa Wewa, located to the west of the site.

Vessagiriya is also linked to the famous Saliya-Asokamala legend, while parricide King Kasyapa I of Sigiriya fame is believed to have donated land to both Isurumuniya and Vessagiriya and named them after his two daughters, Bodhi and Uthpalavanna.

“The short inscriptions on the rock indicate primitive Buddhism. Then in the post-Christian period this place developed small buildings and up to the 10th and 11th centuries, despite the big monasteries in Anuradhapura, Vessagiriya retained its early links with Buddhism, giving it some pristine sanctity,” says Prof. Seneviratne, equally comfortable, battling the thorns when visiting the exploration site and drinking tea from a coconut shell, as he would be walking the august corridors of the Peradeniya University.


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