Dr. Nancy Wilkie, center, the William H. Laird Professor of Classics, Anthropology and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College, was a guest lecturer March 3, 2011 at Macalester College. Here to listen to her lecture on Archeology in Sri Lanka are Arjun Guneratne, Ph.D., left, Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College, and Ananda Liyanapathiranage, right, a DHHS IT Project Manager for the State of Minnesota, and a Board member of the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. (AAP staff photo by Tom LaVenture)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL (March 3, 2011) – Dr. Nancy Wilkie, the William H. Laird Professor of Classics, Anthropology and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College, spoke last Friday at Macalester College on her lifetime of work in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Wilkie started her lecture, “Archaeology in Sri Lanka: Challenges and Prospects for the Future”, with a brief history of the island, its natural, spiritual and colonial eras as it leads an exciting time in the present as the first time in decades without a war. There is a longstanding archeological effort at Buddhist and aboriginal sites while a newer realm of maritime archeology is emerging.
Wilkie described climates of sea level to high elevation, where fresh water rivers start their descent to the seas to nurture agriculture and communities along the way. Northern Sri Lanka is the most extreme arid zone while a portion of the Southwest is considered the most tropical area.
For years the north has been off limits as the north, controlled by the Muslim minority Tamil Eelam, was at war with the majority Sinhalese south. In the past year the Tamil Tiger rebels were defeated and the country is now being unified.
Wilkie said the tourists are now allowed to return to the north, and this includes Jaffna and the northeast coast. She said archeology students from the north are now coming to Colombo and Peradeniya to train and work at excavations with students from the south.
“The past is important to them,” said Wilkie. “There is a lot to learn and it can still be a unifying factor for their culture that is moving into a new era after he civil conflict there.”
Sri Lanka, an island about 25,000 square miles in size, is just south of India, and has been known by many names throughout history. It is referred to as Ratnadipa – ‘land of gems’ in Buddhist Sanskrit literature. The Greeks and Romans called it Taprobane. The Arabs named it Serendib, and it was called Ceylon under the British Empire until the end of Word War II.
Although a relatively small island nation, the diverse climate and history as a mariner crossroads has made Sri Lanka a treasure house of archeology that continues to reveal its past with exciting finds to this day.
Archaeological work has concentrated on monastic settlements of the Early Historic Period, ca. 300 B.C. – 300 A.D. to demonstrate the spread of Buddhist influence over the island. She said less attention is paid to secular sites and lower levels of monastic sites to probe the nature of earlier occupation.
She said the challenge to the new generation is to work on the remains of Hindu, Islamic and Christian sites and structures to determine similar origins. The challenge that lies ahead for the next generation of Sri Lankan archaeologists is the investigation of sites and regions that will provide a broader and more balanced picture of the island’s past.
Sri Lanka is a trip that everyone should take, she said, adding that well preserved remnants of ancient civilization, very hospitable peoples, and breathtaking natural resources make it a rare gem of the Indian Ocean.
Evidence of Early Iron Age remnants dates back to the First Millennium B.C., and believed to have been introduced from South India. From the Megalithic graves of the ancient Ibbankatuwa burial sites to the well preserved early human relics at the Anuradhapura citadel.
One thing peculiar to Sri Lanka is the absence of evidence to show a transition from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. She said the evidence of tools and other remains are not what archeologists would expect, and may indicate a stronger merchant than a farming community to explain the leap in technology that seemed to skip the Neolithic period of other early agricultural sites.
The ancient Mihintale monastery build atop the mountain peak where it is believed where a Buddhist monk met a Sri Lankan king and established what would become the majority faith of the nation.
Many Buddhist relics are stored at the Kataragama Museum.
“There are a lot of problems with the looting of antiquities,” she said. “Recently, there were 74 recovered items including Buddha statues. Villagers caught 20 people looting items and tied them to trees until the police came.”
The world’s oldest known Bodhi tree, planted in 288 BC, and considered sacred as legend states that it was placed on the foot of the Buddha, who said to plant it in Ceylon as the foundation of the faith.
She visited Stupas, including the oldest, Abhayagiri Dagaba. These ancient pyramid-like structures are more rounded and often filled with well-preserved Buddhist frescos. The largest Buddhist statue is called the Aukana and at Maligawilia.
Sri Pada or Adam’s Peak, is considered a holy mountain by Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. A foot print at the peek is believed to be that of Sheva, Saint Thomas and Buddha – and thus an important place for religious practice in Sri Lanka.
The indigenous Vedda people now number fewer than 900 Veddas on the island. She visited a number of them and presented a photo of Chief Tissahamy, who passed away a short time later.
Fa Hien Cave in Western Sri Lanka where human bones discovered date back nearly 8,000 years. The mountain is also a spiritual pilgrimage for Chinese Buddhists.
A new era of underwater excavation is underway as Sri Lanka begins to look closer at centuries of wrecks along the shallow waters of the natural sand bar that nearly form a land bridge with India. The Portuguese, Dutch, Indian, Arab and English wrecks are more accessible than ever before with technology.
Among the most famous wrecks is the Avondster, which broke apart on the rocks in 1659 right at the mouth of river leading to the Galle fort, built by the Portuguese and then renovated by the Dutch.
Technology has made this and other wrecks more accessible the problem now has become one of protecting wrecks from the looters and the receding waters that make them vulnerable to vessels floating more closely overhead.
Other challenges include caring for Indian elephants that now only number about 2,000 and mostly within Udawalawe National Park. Other sites are the Ella gap with a long waterfall.
Macalester Professor of Anthropology, Arjun Guneratne, Ph.D., was present for the lecture and contrasted his own field as the study of the living. He said Wilkie presented information on Sri Lanka, its major mariner archeological sites especially, that were not looked at this much before today.
Ananda Liyanapathiranage, an IT Project Manager for the State of Minnesota – Department of Health and Human Resources, and also a Board member of the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans – helped to make the lecture possible. He told Wilkie that he learned very much from the lecture as someone who may have grown up on the island but who did not study archeology.
Following the lecture, students and guests continued with questions over dinner across the street at the Pad Thai Grand Café.