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Revising the understanding of a mediaeval UNESCO World Heritage site in Sri Lanka


AHRC-funded research has supported a Durham archaeology team to revise understanding of population history of Anuradhapura’s hinterland. This has led to developing new research networks and projects across South Asian UNESCO Buddhist pilgrimage sites and informing cultural heritage policies in Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The UNESCO site of Anuradhapura is one of Asia’s major Buddhist pilgrimage centres and was Sri Lanka’s capital for 1500 years. Located in the ‘dry zone’ with 150cm of rain annually in just 4 months, its kings provided an outer ring of reservoirs linked to storage tanks by 87km long canals. Surrounded by Buddhist monasteries covering 25km2, fifth century AD Chinese pilgrims recorded that there were over 8,000 resident monks. Abandoned by the 11th century AD, Anuradhapura remained a pilgrimage site. Since 1982, Anuradhapura has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is both a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination. Cultural tourism is a key contributor to Sri Lanka’s economy with tourism contributing to 4.8% of Sri Lanka’s total GDP.

The 122 metre high brick stupa in the Jetavana monastery was built in the third century CE using almost 100 million bricks, indicating the labour and resources and devotion invested in one of the city of Anuradhapura's largest Buddhist monuments. Credit: Robin Coningham.

Previous research had defined Anuradhapura’s transition from Iron Age village to Indian Ocean metropolis but little attention had been paid to the rural communities sustaining it. To understand their development, a multi-disciplinary team from the Universities of Durham, Bradford, Stirling and Leicester alongside the University of Kelaniya (Sri Lanka) and the University of Baroda (India) undertook the Anuradhapura Hinterland project, an AHRC-funded survey and excavation in the surrounding jungles between 2004 and 2008. Recording 754 sites, they changed prior understanding of Anuradhapura’s population history and land use. They also uncovered unanticipated evidence that rural Buddhist monasteries had played both spiritual and administrative roles, suggesting a more complex societal and economic structure than previously understood.

To raise greater awareness within Sri Lanka, the team disseminated their findings widely to academics, archaeologists, Buddhist monks and the public facilitating feedback into the findings and increasing the research’s reach. Selected lectures were also televised in Sri Lanka, stimulating interest in the character of Anuradhapura’s successor capital, Polonnaruwa, subject of the new Polonnaruwa Hinterland project launched by the University of Durham and the Government of Sri Lanka in April 2015.

The team piloted a science-based archaeological framework for studying similar historic Buddhist sites and landscapes, integrating new methodologies and techniques, including experimental Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating of bricks. This led to a partnership with UNESCO and the Government of Nepal in 2011 to conduct research at the UNESCO site of Lumbini (the birthplace of the Buddha) and Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu (his childhood home) and contribute to their preservation, whilst facilitating sustainable growth in the number of visitors and pilgrims. The team’s Lumbini findings were recognised by the Archaeological Institute of America’s Archaeology magazine within their list of the top 10 discoveries of 2014 and Professor Coningham was awarded the UK’s first UNESCO Archaeology Chair at Durham in 2014, further strengthening academic networks between South Asia, UNESCO and the UK.

For more information on the project visit: Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) Project website