Archaeological report on the excavations at the ancient port city of Maanthai (Thirukeatheesvaram) in the Mannaar district of the country of Eezham Tamils, conducted between the years 1980 and 1984 and co-directed by John Carswell then from the University of Chicago, has finally seen the light of publication this June. Edited by John Carswell, Siran Deraniyagala and Alan Graham, and copyrighted to the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka, the publication supported by Ceramica-Stiftung Basel has been released by the publishers Linden Soft Verlag, Aichwald in Germany. Professor Carswell, now turning 83, has succeeded in presenting the material he had excavated, which would have otherwise been lost forever with the kind of State in the island.
Professor John Carswell and Mrs Peggy Carswell photographed in London in August 2013
The 552-page report has extensively brought out the wide maritime contacts the port city had had with the western and eastern hemispheres of the ancient world as well as with the South Asian subcontinent.
The report is a monograph of all the previous work done on the site since 1880s and the details of the incomplete excavations of 1980-1984. The archaeological experience of the site narrated in detail in the report and the recording of the catalogue of finds will be a must-to-be-read basic source for not only to know the past work done but also for all future expeditions on the site.
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So far, the Maanthai 1980-1984 expedition was perhaps the only instance in which a Mesolithic level of habitation was archeologically reached in the North, bringing out significant authentic knowledge on life in the region in the prehistoric period.
Over the last one million years, for 80 per cent of the time, the island has been joined intermittently to South India, allowing human travel. The last of such a land bridge existed as recently as c. 7000 years ago, says Dr Deraniyagala in the conclusions of the report.
In the background of the geological phenomenon, Deraniyagala reports of Middle Palaeolithic sites in the coastal alluvial gravels and refers to the existence of the subsequent Mesolithic throughout the island, from the coastal middens as at Maanthai to central highlands, before the commencement of the Iron Age in 1380 – 500 BC.
The Iron Age, which must have come via sea, is identified with the Megalithic Culture of the South Indian genre by several researchers. A major urn burial site of this period is found at Pomparippu, not very far away from Maanthai.
For the Mesolithic levels reached at Maanthai, Dr Deraniyagala provides radiocarbon dates that were received for three excavated samples: 3525, 3550 and 3790 BP (Before Present, i.e., 1512, 1537 and 1777 BC).
However, no protohistoric Iron Age or pottery belonging to that period has so far been found at Maanthai, showing continuity. As the sequence of the settlement that became the port city of Maanthai begins only from 2nd century BC, answering questions related to the gap needs further research, says Deraniyagala.
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According to one of the authors of the report, Alan Graham, the origins of the settlement phase of Maanthai that became the port city, could be placed only to the later part of the Early Historic Period. A definite date obtained for the earliest sealing layer is 200 AD, and how earlier are the artefacts found below that layer cannot be ascertained, he says.
Becoming a great port of East-West contact from 1st or 2nd century AD through to the 5th or even 6th century AD, the site further developed with its large-scale buildings and defensive circuit by 9th and 10th centuries AD, he observes.
Towards the end of the excavation in August 1984, when the nature and potential of the archaeological sequence of the site began to become evident, and when a crucial understanding of the site began to dawn upon the excavators, the work came to an abrupt end, he notes on the incompleteness of the archaeological picture found in the report.
In presenting an overall field picture for the report by synthesizing the extensive records of the various trenches, Alan Graham crucially filled the gap caused by the sudden demise of Martha Prikett from the Peabody Museum of Harvard, who was excavator and later field director working throughout the phases of the excavations in 1980, 1982 and 1984. Alan an archaeologist trained by the Institute of Archaeology, London, was one of the supervisors excavating a trench in 1984.
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Professor Carswell’s expertise in West Asian and Chinese pottery and other artefacts was the cornerstone for the archaeological study of Maanthai, as the site became an emporium mainly during the phase of Arab–Chinese trade in the region.
The report also has extensively dealt with bone, plant, shell, glass, bead, terracotta and metal remains found in the excavations, studied by various experts in the field including Deccan College academics.
The study of bones and plant remains by the late P.B. Karunaratne, P.P. Joglekar and M.D. Kajale details the fauna and flora, especially the marine life that was used in food. As Maanthai was also known for conch shell industry besides pearl fishing, the study of shell bangle remains at the site by Waddington and Mark Kenoyer is an important contribution.
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However, even after nearly three decades of waiting, the report has not been perfected in some aspects.
A catalogue and study of the large number of coins found in the excavations are missing. The coins, found in stratigraphic context would have helped in both ways, in fixing dates for the layers as well as fixing dates for certain coin types for which dates are not ascertained. The 13th century AD late Pandiyan and cetu coins that were found in the upper layers would have shown that the site continued even after the Chola invasion of the 11th century, contrary to some statements made in the report.
Another lacuna is the absence of diacritical marks. One could see that contributors to the report like Prof Sirima kiribamuna and Prof K. Indrapala wrote the original text with diacritical marks. But as they don’t appear in print, the words that are crucial to the text of their articles, especially to the epigraphical content of Prof Indrapala’s article, are disfigured.
Besides typos and carelessness in the presentation of names with accuracy, the index is inadequate in the report
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While the total value of the publication in authentically and professionally recording the archaeology of the site is immense, thanks to the editors and the contributors, the thrust of historiography found in certain instances of the report needs perusal, as ultimately the expedition and the publication were largely depending on State in the island and the Establishments outside.
“The particular significance of Maanthai lies in its symbiotic relationship to the capital city of Anuradhapura some 80 km to the south, for which Manthai served as the major port throughout its existence,” says Carswell in the very introduction to the report.
In March 2012, sending a message to the launch of Dr. Thiagaraja’s book in London, Carswell said on Maanthai that “It was a city built on a collaboration of commercial and political interests, coming from east and west, north and south.” He added that ancient cities like Maanthai were “windows on a large, complex, and above all ‘dynamic’ system.”
The historiographical thrust of both the statements is not doing justice to the people of the particular land, whose expertise in diving for pearl and conch since time immemorial was the footing for the “window” and whose structural genocide and annihilation of nation is in the agenda of the Establishments now.
The historiography may have the danger of getting interpreted to imply subservience to the culture and identity evolved by the people of the particular land through ages and may be used to alienate them from their heritage. The historiography may be different if it is seen from their point of view that how a maritime system built by them was influencing the interior urban centers and was inviting contacts from all directions.
Both the centers of “symbiotic relationship,” i.e., Anuradhapura and Maanthai “were eclipsed by the Cola invasions from south India beginning in the 11th century, and Manthai never recovered,” Carswell adds in the Introduction.
“Mantai came to an abrupt conclusion as a dynamic trading centre at the end of the tenth century A.D. with the Cola conquest of Sri Lanka,” he says in the Foreword.
This is again the version of stereotype Sinhala historiography.
The maritime trade of the region at that time was not merely Arab-Chinese, but Arab-Chola-Chinese. While the shift of the interior urban center from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, which the Cholas themselves initiated, might have affected the flow of trade, an empire interested in maritime trade would not have abandoned a potential harbour of pearl-conch wealth.
Indrapala in his article in the report shows how new structures were built at Maanthai in the Chola times and how a trade guild in Visakhapatnam was referring to the port.
Sirima Kiribamuna writes at length on Chola invasions causing the decline of Maanthai, but she is balanced in bringing in other factors too.
She tells how 13th to 15th century Sinhala literature was extolling the splendour of the area around the port city with lavish descriptions of its buildings and gardens. She was also writing on the development of a port on the Mannaar Island side, opposite to Maanthai by 13th century.
By this time, Maanthai/ Mannaar had “symbiotic relationship” with Jaffna, and the “dynamics” referred to by Carswell were also continued to be in operation, as could be seen in the example of Maanthai/ Mannaar becoming the first place in the island for the advent of Catholic Christianity when European colonialism came.
Maanthai ‘never recovering’ has to be archeologically investigated and explained just as we need a fresh investigation on the decline of the dry-zone hydraulic pattern.
Even in the Portuguese times the channel at Maanthai has become shallow. The siltation must have started much earlier, making the location of Maanthai unsuitable to continue as a major port.
One has to be careful in historiography, as the period referred to by Carswell marks the stabilization of the long evolution of two identities with their respective territories in the island.
The term Mahaa-tittha found in the Pali chronicles, corresponding to Mahaa-teertha in Sanskrit, meaning the great landing place of a water body, is not etymologically related to Maa-tota in Sinhala or Maa-thoaddam found used in Tamil at least since 7th century AD. Tota and thoaddam, meaning a touching place (port), come from the Dravidian verb Thodu (to touch or link). Carswell’s reference to Mantottam as the Tamil name for the place doesn’t find attestation in inscriptions or literature.
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Three decades ago, the Maanthai excavations were supported by The Metropolitan Museum, New York, The National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington D.C., The Oriental Institute in Chicago, The British Museum, London, The Ford Foundation, New York, and the Ford Foundation, India.
This was the only major archaeological excavation project at that time in the Tamil region of the island, while all the other extensive programmes under the Cultural Triangle Project were taking place in the South.
While exclusively the southern universities were involved in the Cultural Triangle, Maanthai excavation was the only programme that accommodated the Jaffna University along with the students of the southern universities. A local legitimacy was thus ensured for the expedition.
The co-directors of the Maanthai excavation in 1984 sent a written invitation to an academic of the University of Jaffna to participate as local consultant and he was officially released by the then Vice-Chancellor, Prof Vithiananthan, to go as well as to take a group of students and staff to the excavation. Earlier in 1982 too, the academic was a participant, supervising the excavation of three newly laid trenches, when the team was just four including the co-directors, as noted in the report. In 1984, he continued supervising the excavation of the earlier trenches. He is conspicuously left out in the acknowledgements of the report, sending a message to future Tamil academics thinking of working even in their own land under collaboration of Colombo and the West.
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The authors of the report convey a special debt of gratitude to the late Mr. Mahendra Vaithianathan particularly “for assuring our safety and that of the students during the troubled times and stresses of the last days of the excavation.”
The story was different. It was the safety of the local people of Maanthai and that of the Jaffna University students that was at stake and there was neither John Carswell nor Mahendra to even witness that. Dr. Deraniyagala was there but he was helpless.
A couple of weeks before the closure of the excavation in mid August, some SL soldiers were killed in an ambush that took place at Ve’l’laang-ku’lam, around 40 km north of Maanthai.
The SL military stationed at Tha’l’laadi, 2 km away from Maanthai, at the entrance to the causeway to Mannaar town, was waiting for an opportunity to retaliate against the common Tamil public. They were just waiting for the excavation to end and the Sinhala students participating in it to leave.
Sinhala students, who received information and were sympathetic towards their Tamil colleagues, have cautioned them on the morning of the day they were leaving that once they leave the military would attack. A few of them even wanted to stay to ensure the safety of their Tamil colleagues but they were persuaded to go with a warm farewell.
The same day evening, the SL military and police burnt the Mannaar town. The military that entered into Maanthai village and neighbouring villages started attacking people. A woman who purchased jewellery from the money she saved by working in the excavation lost it to the attackers.
A teen-aged boy working in a teashop at Maanthai junction was stabbed on the stomach by a broken glass bottle. The boy was brought to the yard in front of the temple. The villagers expected the Archaeology Department vehicle to take him to a hospital. But that became not possible and the wailing boy died in a few hours due to bleeding.
The Jaffna University team spent the night in the nearby jungle. The following day vehicles came from Anuradhapura to take the Archaeology Department staff safely. Left alone, the Jaffna University students had to stay in Maanthai for a week, waiting for travel to become safe for their return.
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Some of the photographs in the report, labelled as showing university students, are in fact not showing students. They were showing young boys and girls who had come as workers from Maanthai and neighbouring villages with much enthusiasm towards the expedition, as it was taking place on their own heritage.
Removal of the excavated material to Anuradhapura may be justifiable in the context of the war. But objects of heritage have to be returned to the people of the heritage and they have to be displayed in a site Museum at Maanthai with such an orientation for the people of the land to have a feeling for their heritage.
The government in Colombo is interested only in militarily bringing in new Buddhist stupas and statues to the people of the region.
It is the duty of the outside Establishments that funded the excavations to see that the heritage is returned to the nation of the heritage.
The outside Establishments are also obliged to take care that ownership of heritage expeditions should be vested with the institutions of the nation of the heritage.
A major archaeological site of protohistoric significance at Kantharoadai in Jaffna is now almost alienated from the nation that owns it, by projections aimed at subjugation of that nation. The publication of the Maanthai report cannot be a prelude for planning archaeological expeditions in a fashion of conducting them in a ‘conquered’ country.