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The UNESCO World Heritage site of Anuradhapura is one of Asia’s major archaeological and pilgrimage centres. The Sri Lankan capital for 1500 years, its rulers oversaw monumental building programmes utilising over 500,000 cubic metres of brick, which resulted in the construction of a lavish ring of Buddhist monasteries and three vast reservoirs around the city. Between 1989 and 1994 a team of Sri Lankan and British archaeologists excavated trench Anuradhapura Salgaha Watta 2 (ASW2) close to the centre of the Citadel of Anuradhapura, presenting a unique sequence of structural development. Trench ASW2 defined the transition of the settlement of Anuradhapura from a small Iron Age village to the capital of a pivotal Mediaeval Indian Ocean power and a major centre for Buddhist pilgrimage (Coningham 1999, 2006).

There was, however, a growing recognition that whilst the city of Anuradhapura was well researched, very little was known about the surrounding landscape. As such, we aimed to develop a field-based archaeological project that aimed to look explicitly at the wider landscape surrounding the city. This new field project represented the first multi-disciplinary attempt to model the development of an Early Historic city in South Asia, and to assess its impact on non-urban communities, and the environment within its hinterland as well as their impacts on the development of the urban form itself. Therefore, the project team as a whole framed the following research questions:

  • how did settlement and land use patterns respond to urbanisation?
  • was the plain’s environmental context altered during urbanisation?
  • did certain traits (writing, monuments, imports) become restricted to the city?
  • how did urbanisation affect the organisation of craft production?
  • was the plain entirely abandoned in the eleventh century AD?

In addressing these five research questions, we aimed to model the networks between urban and non-urban communities and the environment within the plain of Anuradhapura over the course of two millennia and, in so doing, we wished to define and interpret the following characteristics:

  • the spatial location and sequence of urban and non-urban communities;
  • the morphology and function of urban and non-urban communities;
  • the subsistence base of urban and non-urban communities;
  • soils and sedimentary sequences within the plain;
  • resource patterns and enhancement within the plain.

Generously funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, we conducted six seasons of fieldwork between 2005 and 2010. With participants drawn from the Universities of Durham, Kelaniya, Stirling, Bradford, Leicester and Rajarata, field seasons were logistically challenging with as many as 60 staff and students in the field. The final results of the field project were published in 2013, as Anuradhapura Volume 3: The Hinterland.

Key Publications

Bailiff, I.K., H.R. Lacey, R.A.E. Coningham, P. Gunawardhana, G. Adikari, C.E. Davis, M.J. Manuel & K.M. Strickland. 2013. Luminescence dating of brick stupas: an application to the hinterland of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Antiquity 87(335): 189-201.

Coningham, R.A.E. 1999. Anuradhapura: The British-Sri Lankan Excavations at Anuradhapura Salgaha Watta 2. Volume 1: the site. BAR (International Series) 824. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Coningham, R.A.E. (ed.). 2006. Anuradhapura: The British-Sri Lankan Excavations at Anuradhapura Salgaha Watta 2. Volume 2: the artefacts. BAR (International Series) 1508. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Coningham, R.A.E. & P. Gunawardhana. 2013. Anuradhapura Volume 3: The Hinterland. BAR International Series 2568. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Coningham, R.A.E., P. Gunawardhana, G. Adikari, M. Katugampola, I.A. Simpson & R.L. Young. 2006. The Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) Project: the hinterland (phase II), preliminary report of the first season 2005. South Asian Studies 22: 53-64.

Coningham, R.A.E., P. Gunawardhana, M.J. Manuel, G. Adikari, M. Katugampola, R.L. Young, A.R. Schmidt, K. Krishnan, I.A. Simpson, G. McDonnell & C.M. Batt. 2007. The state of theocracy: Defining an early medieval hinterland in Sri Lanka. Antiquity 81: 699–719

Coningham, R.A.E., P. Gunawardhana, M.J. Manuel, G. Adikari, R.L. Young, A.R. Schmidt, K. Krishnan, I.A. Simpson, C.E. Davis & C.M. Batt. 2011. Response to Goonatilake. Antiquity 85: 1065-1068

Coningham, R.A.E., P. Gunawardhana, C. E. Davis, G. Adikari, I. A. Simpson, K. M. Strickland & M. J. Manuel. 2012. Contextualising the Tabbova-Maradanmaduva ‘Culture’: Excavations at Nikawewa, Tirappane Division, Anuradhapura District, Sri Lanka. South Asian Studies 28.1: 1-14.

Gilliland, K. I.A. Simpson, W.P. Adderley, C.I. Burbidge, A.J. Cresswell, D.C.W. Sanderson, R.A.E. Coningham, M.J. Manuel, K.M. Strickland, P. Gunawardhana & G. Adikari. 2013. The dry tank: development and disuse of water management infrastructure in the Anuradhapura hinterland, Sri Lanka. Journal of Archaeological Sciences 40: 1012-1028.