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This page outlines some of the key findings and results from the fieldwork. We had anticipated that we would encounter a tiered Early Historic settlement hierarchy similar to that recorded in Northern India. In contrast, we encountered a much more dynamic landscape, but one which was devoid of permanent secular settlement. In their place Buddhist monasteries, which were often situated on highly visible granite outcrops, performed the administrative, economic and political functions usually associated with towns. Surrounding these permanent structures were a series of small, agrarian villages engaged in chena or slash-and-burn agriculture and paddy cultivation. However, rather than being a simple top-down hierarchy which is often represented, we identified the presence of heterarchies within the landscape, with the recognition of non-Buddhist cults. Furthermore, there were several competing streams of Buddhism within the landscape, suggesting that it was highly contested.

Map of Sites Table of Sites


The survey teams covered a total area of 96 square kilometres on randomly-generated transect survey, and 25 square kilometres on microsurvey. The canal survey covered an additional seven kilometres on both banks of the Yoda Ela canal between Nuwarawewa and Nachchaduwawewa, and 70 kilometres along the west bank of the Jaya Ganga canal from the Tissawewa to the Kalawewa. The river survey covered a distance of 40 kilometres along both banks of the Malvatu Oya from the Nachchaduwawewa northwards.

Within the hinterland survey, a total number of 1261 sites were recorded, which may be divided into 754 archaeological sites, 321 landscape features and 188 ethnographic sites. Archaeological sites covered a wide variety of features ranging from small ceramic scatters and rock-cut holes on an outcrop through to large monastic complexes and stone bridges. Landscape features included evidence of quarrying, irrigation channels and tanks, whilst ethnographic sites included examples of modern brick-making, blacksmiths, colonial period bridges and modern temples.

B009 C527


A total of 12 sites were excavated within the hinterland, five monastic sites of varying size and morphology, four undiagnostic sites with pillars and blocks, two ceramic scatters and one recently abandoned village. The decision to excavate particular sites was arrived at through the evaluation of a number of different factors. In some cases, it was to develop a more comprehensive sequence of a site that exemplified a particular category of settlement, such as the dense ceramic scatter at B004 or the outcrop monastic site of A155. Elsewhere, undiagnostic sites B062, D339 and F517 were targeted to develop a better understanding of the settlement category as a whole. The abandoned village at B009 was targeted, for example, in order to test the hypothesis that the ceramic scatters within the hinterland represented relatively short-lived villages.

C112 D339


The large-scale relict irrigation structures, such as tanks, bunds, abandoned irrigation channels, sluices and annicuts identified during the hinterland survey present unique insights into the cultural and environmental processes operating in the Anuradhapura hinterland before, at the point of construction, during the use of, and after the abandonment of irrigated agriculture. Large-scale, irrigated rice cultivation was fundamental in providing the agricultural surplus necessary for sustaining urban and monastic populations during Anuradhapura’s primary occupation. Hinterland irrigation activities were also key for maintaining vital social, religious and economic connections between monasteries and their associated secular communities, and are an important factor in understanding the landscape, monastic, and settlement dynamics in the past.

Geoarchaeological analysis at excavated sites, as well as at a number of abandoned irrigation features across the hinterland records the persistence of a cultural and environmental system that employed large-scale irrigation in a semi-arid environment for over 1600 years, and documents cultural responses to system disturbances before, during, and after that period.