Feature Article
2ND LEAD (Adds transcripts)

Coningham discovers Jaffna as premillennial maritime trade centre, but at which price?

[TamilNet, Sunday, 29 July 2018, 23:28 GMT]
“If you think of the history of Jaffna Fort within [the timespan of] a day, the colonial period only starts at [the final] three minutes to midnight. All of the rest of that period is a history of before colonial contact. It is a history, which identifies that Jaffna Fort is engaged in Indian Ocean Trade. [...] Most significantly, we have evidence that Jaffna was core within the Indo-Roman trade. So, [within] 200 BC and 200 AD, we have Jaffna at the centre of the Indian Ocean trade,” stated the British Archaeologist Professor Robin Coningham at a workshop cum press conference held at the University of Jaffna on Saturday. However, he was also reiterating the nature of the attached politics and the paradigm behind, which was nothing else than heritage-genocide as far as the Eezham Tamils are concerned, commented political activists in Jaffna.

Prof Robin Coningham addressing the audience at the University of Jaffna
Prof Robin Coningham addressing the audience at the University of Jaffna
Prof Coningham was saying that the future “visitor experience” to Jaffna Fort would be determining the “potential to actually drive” the economy and “sustainable heritage” at a time of “development and globalisation”.

Knowing very well how the paradigm of ‘Army and Archaeology’ operates in the island against the nation of Eezham Tamils and the SL Establishment is persistently denying a political settlement to the national question, the UNESCO Professor was talking about doing archaeological excavations in “post-conflict” and post-disaster environment.

Apart from the technical and academic qualities of the excavations and its findings, the politics of Coningham and the masters who fund the project, need careful perusal by Eezham Tamils, their academics and institutions in the context of unchecked accelerated structural genocide in the North-East.



Coningham was saying: “[B]y seeing how visitors currently use it, how long they stay, we can see how can we preserve elements and how can we use Jaffna Fort as a hub for encouraging the preservation of the tangible and intangible heritage of Jaffna.”

Eezham Tamils in Jaffna have already seen how the extreme Sinhala extremist Theravada Buddhism is driving its ‘tangible’ heritage-genocide as witnessed through the “visitor experience” to Nayinaatheevu, Maathakal (Ko'la patuna), Keeri-malai, Nayinaa-theevu, Nedun-theevu (Delft) and Chakkoadai cape (northernmost point of the country of Eezham Tamils) in the peninsula.

UJ workshop on Jaffna Fort
Director-General of the Central Cultural Fund Prof Prishanta Gunawardhana
Archaeology Professor Prishanta Gunawardhana of the University of Kelaniya, who is the current Director-General of the Central Cultural Fund (CCF), which comes under the SL Ministry of Education, was also present at the meeting in Jaffna on Saturday along with Professor P. Pushparatnam of History Department, who has been engaged in excavations at Jaffna Fort since 2010. Pushparatnam is also the Director of CCF-Jaffna.

Prof Gunawardhana was praising SL Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe in his address. “This is a good project,” he was repeating throughout his speech. He didn't focus on giving interpretations of the archaeological findings at Jaffna Fort.

UNP wants 1000 viharas in North-East
UNP election manifesto claiming construction of 1000 viharas in North-East as ‘reconciliation’
Wickramasinghe's UNP has officially claimed that it has allocated 500 million rupees to erect 1000 Buddhist viharas in the Northern and Eastern provinces as late as during the civic elections in February 2018.

The ‘Jaffna Project’ of the CCF has been circumventing the Northern Provincial Council right from the beginning. The SL Prime Minister Wickramasinghe and SL Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera are actively waging a shadow war against the NPC.

Prof P. Pushparatnam gave a lengthy address, both in English and Tamil. He was also responding to questions as well as providing brief translations of the speeches by Prof Coningham and Prof Gunawardhana.

Pushparatnam, who works closely with Coningham and Gunawardhana, was placing himself at a defensive position.



UJ workshop on Jaffna Fort
Prof Robin Coningham and Prof P Pushparatnam
UJ workshop on Jaffna Fort
UJ workshop on Jaffna Fort
“It is regrettable to note that unjustifiable doubts are expressed by the public regarding the verification of the findings of the Jaffna Fort archaeological studies amidst all the efforts invested in the archaeological survey by scholars,” he was saying in his address without specifying the doubts.

Observers said he was referring to the controversy caused by the reports of alleged findings of human skeletons at the excavation site. He was referring to these findings as archaeological artefacts and denounced the claims that they belonged to war victims of recent times.

However, he had to respond to a legitimate doubt coming from the journalists. The question was about the latest move by the SL military to re-take the Jaffna Fort as its military base.

“It is a matter beyond our control,” he said and added that there was only a small number of Army personnel, numbering below 11, at present.

Since the latest archaeological findings were revealing the significance of the Jaffna Fort as a place of world heritage, the Government, which finds itself in a position to facilitate it as a heritage site, should also be concerned of keeping it fully de-militarised, Pushparatnam said.

“It is also our expectation that it [such de-militarisation] would be beneficial for our region to achieve economic development,” he went on record.

“We have also brought this concern to the notice of the SL Department of Archaeology, the CCF and the SL Government. We also hope that the SL military would find itself to vacate from the locality realising the significance of the developments taking place here”, Pushparatnam said.

However, the University of Jaffna, the Arts Faculty and particularly the Department of History, now has an inescapable social responsibility of making sure it happens, especially after having collaborated with the politics of Coningham and the foreign institutions (the Netherlands, the UK and the UNESCO) that were funding the ‘Jaffna Project’, political observers in Jaffna commented.

Likewise, it should be the responsibility of the civil society of Eezham Tamils, the electoral politicians and the global Tamil community to address the politics coming from the global paradigm-setters of the protracted heritage-genocide against the nation of Eezham Tamils in the island, they said.

* * *


Prof Roibn Coningham described the four main aims of the Jaffna Project:

The first aim was to undertake post-disaster work on the church within the Fort. That was using methodologies developed with the government of Nepal, Department of Archaeology, working after the Kathmandu earthquake, seeing how those methodologies could be used within post-conflict and post-disaster environments within Jaffna Fort.

Those worked extremely well. We managed to recover lots of cultural heritage material as well as recycle.

The second element was connected with last year's survey using GPR. We did Ground Penetrating Radar survey within the Fort.

During the Dutch period, the Fort prey-ground is extremely open. There are no structures. With GPR, we recorded the fact that there are very large structures below the surface.

We have linked those by using a UAV drone, so we have confirmed that those are in locations very similar to Portuguese locations. So, we believe we have found one of the major structures that the Portuguese built.

Because we knew where it was last year in the geophysics, this year we opened the trench directly on top of the building.

We have confirmed many of the reports by the Dutch that in 1658 the Portuguese buildings were so badly damaged that the Dutch removed the doors and the floors and used them to rebuild the fort. We found confirmation of that, all of those.

The next step about is to find how old the Jaffna Fort.

Anyone walking in, you are surrounded by Dutch monuments. But, below the ground, we know we have Portuguese. And below that we have we have pre-colonial contact.

This is really important, because, if you think the history of Jaffna Fort within a day, the colonial period only starts at three minutes to midnight. All of the rest of that period is a history of before colonial contact.

It is a history, which identifies that Jaffna Fort is engaged in Indian Ocean Trade.

We have evidence of Chinese traded materials; We have both jars but also plates; We have material that is coming through Jaffna on its way to the European markets and the Middle East; We have glass from the Middle East coming and being found in Jaffna.

Before then, we have the 17th and the 16th century. Then, we move into time periods of the 9th and 10th century.

Most significantly, we have evidence that Jaffna is core within the Indo-Roman trade.

So, 200 BC and 200 AD, we have Jaffna at the centre of the Indian Ocean trade, which is very significant.

And, before then? We have it linked to Anuradhapura; we have it linked to the archaeology of mainland Sri Lanka, but also the Iron Age of peninsular India as well.

So, for how old is Jaffna, actually, now we know it is First millennium BC. It is one of the very longed-lived sites.

Finally, the project was focused on improving the visitor experience.

At the moment it has the potential to actually drive the economy and sustainable heritage and also to help preserve both the tangible and intangible heritage of Jaffna at a time of development and also of globalisation.

So, by seeing how visitors currently use it, how long they stay, we can see how can we preserve elements and how can we use Jaffna Fort as a hub for encouraging the preservation of the tangible and intangible heritage of Jaffna.

This afternoon, with my two colleagues, Professor Pushparatnam – the University of Jaffna and Director of Jaffna-CCF, Professor Gunawardhana – Director General of Central Cultural Fund, we will open a small museum. Also, there are now going to be leaflets. So, hopefully, visitors will understand more about that deep history and also understand about the intangible and tangible heritage of Jaffna.

* * *


Full transcription of Professor P. Pushparatnam's main address at the event follows

[Editor's note: Although the transcription is largely accurate, there could be inaccuracies due to inaudible speech/recording. Readers are urged to verify the details with the author before using the current version as a reference]

First of all, in my capacity as the chairperson of this pleasant event, I would like to emphasise the significance of the Fort archaeological studies.

Under the Jaffna Fort Post-disaster Archaeological Project, archaeological studies were carried out during the period from 25th June to 20th July 2017, and 1st July to 27 July 2018.

These studies were headed by Professor Robin Coningham Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK, in collaboration with Central Cultural Fund, Government of Sri Lanka and Archaeology Unit, Faculty of Arts, University of Jaffna.

The financial assistance to conduct these studies was provided by the British Academy, the Central Cultural Fund, Government of Sri Lanka, and the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Durham University.

This project had various objectives. One of the objectives is to identify the structure of the Church, constructed by the Portuguese, which is ruined by civil war at present and restore it.

Another objective is to study the role of Jaffna Fort in the international trade in the Indian Ocean.

Professor Coningham toiled as far as this second objective is concerned.

The findings of the excavation carried out in the surrounding area of the Fort warehouse have been very significant in revealing the history of Jaffna before the arrival of Portuguese.

Archaeological evidence in this regard based on the artefacts, discovered in the excavation carried out in 2017, was produced by experts in the workshop held in the Jaffna Public Library in 2017.

Professor Balasundarampillai, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jaffna, graced the occasion as the chief guest.

Professor Coningham has documented the findings of archaeological studies in 2017 under the title Jaffna Fort Excavation–Ceramic Identification Field Handbook V2 and written an important article entitled Recent Excavations and Survey at Jaffna Fort in 2017 and Reflections on the Antiquity of Indian Ocean Trade.

Professor Coningham and other experts in different fields of the discipline of Archaeology will present their findings and views in this workshop.

I believe that the findings represented by the scholars will relate to the identification of the Portuguese Church and marine trade links between the Jaffna Fort and other Countries.

It is regrettable to note that unjustifiable doubts are expressed by the public regarding the verification of the findings of the Jaffna Fort archaeological studies amidst all the efforts invested in the archaeological survey by scholars.

I wish to state that I have been keenly engaged in the archaeological studies with the support of the Archaeology Department and Central Cultural Fund of the Jaffna Project Fort since 2010.

I am proud to say that my findings have been acknowledged by Professor Coningham.

At this juncture, I intend to outline the history of Jaffna Fort before the arrival of the Portuguese.

Several historians have studied the period of the emergences of the Jaffna town and the historical background.

Most of them refer to the European rule in Jaffna as one of the prime reasons. The Fort associated with Portuguese rule is mentioned as one of the important evidence.

The Jaffna Fort, constructed in square-shape in Portuguese rule and converted in a star-shape during the Dutch rule, is the second largest fort in Sri Lanka.

The fort seems to be monumental evidence of the European dominance of 350 years in Jaffna.

Yet, archaeological findings highlight the inappropriateness to limit the period of the Jaffna town with the arrival of the Portuguese.

Department of Archaeology – Sri Lanka, has been restoring the ruins in the Jaffna Fort with the financial support of the Netherlands and Sri Lankan governments since 2010.

Archaeology undergraduates of Jaffna University contributed in this provisions mentioned.

A merged portion of the Jaffna Fort, located in the land area of 62 acres, has been under the archaeological exploration.

Many reliable archaeological artefacts revealing the previous history of the Jaffna town of Portuguese arrival during the course of exploration conducted in the ruins of the Christian Church, Queen's place, tunnel of armament, cannon bases, warehouse and sentry points in 32 acres of lands in the interior of the fort have been discovered.

Among the artefacts discovered, ancient, medieval local and foreign coins, local and foreign pottery belonging to different periods, terracotta Hindu sculptures, ruins of Hindu temples constructed of granite and limestone pillars, artefacts, images, religious emblems and inscriptions are included.

The findings asserted that even before the arrival of Portuguese, the present Jaffna fort and its surviving surroundings were main centres of human settlements and commercial centres between Western Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia in the marine trade in the Indian Ocean.

In 2012, where land was dug near warehouse of the Fort for some other purpose, unexpectedly, many artefacts came to sight, though cultural layers were found in a complicated position in the site. Nevertheless, an excavation was conducted at a depth of six feet till sea water level.

It was possible to identify four cultural layers.

Several types of pottery belonging to Early Iron Age Culture or Megalithic Culture were found in the first layer.

The presence of black and red ware pottery confirms Early Iron Age settlements similar to settlements at Anuraadhapura, Kantharoadai, Poonakari etc., in Sri Lanka.

In the first and second cultural layers, together with the other artefacts, the Roman rouletted ware, Amphora Jardin, Arretine ware, belonging to 2nd Century BC in a mingled condition were discovered.

In the third layer, in addition to various types of pottery, Islamic, Chinese glassware and ceramic ware, were found.

In the fourth layer pottery, mostly European period coins and ruins of buildings were identified.

Near the excavation site, in the latter part of 2017, the Durham University, with the support of the Central Cultural Fund Jaffna Project and Archaeological Section of University of Jaffna conducted the excavation.

This excavation was carried out under the direction of Professor Coningham, who is very popular among the contemporary archaeology scholars.

As this excavation involved the use of modern technological equipment and scientific approach, the period and historical significance of the artefacts discovered are regarded as very reliable.

In this excavation trench up to natural layer, nine different cultural layers were identified.

Among them, the black and red ware helping to Megalithic Culture found in the layer associated with the natural soil and grey ware were found dating back to the period from 700 BC to 100 AD and from 500 BC to 200 AD, respectively.

Such dating is assertive of the fact that the fort area had human settlements even before 1500 years of Portuguese arrival.

Further, artefacts discovered belonging various periods in this excavation, help us to study the early continues history of the Fort area before the arrival of the Europeans.

It is notable that various types of pottery belonging to various periods, various countries, were discovered.

These evidences guide us to establish the history of present Jaffna town, from its origin, many centuries before the arrival of Portuguese, chronologically.

Professor Coningham has well studied about the marine trade between Jaffna Fort area and other countries and period of trade based on the pottery discovered in the Fort excavation as strong evidence.

These evidences confirm the international commercial ties between Jaffna and the West and East Asian world, as well as wider trade links to East Africa, the Mediterranean- and the South China Sea, during the period from 200 BC to before the arrival of Portuguese.

Pali literature, speaking about Sri Lankan history, refers to the coastal port cities that existed 2400 years ago.

Among them, the port cities in the North and Eastern provinces are referred to as Koakar'na Paddi'nam in Trincomalee, Maathoadda Paddi'nam in Mannaar and Jampuk-ko'la Paddi'nam in Jaffna, in Pali.

Archaeological excavations carried out from the beginning of the 19th century, maintain that Maathoddam was the most important city among them.

From the 16th century, the Portuguese and then the Dutch built their forts, based on the location of these forts.

The section of these areas could be attributed to the state of these cities as the prime centres of settlements and important ports in the marine trade.

Culavamsa, the Pali chronicle, states that Tamil army that invaded the Polonnaruwa Kingdom stayed at the circular shape fort built of clay in Northern Sri Lanka.

This information enables to claim that a fort existed in Northern Sri Lanka before the arrival of the Portuguese.

Tamil and Sinhala chronicle comment about the fort that existed in the Jaffna Kingdom.

The Portuguese records state that the important battle between the soldiers of the Jaffna Kingdom and that of the Portuguese were held in an area nearby the fort region.

Based on these evidences, it is possible that the fort built of clay existed before the arrival of Portuguese in the area where the present-day fort is situated.

I would like to mention the important point that the recent valuable research, article of Professor Coningham has mentioned that Jaffna is located centrally in what has been termed the Maritime Silk Route, between the West and East Asian world, as well as wider trade links to East Africa, the Mediterranean- and the South China Sea.

The recent excavations at Jaffna Fort have provided an opportunity to understand the role and development of Jaffna within these international, Indian Ocean trade networks, from early habitation through the colonial interaction within the region from the Sixteenth century onwards.

Confirming Professor Pushparatnam’s earlier reports and the suggestion that “we can infer that this site has had a long and continuous history. Because of this background, the Portuguese might have chosen the site to build their fort.”


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