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  • Writer's pictureCassie Gordon

Can archaeology be sustainable? Here's how I began to test this question during a global pandemic.

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

At the beginning of 2020, I approached Dr Keir Magalie Strickland—who would inevitably become my supervisor—with a mind-map of themes that I was particularly interested in exploring (I have included a digitised version of my original mind-map, below). Dr Strickland—a senior lecturer in archaeology at La Trobe University—whose PhD identified discrepancies in the reported archaeofaunal data (2017a, pp. 63–66), recommended a re-examination of the ASW2 zooarchaeological metadata as a way to apply these interests to an Honours project. As a result of this process the main themes addressed in my research were collapse, resilience, and sustainability. Nestled within these key themes were the research interests: South Asian archaeology, foodways, and zooarchaeology. I'll go over the themes in this series, but the following section will introduce you to the key themes that will continue to pop up.


Key Themes!

Collapse: The collapse of complex societies is inherently achieved through a Byzantine combination of factors; one such factor frequently associated to societal collapse is the impact of climate and environmental factors. For time immemorial, humans and their environments have been in a reciprocal feedback loop. We do have agency, and it is imperative that we recognise this in past human responses to climate change. Knowing that climate is an important environmental influence on ecosystems—and by extension, archaeofaunas—zooarchaeological interpretations can add insight into past climates and their interchanges. Studying patterns in the change of archaeofaunal deposits at Anuradhapura, for example, can also comment on the environmental context at their time of discard.

Resilience: In an Age of Ecoanxiety we (all humans) should be proactive about looking to the past to better prepare us for our future — an undeniable future of climate change. To look archaeologically at the collapse of complex societies is significant in this day and age because of the period climate change we are inevitably entering. Understanding human responses to collapse, disaster, and apocalyptic conditions of the archaeological past, therefore, is significant now—as ever—because it can reveal to us forms of resilience and sustainability that may be helpful to us in the future.

Sustainability: Knowing that the city of Anuradhapura collapsed, and all the while the peripheral hinterland remained functioning, raises questions about sustainability in this archaeological context. As you will come to see, Anuradhapura is exemplary in its early construction and management of a complex hydraulic landscape. Moreover, Anuradhapura is an example of a low-density urban centre that, quite possibly, could be the future of planning for supporting our ever-increasing population. Ever growing, the human population continues to trend towards urbanised, city environments (Crane & Kinzig 2005; Laland et al 2014), a trend only set to continue in the future (Angel et al 2005; Laland 2015). It is also worth noting the large number of the global population live along coastlines — keeping in mind that coastlines, unfortunately, will become increasingly vulnerable to climate change. The increase in the density of urban populations—while it will present both opportunities and challenges (Bettencourt et al 2007)—will require forward-looking researchers to use their capacity of imagination to develop unique and novels ways of contributing to a research corpus that aims to give back to the community. Secondary to this way of thinking about sustainability in archaeology is the actual practice: how can the act and performance of archaeological research be done in a way that is sustainable? Little did I realise as I started my journey that this was the question I really wanted an answer to.

Figure 1: A mind-map with all the concepts I was curious about and interested in when I approached my supervisor at the beginning of 2020.

Acknowledging key sources

As this research doesn't exist in a vacuum (none does), before getting into this series I want to acknowledge three of the main sources used throughout. Taking a page outta Marcus Parks' book (who always credits his sources up top) I'd like to do the same here. First and foremost, the ASW2 monograph in two volumes has been fundamental to my research. Without such comprehensive and transparent documentation (and, critically, publication) of the artefactual materials recovered from the ASW2 trench my thesis would indubitably not be possible. The lead author for said monograph, Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, even augured such a reanalysis as mine. He wrote that, “the publication of the artefacts from the trench ASW2 allows presentation of the data, enabling the conclusions presented [in the monograph] to be refuted or supported,” adding that he hoped the publication of such extensive reporting could act as a catalyst for further investigations (Coningham 1999, p. 3). In fact, it was this forward-thinking that enabled the second source for this thesis to flourish in its own right. Not only has Dr Keir Strickland’s 2017 publication, A Time of Change: Questioning the “Collapse” of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, been fundamental in investigating the archaeofaunal indicators of collapse—as you will come to see—but so too has his involvement as my supervisor been essential to motivating, inspiring, and stimulating conversations about (as well as around and adjacent to) archaeological collapse and sustainability. Finally, the spectacular publication by Dr Kitty F Emery (2010) on zooarchaeological perspectives of the Mayan collapse has been pivotal in instructing my own directions for this thesis and feeding my curiosity in such arenas as zooarchaeology and collapse. I truly have been inspired by her work. Together, these three sources have formed the edifice upon which my research was built!

I've talked about the key themes, about the research interests that developed out of them, and about the foundation of literature upon which my last 20 months has been built, but what about the site itself? Well, before I can get into my search for sustainability within my discipline, let me turn your attention to the site of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, around which my research revolves!


An Introduction to Anuradhapura

My thesis reinvestigated previously published archaeofaunal data from the excavations of Anuradhapura’s citadel (AWS2) in Sri Lanka. This introductory section provides a contextual overview of the South Asian site.

Sri Lanka is an island off the south-easternmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. The contemporary political states of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India make up the Indian subcontinent. South Asia, more broadly, includes nations like Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Nepal (see Figure 1, below). The tapering triangle-like landmass is capped in the north by a montane boundary where the Indian and Eurasian Plates collide. The northern montane belt—comprised of the Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakoram & Himalayan ranges—is a result of this slow-motion collision. To the southwest and southeast, the shores of the Indian subcontinent are met by the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, respectively. A twisting stretch of shoal and sandbank—known as Rama’s Bridge, Adam’s Bridge, or Ram Setu—crosses the waters of the Palk Strait from mainland India out to the pearl-shaped island nation of Sri Lanka (Figure 3)

Figure 2, left: An orthographic projection indicating South Asia without national boundaries included (source: Serg!o 2009, adapted, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Figure 3, right: A United Nations map of Sri Lanka (source: UN Geospatial 2020)

With an area of over 65, 000 km2 (Arasaratnam 1993 p. 168), this verdant island is situated just north of the equator between 5°55’ and 9°51’ N (Kulatilake 2016, p. 576). It’s latitudinal location, combined with the island’s internal topography, influences the climate (Arasaratnam 1993 p. 168). Additional factors affecting the tropical climate are the island’s proximity to the Indian mainland, the island’s central massif, and its insularity (Peiris 1977, p. 12; Strickland 2017, p. 6). As a result of this combination of factors the island is monsoonal receiving heavy rainfall twice a year after/between seasonal periods of drought. The nature of the island’s topography also plays a role in the distribution of its most important element: rainfall.

The rainfall in Sri Lanka varies widely across the island (Department of Meteorology 2019) and has required complex management systems to support urbanisation. Water management became foundational to the success of Anuradhapura until its historicised collapse. Before a hydraulic landscape had been established and subsequently maintained, however, the island had long since been inhabited.

Anuradhapura is located in the central north of the island’s Dry Zone. Deraniyagala (1992a) divides the island into two climatic zones, the Wet and Dry Zones, based on the volume of rainfall to each region. Furthermore, Deraniyagala assigned a series of ecozones within these two. Within the Dry Zone Anuradhapura, and by extension the ASW2 trench, borders the ecozone series’ Ecozone A and Ecozone B; Anuradhapura borders both the semi-arid lowlands and dry lowlands, respectively (see Figure 4 below for the distribution of Wet/Dry Zones).

The ancient capital began as an Iron Age settlement and flourished into a dynamic city (Coningham 1999, pp. 1f). A place of Indian Ocean trade, Anuradhapura eventually became too attractive a stronghold for the Chola army of the north (Spencer & Hall 1974). This led to—as the Pali Chronicles describe it—the sacking of the city, and the usurp of rule. In this narrative, the Chola sacking was directly responsible for the city’s collapse (Gieger 1929 trans.). The site was eventually abandoned, swallowed up by a Wyndhamesque jungle — lost in a verdant tide, or as Still (1930) described it, the Jungle Tide. Hundreds of years later, the rediscovery of the city launched over a century of archaeological investigation at the ancient capital. Now, Anuradhapura is a city of two tales: the ancient and the New.


Contemporary Setting of Anuradhapura

As an archaeological site

Situated in the island’s interior, modern day Anuradhapura is a major city in Sri Lanka that is located largely to the south of the ancient capital’s archaeological reserve – although the Colonial British town was located directly on top of the archaeological ruins. Research, in the form of archaeological investigation and excavation, has remained in motion since its early-most days. While archaeological excavations at Anuradhapura started in the late-19th century, it is worth mentioning that the bulk of ‘research’ investigating Anuradhapura comes from the Western translations of the Pali chronicles, or vamsas. Regardless, it has since become one of the best-known Early Historic sites on the island (Smith 2016, p. 464), and is one of Asia’s major archaeological and pilgrimage centres having become one of the “most intensively studies and excavated Early Historic cities in South Asia (Coningham et al 2007, p. 702).” Today, broader than just in a strictly research context, the archaeological value of the city of Anuradhapura is exemplified by the popularity of the ancient city as a tourist site.

As a UNESCO site

The Sacred City of Anuradhapura was inscribed onto the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage list. While the ASW2 trench excavations were in the ‘secular’ part of the city, knowing that the Sacred part of the city is inscribed for its significant and outstanding contribution to cultural and historical value helps contextualise why understanding the city’s abandonment (and the Kingdom’s subsequent collapse) is important not just in Sri Lankan history and identity, but that it is an important and worthy research site for the period and part of the world. Anuradhapura was nominated for its cultural significance and was inscribed in 1982 by satisfying three of the World Heritage Convention (WHC) criteria (UNESCO World Heritage Centre 2003). The criteria that Anuradhapura was inscribed as a World Heritage site under were:

  1. To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

  2. To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design; and

  3. To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

The UNESCO description for the Sacred City of Anuradhapura is as follows:

“This sacred city was established around a cutting from the 'tree of enlightenment', the Buddha's fig tree, brought there in the 3rd century B.C. by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. Anuradhapura, a Ceylonese political and religious capital that flourished for 1,300 years, was abandoned after an invasion in 993. Hidden away in dense jungle for many years, the splendid site, with its palaces, monasteries and monuments, is now accessible once again.”

The ICOMOS Advisory Body Evaluation, along with the summary document of the Periodic Reporting Cycle 1, Section II can be found (along with the full report) by visiting the WHC documents page here. Although the UNESCO WHC recognises the ancient city as an exemplar of these above-listed criteria, the city of Anuradhapura is still an active religious and cultural space.

As a place of pilgrimage

Anuradhapura has a deep-rooted history as a place of pilgrimage. Accounts, like that of Chinese monk Faxian, depict Anuradhapura as a sacred site for Buddhists as early as the fifth century AD (Coningham 1999, p. 3; Davis & Coningham 2018, p. 351). The modern city of Anuradhapura is historically recorded as having been a place of pilgrimage during the 19th and 20th centuries (Davis & Coningham 2018, p. 352–353) and is still a place of spiritual pilgrimage and tourism today (see Figure 5). As Davis & Coningham put it, “religious sites and settlements represent more than static collections of buildings and are forums for dynamic interactions between tangible remains and intangible practices (2018, p. 358).” Acknowledging that this site has continued importance—that Anuradhapura is a living site of pilgrimage and religious veneration and activity—emphasises its significance as a site of study today.

Figure 5: A gathering of pilgrims on the terrace of Anuradhapura's Ruvanvelisaya stupa (source: Davis & Coningham 2018, p. 353)


In my next post I'll formally introduce Anuradhapura's ASW2 trench excavations and some of the minutiae of my research aims.

Until then,

Hail yourselves!

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Oct 17, 2021


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