Anuradhapura Excavations: The Citadel (1989-94)

Directors: Professor Robin Conningham, University of Durham; Dr Raymond Allchin, University of Cambridge

The UNESCO world heritage-site of Anuradhapura is one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated religious places. The historical and archaeological importance of Anuradhapura centre on its role as a royal capital between the early centuries BCE and the eleventh century CE after which time it was largely abandoned.

Photo (left): Engraved seal from Anuradhapura, early centuries CE. Courtesy of the British Museum.
Photo (right): Anuradhapura. Ruined stupa, late nineteenth century photograph

In contrast to the concentration of projects which have examined the development of urbanisation in the north and northwest of the South Asian subcontinent, there have been few excavations in Sri Lanka examining the earliest phases of its history, the general assumption being that the island’s cities grew through contact with the Mauryan empire from circa 250 BCE. In order to test this assumption and to provide a structural and archaeological sequence, trench Anuradhapura Salgaha Watta 2 was excavated between 1989 and 1994. Measuring 10 metres by 10 metres and 10 metres deep, the Anuradhapura team recorded 1,887 contexts, 118 stratigraphic phases, 515 postholes, 77 pits, 42 walls, 38 slots, 17 ovens, 3 wells, 30 structural phases and 11 structural periods. Our sequence has provided a unique section through the site’s development from an Iron Age village to a Mediaeval metropolis, allowing a re-evaluation of Anuradhapura’s growth as a city. Significantly, growth occurred before 250 BCE as the city’s trade and exchange networks expanded beyond its own hinterland to the island’s coast to link with trading communities as far as Vietnam and Egypt.