Walking Heritage into Future Cities and the Potential for Historical Archaeology in Sri Lanka

by Ruth Young

Historical Archaeology at the Jaffna Workshop

After the main Heritage Walking events of the workshop at Jaffna, Sri Lanka, there was time before the group dispersed to unwind a little and talk in more general terms about Historical Archaeology. The concept of studying the recent past through archaeology is one that is new and untried in Sri Lanka; after all, there are abundant histories that cover the last 5-600 years, including the advent and impact of European colonialism, Independence and 20th century developments.

An abandoned Colonial building in Kayts island in the Jaffna Peninsula. Built heritage like these are important sources for historical archaeology of northern Sri Lanka. Photo: Tathagata Neogi

Why bother to use archaeology at all? In other parts of the world where Historical Archaeology is relatively well established, it has shown itself to be a very effective means of looking beyond the accounts of the educated few who have written the histories, by providing material information about people and communities who may not be able to speak for themselves, or who may not wish to collude with histories written by a dominant elite. Historical Archaeology can be understood as quite a subversive practice and one that allows for multiple voices and multiple interpretations of material culture. Working with everyday items (as opposed to the buildings and belongings of the wealthy elite) also offers strong and effective ways of making links with communities and groups that may feel they are outside conventional heritage.

Fishing and shrimping at the lagoons of the Jaffna peninsula has been a traditional skill and livelihood of the area. Research in historical archaeology of the area can help in understanding the evolution and historical impact of this traditional livelihood on the society and culture in the area.
Photo: Tathagata Neogi

We talked about all of this at the Jaffna Workshop and the responses and questions of the participants both challenged our thinking and allowed us to absorb their views and suggestions in order to strengthen our central research questions and think carefully about our methods; particularly important and complex in relation to meaningful community engagement. Being able to work with people from a wide range of professional and personal backgrounds was invaluable and has resulted in new and exciting networks and connections. Particularly exciting was the opportunity to undertake the heritage walk around Jaffna with the workshop participants. This was led by two local Jaffna people and allowed us all to learn not only about the public history of Jaffna through large buildings such as the now-abandoned Kachcheri (district secretariat) and a range of churches, but also the fragmentary remains of more mundane material culture such as the small remnant of a rail line from the port to the city, which was used to transport tobacco and other local products between South India to Jaffna. These buildings, with the indicators of former trade and other places and objects also allowed those leading and participating in the walk to share family and personal memories, showing the value of place and belonging, and reinforcing the intersection of all these things in heritage and historical archaeology.

Historical Archaeology at the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR), Colombo

On our last day in Colombo the team spent some time at the Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAR). Gill and I talked to the Director about plans for collaborating with them and in the afternoon, following a public lecture from Tathagata on the work of Heritage Walk Calcutta, I gave a lecture on behalf of both of us (Gill and me) which focused on the value of historical archaeology in general, and how it might be used in a new project exploring the recent past and heritage in the Northern Province in Jaffna.  While archaeology is very well established in Sri Lanka, there has been relatively little work exploring the last 5-600 years, so this was an opportunity to raise the potential for studying this period through recovery and analysis of material culture using archaeological techniques.  As well as noting the successes of historical archaeology projects in places such as North America and Australia in challenging accepted wisdom around groups frequently oppressed and marginalised, such as slaves and indigenous populations whose histories are written by elite outsiders, we also talked about the ways in which historical archaeology can be used in constructing new and effective heritages that reflect local communities and more everyday lifeways. 

Dr Ruth Young during her talk on the potential for historical archaeology in northern Sri Lanka at the PGIAR, Colombo. Photo: Tathagata Neogi

The lecture was followed by a lively and engaged discussion where members of the public and the staff and students from the PGIAR shared their thoughts and views on studying the recent past using archaeological methods and approaches. It feels like there is an appetite in Sri Lanka to explore beyond the conventional archaeologies of power and elites.

About the Author

Dr. Ruth Young is a Reader in Archaeology at University of Leicester, UK. She is a Co-Investigator in the Walking Heritage into Future Cities project.

Author: Tathagata Neogi

Tathagata Neogi is an archaeologist and ethnographer with a PhD from University of Exeter. He is also the Founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, an academic-run for-profit social enterprise offering historical walking tours in Kolkata, India.

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