Digging up gems from the past | Sunday Observer
Dr. Siran Deraniyagala no more:

Digging up gems from the past

10 October, 2021

Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, a renowned Sri Lankan archaeologist and historian, passed away last Tuesday at the age of 79. He will be best remembered for his pioneering exploration of the Anuradhapura citadel and excavations at the Fa Hien or Pahiyangala cave. In 1968, he discovered ancient human burials in the Fa Hien cave and among his discoveries were clay artefacts with writing dating back to sixth century BCE.

The Anuradhapura site was the first scientific stratified excavation undertaken in Sri Lanka and it set the pattern to the next generation of field archaeologists in the country. The excavation at the Citadel revolutionized much of traditionally accepted theories on the emergence of civilization in Sri Lanka.


It conclusively pushed back the beginnings of the earliest village culture, the introduction of metals and plant and animal domestication in Sri Lanka to 1000 BC. Dr. Deraniyagala’s investigations in the past two decades at the Citadel have revealed that this is one of the largest urban archaeological sites in pre-modern South Asia. The site now functions as a promising state-of-the-art research and training center for archaeology in South Asia.

As Chandima Bandara Ambanwala, senior lecturer at Rajarata University states in his article, the period from 1969, considered the modern stage, is the golden age of prehistoric research in Sri Lanka, owing to the groundbreaking research of Dr. Deraniyagala. He is renowned for revolutionising archaeological excavations and analysis methods especially with regard to the Anuradhapura citadel, using modern techniques. He applied the new technology and knowledge he acquired from his studies abroad in his excavations in Sri Lanka. His investigations and analysis created a new path in research methodology. During the modern period, research on prehistory was carried out through the Department of Archaeology under the leadership of Dr. Deraniyagala.

According to Ambanwala, Dr. Deraniyagala began his entry into the prehistoric study by reexamining the snail shells and bones of previous excavations. The Archaeological Stratification method in excavations was first introduced by Dr. Deraniyagala in the inner city excavations of Anuradhapura in 1969 and also at the Mesolithic settlement of Bellanbandi Pallessa in 1970.

Early modern humans

In his research, Dr. Deraniyagala finds archaeological evidence indicating the appearance of early modern humans in Sri Lanka about 130,000 years ago. He states in his published work: “One of the most important archaeological sites in the cultural landscape of Sri Lanka is the ancient city of Anuradhapura, situated in the Dry Zone lowlands of the country. The first appearance of human settlements in Anuradhapura dates back to the prehistoric Stone Age. Archaeological excavations carried out at the Anuradhapura Citadel revealed prehistoric artefacts, comprised of stone tools, which have been dated to around 5850 cal BP. In other such sites like the Anuradhapura Jethavana monastery and the Vessagiriya cave site, numerous artefacts have been excavated documenting human settlement in prehistoric times.”

Dr. Deraniyagala served as Director of the Department of Archaeology from 1992 to 2001 where he introduced a research design, plans for infrastructure and human resource development. He joined the Archaeological Survey Department in 1968 as Assistant Commissioner in charge of scientific excavations. He also held several positions in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Archaeology.


Dr. Deraniyagala was born in 1942 and completed his studies at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia. He received his BA and MA degrees in Architecture and Sanskrit at Cambridge University and went on to do postgraduate studies in archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology in London. There he was awarded the prestigious Gordon Childe Prize, as one of two best all-round students in all fields of archaeology.

Dr. Deraniyagala received his doctoral degree in the US at Harvard University and in 1988 completed his masterpiece, The Prehistory of Sri Lanka: an Ecological Perspective. His thesis was on the shore dunes of Iranamadu, on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. According to Ambanwala, the Iranamadu formation and cave deposits first identified and studied by the early scholars such as E. J. Weyland and P. E. P. Deraniyagala were used for the initial surveys and excavations. These excavations were focused on the soil layer found on the island. This initiative could be stated as a foremost initiative in world archaeological excavations.

In these excavations taking example from matrix chart method, various excavations were carried out in which the digs were conducted in such a way that every single artefact could be retrieved.

This work on cultural palaeo-ecology is hailed by Harvard scholars as a landmark in the archaeology of South Asia as a whole, which has incidentally transformed their concept of Sri Lankan pre-history. In 1992, his thesis was published as Memoir 8 of the Archaeological Department and is acclaimed as one of the primary source books on South Asian prehistoric archaeology.

Dr. Deraniyagala was responsible in the introduction of a radial shift in the Antiquities Ordinance in 1998 and it vested greater power with the Director General of Archaeology and formalised Archaeological Impact Assessments.

Dr. Deraniyagala has published over 40 research articles in some of the most prestigious journals in the world. His contributions enabled to compose a chronological order of the prehistory of the island.