Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Collapsing Empires: The Sri Lankan Medieval Kingdom

Anuradhapura Kingdom of Sri Lanka, like the Roman Empire named after its capital city, was one of the longest surviving ancient kingdoms on record, lasting by various counts almost 1,500 years:  having been founded in 377B.C., and finally being conquered in 1017.  The conquest by the Hindi Tamils ended over a millennia of Buddhist rule.

The Kingdom does not appear to have been a powerhouse.  Sri Lanka is 25332 square miles (65610) which makes it slightly larger than West Virginia.  But Venice was never exactly physically enormous, even counting its Black Sea territories, and nobody says that they were insignificant.

Anuradhapura also fell apart in what even skeptics seem to be willing to admit was a fairly classic invasion scenario.  It appears to have a period of economic decline prior to the final conquest, but it is not clear why it would have been in worse of condition than its neighbors.

So why do I mention them?  We’ll let an archeologist speak for the matter.

Strickland, Keir, Magalie, Durham University, 2011 Thesis

Geographically and culturally, Sri Lanka is a distinct regional unit within South Asian archaeology, and one that has been studied and investigated for over a century. However, the collapse of Anuradhapura itself has typically been confined to a postscript or footnote within the island’s history. This is even more notable within the archaeological literature, with almost all of the focus formerly placed upon identifying sites mentioned in the Pali chronicles (or vamsas) of the Island andlatterly upon the origins or fluorescence of Anuradhapura

You see a problem here I have noted noticed frequently.  Outside of a few famous examples, it is hard to get anyone to take collapses seriously.  The archeologists in the paper actually set out as one of their goals to determine if it could be determined that there had been a collapse (there was – see p. 297) because all the work had been done looking at the Kingdom at its peak, not what happened to it.

It therefore seems reasonable, given the above points, to state that, around the eleventh century, Anuradhapura does indeed collapse. Not only are all of the relative characteristics  of the collapse and its aftermath present, but the speed at which it occurs is clearly “rapid”, occurring in less than century. Although there is a longer, more drawn out, post-collapse aftermath – characterized by the so called “squatter” occupation within both the Citadel and Sacred City, this not only fails to ever restore the individual zones to their former complexity, but also critically fails to ever unite or even link the separate zones.

Water reservoir with underground supply conduits (from Wikopedia)

There was apparently last ditch efforts to try and shore up the defenses:

This work appeared to have either been carried out in a hurry, or at a time of vastly reduced resources, as structures within the Citadel appear to have been structurally robbed to provide building materials for this reinforcing and expanding of the ramparts. While there are many symbolic reasons for the construction of ramparts around a settlement, the hurried expansion of the existing Citadel’s ramparts (already well over 4m in height), at the cost of the very structures the ramparts are protecting, appears likely to be a direct response to a perceived threat (p. 300).

And while I am only touching the surface on their investigations, the authors make one final note:

On a wider scale, it is hoped that this thesis has succeeded in contributing to the linking of theoretical collapse literature (e.g. Renfrew 1984, Tainter 1988) with an explicitly archaeological approach to testing and modeling collapse. It is approaches such as this that will enable the formation of archaeological collapse theory, rather than historical, economical or environmental theories that are then applied to archaeological data (p. 363).

Stupa, Budhist relic mound structure (from Wikopedia)

No comments: