Today, we seek porcelain and ceramics to adorn our homes and beautify our dinner tables. These are considered as symbols of prestige.
However, Sri Lanka has a heritage of pottery where the traditions have survived the test of time and find a unique niche in the world of pottery.
Recent excavations at a village called Uda Ranchamadama near Embilipitiya, an ancient settlement site situated 3,000ft above sea level have uncovered sherds of a painted pot, which through Carbon 14 dating has been placed at 1120 BC, making it the oldest pot found in Sri Lanka so far. The significance of this finding is that Sri Lanka had the tradition of pottery during its proto historic period where there were no urban settlements and the country consisted of rural, sedentary village settlements.
It is these communities that were responsible for the earliest dated earthenware in Sri Lanka. In terms of technology there were two types; the hand made clay pots and the wheel turned and fired pots where black and red ware and plain red ware were prevalent. One of the oldest earthenware, which is dated to the 900 BC was recovered from the basal levels of the stratigraphy of the excavation at the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura and is of the black and red ware type.
The identifiable characteristic of red and black ware is that the interior is black and the exterior is red. The firing technology of producing this type of vessel was special; the vessel is kept in the kiln upside down, then heat penetrates the exterior and turns it red. As the interior is not oxidised completely, it becomes black. This technique prevailed for nearly a 1000 years from 900 BC to 300 AD after which this technique started to decline. The technique used today for firing clay vessels became prominent after the 3rd Century AD.
During ancient times the use of clay vessels were twofold; namely for day-to-day functions such as domestic utensils and religious purposes and as specially made vessels including funeral urns. Such urns have been found at Ibbankatuva and Pomparippu along with human remains and utensils used for the rituals contained inside.
In the second millennium BC Sri Lankan potters were well versed in the methods to distinguish normal clay from the clay needed to produce pots, which was rich in iron compounds such as, hematite and magnetite. Ancient vessels have been found in various colours; white colour comes from the use of kaolin and to obtain the red colour after heating, clay with a high content of iron compounds were selected.
According to archaeological evidence from several excavations in Anuradhapura and Tissamaharama, the earliest cities and towns emerged around 350 BC. During this period firing technology of earthenware became more advanced and potters started using glazing techniques, exterior decorations and new variations in their creations. After 350 BC, we see vessels of various sizes and designs produced using new technologies that have led archaeologists to believe that local potters interacted with foreign pottery traditions and they incidentally upgraded their technologies while maintaining the Sri Lankan identity.
Furthermore with Sri Lanka becoming a hub in the maritime trade route foreign crockery was imported to the country from the end of the first millennium BC. However, what is amazing is that from the earthenware that has been found from that era, it is evident that the pottery tradition has continued to the modern day as there has not been a marked difference between the vessel types and the technologies and the traditional potters still use the wheel to produce clay vessels to this day.
Ancient chronicles state that potters were one of the craftsmen who came to Sri Lanka with Sangamitta Theri who brought the sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka. However, the pottery traditions were very much instilled in Sri Lankan society by that time and not only vessels but sculptures such as small terracotta figurines and other utensils have been found dating prior to the arrival of the Theri. Ancient inscriptions and literary chronicles give a number of references about potters and that they lived in villages called ‘Kumbakaragama'.
Original video credit : Grow Lanka