BMCR 1999.10.38

Response: Francis on Wilkie on Weerakkody

Response to 1999.08.08

Response by

I agree with Wilkie that this work ( Taprobane: Ancient SriLanka as known to the Greeks and Romans) is impressive and valuable and found her review fair and informative. My starting point is her comment that “Weerakkody makes little use of the admittedly meager archaeological evidence pertaining to the date and nature of the contact between the Greeks and Romans and the ancient inhabitants of Sri Lanka.”

She is right that Weerakkody makes little use of the archaeological evidence, but it is “meager” only considering what has been published. It is actually quite rich, but much of it awaits publication either because it is new or because of delays now so extended that they are beginning to hamper further work.

Since I have been involved in some of these excavations I thought these notes might be useful. I am a specialist in beads and related objects; other classes of artifacts tend to bear out my observations. My unpublished chapter on the Western geographic knowledge of Sri Lanka for the Mantai final report is in line with most of Weerakkody’s observations.

Three sites are of interest. 1.) Mantai, on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, excavated by John Carswell, occupied from about the first to the tenth century A.D. 2.) Berenike, Egypt, on the Red Sea that served the “Eastern Trade” from its establishment in 275 B.C. until the sixth century A.D., with an occupation gap from the late second to the early-mid fourth century. It is currently being excavated by the Universities of Delaware and Leiden (the Netherlands) by Steven E Sidebotham and Willemina Z. Wendrich. 3.) Arikamedu, in southeast India, a famous site excavated again in 1989-92 by Vimala Begley. It dates from at least the second century B.C. until the seventeenth century A.D.

These three sites give us a view of the trade between Rome (Egypt) on one hand and Sri Lanka and India on the other. I have catalogued the beads and bangles from Mantai and participated in the excavation of the other two sites.

In the late centuries B.C. and early centuries A.D. trade between Egypt and South Asia was directed toward India. Muziris was the chief South Indian port and Arikamedu was tied to the system via South Indian land and sea routes. At Berenike through the 1997 season, twelve potsherds have been identified as coming from Arikamedu or related sites, all but two (one from a mixed locus) dated to the first century B.C./first century A.D. (Begley and Tombler 1999).

From Roman levels at Mantai only two glass beads and a bangle of Western origin were uncovered. In contrast, at Arikamedu (whose loci are badly mixed) there are 56 glass beads that are likely from Roman-period levels, eleven of which are certainly of Roman date, the same centuries as Arikamedu pottery at Berenike.

At Berenike the small, drawn Indo-Pacific glass bead, a product of Arikamedu and associated sites, is very instructive. Before abandonment in the late second century they account for only four percent of all beads. After the resumption of trade, they account for 41 percent of the beads. While they have not yet been analyzed, their colors alone make it almost certain that the beads were made at Mantai, not Arikamedu or another Indo-Pacific beadmaking site.

This, of course, corresponds to the period in which Roman coins become popular in Sri Lanka. I cannot comment on Weerakkody’s idea that the invasion by Pandu had some effect on this. It might be that when Rome was ready to trade again Muziris was no longer an active port.

One would expect this if, as the Tamil literature suggests, its raison d’être was trade with the Yavanas (Westerners). When that trade stopped at the end of the second century, the once-boisterous entrepôt may have slid back into oblivion, leaving Mantai as the logical destination for Roman sailors. The short life as an important port might also help explain why the site of Muziris has never been identified.


Begley, V. and R. Tomber 1999 Chapter Six, “Indian Pottery Sherds,” pp. 161-81 in S.E. Sidebotham and W.Z. Wendrich, eds. “Berenike 1977,” Leiden: Research School of Asian, African and Amerindian Studies (CNWS) Universiteit Leiden.