Be the guardians of our heritage

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On 7 July we celebrated the 132nd anniversary of the Department of Archaeology (DoA) and the National Archaeology Day. The Department of Archaeology is an institute that carries a proud legacy of efficient civil servants, skilled professionals, and passionate leaders. It has been the pioneer institute in protecting and conserving Sri Lanka’s tangible heritage for 13 decades.

 However, as we celebrate its 132nd anniversary, there are doubts whether the DoA still stands proud in staying true to its vision and mission, or it has failed to be the guardian of our cultural heritage; has it become just another Government institute that has strayed from its objectives without a firm and skilled leadership?

The Director-General of the DoA

The Director-General (DG) position of the DoA or formerly known as the Archaeology Commissioner position is one of the State civil positions that have the highest powers within the position. It currently is at the 19th of the Order of Precedence of Sri Lanka.

Maintaining the standards, former commissioners and DGs did not disappoint us and did not fail the DoA, and were able to do justice to the position. The first Sri Lankan Archaeology Commissioner was Prof. Senerat Paranavitana. Before him, the position was held by British archaeologists.

 Among the many who followed prof. Paranavitana, Dr. Roland Silva, and Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala were two giants who added grace to the position and truly served the country. Starting from 1884 (S.M. Burrows) until 2017 (Dr. Senerath Dissanayake) those who held the position have done their best to safeguard Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage.

 However, the country’s corrupt politics did not spare the DG position. Recent appointments, including the current DG, are alleged to be political appointments, despite the fact that there are qualified, skilled, and passionate archaeologists in the country suitable to be honoured with the DG position.

Celebrating the National Archaeology Day

This year, the DoA has organised a series of events to commemorate the day and the anniversary. Among them are; a cricket tournament, blood donations, a series of online lectures, and so forth.

Would this suffice? Would these safeguard Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage?

 We do not have a National Policy to protect our cultural heritage. We hesitate to enact the Antiquities Ordinance when required.

 For many, our cultural heritage is merely remnants of a dead past; a pile of bricks and granite. We dig out our stupas, take out the relics and place them inside museums. Then at museums, they are robbed or misplaced.

 Who are the true custodians of our heritage? What values does a heritage site or monument possess? We ought to have open discourses about these and update our heritage sector.

 Still, for many, archaeology is the ‘Rich Man’s Hobby’; hence exploring forests and ruins, is considered to be archaeology by many of us. Thanks to the colonial masters, we still see the ‘antique’ value of our religious and cultural sites as the priority, and mostly neglect the religious, cultural, historical, aesthetic, and environmental values.

Still, our heritage sector and archaeology education are shadowed by colonial thinking, colonial laws, and outdated policies. When shall we be ready to de-colonise our heritage sector?

 We have not opened avenues in the heritage sector as we still believe in colonial archaeology adventures. Our heritage, despite being a ‘Living Heritage’, and a multi-disciplinary subject belonging to the public, there is a monopoly as well as certain restrictions within the discipline, making it exclusive for only a few professional to enjoy the perks and benefits.

 A few weeks ago, archaeology work at Mullaitivu Kurundi Temple was disrupted and halted by a group of people representing Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner even expressed concerns over Sri Lanka’s archaeology work in the North and the East. Yet, the DG and the DoA act ignorant. Does Mullaitivu Kurundi Temple not fall under the DoA, we wonder?

Will playing a cricket match solve all these issues we have in our heritage sector?

The darkest black mark on the DoA is the Deliwala relics robbery, which is still unsolved and even ignored. What measures has the DG taken to solve this mystery and recover the precious, priceless stolen objects? It is an utter disgrace to the 132 glorious years of the DoA.

 Listing out shortcomings will result in a long and almost never-ending list since an incident or two of vandalising and antiques robbery are reported every day. Despite not being discussed in public, the illicit antiquities trade is flourishing in Sri Lanka, causing threats and damages to the country’s cultural heritage.

 If we have a strong National Policy to protect our cultural heritage and if we enact the law, many of these issues can be solved. Yet, we celebrate the day through blood donations and online lectures. A flurry of lectures, seminars, and other forums are being held by the universities and other research organisations so we wonder, Should the DoA follow suit in organising such events or should it dedicate its time, money, power, and other resources to do something more substantial and impactful in conserving country’s cultural heritage?

 When will the DoA decide to prepare a National Policy to safeguard our cultural heritage and take the responsibility of being the guardians of our heritage?

 It is not as if playing cricket in celebration of the anniversary is condemned or frowned upon. After all, H.C.P. Bell too was fond of the sport and had played cricket during his time in Sri Lanka. However, it is crucial to understand the gravity of neglecting the true responsibilities and duties of the DoA as well as the prestigious DG position. Also, it must be noted that Bell, during his time, did clear the land to the right side, between the Sri Maha Bodhi and Ruwanwelisaya, to play cricket. As someone whose archaeology work in Sri Lanka was highly controversial, Bell was known to cause notable damage to Sri Lanka’s archaeology. Therefore, it might not be the best of ideas to follow Bell’s footsteps in celebrating the anniversary

 On the 132 anniversary of the glorious DoA and on National Archaeology Day, we pray that the DoA may restore its honour and reach the heights of grace from which it has fallen over the years.

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy