Broadening the Avenues
Part III By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“You have to change your thinking if you desire to have a future different from your present.”
— Germany Kent
The unemployment rate of Sri Lankan graduates is notably high. Among them, archaeology graduates are facing a grave crisis including the many struggles of protecting the professionalism of the discipline of archaeology. We have been discussing this boiling issue for the past two weeks from different perspectives.
This week we will be looking at the issue from a novel perspective; in a rather unconventional dimension that may be new as well as slightly unwelcome in Sri Lanka. However, the points discussed here would open new avenues for local archaeologists and will broaden the horizons of Sri Lanka’s heritage management sector.
It should be noted that we must be open to novel ideas and open new doors if we want to move forward parallel to the progressing world. Therefore, we invite you to join this discussion with an open heart, leaving prejudice aside. Joining us today in conversation is Anuradha Piyadasa, an electrical engineer by profession who is passionate about Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage and archaeology.
His passion persuaded him to obtain a Master’s degree in archaeology and take a step ahead in procuring measures to preserve the Sri Lankan heritage in digital form. Piyadasa opening up a digital platform for Sri Lankan archaeology has opened up professional opportunities for archaeology graduates in Sri Lanka and it has also become a place where history lovers and professionals meet and interact.
What is archaeology.lk and IAHS?
Archaeology.lk and the Institute of Archaeology and Heritage Studies (IAHS) are novel and revolutionary concepts for Sri Lanka’s heritage sector and the first of their kind in Sri Lanka. These have opened up job and training opportunities for Sri Lanka’s archaeology graduates. Nevertheless, many are still sceptical about them. Founded in 2009 by Chandima Ambanwala, Mahinda Karunarathna, Sandya Nawarathna, and Piyadasa himself, archaeology.lk was to disseminate new knowledge in Sri Lankan archaeology.
“It is a digital platform dedicated to archaeology and heritage in Sri Lanka where anyone can contribute,” said Piyadasa. IAHS was established as a nonprofit company to promote archaeology and heritage studies in 2019 as the academic arm of archaeology.lk by Chandima Ambanwala and Piyadasa. Piyadasa said that both these organisations are non-profit organisations.
The profit they get from these institutes is used for the archaeology and heritage sector in Sri Lanka. For example, they sponsor the Gold Medal for the best archaeology student at the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka. They will be conducting an excavation workshop in collaboration with Central Cultural Fund (CCF) this month. Up to now, more than 30 archaeology graduates have worked with archeology.lk and IAHS on a full-time and part-time basis. At present, one full-time and six parttime archaeology graduates are working.
Will the involvement of the private sector help find a solution?
Piyadasa said that Sri Lankan universities are producing more archaeology graduates than required, and therefore, the Government or private sector may not be able to provide jobs for all archaeology graduates. Answering a question as to if such more opportunities are opened in Sri Lanka could be one solution to the unemployment problem of archaeology graduates, Piyadasa said that, although it will not be able to completely solve the unemployment problem, still, it would open new doors for more archaeology graduates to work in institutes directly related to archaeology.
“In the last two years, we have shown that the private sector can be involved in archaeology and heritage education in Sri Lanka,” explained Piyadasa. If the authorities allow the private sector to participate in archaeology and heritage management it will create more job opportunities and increase the quality of archaeology graduates as the private sector is looking for highly skilled graduates.
They can work as researchers, archaeologists, conservators, heritage managers, historic buildings inspectors/conservation officers, heritage tour managers, educators, digital heritage content creators, and so forth. “If we open doors to the private sector, some archaeology graduates may think creatively and become entrepreneurs in the field.”
How can the private sector get involved?
“Usually, when we are talking about private sector involvement in the heritage sector in Sri Lanka, we are talking about Archaeology Impact Assessments (AIAs) and tourism,” started Piyadasa. “However, there are a lot more other opportunities. I have been thinking about a model for private sector involvement in the heritage sector for years.” He further explained that in Sri Lanka, archaeologists and heritage managers are always blaming the clergy and devotees for destroying our heritage.
If we look at this issue closely, they are willing to protect our heritage, but they have no proper or convenient ways to obtain professional advice. They always have to look to the Department of Archaeology (DoA) and CCF to come up with solutions. The archaeological site density is very high in Sri Lanka, hence, in reality, the DoA, and the CCF do not have enough human resources to cater to this demand and they cannot increase their cadre as they wish.
According to Piyadasa, if the private sector is allowed, they can fill this void and provide more job opportunities for archaeology graduates while providing professional services to the clergy and devotees who are the owners of our heritage. He said that he believes that this opening up with the private sector should happen under the supervision of the DoA, and it should act as a regulatory body.
This model will be more practical rather than having a large institute like CCF. If CCF fails, everything will be stopped. When there are many private organisations, a few organisations may fail, but the majority will continue with their work. “I think this model is more suitable for a country like Sri Lanka. This process may require changing the existing regulations, and the DoA staff should be well-trained to act as regulators,” he further explained.
It will create more jobs for archaeology graduates, and this is going to be a significant benefit. Besides this, it will help uplift professionalism among archaeology graduates, introduce new technology in the heritage field, get more professional involvement in managing heritage sites in Sri Lanka, result in the continuing professional development of archaeology graduates, will increase the opportunity to work with foreign professionals. and more. “Private sector participation will also allow them to work with people from different fields and learn from them. If we think of monetary gains, they will have better remuneration.”
Why doesn’t Sri Lanka welcome the private sector in archaeology?
“We must ask ourselves why we should not allow the private sector to participate in heritage-related work,” said Piyadasa. He said that, “If you look at the United Kingdom that taught us the basics of archaeology, by now, over 80 archaeology companies are listed in the Chartered Institute of Archaeologists. For example, Wessex Archaeology Ltd. has been involved in more than 750 archaeology and heritage-related projects all around the UK and a few projects in other countries, providing job opportunities for archaeology graduates.”
As Piyadasa further explained, the main obstacle in allowing the private sector to participate in the archaeology and heritage sector in Sri Lanka is the mindset of academics and decision-makers. Most of them think archaeology and heritage sector research, conservation, explorations, excavations should only be done by State universities and the three leading institutes. “If you look at the reality, there are other Government organisations that are involved in the archaeology and heritage sector. The armed forces and the Civil Defence Department are some examples.
Do they have trained professionals in archaeology or heritage management?” questioned Piyadasa. As he further explained, academics and decision-makers do not give a valid reason as to why the private sector should not be involved in heritage management. “Like I explained earlier, the DoA should act as a regulatory body and allow the private sector to work in the heritage sector,” emphasised Piyadasa. He also said that health and education are two basic needs in our country and that these sectors have opened up to the private sector, proving that these openings have more positive impacts than negative ones.
Is archaeology a profession or still ‘a rich man’s hobby’?
“How can we talk about a professional archaeologist without money?” he asked. “If you want to create a professional archaeologist in Sri Lanka, they should walk along with Sarasvati and Lakshmi together!” Therefore, archaeology graduates should start to think differently immediately and act to become professional archaeologists.
“As Prof. Prishantha Gunawardena correctly said, archaeology is no longer a rich man’s hobby. The toplevel heritage decision-makers should think out-of-the-box and create more job opportunities for archaeology graduates by allowing the private sector to participate in archaeology and heritage management work in Sri Lanka,” concluded Piyadasa.
Let’s broaden our thinking
In Sri Lankan archaeology, it seems as if there exists a slight monopoly maintained by some, to maintain their status; but this has no benefit for Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage. Being sceptical about opening up the path for private sector investments and losing the monopoly of the State sector in archaeology seems baseless. It should be emphasised that all those who work even in the private sector should strictly be trained archaeologists (with an archaeology degree) and should be monitored and evaluated by senior professionals in the discipline.
If we are to take great pride and be protective over the fact that Sri Lanka’s heritage sector should remain in the State’s authority solely, we must say that, by now, we have greatly failed in preserving our heritage as well as maintaining the quality and professionalism of the profession. We are not worried about how and why the armed forces are engaged in archaeological and heritage management work in Sri Lanka, despite the truth that none of them are professionally trained as archaeologists. But we are against the involvement of the private sector, where trained professionals are involved.
We need to let go of the hypocrisy. In the beginning, archaeology was a subject only for the elite, where they did it as a hobby, but not as a profession. But now, things have changed and archaeology is a profession, an academic discipline where individuals should receive benefit both financially and professionally as also heritage should be preserved and at the same time contribute to the country’s economic and social development.
It is important to improve the quality of individuals in the discipline of archaeology, in order to improve the overall quality of the heritage management profession. Improving communication skills, language skills, and altogether updating the skills need for 21st-century is crucial. It is high time that we come out of our shells, let go of hypocrisy and broaden our horizons.