Digging up Their Journey
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been.
– Jim Bishop
Sri Lanka boasts over 250,000 archaeological sites and a legacy of innumerable antiquities which are the cultural heritage matter not just to us Sri Lankans but to the entire humankind.
Tangible cultural heritage is fragile and considering its nature it is crucial to take necessary measures to safeguard the archaeological heritage of the country. Considering the high density of the island’s archaeological heritage it is indeed an exhausting and rigorous task protecting them. The Department of Archaeology was formed to fulfil this need during the late 19th century by the British Governance. Last Tuesday (7) The Department of Archaeology celebrated 130 years of excellence as the leading institute for preserving the archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka.
Birth of the Department
The British civil servants were in awe after seeing the astonishing archaeological heritage of Sri Lanka especially the ruined cities at Anuradhapura, Sigirya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. These sites once stood proudly in all their splendour and grandeur back during their hay days. During the 19th century most of these places were completely in ruins and were overrun by the jungle tide. The British were not only fascinated by these ruins they also took interest in preserving these sites. These measures led to the birth of the Department of Archaeology in the year 1890.
The Department of Archaeology was established on 7 July 1890 when Sir Arthur Gordon, then Governor of Ceylon, directed H.C.P. Bell to commence archaeological operations of the North Central Province.
Before things were official…
Although the Department was established in 1890, the groundwork related to archaeological activities took place many years before, during the governance of Sir Hercules Robinson. In 1868, seven years after the initiation of an archaeological survey in India, the Ceylon Government appointed a Committee to obtain information regarding the ancient architectural works of Ceylon.
In 1871, an excellent series of photographs of the principle structures of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa was taken with the financial and other assistance provided by the Government of the island.
In the year 1873 Governor Sir William Gregory issued instructions for a complete survey to be undertaken. Therefore, a site survey of ancient Anuradhapura began during this year. The pioneering work carried out by J.G. Smither, titled, Architectural Remains of Anuradhapura, comprising information of stupas and certain other ruined structures, was released in 1894. Up to date this publication remains to be one of the best works published on ancient Sri Lankan architecture.
Between 1875 and 1879 a partial search of ancient inscriptions and original records was carried out and they were collected under Government Authority, by Prof. P. Goldschmidt who became the founder of Sinhalese Epigraphy. E. Muller and Maha Mudaliyar L.W. de Zoysa continued this work.
During the years 1884 -1886, S.M. Burrows was assigned the responsibility of supervising the archaeological works at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
After July 1890…
The first survey team after Bell was appointed as the first Archaeological Commissioner and the Head of the Archaeological Department included; the Commissioner, European Assistant Commissioner, a native assistant, a clerk, and three draughtsmen. The first task given to the team was the exploration, excavation, mapping and conservation of historical monuments at Anuradhapura.
In 1895 they commenced work at Sigiriya and in May 1900 at Polonnaruwa. Between 1902 and 1907 John Still served as the Assistant Commissioner.
Edward Russell Ayrton was appointed to the post Archaeological Commissioner in December 1912. He worked as the Assistant Commissioner under Bell. His tragic untimely death that occurred on 18 May 1914 when he was drowned at Tissa Wewa in Tissamaharama cut short the life of a bright, promising archaeologist.
During World War I
During the chaos of World War I, the Department only had a skeleton staff, with a series of acting heads. Arthur Maurice Hocat who was appointed in 1921 resumed the work back to normal.
Making of a genius, Senarath Paranavithana
Hocart recognised the need to train young local scholars and to recruit them to work in the Department. Amongst his trainees was young and brilliant Senarath Paranavithana who was sent to Ootacamund (Present day Ooty), India to be trained under the Government Epigraphist in India. In 1925 Hocart took a year leave and returned to England. M.Wedderburn acted as the Archaeology Commissioner in the absence of Hocart. After Hocart returned in 1926 he appointed Paranavithana as an epigraphical assistant. When Hocart retired in 1929 C. F. Windsor took the role of the Commissioner and at the same year the head office was relocated from Anuradhapura to Colombo.
In 1932 Windsor retired and Paranavithana became the first Sri Lankan to be appointed as the Head of the Department (Acting). In 1935 A.H. Longhurst, who was the Superintendant of the Archaeological Survey of India, took over the role of Commissioner of Archaeology. Paranavithana then took the role of his Epigraphical Assistant.
During World War II
With commencement of World War II all the major works of the Department were suspended. At the same time, Dr. Paranavithana was appointed as the Commissioner of Archaeology marking the dawn of the golden era of Sri Lankan archaeology. Dr. Paranavithana retired from his position in 1956.
The list of Heads of the Department of Archaeology including the present head is as follows;
1884-1886 S.M. Burrows
1890-1892 H.C.P. Bell
1892 Levers (Acting)
1893-1912 H.C.P. Bell
1912-1913 R. Ayrton
1913-1914 B. Constantine (Acting)
1914-1918 H. R. Freeman (Acting)
1918-1920 F.G. Tyrrel (Acting)
1920-1921 A.W. Seymour (Acting)
1921-1922 G.F.R. Browning (Acting)
1922-1923 A.M. Hocart
1923-1924 A.M. Hocart / F.Barlett (Acting)
1924-1925 M. Wedderburn (Acting) / E.R.Sudbury (Acting)
1925-1927 A.M. Hocart
1927-1928 E.T. Dyson (Acting)
1928-1929 C.F. Winzer (Acting)
1929-1930 J. Pearson (Acting)
1930-1931 C.F. Winzer (Acting)
1931-1934 S. Paranavitana (Acting)
1934-1939 A.H. Longhurst
1940-1956 Dr. S. Paranavitana
1956-1967 Dr. C.E. Godakumbura
1967-1979 Dr. R.H. de Silva
1979-1983 Dr. Saddhamangala Karunarathna
1983-1990 Dr. Roland Silva
1990-1992 M.H. Sirisoma
1992-2001 Dr. S.U. Deraniyagala
2001-2004 Dr. W.H. Wijayapala
2004-2017 June Prof. Senerath Dissanayake
2017June-2020 Jan Prof. P.B. Mandawala (Acting)
2020Jan-to date Prof. Senerath Dissanayake
According to the Antiquities Ordinance, No. 9 of 1940 and its Amendment No. 24 of 1998, the protection of this heritage is the sole responsibility of the Director General of Archaeology. No organisation, institute or other authority of Sri Lanka can deny the responsibility held by the Department of Archaeology.
Father of Sri Lankan Archaeology
As we are celebrating the long and proud journey of the Department of Archaeology, it is important to pay tribute to a genius who is known as the father of Sri Lankan archaeology and also who is honoured as the first Sri Lankan archaeologist. He is none other than Prof. Paranavithana.
It was during his time when both the Department of Archaeology and the field of Sri Lankan archaeology experienced its golden era.
Prof. Paranavithana received his doctorate in 1936 from the University of Leiden, Netherlands and was appointed as the Archaeological Commissioner on 1 October 1940 in which capacity he served diligently till December, 1956. In 1957 he was appointed as a Professor of Archaeology at the then Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon. He was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in the 1952 New Year Honours for his services as the Archaeological Commissioner.
Scholarly work that is far beyond excellence
Prof. Paranavithana’s academic writings are filled with insight, profound learning and a vital sense of history. Known for his contributions to and editing of Epigraphia Zeylanica, his most celebrated magnum opus was Sigiri Graffiti, published in two folio volumes by Oxford University Press.
Prof. Paranavitana made numerous contributions to foreign and local journals in the fields of epigraphy, history, art, architecture, religion, languages and literature, most notably the University of Ceylon Review.
The following are few of his many celebrated monographs;
• The Shrine of Upulvan at Devundara (1953)
• The God of Adam’s Peak (1958)
• Ceylon and Malaysia (1961)
• Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol. I (1970)
• The Greeks and the Mauryas (1971)
• Arts of Ancient Sinhalese (1971)
• Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol. II (published posthumously)
• Story of Sigiriya (published posthumously)
Some are embellished by their position. It is however not so with Paranavitana, whose radiance illuminates the position.
- Pandit Munidasa Kumaratunga