Leaving No One Behind

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 16 2021
Echo Leaving No One Behind

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy 

Archaeological heritage belongs to the people and they should be provided with access to sites and monuments. However, people with disabilities find it difficult to access many of the sites on the island. Also, information about history and archaeology of the country should be made easily accessible for them, irrespective of their disabilities. 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) of the United Nations (UN) has eight Guiding Principles and Accessibility is the sixth guideline. One of the basic principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is ‘accessibility’. It is essential that this principle is respected and implemented so that persons with disabilities have access to and are able to enjoy outdoor archaeological sites. 

However, so far no archaeological site in Sri Lanka has accessibility facilities for the persons with disabilities nor do they have information which is accessible for them. 

In this light the new Director General of Archaeology Senior Professor Anura Manatunga has stepped forward with a revolutionary and a humanitarian start towards refashioning the face of Sri Lankan archaeology. Providing special facilities at the Head Office and at sites for the persons with disabilities is a priority of the new Director General’s work plan. Also the application of new digital technology, accurate online data sharing accessible for all, and advanced scientific research are new features that will be widely expanded in the field of Sri Lankan archaeology. 

We at Ceylon Today contacted the Director General to know more about this new step. 

Archaeology for all 

“One of my priorities is providing facilities for the persons with disabilities to approach archaeological sites and archaeological data without any restrictions. This is a big project and it may take several years to complete. First, we will start from our Head Office in Colombo making it accessible for the persons with disabilities. Secondly, we will expand the facilities at our regional offices. Thirdly, we will extend it to selected main archaeological sites where these facilities are not yet available. Finally all archaeological sites will be upgraded with such facilities making them accessible to everyone”, explained the Director General about their plans of initiating special facilities to the persons with disabilities. 

“At the same time we will consider providing facilities for persons with hearing difficulties and visually impaired. We will initiate the use of sign language and some digital apps and braille system to share archaeological data. This is new and all these cannot be done within a week or two but understanding the necessity of opening doors for everybody, we will definitely work towards this new direction.” 

Online data sharing 

Answering a question about quality websites, YouTube channels, and online data sharing, the Senior Professor said, “I have already taken initiative steps to introduce a new informative web site for the Department. It is now under construction with the help of the IT specialists of the University of Kelaniya. It will share information not only for tourists but also for students of Archaeology all over the world. The most important aspect of a website is its regular updating. We will assign a responsible officer for regular updates”. He further said that the Department website should be upgraded up to international standards. 

Archaeo-Hour and Archaeo-Cell are two novel concepts that will be introduced. These are to share new knowledge among the public. “Talking about sharing accurate data, my plan is to conduct an online lecture series, titled ‘Archaeo-Hour’. We also dedicate a special study room for students in which they can conduct their studies where they will be provided with facilities such as libraries and labs. The next big plan is the newly introducing ‘Archaeo-Cell’ idea, which is a place to store and exhibit the history of each Government office. Starting from the Department of Archaeology Head Office, this concept will be expanded all over the island. New digital technology will be applied in storing and displaying information in the Archaeo-Cell. This will be requested from all schools and the Department of Archaeology will be providing guidance. 

“Even some main archaeological sites are lacking these facilities. Especially standard information centres. Well, we already have information centres at sites and our aim is to develop them up to international standards. First of all, we should be a visitor-friendly institution. We may not be able to solve all the problems at once but we are committed to do so. Financial hardships and lack of manpower are the major hindrances we face while doing these work. My predecessors have tried their level best. They all were committed towards upgrading the standards of the Department and preserving the country’s heritage. I will continue what they have done. My policy is to conduct an ‘Inclusive Archaeology Programme’, in which no one will be excluded. Each and everyone has their own role to play,” he further clarified. 

A scientific approach to Sri Lankan archaeology 

Prof. Manatunga also stressed on the importance of intervening and initiating in introducing high-tech facilities for the field of archaeology in Sri Lanka such as high-quality research labs to study ancient animal and human DNA. “I believe in science-based studies. Myths and fantasies should be kept aside. We will be starting genetic studies and other scientific studies in the Department. We have a good laboratory and a few good scientists. Plans are made to upgrade the laboratory. I will work very closely with universities and research institutes to improve scientific research of the Department of Archaeology. Also, we will be applying new technological approaches such as digital mapping, ultrasounds, scientific dating, and so on in field work which will take lesser man power. 

In terms of world archaeological standards Sri Lanka is a considerable distance behind. However, making the new plants a priority the Director General is optimistic that the standards of Sri Lankan archaeology could be upgraded and in time it could even match the world standards. 

Foreign institutes and experts will also be invited to work along with the local researchers. However, Prof. Manatunga is adamant that the upper hand over archaeological resources and data will always be with the local authorities as he believes the archaeological of Sri Lanka should belong to Sri Lanka. 

New research approaches 

“We plan to introduce novel research plans through the Department”, Prof. Manatunga explained about their new research plan who said the priority of the new research agenda will be the research on ancient road networks. “If we look at the history of archaeology, at the beginning we searched for artefacts, then monuments and then larger sites. Now it is needed to conduct research about ancient roads. Roads linked all sites and would cover the entire island. We already know about a few stone bridges and resting places such as ambalamas. Historical sources mention details about ancient roads but archaeologically we have not attempted to trace them properly. Archaeologists such as A.M. Hocart attempted to trace the ancient road from Anuradhapura to Mannar 100 years ago. Some other individuals were also interested in this. We will systematically explore our road network from the earliest known period to the present. New digital technology will be applied for this study.” 

Maintaining professionalism 

Talking about the popularity of archaeology as a disciple and as a hobby in Sri Lanka, the DG said that it is the very reason that many people spread bogus information in the name of the discipline. “There are so many pseudo archaeologists and historians. People should be educated to understand proper and scientific history, not what these so-called archaeologists utter as history. Archaeology is a highly specialised scientific subject. It is evidence-based. Nor everybody can practice it. I will contribute toward maintaining the standards of the Sri Lanka Council of Archaeologists through our policies and work,” he stressed the importance of maintaining the professionalism of the discipline. 

Household archaeology 

One of the favourite subjects of Prof. Manatunga is household archaeology and he wants to popularise this novelty concept not only to Sri Lanka but also to the South Asian region in Sri Lanka. He is currently working with an Indian scholar – a friend of his – to find a way to introduce household archaeology to the Department’s research plan. 

“We should study families, house plans, family hierarchies, culinary, household items and so on. You’d be surprised to hear that we have not found a house of a common man so far in Sri Lanka by any of our excavations,” the Director General revealed. 

Archaeology for people 

For the longest the discipline of archaeology in the country was focused on classical archaeology which represented only a few elite personnel in the country. Prof. Manatunga strives to change this format by introducing people’s archaeology which involves everyone. 

“Let us study about our children of the past and their lifestyles, what they ate, what they studied, what were their daily activities, their toys, and what they wore. Today we spend lots of money, time and energy on our children. It was the same in the past but have we discovered data about them including remains of children through archaeological excavations?” Prof. Manatunga questioned. Pointing out one fine example of this the Director General said, “In these large ancient monasteries, most of the structures were for young novice monks. But we do not pay attention to them.” 

Colonial archaeology and research in Colombo 

While focusing on the ancient history of the country, the Director General also wants to emphasise on the importance of researching the recent history of the country – the colonial past and the pre-modern history. Plans are underway to expand the research on Kandyan history on which Prof. Manatunga himself has worked on. Preserving our ancient walawwas, ambalamas, cemeteries, forts, and churches falls under this segment of research. “I am very much interested in the historical growth of Colombo. Kotte, Seethawaka, and Raigama history are fascinating so we will be starting research on these periods and locations,” revealed Prof. Manatunga. 

In a nutshell, this is the research and work plan the Director General plans to introduce to the Department of Archaeology as a fresh start. By implementing the work plan, the Department will be able to expand the horizons of Sri Lankan archaeology and go beyond the traditional thinking. By applying a humanitarian touch, the Department will make archaeology accessible for all. 

(Pix courtesy the Department of Archaeology)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 16 2021

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