Sunday, April 7, 2013

How do we protect our 100,000 ancient sites from artifact hunting?

Sri Lanka has the unique distinction of having the highest concentration of sites of archealogical value of any Country on Earth. A rich 2500 + year history has seen to that, and in the past 10 years with the advent of relatively cheap metal detectors, most of the sites referred to have been desecrated of any item of historic interest. As I write there are probably 10 sites being excavated now!!!

“Nidan Harana Aka” (digging for antiquities) has become the pastime of choice of all get rich quick dreamers, and most Government Ministers. After all it is said that the Government chose a site for their Deyata Kirula, so that they may first remove all items of historical interest from the site by the use of Excavators and Bulldozers, before they prepare the soil for the exhibition. Accordingly this daylight robbery of the National Treasures has received State Patronage, as is believed by the public as the work of elected officials.

Not a day goes by without an incident of this nature, and now people appear to be digging their private property for such items. When I point out inexplicable holes in my property in Polonnaruwa, the locals say that it was as a result of someone digging out some antiquity or another in that spot!

Stories, and gossip and hearsay are legendary today of people making their fortunes after discovering or digging up a treasure from some historic period. The finding of King Dutugamunu’s ceremonial sword, is supposed to give the owner powers over the subjects. The people of Sri Lanka suckers for anything otherworldly lap it up hook line and sinker as the truth, even if an artifact was in fact excavated or not.

The beleaguered and underesourced Archealogical Department is at pains to dissociate themselves from any of these allegations, by just saying that they just do not have the resources to guard all these sites, and that they need an army!

I have the privilege of going to all sorts of places in the Country, and invariably find places of historical interest, with sometimes a marking on the road, pointing in the direction of the source, and in others only the local people are aware of them and direct me to the site. I am amazed just how much there is.

In some instances there are temples that are used, with a resident priest tasked with guarding it, and who is now beside himself, saying he just does not have the resources to guard against the theft, that even his small temple suffers from.
It is in this context that many living or existing temples which also double as places of historical interest have a precarious existence. I was at a temple last Sunday in Bibile, where the priests have not been permitted to build (the first stages of the foundations have had to be abandoned) due to the intervention of the courts, saying it is of historic interest, and until a proper excavation is done, they are not permitted to build a permanent structure because of it.

In this instance they have to live in temporary very basic accommodation until the matter is resolved. They appealed to us to intervene on their behalf.

Then there are many other places, some deep inside forests that have been desecrated, and often, even the Chaityas (Dagobas) raided, broken into and whatever was deposited inside, removed. The readily available heavy equipment has enabled more of this plunder to take place, even a few weeks ago

I am sure the reader will not be able to comprehend a number such as 100,000, but if one even goes to Kotte, there is a whole section of palaces and sites in the heart of Colombo, that few people know of, and is hidden from view for all sorts of reasons. If I was an archealogist, I would have to spend many lifetimes, just understanding what is in just a district only, let alone the 25 Districts we have in Sri Lanka today, and cry my heart out seeing the destruction in 10 years

How can we guard these places from Plunder without further public spending? My answer is to give the task to the Army or the Forces. They are the best equipped to guard, having had sufficient experience in the insurrection of guarding electricity sub stations, hydro dams and a list of other sensitive sites. We have a huge Security Force, that engages in building hotels, building their own Security Forces HQ in Pelawatte, and engaging in activities such as farming, transporting vegetables and competing with established businesses.

What better way of guarding national treasures from permanent disappearance? Remember we have already lost perhaps 50% of what we had 40 years ago, as it was not noticed, done surreptitiously and with few resources or even knowledge that such places existed. Elected leaders must share most of the blame.

It is now time to document ALL areas of historical interest. Look at who is currently living there, usually a temple with a few priests, if any, and see if they need further protection. IF they do then provide the needed security, and of all other unguarded places of historical significance, grade them with an ABC of historical value and then provide the necessary, starting with the most urgent.

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