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Plunder of artifacts worst in Sri Lanka“DG Archeology

Plunder of artifacts worst in Sri Lanka“DG Archeology

2012 Dec 18

By Saman Indrajith
Archaeology Director General Dr. Senarath Dissanayake said on Friday that there was no other country in the world where the heritage monuments and artifacts were being destroyed with such intensity as in Sri Lanka.

"I do not think even during the time of Kalinga Magha the heritage sites had been ransacked as our treasure hunters do today," Dr. Dissanayake said, delivering the 256th National Library Lecture series titled ‘Destruction of Artifacts: Myths and Realities’ held at the library auditorium on Friday.

Dr. Dissanayake said that there were around 1,250,000 sites of archaeological importance in the country and of them over 2000 had been vandalized by the treasure hunters during the last two decades. "These cases of vandalism are reported from all over the country. Cases reported from the North and East were very low until recently as there was war but since the end of the conflict, now the reports come from those provinces of temples and other sacred areas being pillaged," he said.

The sites of archaeological importance were being destroyed by various groups. "There are organized gangs that operate with the support of rich businessmen to demolish the sites and monuments in search of treasure. There are also some others who vandalize them for cultural and religious hate. Some ancient murals and paintings are destroyed even by the pious devotees who light lamps and josticks inside temples without knowing that their acts are causing irreparable damage to those murals. Apart from them there are groups raiding the sites for artifacts as they could be sold in antique markets. Unfortunately such markets exist and their suppliers are hell-bent in search of artifacts."

Dr. Dissanayake said that the widespread myth that ancient stupas and statues were erected after depositing valuable gems and golden statues inside them had become the main reason why the treasure hunters targeted them. The research, excavations and related scientific activities conducted by the Archaeology Department, universities, Post Graduate Institute of Archaeological Research, Central Cultural Fund and the Royal Asiatic Society’s Sri Lanka Branch for the past 130 years had proved that the tales related to such deposits of gems and golden statues were only myths.

"Until the end of Kandyan period, the commoners were not allowed to wear valuable jewellery or clothes. They did not even have household furniture. Such luxuries were limited only to the royalty and nobility. Artifacts of commercial value have not been found from anywhere else in remote areas but only urbanized places where the kingdoms existed. Those ancient sites inside thick jungles have been repeatedly pillaged during the times of invasions and by the time the Britishers had found them. Sad fact is that they are being further destroyed by treasure hunters of present time too," Dr. Dissanayake said.

The sites which had produced valuable artifacts were few and far between but even in those cases the gems and statues found were not so expensive. "There was no pure gold statue ever found in this country. Only gold plated statues made of bronze had been found. The gold used by the smiths during the past were carat 14 and most of the gems found were less than Rs. 3,000 or 4,000 a kilo in the market."

The archaeological chief said that the treasure hunters tended to dig up the rocks on which various symbols were inscribed. Those symbols are the landmarks demarcating the lands offered or donated to the temples. Whenever there was no natural landmark such as a waterway or a riverbank the officials or the incumbents of the monasteries got stonemasons to inscribe certain symbols on rocks. There was nothing valuable inside them. The treasure hunters failed to realize that even if somebody wanted to deposit valuables somewhere, the depositor would not leave marks so that others would notice them," he said.

In the face of increasing destruction of artifacts, the Department of Archaeology could only increase public awareness and get the government to introduce tougher laws. "The Department set up a police unit with eight policemen and now there were over 1,000 specially trained personnel to protect monuments and to curb treasure hunting. Those policemen were now attached almost all police stations and they helped tackle the problem of the theft of artifacts, Dr. Dissanayake said.

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