Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Sri Lanka wakes up to organized treasure crime

The Nation
Carol Aloysius
Sunday, 27 January 2013
Sri Lanka wakes up  to organized treasure crime
The authorities overseeing the protection of national cultural heritage are concerned about the wanton manner in which culture is being robbed by rogues in the guise of politicians and the absence of police posts to guard them
An archeological heritage of 3,000 years made by artisans who left their mark in the form of a vast array of priceless monuments, lovingly crafted, is now under threat. Over the years, thousands of artifacts from statues, jewels and personal adornments once worn by the royal ladies of yesteryear, battle scarred swords used by ancient kings, pottery crafted with exquisite designs and many other valuable items have been spirited away from their original sites. Today they adorn the private homes, museums and auction rooms of foreign countries.
The latest discovery of a moonstone found in a private bungalow in rural England, at Exeter, Devon about to come under the hammer at an auction room, has raised a howl of protests from concerned Lankans, prompting the Archaeology Department head Dr Senerath Dissanayake to request the High Commission in UK for a comprehensive report to discern if the stone concerned did in fact originate from Sri Lanka, and if so, request it be returned.
The moonstone is believed to have belonged to the Anuradhapura period. Department sources insist that it could not have been shipped in the recent past. According to them, it had probably been taken away during the Colonial period by a British planter since their archives which maintained records of every single moonstone in the country from 1,880 onwards, had no evidence of a stone being removed after that date.
Meanwhile fears have been expressed by a cross section of the public that more of these valuable national treasures are being surreptitiously spirited away and will continue, unless stricter measures are taken by both the government and the Ministry of National Heritage to protect them from disappearing.
Ghandara Era statues
“Large scale smuggling of our ancient artifacts is an ongoing activity, with many people involved in this lucrative business,” said Royal Asiatic Society President Dr Susantha Goonetilleke. Speaking from personal experiences, he said that he had come across antique sellers who had set up shop only yards away from the British Museum. “I met one of them who had an antique shop a hundred yards from the Museum who claimed to be selling ‘certified antiques’, meaning non smuggled antiques.” He explained that the man had over 26 pieces of Buddha statues of the Ghandara Era which were only slightly damaged. “I myself purchased one for 2,000 pounds and received a certificate assuring its authenticity.”
That was two years ago. About five years ago, on an earlier visit he noticed that this same seller had a Buddha statue, which Goonetilleke’s practiced eye immediately identified as one belonging to the Kandyan period. How do these artifacts get there in the first place, question Dr Goonetilleke.Robbing and desecrating cultural sites is nothing new, he insisted. “Dr Brendon Gooneratne informed me that the crown of King Wimaladharma had been on sale somewhere abroad about 10 years ago. This has been happening over a long period of time, although it’s only now that the Archaeology Department seems to be waking up to the sad truth. Earlier it was the LTTE who destroyed these sites during the war. Today it is local politicians, businessmen and treasure hunters, driven by greed,” he said with regret.
The President of the Thimbirigasyaya Religious Association Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera of Bodu Bala Sena concurred. In fact Bodu Bala Sena, a few months ago, had vociferously aired their anger at what he said was “the indifference and apathy of the Archaeology Department to a very urgent problem concerning our national culture.” During the protest Bodu Bala Sena surrounded the Department building with placards against ‘the wanton manner in which the culture was being robbed by rogues in the guise of politicians’. He pointed out that these sites had neither boards to identify them by, or police posts to guard them from thieves.
He added however at present both Police posts and name boards to identify specific archaeological sites or monuments had been introduced. But he reiterated that this is not a foolproof method of protecting these ancient treasures from thieves since many of them were scattered in some of the most far flung areas of the country, mostly in thick jungles. He also alleged that some recent development projects had not taken into account the historical and cultural significance of some of the land into which they had made inroads, and were destroying the artifacts in the process.
Police Posts
Dr Nimal Perera of the Archaeological Department, in charge of excavations denied this charge saying that special Police posts had now been set up throughout the country under the superintendent of Police in each district to guard all sites that had been declared archeologically significant. Denying the charge that there were illegal excavations he said that all excavations are carried out only with the permission of the Director General of Archeology.
“Before we engage in any conservation project, such as renovating an ancient tank like the Samanala Weva or restoring a defaced or damaged Stupa, we first do extensive research on the site, or monument. Our ultimate goal is to protect and conserve our national heritage,” he reiterated. He added that if anyone wanted to build a road or set up a factory in an archaeological site, they have to get an Impact Assessment Survey of the area first, which has to be approved, before construction can commence.
Future excavation projects that the Department would be handling include Neelagiriya located at the Lahugala Forest reserve and the Digavapiya dagoba at Ampara, said to be one of the oldest historical sites in the same period as the Ruwanweli Maha Seya and Abhayagiri Vihara. “We hope to begin our excavations at these two sites at the beginning of next month,” he said. Suggestions
Regarding suggestions as to what can be done to minimize the rape of national cultural heritage by smugglers and treasure hunters, Dr Goonetilleke believes more vigilance is required especially by our High Commissions abroad whenever any Asian artifact goes under the hammer or is advertised on ebay, the preferred mode of persons wishing to sell such items on the internet, in order to identify the sellers.
Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi Thera strongly recommended the amendment of the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act and bringing in stricter punishment. “Can you imagine that during British times, the fine for committing such theft was a mere ten rupees?” he asked. Today, even though greater fines and jail sentences have been introduced after the law was amended, the increased fines are still not sufficient deterrent, he insisted. “The present fine should be doubled depending on the value of the stolen artifact and the jail sentence too should be made twice as longer.”
Important meetings
Despite The Nation’s efforts to contact Archeological Department head Dr Senrath Dissanayake, and the Secretary of National Heritage Dr Nanda Wickramasinghe for their comments, we were told they were unavailable as they were attending important meetings.

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