Monday 11 February 2013

Hindu Temples, Archaeological Sites in Sri Lanka Looted

In Sri Lanka, well organised network of gangs equipped with sophisticated machinery are reportedly openly ‘excavating’ ancient temple sites (Namini Wijedasa, ' Archaeological sites islandwide plundered for priceless artefacts', Sundy Times (Sri Lanka), Feb 10th 2013).
In 2012, there was a 70% rise in plunder of archaeological sites over the previous year. Statistics from the Archaeological Dept show that the number of incidents jumped from 220 to 370—more than the number of days in a year.  Statistics for 2013 are equally alarming. There were 39 incidents reported in the first 37 days of the year alone. Officials warn that, not only is “treasure hunting” rapidly increasing, it has become more organised, blatant, widespread and sophisticated. [..]  The North-Central and Wayamba Provinces are the worst affected. Since the war ended, archaeological and historical sites in the North and East are subjected to relentless pillaging.  Inspector Chaminda said members of the army, navy and air force (both deserters or, less frequently, in-service personnel) and policemen are sometimes found to be involved, as are some Buddhist monks. While he didn’t incriminate mainstream politicians, he admitted that some local government and provincial level representatives were “not free of blame”. [...]
As is the case elesewhere, existing legislation is inadequate to halt this trend.
It is not illegal to transport, sell or keep antiques, provided there was proof of the items being legitimately acquired. However, the authorities do not habitually try to establish the origins of antiques sold in shops around the country. The shops are not required to register with the Archaeological Dept. It is also not possible for untrained persons to determine whether various artefacts vended in these outlets, were authentic (and, if so, what their origins were) or replicas.
The loot sought by artefact hunters consists of what collectors will buy no-questions-asked: knocked-off statues, architectural details, inscriptions, but also the loose finds generated by turning over stratified archaeological sites in the hope of finding something dealers and collectors will pay for. This is the most frequent category on the incident files. The artefact hunters are well-equipped:
 Laser guns are among the latest equipment employed in illegal excavations —an indication of just how well these operations are now financed [...] “Earlier, you were more likely to stumble upon a harmless villager chipping away at the earth with his farm tools,” explained Udeni Wickramasinghe, head of the Department’s Special Unit for Prevention of Destruction and Theft of Antiquities. “Today, backhoes are used, and the wrongdoers are not afraid of being seen.” The machinery is usually brought to the location on the pretence that a well or cesspit is to be dug. [...] One network of hunters, recently busted, was implicated in three illegal excavations in Wellawaya, Haputale and Buttala. A telephone number scribbled on a wall calendar in the home of a member, led to the discovery that the gang had agents islandwide. One of its main organisers was a security forces deserter from Ruwanwella, who was pretending to be the bodyguard of an influential minister’s wife. Another was a timekeeper from Wellawaya, who was residing in Buttala, as an employee of the Uva Provincial Council. He masqueraded as an officer of the Archaeological Dept. The husband of an Avissawella-based lawyer was involved in all three incidents. The chief financier was found to be the husband of a bank manager in Colombo. Before each excavation, a “kattadiya” (exorcist) performed ceremonies. They were residents of Thanamalvila, Buttala and Bulathkohupitiya. Continuing inquiries are proving that the ring is much wider than previously thought. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Although some artefacts have been recovered when attempts were made to move them across provincial borders on the island, many other illicit artefacts simply go undetected, to be sold to unscrupulous merchants and collectors of antiques. Many Hindu temples in the North were damaged in the 1993-2009 civil war, and sculptures from them are taken to Colombo, and sold as antiques.

Meanwhile the Sri Lankan High Commission in London has not even acknowleged my letter concerning the 'Anuradhapura style Sandakada Pahana "found" in UK' on sale in London which evidently does not bother them...

Hat tip to Conflict Archaeology for link


Damien Huffer said...

Yet another region to be on the look out for artefacts appearing on the international market...

Paul Barford said...

I would imagine they are already ON the market, there was probably looting earlier too...

Damien Huffer said...

Probably right about that. It certainly is a big blank spot on the map that, like all of these unknowns, needs quick addressing to aid whatever work can be done on the ground.

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