Sunday 23 June 2013

Looting in Lanka

The Poson Festival, typically held on the first full moon in June (Poson), celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The Srilankan Sunday Times has an editorial article "Poson reflections: Save our heritage" (Sunday, June 23, 2013) about the looting and smuggling of ancient artefacts, and the authorities' inability (or unwillingness) to combat this. There are an estimated 200 000 historical sites across Sri Lanka, very many of them already heavily looted. Despite this, the thieves, driven by commercial greed, still come back for more:

Week after week, the country’s archaeological sites, our national heritage, are ransacked by organised gangs. Treasure hunters in Sri Lanka no longer waste their time furtively chipping away at ancient monuments with rudimentary implements. They hire large, conspicuous, backhoes. They also bring a kattadiya who conducts rituals to appease the deities before the dastardly deed is done. The sites are predominantly ancient temple complexes; one might as well appease the gods with a few offerings before one desecrates sacred ground. The gangs also include one or more inhabitants of the village in which the site is located. There are often external financiers who aspire to profit from the exercise with minimum risk to themselves. Some military and police personnel and local politicians are said to be involved but information about such cases is less forthcoming. 
The point however is reiterated:
 Treasure hunting is today committed with such chutzpah that it lends credence to the presumption that powerful people are involved. Increasingly, sophisticated equipment is used such as modified and unmodified metal detectors and laser guns. There also seems to be help in getting the artifacts out of the country. According to a source, some authentic ancient sculptures can fetch up to a million dollars. With so much at stake, those in the know contend that none of this can be done if influential persons were not backing the operation. Corruption among key government officials, including police, is a critical component. Complicity is another. Despite this clearly being an organised crime — and therefore easier to crack– investigators have failed to draw the net. Demand is fuelling supply and the chain remains firmly intact.[...], nary an eyelid is batted about the free-for-all, financially motivated rape of ancient Buddhist and Hindu sites.
An area which had not been looted to the same degree were the Eastern jungles around Thoppigala which were largely inaccessible during the war years. Although there had been plundering going on before the war started, this was until relatively recently virgin territory with thousands of remains scattered around. Since the area has been more accessible however, there is considerable activity of criminal looting gangs here too.
There is heightened awareness among these criminal networks about the monetary value of ancient artifacts especially in the international market. Sri Lankan Buddha statues are openly traded on the internet with little or no information about their source. Oriental artifacts are a rave in Western homes. 
A recent London sale, ignored by Srilankan authorities is mentioned:
 The auctioning by Bonham’s of London in April of a “sandakadapahana” or moonstone believed to be of the Anuradhapura period has added to the frenzy at home. Although a Sri Lankan expert based in Britain dismissed the moonstone as a replica, it fetched a massive £553,250 or about Rs. 110 million. Not two months later, a group of robbers “disguised in military clothes” walked into the Herath-Halmillewa Raja Maha Viharaya in Kebetigollewa and spirited away its moonstone after gagging and binding the local guards. This was no random act. Police later claimed to have found its remains, after the robbers had broken it apart to search for treasure. 
The Archaeology Department is understaffed and overwhelmed by the task of just keeping track. The article finishes by urging the increasing of greater public awareness of the issues surrounding looting by education programes:
If the authorities cannot stem the flow, perhaps the public can, through vigilance and persistent pressure. One thing is clear: This destruction must end.  
I would echo that (adding that it is a pity that, for example, countries like Great Britain do not lead the way, though back in the UK, such public outreach about this is unlikely while artefact hunters are the "partners" of museum archaeologists).

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