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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

When guardians plunder the treasure!

Treasure hunting in Sri Lanka’s archeological sites, has now reached epidemic proportions, with over 500 reported incidents in the last three years. Although it is not widely reported in the media, the involvement of the security forces in these incidents, especially in the Wilpattu and in the East, is a popular secret in archaeological circles.

The Police Department in 2012, to date, has recorded around 92 such incidents involving digging for treasures, stealing, and robbing of invaluable items from temples, illegal possession of ancient artefacts, and of large scale thefts.  As per the statistics of the Police Department the total number of such cases that had been reported in 2011 had been 220, while in 2010 that number had stood at 294.

villagers blocking the roads

These are only the cases that have been officially reported to the Police Department, but there are scores of others that are conveniently not reported to the Police Department, thanks to these acts having received blessings from corrupt politicians and other top government officials and others.
However the recent clash between the villagers of  Dunumadalawa, Mahawilachchiya, and the members of Special task Force (STF) who were found excavating an archeological site using a backhoe, has caught the attention of the public, bringing to light the vandalism and the destruction of our cultural heritage. In a way this is similar to the botched attempt to abduct the Kolonnawa UC Mayor by soldiers in a white van.

Soldiers in archaeological sites
An official of the department of archaeology stationed in the area told LAKBIMAnEWS that the villagers had been wary of the recent actions of the security forces in the area. He added that the deployment of security force personnel in almost all archaeological sites had caused a lot of issues in the recent past.
“There is a detachment of around 30 soldiers in almost all archaeological sites, some sites, like those in Wilpattu, and the East are completely under their control. So they have access to all the information on artefacts in a site and in the recent past there were many reports that many archaeological sites in Wilpattu have been excavated by the army without any supervision from us,” he said.

The Sivalapitiya fiasco
A villager from the area said that an STF detachment first arrived in Sivalapitiya on May 1 and upon their arrival they cordoned off the route to the Sivalapitiya tank. He added that although the police now claim that the STF arrived to confiscate artefacts hidden in the area by treasure hunters, the STF personnel initially told villagers that that they are searching for hidden caches of weapons.

preparations for the hunt

“However we were suspicious, I mean no one has previously assumed that there were hidden weapons in the bund. So we got onto higher ground and observed what is happening and we saw that the STF was bringing in a backhoe and it became clear to us that the STF were here to unearth treasure,” he said.

On the night of the 2nd the villagers had heard the sounds of excavation and those who attempted to go near the excavation site were beaten back by the STF. The news that their friends have been attacked by the treasure hunting security personnel made the villagers storm the site in numbers. Around 1000 villagers led by women broke through the STF line despite being severely beaten down and shots fired to the air.

“We hit them back because they were really violent, we grappled with them and took their ammunition and threw them away. Unable to keep us at bay they broke into two groups and retreated towards Nochchiyagama and Oyamaduwa. They threw smoke bombs at us,” he said.

The villagers discovered items which they claim were used to appease the bahirawaya (guardian spirit) near a seven foot deep hole, the STF had dug. The villagers only attempted to guard the archeological site and were in fact helping to uphold the law, not break it, he said.

“We don’t know where they came from but what we know is that they attacked us brutally and even stole mobile phones. What was really sad is the behaviour of the police officers from Nochchiyagama, Eppawala, Mahawilachchiya, Mihintale and Thirappane. Instead of arresting the guilty they attempted to get them released; even the senior officers who came to the site insisted that we let the cornered STF men go and finally they got them out using an armoured vehicle,” he said.

Artefacts found in the area

A complex of small pagodas are scattered in the Mahavilachchiya area and there has been sporadic attempts to steal various artefacts from the area. Although the ‘treasures’ uncovered might not prove to be precious stones or gold, they are of great archaeological value. Archaeologists have claimed that many such artefacts stolen from Anuradhapura have made  way to the European antique market and have been sold to unimaginably high prices.
Several archaeologists told the writer that the main artefacts which could be found in such pagoda complexes are crystal caskets and ivory statues. However there have been occasions where small golden ornaments embedded with gems from Africa, have been found in the district.

“There are caskets made out of local crystals and plated with gold; these are usually inside a stone casket so that the gold plating is not harmed. In addition there are ivory Buddha statues, they are not large and usually you can hold it in your palm. Sometimes gems are embedded in them, in place of eyes. None of these are valuable for the material they are made of, but there are collectors in Europe who are willing to pay great amounts of money,” said a researcher from the department of archaeology.

Not a local affair
He added that although these excavations are carried out by the security forces they are either backed by or instructed by high level politicians who smuggle these artefacts out of the country. He also doubts reports that a local level politician was behind the excavation, suggesting that the politician behind the operation is much higher in the political hierarchy.

“A provincial or local councillor will not have the necessary connections to carry this kind of an operation or to smuggle artefacts out of the country. Unless he is only a facilitator to a much higher power,” he said.

Another school of thought suggests that the operation was carried out to find a sword, rumoured to be used by King Dutugemunu. Those who believe this, also say that the robbery at the Colombo National Museum was also carried out to accomplish this, and is to fulfil a need to carry out a poojawa to get rid of an astrological misalignment. Although this may lie in the realm of conspiracy theories, in a country full of superstitious politicians, who believe in astrology, this may not be an argument that can be easily discounted.

What is important is that it is time that the security forces hand over government land they are occupying to the rightful guardians like the departments of wildlife and archaeology. In previous reports LAKBIMAnEWS highlighted the negative effects in wildlife parks due to the activities of the armed forces personnel. The incident in Mahavilachchiya proves that the same can be applied to archaeological sites and underline the necessity of the systematic removal of unwanted personnel from sites of great national, cultural and ecological importance.

By Rathindra Kuruwita and Gayan Kumara Weerasinghe


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