Disfranchising the archaeologists in their sacred space

Sudharshan Seneviratne, Sri Lanka

Professor of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya

Thousands of visitors, both local and foreign, who arrive at the UNESCO declared World Heritage Sites and other archaeological sites marvel at the material cultural remains of the past and sing in praise of our ancestors who conceptualised, designed and executed such cultured expressions as gifts to humanity. Little does anyone realize the effort that has gone into the scientific retrieval and presentation of the past material culture in a recognizable form out of the vast mounds of soil and jungle tide that had hidden the monuments for several centuries! For three decades scores of young archaeology graduates and conservator graduates from four national universities toiled at the World Heritage sites in the blazing heat in an effort to unfold the historical panorama of this island. They are the unsung heroes of this great historic drama!

How has the Establishment treated and cared for them? These young men and women, who could have opted for greener pastures in the banking, NGO’s and other private establishments including the Government sector decided against it and stayed with the science and sites they love. Having done so they have dedicated their youthful lives to it.

How have they been compensated for their dedication? Their specialization as archaeologists and their contribution has never been properly appreciated and recognized by the Cultural Establishment. They have never been properly compensated for their commitment and passion for preserving the history of this land. Their young minds are never consulted and their acquired skills are never maximised at their own work site. On the contrary they are identified merely as wage labourers and treated accordingly at the World Heritage sites. The establishment has never respected the professional dignity of this wonderful human resource. They have been taken for granted as serfs bonded to fiefdoms.

The mediocre bureaucrats (some claim themselves to be professionals and one of them even announced that archaeological research is not necessary!) have only exploited the young graduates for their convenience. Hundreds and thousands of dollars earned through cultural tourism never reached these young professionals to be ploughed back for their long-term professional sustenance. Administrators sitting in Colombo perform the road show for the unsuspecting politicians by presenting the ‘cultural treasures’ and bask in the glory unearthed by these toiling archaeologists. These moronic bureaucrats have enjoyed for years the perks squeezed out of the sweat and tears of these field researchers and nurtured their own pathetic existence. The metropolitan-based dull witted administrators have conveniently ignored the value-added service provided by these young professionals to the national development grid. This is a classic case of disfranchising the archaeologists, the primary stakeholders, at their own work site – the professional sacred space!

When you next visit the World Heritage sites and are awe struck by the cultural and historical legacy of this island, please save a thought for the young professionals who are ‘hidden in history’.  

This article is dedicated to all young professional archaeologists and conservators for their dedicated services rendered to the heritage of Sri Lanka.



“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high:

Where knowledge is free:

Where the world has not been broken-up into small fragments by narrow domestic walls:

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action:

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”

[Rabindranath Tagore. The Freedom of Heaven]

I am most pleased to open my presentation with the poetic sentiments expressed on the beauty of knowledge, truth, perfection, clarity of mind and freedom by Rabindranath Tagore. This sage along with Ananda Coomaraswamy represents the once brilliant intellectual ethos of modern South Asia. I am equally happy that this discourse is carried out with a gathering of young archaeologists, the primary stakeholders of our heritage, within an archaeological site - which also happens to be your professional sacred space!

Space is central to the topic I selected for this discourse. This space is essentially identified with the present and its related to the past and future. Together, the past and the future are pivotal to the identity and sustenance of the archaeologist. I recognize the archaeologists of today and the future generations investigating the past as the lifeline of this profession. Considering the ongoing dynamics of professional archaeology - tomorrow is vital for the science of archaeology. It is my personal and professional view that my generation of archaeologists did not treat your generation with greater magnanimity. This is indeed a sorry state of affairs as your generation represents the primary stakeholders of our profession. It is important therefore that you recognize your professional platform, the way in which it must be structured and its futuristic vision and to regain your professional status. If you do not grasp the essential gravity of this situation here and now it may be fatal to the very professional status of archaeology.

One cannot divorce archaeology from the living reality of this country. That reality has reached a critical juncture. As things stand today, reading the past in Sri Lanka is situated between social fascism and anarchism, while liberal thinking in this sphere is dangling on a thin wire over a chasm. The contemporary archaeologist has his or her task cut out and faces the huge challenge of initiating a dialogue with the past within the above context. How then does the archaeologists consolidate a professional platform to make that space for liberal thinking, devoid of biases and prejudices, so urgently needed in interpretative studies? How should the very future of the profession be contextualized? The decision rests in your hands and as professional archaeologists it is important that you situate this platform within a time and space context.

In doing so how do you resolve the vision of archaeology in the past few decades? What was the nature of archaeology under Colonialism?   How much did it influence the Orientalists involved in archaeology? What was its impact on archaeology through nationalism? How did this total scenario provide a basis for archaeology in contemporary times especially conditioning parochialism in the practice of archaeology? It is you who must take cognisance of the reality by evaluating positive and negative aspects of this situation and induce constructive changes.

The responsibility and the role played by my generation will end in a few years and we must accept this situation with humility. Unfortunately some archaeologists of my generation are unable to accept this reality. Some of them actually believe that they will continue to remain at archaeological sites even after their passage to the next life!! Some others in my generation also harboured the illusion that they held perpetual hegemonic power over archaeological sites and decision-making authority that guide the fortunes of Sri Lankan archaeology. A direct consequence of this thinking process was the subversion and the lumpanization of archaeological thought in Sri Lanka and the creation of subservient ‘archaeology-student surfs’ by particular schools of thought. The exploitation of the labour and ideas of the young archaeologists stand out as ugly and despicable feudal remnants of a bygone era in the post Colonial period. You must not be deterred by this retarded behaviour of particular individuals among your predecessors. Such impediments must be corrected and the profession be thrust towards a progressive agenda with a new vision.

Time and space

Speaking of time, you must possess a vision and a plan. It could be identified as short, medium and long term and accordingly your action plan could be situated. Then take up space in your agenda. It is critical that you contextualize space within your professional platform. As you are aware, context is pivotal to the science of archaeology.  What is retrieved and studied in archaeology has no value devoid of context. I wish to situate space in multiple contexts. Taken together they comprise the platform of the archaeologist.  These multiple contexts are organically interconnected to each other. If even one is disconnected it then has a direct impact on the very survival of the genuine professional archaeologist.

Professional space

The archaeologists have two alternatives with reference to their professional space:

Arrive at the work place in the morning, sign the register, dabble with some artefacts and return home at the end of the day

To conduct oneself as a professional archaeologist in your body and mind and consolidate ones professional dignity. This means your professional thoughts and action must be one.

The first of these two does not befit an archaeologist. In a bygone era, under Colonialism, some aspects of archaeological work overlapped with the Public Works Department (PWD). You have been appointed to these positions endowed with a modern professional degree not to think and behave like a desk clerk.  Departments of Archaeology were established in the University system to produce professional archaeologists. Not schoolteachers and definitely not office clerks!

The second aspect is entwined with the very existence of the archaeologist. If we do not understand this, the demons waiting in the wings to consume the archaeological sites could easily sever our roots. Consequently this will lead to the cannibalisation of the cultural sites. Sigiriya had a near miss in the recent past. If we do not protect our existence it will only dilute our identity. When our identity is lost we cannot justify our existence. This is dialectics for you!!  

Precisely due to these reasons we must essentially protect our professional space. We project ourselves to the world as professional archaeologists. There is a fine line that demarcates the professional archaeologists from all other professionals who fiddle around with archaeology. There are those in the medical profession and administrators who are self-proclaimed archaeologists. They work within an antiquarian and Orientalist mental rubric. It is therefore an imperative that you safeguard your professional status and identity. To consolidate this, one needs professional security. Security is found only when our professional status is recognized and announced.  This status was legally established through an Act of Parliament establishing the Sri Lanka Council of Archaeologists, our professional body. This act has enforced and secured the scared space for our professional status. It will indeed be a tragedy if you lose what is rightfully yours. We reserve the right to carry out professional work at heritage sites because we maintain a conscious identity as archaeologists. The decision-making positions in archaeology-related bodies must be in the hands of professional archaeologists. This could be achieved by establishing an intellectual hegemony that sustains qualitative levels of professional priorities at such establishments.

In view of this, the conduct of the professional archaeologist becomes a critical factor. There must be a high level of professional standard applied in the science of archaeology. We do not require sub standards. As we are responsible for public funds, transparency and accountability must be displayed at the highest level. The international community of professionals are observing our conduct during this period of globalization. Our professional standards will directly come to play in our collaborative work with them. If we are unable to maintain standards, they will, as did the Orientalists and Colonials, scorn upon our inability to measure up to them. We must reach the highest standards not for their sake but for ourselves. It is incumbent upon the senior archaeologists to work out standards of quality assurance and also to maintain them at all costs.

To be a sound professional, the archaeologist must necessarily adhere to a professional code of ethics. If one does not practice this code of ethics, we will be deprived of security   and the law of the jungle will prevail. Senior archaeologists must act as role models, reach out to the junior professionals and impart their knowledge without reservations. The seniors must never fear the junior professionals, as the former must endeavour to be several strides ahead of the latter. If the senior archaeologists do not permit the juniors to advance, if their ideas are exploited, pirated and plagiarized it will then pose an abysmal situation to the profession of archaeology and its professional pride. Each generation must be connected to the other and maintain professional standards. Links in the chain must remain unbroken. If and when the chain disconnects it will only dilute the expected level of professionalism. For our progress and sustenance we must maintain and develop professional standards, ethics and humanism. If and when any one of these cornerstones is dislodged, the structure will then collapse and disintegrate.

Intellectual space 

An archaeologist is a humanist who develops a philosophy of life through our prescribed profession. Thus an archaeologist is most certainly not an individualist. Archaeology is essentially a team-based profession. We must therefore recognize that time and space in our profession must be based on a vision and philosophy. This philosophy is absorbed into our purview through an intelligent vision because we have essentially the need to create an intellectual space for ourselves. Our primary scientific and professional task is to recognize the manner in which past human beings thought and behaved in their ecological niche. Since it cannot be a fantasy or an imaginary situation, it is an imperative that we read that past in an objective manner. Our intellectual space must be structured to read ancient material culture and appreciate its cognitive values. To practice this, the professional archaeologist must necessarily possess the required freedom of thought within his or her intellectual space.

This is augmented to a great extent by dialectics and dialogues in archaeology. This dialogue must be carried out not only among ourselves, but also as a ‘dialogue with the past’ in order to grasp the dynamics of the ‘dialectics of the past’. This is why freedom of thought becomes an essential ingredient in this process of reading the past in an objective manner. The one who seeks the truth must essentially shed various shades of biases, prejudices, fears and ignorance, was the sublime message given to humanity some 2500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama. An archaeologist who seeks the past must therefore be free of such fetters. This is the ultimate factor that determines and defines the professional status of the archaeologist.

Research space

This particular aspect has a direct bearing on the University Departments of Archaeology, Central Cultural Fund and the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka. The research agenda is an integral component of professional archaeology. Archaeology devoid of research is unthinkable. Archaeology directors who administer their respective sites must secure proper cadre positions for the research program. We must structure our agenda towards problem-oriented and issue-related archaeology and endeavour to provide the required research atmosphere.

If there are archaeology-related institutes that oppose or down play the value of research they may want to revert to the PWD work of the Colonial period. In this connection I wish to lend a word of caution to the mangers of the Central Cultural Fund. The very survival of the CCF will be undermined if you oppose or dilute the Training and Research agenda engraved in the 1980 Act of the Central Cultural Fund. We had on several occasions drawn your attention to the high productive research centres that could be founded at each site, as we possess sufficient resources for that purpose. It is essential that we utilize the existing intellectual resources in order to facilitate the broad basing of the research infrastructure for the junior archaeological officers. In this regard there is a large responsibility resting on the shoulders of the Directors of the CCF in making this effort a reality. While there is a mysterious process underway to isolate the archaeologist from the archaeological site, there is also a bizarre policy of undermining research at the heritage sites. We had suggested research programs emanating from heritage sites that could ultimately provide us with the bigger picture of the regional history in the north central province. It is now the responsibility of the Archaeological Directors to reverse this pathetic situation at heritage sites and be research facilitators and not feudal lords within a small mud hole.

Archaeology and contemporary political realities

This is an extremely complex and volatile topic. In general most Sri Lankans hold political views and are sensitive to political ideologies. Politics is organically linked to the social, economic and the religious realities of the land. Politics also has a direct bearing on the study and practice of archaeology. Since the Colonial period the archaeological agenda of this country was determined by the political reality. This need not continue to be so. We cannot accept the long arm of the politician or the administrator to interfere with archaeological research. The archaeologists must possess an independent workspace in order to preserve their intellectual and professional hegemony.

Within this highly volatile political structure, archaeologists must conduct themselves as scientists. In the process of interpreting the past, that task must be executed devoid of distortions. If we, as archaeologists, consciously distort and subvert the past we have then wilfully undermined our professional dignity and the right to be identified as professional archaeologists. The reality of the situation is the tremendous amount of political interference that has come to play in the field of archaeology. How do we maintain our intellectual and professional independence within this situation? Ultimately it is we who must decide the status quo about our professional independence.

How must the archaeologist perform his or her professional tasks? We cannot divorce ourselves from the social realities of this country. While we are aware of the prevalent ethnic and racial tensions, we must also be able to either cultivate it or negate it. The archaeologists must face and question on the realities of identities and racism. The burning issue of racism in the north and the south is slowly pushing this country towards fascist alternatives. Distinguish individuals such as Lakshman Kadirgamar were denied the gentle breath of their valued lives by such forces of fascism.  Precisely due to such reasons we must make every effort to read the past and understand history with a balanced mind. Be it an excavation, field reconnaissance or analysis, the ensuing interpretation cannot be based on pre-conceived notions shaded by biases, prejudices or fears.

The archaeologist must come to terms with the multi cultural reality of this country and grasp the essentials of the diversity that prevailed in Sri Lanka from the past. At Anuradhapura Jetavanarama, there is ample evidence to establish multi cultural and multi religious vestiges. In addition to Mahayana remains there are Hindu statues and Islamic pottery unearthed at this site. A balanced interpretation of this material is called for while taking into account the past community as stakeholders of a pan island culture. The prevalence of a multi cultural inclusive society as our pan island culture in the past is one way of challenging the parochial exclusive social image projected by terrorists. We as professionals reading the past must break the shekels imposed by Orientalists who believed this island was populated by a single ‘race’ that professed a single belief system. Archaeological investigations carried out in the past three decades have conclusively contested these notions.

The Sri Lankan archaeologist and the overseas archaeologist

On the whole it is necessary to situate the professional basis of the Sri Lankan archaeologists vis-à-vis the overseas archaeologist. There is slow but a definite thrust made by western archaeologists towards south Asia. The professional body must take into account their line of work in Sri Lanka. Critical aspects such as, the role of the overseas archaeologists in this country? Who their local partners are? What are the modalities of monitoring their work? These are some valid questions that must be raised in relation to overseas archaeologists.  If these issues are not resolved, Sri Lankan cultural sites may face the same situation like Pakistan, an international ‘killing fields for archaeology’. This is more a reason why the Heritage sites coming under the purview of the CCF must be transformed into high profile research sites. For this purpose the young archaeologists must develop state-of-the-art cutting edge research techniques and also gain proficiency skills in international languages. Parallel to this, they must also develop skills in the Classical South Asian languages. Today archaeology is recognized as a skill-based profession. Dissemination of skills has to be carried out through awareness programs and discourses. A major time investment by the senior archaeologists as facilitators is now called for. If this is carried out with all earnest, there is a possible chance of averting the anarchy that is slowly but surely seeping into the profession of archaeology. The need to develop a professional platform regaining the next generation of archaeologists must be understood in the above context.


“The science of archaeology is problem-oriented and issue-related. It is essentially a multi disciplinary study investigating, documenting, interpreting and presenting human expressions, experiences and behaviour patterns of the past to its rightful inheritors, the next generation. The archaeologist investigating the past is a scientist who is objective, unbiased and unprejudiced. Above all, an archaeologist is a humanist and social activist who does not fear the past or compromises the future”

Sudharshan Seneviratne

Professor of Archaeology. University of Peradeniya

& Director Archaeology, Jetavana Project

Co-Director, Anuradhapura Citadel Archaeology Project



[Text Courtesy: Embassy of Sri Lanka in Kathmandu]

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