Accidental Archaeological Discoveries

The average citizen is too powerless to make history in any way but by accident. The professional archaeologist can have the abstract glory of preserving human knowledge. The average treasure hunter, too, will find his key to everlasting life, somewhere just beyond the wholesale trade of humanity.

But the average citizen, should they make an archaeological discovery of any worth, is likely to encounter a much paltrier by-product of antiquity, a buzzkill called the Antiquities Ordinance.

The Antiquities Ordinance (No. 9 of 1940) governs the legal status of all antiquities within the territory of Sri Lanka, and it deems every ancient monument or antiquity to be the absolute property of the State. According to Section 2(1), no such antiquity would become the property of any person “by reason only of its being discovered in or upon any land in the ownership of any person”. Section 14 of the Ordinance urges anyone making the discovery to speedily surrender the object to the nearest police officer.

Though this law may seem like a precaution rather than the primary tool for archaeology, accidental discoveries by laymen have elongated the span of our civilisation and interposed major junctions among dynasties who were thought to be unrelated.

The Vallipuram golden inscription

The Vallipuram golden inscription. The letters are of the ancient language of Tamil-Prakrit. Image courtesy dh-web.org.

At the very crown of the Sri Lankan map, in the site of the costive incursion on LTTE territory known as the Vadamarachchi Operation, lies a small village called Vallipuram. From here was discovered an artefact of unlikely hybridity: a golden inscription in Tamil-Prakrit attesting to Vallipuram as a territory under a Buddhist King.

Giving a speech at the ceremonial presentation of the Vallipuram inscription to the Department of Archaeology, Venerable Professor Walpola Rahula explained the details of its discovery thus:

“…around 1936, a good friend of mine in Jaffna brought to me a precious object, very secretly. The guardian of the Vishnu Kovil of Vadamarachchi in the Northern tip of Jaffna is a cousin of my friend. When he had been digging the grounds of the Kovil, he had found a golden tablet with an inscription, attached to one of the foundations…This is the first golden inscription discovered in [Sri Lanka]…”

Described as being a thin strip of gold approximately three and a half inches long and one inch wide, the artefact was conveyed to Professor Senarath Paranawithana, the Archaeological Commissioner at the time. A loose translation of the inscription declares that:

“In the time of King Vasabha, when the Minister Isigiriya governed Nakadiva, Piyagukatissa built the temple at the place known as Badakara.”

Nakadiva is considered a variation of Nagadipa, an ancient township that is frequently referenced in the Mahavamsa. At the time of the discovery of the Vallipuram artefact, the exact location of Nagadipa had been undecided among scholars. It has since been accepted that Nagadipa was, in fact, modern day Jaffna, and this caused a critical realignment of several theses about the historic identity of the State of Sri Lanka.

King Vasabha was a ruler of the Anuradhapura period who came to power by killing King Subharaja. His legacy as the progenitor of the Lambakarna dynasty and as a patron of agriculture and Buddhism is perhaps upstaged by the singularly absurd ascension of his predecessor. King Subharaja was not born to royalty; he was born merely Subha, with a face that resembled his contemporary ruler, King Yasalalaka. King Yasalalaka invented a dangerous game of make-believe, where he would order his guard, Subha, to exchange places with him, and fool his ministers. The game is said to have entertained the King reliably, until Subha, fooling the ministers a little too well, ordered the execution of the impudently giggling ‘guard’.

The present day Kovil in Vallipuram from where the artefact was discovered. Image courtesy wikimedia.org

The golden inscription that was found complicated the two parallel narratives of history existent at the time of Professor Paranawithana. Where the advocates of the Mahavamsa were insisting on a pure Sinhalese royal lineage and a historic rivalry between Sinhalese natives and Tamil aggressors, the golden inscription was evidence of a period of co-existence, or even synthesis. Situated en-route from Kanchipuram, the Indian centre of the international Buddhist campaign between 1st to the 5th Century AD, Vallipuram would have been an encampment of immigrant Tamil Buddhists. However, in time, Vaishnavism had overridden Buddhism, and the kovil from whose foundations the inscription was discovered, would have been a temple that gradually morphed into a kovil.

It should also be noted that the discovery of this artefact was also led to the divergence of communalist agendas in Sri Lanka. The existence of a Buddhist dominion in the North was also taken as a corroboration of the idea of Sri Lanka as historically being a unitary, Sinhala-Buddhist State, centrally ruled by Southern, ethnically Sinhalese Kings.

Panakaduwa copper inscription

The copper plates discovered in Panakaduwa. Image courtesy eatuwawa.blogspot.com

Described as a bundle of four copper plates, punctured at two points for binding in the manner of an ola-leaf book, this artefact was discovered by a civilian named Suraweerage Karolis Appu in the village of Panakaduwa. They were meant to commemorate a royal gift made by King Vijayabahu I to a person named Budal Samy or Buddharaja. The declaration contained an extensive recital of the King’s origins, the Chola invasion from which his dynasty fled, the incognito lives of his parents in the Southern Kingdom of Ruhuna, and, uncharacteristically, a personal message of gratitude to Budal Samy for protecting him while in exile. The record provided the background on which the disparate archaeological theories on the Chola reign and the satellite states of Ruhuna could be joined to form a complete picture.

Deva Michael de Silva, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Ruhuna, who had researched the tales surrounding the discovery, has encountered an alternative narrative among villagers of Molokgamuwa. In his monogram on the Panakaduwa Copper Inscription, he posits that Suraweerage Karolis Appu had in fact been the third or fourth in line of possession of the artefact, and not its discoverer. The villagers of Molokgamuwa hold that it was a gang of treasure hunters who had initially discovered the inscription inside a stupa that they were raiding. Believing the inscription to be of solid gold, one of the treasure hunters had snipped a corner of the plate and had taken it to a goldsmith, only to be told that it was pure copper. Freed from greed, the man had been taken by superstition, and convinced that he was cursed for his sacrilege, he had worried himself to death.

The information contained in the Panakaduwa Copper Inscription is considered to have corroborated the tales of the Culavamsa or the lesser chronicle – the sequel to the Mahavamsa, documenting the royal lineage from the 5th Century AD onwards. If the career of King Dutugemunu was the denouement of the Mahavamsa, then the tale of King Parakramabahu the Great is that to the Culavamsa. Every other detail of the chronicle serves as a counterpoint or context to King Parakramabahu’s achievements. Of such prefatory climaxes, the military campaign of King Vijayabahu I to recapture the sieged Sinhalese Kingdom is considered the primary inspiration for King Parakramabahu. The near successes, the pyrrhic failures, and then the final battle plan which surrounded Polonnaruwa and cut reinforcement lines to the Cholas, have all been absorbed into the lore of the modern Sri Lankan Army. Coincidentally, the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment – named so in honour of King Vijayabahu I – was also responsible for the elimination of Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Hence the Panakaduwa Copper Inscription, too, has been endowed with political significance as much as archaeological significance.

The copper plates of Codaganga

An inscription on four copper plates discovered in Kurunegala contained information regarding a previously undocumented Chola invasion during the reign of King Codaganga. The artefact is crucial to understanding the unpredictable politics that followed the death of King Parakramabahu the Great. By the time the Polonnaruwa Kingdom was vanquished by the Pandya invasion in 1215, the monarchy had exchanged hands 14 times within a period of 29 years. King Codaganga himself rose to the throne by killing his predecessor, Vikramabahu II, and ending his three-month rule.

The statue in Polonnaruwa commonly believed to be depicting King Parakramabahu I/ Image courtesy anil-bakshi.blogspot.com

Upheld by a conglomerate of loyalists, King Parakramabahu the Great had become, at the end of his 63-year rule, apotheosised in the eyes of his subjects – and irreplaceable even in death. After his death, his generals are said to have exploited their residual influence to act as kingmakers. The copper plates reveal that the Chola invasion was invited by such a general who conspired to replace the king with an aristocrat subservient to him. Like the Panakaduwa copper plate, this also commemorates a royal gift of lands to the King’s loyalists. One of them, Kilingam Minalnavan, was a general who served with exceptional merit in the war against the Chola invasion.

What you should do if you find an artefact

The bust of Professor Senarath Paranawithana at the Department of Archaeology, Colombo. Image courtesy writer

According to Section 14 (1) of the Antiquities Ordinance, anyone who discovers an antiquity without a license of excavation by the Department of Archaeology, is required to report to the nearest police officer, hand over the artefact (if it’s practical to do so), and obtain a receipt. The person making the discovery is then required to report it to the Government Agent of the district within seven days of the discovery. Section 14 (2) states that it is the responsibility of the Government Agent to report the discovery to the Director General of the Department of Archaeology.

“When an artefact is handed over, the person who discovered it gets a compensation by the government,” the Legal Officer of the Department of Archaeology, Rohana Kariyawasam, told Roar. He explained that the discoverer is entitled to one-half of the market value of the artefact as compensation, while the owner of the land in which the discovery is made will be paid the other half. In the event where the discoverer and the owner are the same person, the full market value of the artefact will paid as compensation. Where the land in question belongs to the government, the discoverer will still be entitled for his share. “However, there’s a small problem,” said Kariyawasam, “the market value of an artefact can’t be fixed like that. An artefact is an invaluable object. Therefore we are drafting a Bill that would establish a committee specially for the purpose of determining the value of such artefacts.”

Section 4 of the Ordinance also states that the Director General of the Department of Archaeology may enter into an agreement with the discoverer, with the approval of the Minister, to share a portion of the artefact in lieu of payment.

Where there is a disagreement as to the amount of compensation due for a discovery, it will be resolved by a process of arbitration. Section 45 states that all the parties may elect an arbitrator each, who in turn would settle on an umpire. The umpire’s decision in this regard is final.

It should be noted that where anyone making such a discovery had not reported within the time prescribed, he or she will not be entitled to any compensation.

Are all artefacts equal before the law?

An artefact, as far as the law is concerned, is as any ancient monument or any moveable property “which date or may reasonably be believed to date from a period prior to the 2nd day of March, 1815”. However, Kariyawasam explained that there is an exception to this.

“It is not illegal to possess antiquities that a person may have inherited as heirlooms,” said Kariyawasam. “However, the Department of Archaeology is in the process of drafting a Bill to ensure that all such heirlooms are also registered. This will be a security to the persons who own the antiquity as well, because they will be able to see exactly where, in which museum, in what condition those artefacts are.”

The Ordinance also provides for an issuance of license for the purpose of excavations. “This license,” said Kariyawasam, “is only given to very specific groups of people. The excavations unit of the Department of Archaeology, students of archaeology who excavate under the superintendence of the Department of Archaeology, and the Central Cultural Fund, are examples of those who may apply for a license.”

Far from the yokel’s private hoard of curiosities where a missing piece of history jostles with salvaged circuit-boards and used toffee wrappers, further from the treasure hunter brooding his next human sacrifice, there is another class of misappropriation that the Antiquities Ordinance does not cover. Many of Sri Lanka’s breakthrough archaeological discoveries were made during European colonial rule, and not all of those artefacts remain within the territory of Sri Lanka. Religious idols, works of folk art, and precious stones are now held by European museums and private collections around the world. In the year 2010, the government of Sri Lanka initiated the process of tracking Sri Lanka’s scattered cultural riches and appealing for their return. However, there is no record of a diplomatic resolution to that effect. The recent repatriation of a sword belonging to the Kandyan Era by the Russian President Vladimir Putin remains an isolated act of graciousness rather than a new standard. In the West, there is sporadic debate on whether the cultural riches that colonialism has misplaced should be returned to their countries of origin.

Discounting the arguments of justice and reparation, it could be said that the debate is balanced on a point of scholarship versus a point of context. On one hand, by repatriating these cultural artefacts, their homelands such as Sri Lanka would be able to complete their archaeological corpus. On the other hand, in milieus such as the British Museum, those artefacts would be situated in the more complete landscape of scholarship. Perhaps the day state diplomacy prioritises the wealth of humanity over conceit of nations, it will no longer be a zero-sum game.

Featured image courtesy dharmadveepayeiranama.blogspot.com

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