30 June, 2022


The Many Dimensions Of Artefact Theft

By Malinda Seneviratne –

Malinda Seneviratne

Malinda Seneviratne

The Archaeological Department has a splendid history.  The work of the Department has gone a long way in tracing the history of this nation, piecing together the many story-strands, corroborating the narratives embedded in the less tangible such as folk lore and those that are hotly contested such as the written word.  Glorious as this history of excavation and scholarship is, what happened to that which was recovered from various sites is a sad story.

Priceless archeological treasures recovered with great effort by the Archaeological Department have been ferreted away from sites as well as museums.  Then there have been treasure hunters who have pillaged archaeological sites located in remote parts of the island and poorly protected.

Years ago a distinguished archaeologist observed wryly that if we cannot protect artefacts then they are probably safer unearthed.  He had a point.  The Department is stretched to protect the sites and museums are not safe either.

This is why it is valid for some to counter demands that artefacts taken away by colonial powers should be returned by saying ‘we can’t even protect what we have; they are probably safer in England’.  Theft, though, is theft; stolen goods, whether obtained by theft, purchase or gift, are stolen goods.  A crime.  Punishable.

The right thing for government of countries whose museums or private collections have such artefacts to do would be to recover them and return to country of origin.  No argument there.   Someone robs your car because you were careless, the police once recovering the vehicle cannot hold on to it claiming you are can’t be trusted to leave it unattended and open to re-theft.

On the other hand, the would-be recipients of such treasures must be equipped to receive. It’s not that there is some kind of condition for returning loot but things that belong to the nation belongs to the people, and that which is held in the public trust must be safe.  If it is best to leave unearthed that which, if excavated, we might lose forever, the same logic applied to the business of recovering loot.

Pillage is older than the Archeological Department.  Pillage, moreover, is not always an outside job.  Neither is the ‘inside story of theft’ a recent phenomenon; the early excavators were not persuaded only by scholarly intent.  This does not mean that the Department should be shut down.  We’ve had nidan horu.  Treasure hunting earns headlines often.  Museum robberies too.  What we rarely hear about is recovery.  Typically new thefts take the public eye away from old ones.

Perhaps contemporary society firmly believes that all things depreciate in value over time; the older, the less worth.  But what is a nation without a history?  Sure, it is version or a discourse about version, but without artefact, without text, there’s no argument.  That suits those without history and those who find history a bit uncomfortable due to lesser historical endowment.   This is why destroying archaeological evidence by way of bulldozing sites or building over them is as or more pernicious than blasting statues and temples to look for treasure.  The same goes for burning texts.  The colonial powers did it not to erase history but erase a civilizational code, but the person who ferreted from the Department of Archives the document detailing the first national census of persons wanted in all probability to erase a non-history of a particular community.

There are then several dimensions to this business: vandalism, theft and historiography.

If we don’t know where we came from, we will find it hard to figure out which of the available paths would lead to a better future for all citizens.  Artefacts are an important piece of that story that we will have to visit and re-visit as our ancestors have and as generations yet to come will have to.

The Department has to be strengthened with resources and personnel.  The holding facilities must be secure.  As of now, there doesn’t seem to be any interest on the part of those whose job it is to attend to these things.  It is hard to believe that they don’t understand the importance of such things.  If corrective steps are not taken, then it will be hard to stop people from thinking that some people want things to stay this way.  The answer to the obvious follow-up question, ‘why?’ will also be obvious.  Someone is benefitting. Someone powerful is benefitting.  The beneficiary or would-be beneficiary has checks to cash.

*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com

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Latest comments

  • 2

    The very powerful people seem to be drug addicts?

    “The chief suspect in this case is Lansage Priyantha Mendis, a drug addict who has disappeared from his home in Siyambalape, in Pugoda. Three screwdrivers were found in Mendis’s house. The Police believe the tools were used in the museum break-in.

    Police spokeman SSP Ajith Rohna told the Sunday Times that once the main suspect is apprehended, the CID will grill him on the mysterious presence of several luxury vehicles parked close to the Museum on the day of the robbery, March 16.

    The presence of the luxury vehicles was reported to the Police by Stanley Liyanage, a security guard working at the Colombo Art Gallery, which adjoins the Colombo Museum.

    On June 17, Mr. Liyanage was abducted and his abductors had threatened to kill him if he did not “confess”to the Police that it was he who had staged the robbery. Mr Liyanage was tortured and held for more than 20 days before being abandoned on a road in Gadaladeniya, close to Kandy, on July 2.

    Sunil Wickremesinghe, brother-in-law of Mr. Liyanage and a JVP member of the Udunuwara Pradeshiya Sabha, told the Sunday Times that the CID had not questioned Mr. Liyanage further.” –

    • 2

      The ROT and looting (of artifacts, land, valuable ancient timber trees) in Colombo 7 and rest of Lanka, starts at the TOP with the Rajapaksa Brothers and Sons who are looting the public national wealth right under our noses in Colombo 7 where all the giant antique trees planted in colonial time with old and valuable timber in Victoria Park and the surrounding roads have been CUT DOWN by the military who is in charge of the park and the independence square area and a private crony company called Botanics!
      Why do you not name – your patron’s name as the biggest thug and crook, Malinda? The criminal gang looting Lanka is Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brothers and their security militia that is called the armed forces of Sri lanka. Goon Gota and his militia and the slimy high school drop out who calls himself Minister of Economic Development – but knows nothing about development or Economics are all in the looting racket! The Rajapakse military dictatorship is stealing from the people – but you support then Malinda! You are as bad as the pervert Rajpal who steals women’s under ware!
      The Colombo museum is in an area that is a de facto military Cantonment – full of Gotabaya Jarapassa’s private militia – the army and special forces – and the Rajapakse Casino Crony Dahammika Perera has built an ugly monstrosity of a house opposite the Colombo Museum (formally Aussi Hight Commission). Dhammika’s security was there and itand was being built at the time of the break in and theft at the Musuem. The Giant antique historically valuable Mara tress and beautiful falmboyant trees of Gilfford Crescent which framed the approach to Colombo Musuem when driving from Lional Wendt were also cut down at the time of the Colombo musuem theft for their timber. All by the so called “security forces”?

      • 0

        You are right on the money. At least the artifacts stolen by the colonials are on public display. Can the same be said about those dug up with excavation equipment under military guard? What about the “Nidahan” being looted from temples and out of rock blasted in the countryside.
        This is yet another example of this slimy ………… doing a cover-up job for those who employ him at their newspaper, “The Nation.” In case he and his followers haven’t heard the term, this is a very large red herring which will deceive no one who is aware of the theft going on in Sri Lanka today.

  • 0

    Oh insidious, thou were missed! The whole point of this abysmal piece of garbled writing was to say that the first census has been spirited away by done one who wants to erase the ‘non history of a particular community. Now, why not say exactly what you mean?

    Also, get your facts straight- not all possession of stolen goods are crimes. There are certain circumstances under which possession will not be a crime.


  • 0

    Who is worried about these stuff. Not most of country men but bunch of intellectuals. If GR tells media to forget about these thefts after giving a little bribe like a laptop, these news go to the trash.

  • 0

    Ah, its you again. The concerned protector of the Sinhalese Heritage. But in your watch – its being reduced to zero. Its an artifact by itself that needs to be dug up – soon.

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