The defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka late last year changed the balance of power on the island nation, in which archaeology has long been used as a tool in the fashioning of colonial order and then ethnic nationalisms. Jeremy Page in the Times (London) profiled last week the rising tensions over archaeological sites in the formerly Tamil Tiger-held north.
So begins a new chapter in a dispute that began with the birth of archaeology in Sri Lanka, under the British in the 19th century, and that grew into a civil war that lasted 26 years and killed 100,000 people.
When the British took control of the country in 1815, they were unsure of its ancient history but soon embraced the legend of the Mahavamsa — a text written by Buddhist monks in about AD500.
It suggests that the Sinhalese are descended from Prince Vijaya, an Aryan prince exiled from northern India in about 500BC, and that Tamils did not migrate from southern India until 200 years later.
That theory — still taught in schools — underpins the Sinhalese chauvinism that ultimately drove the Tigers to launch their armed struggle for an independent homeland in 1983.
In fact, archaeologists had discredited that after independence by excavating settlements in the north that dated from long before 500BC and showed similarities to sites in southern India — suggesting a much earlier migration.
It's fascinating to see how archaeological research so explicitly creates historical periods that conveniently serve the ends of the dominant powers. We think of periodization as the product of 'science' or even to be 'true' in some a priori way, rather than as a convenient way to organize a historical narrative with its own logic, aims, and exclusions.
Since the end of the war, archaeology in the north has resumed — and with it the debate over the country’s ancient history.
“For three decades we haven’t been able to do anything in the north,” Senarath Dissanayake, the head of the Government’s Archaeology Department, said.
“Now we can find out about how ancient people lived here — their culture, economy, social background, living conditions and religion.”
He said that his department had identified 60 old sites in the north in the last year — and six completely new ones, dated between 300BC and AD1000.
Some Tamil academics question why the new sites are all from a period when Sinhalese Buddhist culture is thought to have flourished. Others want more Tamil archaeologists involved, as well as foreign experts or the UN, to ensure that the work is objective.
“The archaeological department is the handmaiden of the Government,” said one prominent Tamil scholar, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals.
“The concern is that they’re going to identify these sites as Sinhalese, build lots of Buddhist shrines and tell Sinhalese people this is their lost land.”
The Government announced last month that 300,000 local and foreign tourists had visited the northern province since the war ended – and officials say that the vast majority were Sinhalese from the south.
Government archaeologists deny identifying sites on ethnic or religious grounds.
“The emphasis from the President is that there should be a balancing of Buddhist and non-Buddhist sites,” said Sudarshan Seneviratne, the head of the Central Cultural Fund, which finances archaeology. “He’s a smart politician. He knows how to cater to all communities.”
Mr Seneviratne accepted, nonetheless, that there were “parochial” forces who wanted to use archaeology for political purposes.
Principal among them on the Sinhalese side is the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Buddhist monks’ party that is part of the ruling coalition, and has a powerful influence on Mr Rajapaksa.
Read the rest of the article here. There is a bias in many (most?) countries toward doing archaeological research that fits conveniently into narratives of national identity - it takes a major crisis like civil war to expose how fully archaeology and nationalist projects can be intertwined.
At the end of the article there's a bizarre anecdote about how the government denied the rapper Akon a visa to perform in Colombo at the behest of the monks' party - because his video 'Sexy Bitch' featured a Buddha statue next to the pool where all the bikini girls were dancing!
David Guetta Ft. Akon - Sexy Bitch (Official Video) HQ
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All I can say is that those monks must have spent A LOT of time watching this video, because the statue is hard to find - it appears for like a half second at 1:50.
So much for 'not being disrespectful', Akon, sheesh.